by Jeff Johnston - Friday, February 24, 2012
My father moved the family to Oklahoma in 1977 and it wasn’t, I have slowly realized, for the educational opportunities offered there. Oklahoma was poor, but its vast, rough rangeland was rich in bobwhite quail and so it suited him. He and his band of bird hunting buddies would literally wear out their boots in one season.
Most preferred a shotgun with two prerequisites: It had to be light, and it had to hold a bunch of shells. Thus, the Franchi AL 48 semi-automatic developed a cult following among heartland bird hunters because it weighed 5 pounds and held five shells. Unfortunately, by the time I was old enough to seriously hunt birds, quail populations began a downward spiral that is now as pathetic as my pristine boots. To hunt wild birds today, hunters must travel, although halfway around the world might be excessive.
Joe Coogan grew up in Kenya, and at age 19 killed his first jumbo on the banks of the chocolaty Galana River. He became a professional hunter and, after Kenya closed its doors to all big-game hunting, he joined the firm of Ker, Downy and Selby in Botswana, were he guided hunters for 20 years. Eventually Benelli tapped him to host its outdoor TV series, “Benelli on Assignment.” Franchi’s new guns and Coogan’s familiarity with Kenya’s game-rich Masailand explains why I found myself before a camera lens, traipsing a vast foreign country in search of birds.
When the first flock of guineas was spotted crossing a Tsavo West two-track, we stopped, exited the vehicle in an orderly fashion, gathered gear, and devised a detailed plan to surround them. But before executing any of this, the birds flew off. After this happened a few times, I’d had enough, so I diverged from most of our crew who tussled for Franchi’s over-unders. Uncontested I latched onto the 20-gauge Affinity, stuffed its magazine with four shells and headed rapidly toward fowl, as the birds often flush in flocks of 50. What I didn’t know, however, was whether the new Franchi semi-automatic, after travelling hundreds of miles uncased in an open air Land Cruiser and moving quickly over acres of dusty Africa, would be reduced to a single shot.
Amid waves of sand grouse, bob-white-like crested francolin, yellow-necked spur fowl, guineas and scores of doves, without hiccup, I found that Franchi’s new Affinity is not a repackaged AL48. It’s an entirely new gun, with its own feel. It’s a 51/2-pound, inertia-operated shotgun chambered for 2¾- and 3-inch shells. It doesn’t take a sleuth to determine that much of the Affinity is identical to its Benelli brethren, including its barrel—replete with the same fiber-optic bead and identifiable M2 vent rib—and bolt. It’s the same inertia action that revolutionized semi-automatic shotguns; one I believe is superior to gas and recoil operation due to its simplicity, reliability and speed. The main difference is the location of the recoil spring. While a Benelli’s is hidden in the buttstock, the Affinity’s is beneath the fore-end, mounted on the magazine tube, attached to the bolt via a dual action arm unit that rides on corresponding notches and is held in place by opposing raceways in the receiver. By relocating the recoil spring, the Affinity requires fewer parts and is less costly to manufacture. Its placement shifts its weight distribution forward slightly compared to a Benelli. Since the recoil spring is fully exposed by removing the fore-end, it’s easy to maintain.
While the trigger guard is made of polymer, its trigger and shell carrier are matte-finished steel, and the steel hammer is chrome-plated for weather resistance. A metal crossbolt safety is located in the rear of the trigger guard, where I prefer it. One holdover trait from Benelli is the shell release button. When the magazine is loaded, firing the gun will release a shell, but if the bolt is manipulated manually, only the chambered shell will be ejected. In this way, a shell can be swapped in the chamber without emptying the magazine. When the magazine is empty, the shell release button must be pushed in to lock the bolt open. It is closed via the bolt release button on the receiver’s right.
All parts are held in place by a machined aluminum receiver and an injection-molded composite stock. Its open-radius pistol grip doesn’t cramp instinctive shooting styles, and a straight-line buttstock design and a top-notch recoil pad do much to mitigate recoil that is already dulled by the recoil spring. To my eyes the plastic stock, with its aesthetic grooves, integral sling stud and manufacturing seams appears cheap, but to my hands the Affinity feels right, and that’s what counts. It’s nimble, versatile with a 30-inch chamber and interchangeable choke tubes, and its pattern prints where I look. This Franchi, for around $850, is my definition of bird gun, and now, encased in fine grit, I hoped it could be relied upon to bring once-in-a-lifetime birds to hand.
When the distance was cut to 30 yards, the electric-blue guineas took to wing. I emptied the shotgun and two brilliant, polka-dotted guineas tumbled to Earth. The native trackers gathered them and we began the proud, circuitous walk back to the vehicle with fistfuls of swinging fowl. Definitely not a repackaged AL48.
Manufacturer: Luigi Franchi S.P.A., Italy
Importer: Benellis USA; (301) 283-6988; www.franchiusa.com
Action Type: Inertia-operated, semi-automatic
Gauge: 20, 3” (tested), 12, 3”
Trigger: single-stage’ 5 lbs. 3 ozs.
Barrel: 26” (tested), 28”
Sights: red fiber-optic front bead
Overall Length: 47.5”
Weight: 5 lbs., 10 ozs. (20 gauge)
Finish: Realtree APG, Realtree Max4 or matte black
Stock: injection-molded composite
Length of Pull: 14 3/8”
Drop at Heel: 2 3/8”
Drop at Comb: 1 1/2"
Accessories: choke tube, oil, owner’s manual, wrench and shim adjustment kit
Suggested Retail Price: $849 black; $949 camo
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