For me the purest time is when the winds turn sharp and the pheasants fortify themselves against the Dakota winter. They bunch up on the plains for strength, using cedar, a ripple in the bleak landscape, anything to promote their kind. Perhaps I’d pity this ground-nesting gamebird if I didn’t know its mortality rate remains unchanged regardless of responsible hunting. And so I hunt pheasants, but only with respect.
With almost as much scrutiny as my hunting partners, I choose my gear for this annual rite accordingly. I select my shotgun like, I suspect, a big-leaguer selects his bat. It’s got to feel good to carry and shoulder, and it must print its patterns where I look or else little is gained. For me this gun is a lithe over/under since I don’t shoot side-by-sides well. And seeing how I’m an outdoor writer, not a surgeon, I choose the best gun I can for the money. In the past I’ve lauded Franchi’s Renaissance for its value and more recently Ruger’s new 20-gauge Red Label. But last fall I chose Franchi’s 5.9-pound Aspire 28-gauge and was very pleased.
This boxlock, round-action over/under is built on a true 28-gauge frame. That’s important, because it’s easy for a shotgun manufacturer to simply mate a 20-gauge monobloc to a set of 28-gauge barrels, trim the fore-end then attach the unit to an existing 20-gauge receiver. The resulting gun looks swell, but its feel is akin to a formerly sweet 3-weight fly rod with a tip that has been broken off by 6 inches. Sure, some ham-handed hunters can’t tell it’s a pseudo sub-gauge, but there’s a difference. Companies do this to take a stab at the small sub-gauge market without investing in new tooling. Franchi committed to its Aspire line of small-bore shotguns and executed the 28-gauge well. Did the Aspire’s between-the-hands balance and lively feel allow me to hit more pheasants last winter? Probably not, but it sure felt good between the misses!
The Aspire’s round action houses a mechanical trigger, automatic ejectors and an automatic safety containing a sliding barrel selector. It’s finished in classy color-casehardening that swirls sublimely like a coppery cloud. Its single, gold-plated trigger breaks at a pull weight of 5.5 to 6 pounds.
The gun’s 28-inch barrels are attached to its action via a monobloc machined from solid steel. Both barrels are threaded for flush-fitting choke tubes. The Aspire comes with three: improved cylinder, modified and full. I’m normally an improved cylinder kind of guy for upland hunting, but with the 28 perhaps being slightly underpowered for wild pheasants, I wished I'd had two modified chokes in the wind where the hardy birds made a living by flushing wild. Chokes can be bought from Franchi, including cylinder and improved modified.
I give the Aspire high marks for its oil-finished AA-walnut stock. Its wrist is as slender as a maiden’s, which in my experience foreshadows the handling potential of a shotgun before it’s fired. I prefer an English-style grip, but most Americans do not. Franchi split the difference with the Prince of Wales. A trim, semi-beavertail fore-end facilitates grip yet doesn’t alter the shooter’s style nor influence the gun’s balance. It’s patterned in the Anson and Deeley fashion, but rather than a lever-style lockup, it utilizes a rearward-sliding latch. Finally, a pragmatic buttpad mitigates what little recoil the 28-gauge produces, and it’s slick enough to slide past a heavy coat.
Most importantly, when I cheeked this shotgun and then opened my eye, I found it naturally aligned down the rib; when I pulled the trigger, it delivered rich patterns of Federal No. 6's where I looked—most of the time! During testing I had no malfunctions and no misfires. The action was tight out of the box and remained trap-like during my trial period. If something were to fail, Franchi backs up the Aspire with a seven-year warranty.
Something I found interesting about this shotgun was the way other hunters viewed it. Judging by the questions I received while staying with a variety of hunters at Full Circle Farms near Redfield, S.D., I gathered that on first glance, most thought the gun more expensive than it is. At around two grand, it’s not cheap, but let’s be honest: Most true sub-gauge doubles cost a lot more.
After hunting with the Aspire, I learned the efficient little 28-gauge round is not intrinsically underpowered for pheasants. Certainly, hunters should choose their shots with more scrutiny, as it simply doesn’t have the full pattern of a 12-gauge, 3-inch load. But if you pick a bird, focus on its head and pull the trigger instinctively without thinking about it—something the Franchi Aspire and lively guns like it can help you do—pheasants, however fortified, will tumble swiftly to the hard realities of earth.
Type: boxlock over/under shotgun
Gauge/Chamber: 28/23/4" (tested); .410 bore/3"
Barrels: 28"; vent rib, threaded for choke tubes
Sights: front fiber-optic bead
Safety: tang-mounted automatic w/barrel selector
Trigger: single, mechanical; 5.75-lb. pull weight
Stock: AA-grade walnut, oil finish; LOP 141/2"; drop at heel 21/4"; drop at comb 13/8"
Metal Finish: blued barrels, color-casehardened receiver
Overall Length: 45.5"
Weight: 5 lbs., 14 ozs.
Accessories: 3 choke tubes (IC, M, F), choke-tube wrench, hard case