Nebraska’s Sandhills upland bird diversity puts Franchi’s semi-auto to task.

by Brad Fenson

After crawling through the tight strands of barbed wire, I quickly reloaded the shotgun once on the other side. The prairie chickens of the Nebraska Sandhills had given an audible clue that they were close. The clucking of excited or nervous birds placed them about 200 yards ahead on a sidehill. Walking focused and watching for flushing birds or the sound of beating wings, I hoped to cut the distance before the birds evacuated.

Still 100 yards from the base of the hill, the first two birds broke rank and headed for safer ground. Prairie chickens scurried through the grass to hide. Keeping track of moving heads was difficult. Three more birds flushed before I was close enough to raise the shotgun. One bird was still visible, and as I closed the distance to less than 60 yards, I bristled with excitement.

The holdout was not going to let walking danger get closer than 55 yards, and as it took to the wing, the shotgun slid to my shoulder and the barrel swung out in front of the fleeing feathers. At the report of the gun, the bird crumpled mid-flight and tumbled to the ground. A sense of accomplishment had me running to collect the downed prize.

I had put a modified choke in the Franchi Affinity 3.5 to balance pattern with range on these flighty fowl. Prairie chickens are known for flushing out of range, and a full choke was a consideration. The Affinity 3.5 has a vented rib and improved ergonomics to provide faster handling and target acquisition, which comes in handy with the speed of upland birds. The upgraded chokes plus a lengthened forcing cone improve performance, resulting in a chicken getting a ride in my upland vest.

The Sandhills of Nebraska is a bird hunter’s playground. Prairie chicken, sharp-tailed grouse, pheasant, turkey, and an abundance of waterfowl can keep the barrel of your favorite smoothbore warm.

With two fall turkey tags in my pocket, I screwed the full choke into the barrel with anticipation. Spotting a roving flock of long-beards and jakes, I crept into a row of round bales for concealment. Turkey heads and feet moving in the treeline had my shotgun pointed to where they should emerge into the open. As the birds cleared the trees and ventured out into the open grass, I ensured they were far from cover before settling the bead on the neck of the closest one. I squeezed the trigger and watched the bird topple to the ground. A second jake raised its head as if stunned by the percussion of the shot, and I quickly added him to the bag. The other turkeys scattered in every direction as I gathered my prizes.

The adventure continued as I spotted a rooster running into a weed patch. It did not take much to flush the bird and cover it with a pattern of pellets. Just when I thought the day was quickly coming to an end, a flock of chickens flew out of the hills and landed in the corner of the pasture. The sneak was on, and as I stood up at the fence line, the birds started to take flight. Downing two chickens, I rounded out my daily limit.

Franchi Affinity Shotgun

A versatile shotgun that fits correctly can lead to a lot of fun and success. Franchi Affinity Elite shotguns handle and perform intuitively. The fit, feel, and balance are noticeable, and when hunting fast-flying birds, timing and well-placed patterns are critical. The Sandhills are tough on firearms, where sand can affect the action and working parts, and the elements can test even the best-maintained shotgun. The inertia-driven action operates smoothly and consistently without failure. The Cerokote finish protects the metal parts from tough use and the environment.

Some of the standout features include the over-sized and textured bolt handle, which was easy to find without looking and offered consistent operation without operator injury. Specialized recoil pads allow for length-of-pull adjustment and take the bite out of magnum shotshells. Adjustments can also be made with the shim kit to customize the fit for any user. The semi-auto shotguns also have sling attachment points, an over-sized loading port, an ambidextrous safety, a ventilated and chrome-lined barrel, and a drilled and tapped receiver.

I opted for a 12-gauge in the Sandhills to ensure the down-range payload and pattern would be most effective. The Affinity 3 comes in both 12 and 20 gauge. The Affinity 3.5 is only 12 gauge. A drop in temperature had sent most of the waterfowl farther south, meaning I did not get to play with the three extended waterfowl chokes (Close-, Mid-, and Long-Range) packaged with the shotgun.

If you prefer to spend more time hunting and less time cleaning, the inertia-driven action will be a highlight. The trigger and action are easy to remove, clean, and reassemble. The inertia system also helps reduce felt recoil. The Affinity 3.5 comes with a seven-year warranty and has an MSRP of $1,419.

ALPS OutdoorZ Upland Game Vest X

When covering miles of habitat, looking for a variety of birds, a well-thought-out vest will increase success. Being able to carry different chokes, shotshells, and to pack out harvested birds keeps you focused on the hunt. The Upland Game Vest X by ALPS OutdoorZ has plenty of room for water and snacks and proved it could transport everything from chickens and pheasants to turkeys. The large game pocket in the back unzips for easy cleaning. Two front shell pockets are designed to fit a full box of shells. The adjustable waist belt features two flip-down gun rests to free up hands when needed. A vented back and H2O port is fantastic on warmer days or long hikes.

Federal Custom Shop Tungsten

The Federal Custom Shop loads tungsten shotshells that offer deadly results. The products are pricey, but when shot opportunities are limited, and miles of ground needs to be covered to generate an opportunity, it all becomes relevant. Using a box of custom TSS with duplex 7 and 9 shot proved to be worth every cent. A single prairie chicken is a trophy bird to many upland hunters, and to bring home a mixed bag with a high kill rate can be attributed to high-quality equipment and the right ammunition.

Smoothbore Aimpoint

Waterfowl and upland bird hunters often overlook the advantages of using a sight. From early in the instruction of using a shotgun, we are told to point and not aim. How we shoulder a shotgun, change the length of pull with various types of clothing, or stand on sloped ground can all affect how the shotgun comes up and whether the sight picture down the barrel is lined up correctly on the target. It is easy to point high, low, or off to one side, thinking we are on target.

The Aimpoint Micro S-1 offers a quick reference point to ensure your pattern is always placed where it is most effective. The sight features a 6 MOA red dot, and if it is fully visible, it represents where your pattern will be delivered. The sight can be placed at different points of the ventilated rib; trying a few attachment points will show where it is easy to reference the dot while pointing the shotgun. The Micro S-1 is easy to pattern with a shotgun to ensure the payload is on target every time.

The Aimpoint Micro S-1 could be the tool to increase your success while wing shooting. Seeing is believing, and having the reference dot and knowing it is dead-on accurate will put your pattern on your favorite fowl when you pull the trigger. Try one on the trap range and decide if you want to up your game when hunting.

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