For this Head-to-Head we’re comparing the Browning A-5, the granddaddy of all auto-loading shotguns, to one of its numerous offspring, the Franchi Hunter. Both shotguns operate using the long-recoil system. In a long-recoil system the action and barrel stay locked together, both retracting into the receiver under recoil. After maximum retraction the barrel springs forward with the action lagging slightly behind, making it possible for the spent shell to eject and a fresh shell to be loaded. This auto-loading design was conceived of by John Browning more than one hundred years ago and remains a functional, popular design to this day.
The Browning A-5 we used during testing is a fine example of the shotguns often seen in sporting goods stores on both the new and used racks. Often referred to as the “Humpback” because of its distinctive receiver shape, the A-5 is an eight pound amalgam of wood and steel with close to 100 parts, most of which move every time the shotgun is fired. In spite of this, the A-5 is still reliable in rain, snow and dust. Additionally, with proper adjustments it can fire any type of shell for which it is chambered without jamming. Since its introduction in 1903 many other auto-loading shotgun designs have come and gone, but the A-5 has hung in there. Browning still produces this shotgun and while they’ve added a few new models over the years, the A-5 can still be found in its original form, which is an impressive testament in the fickle shotgun market. By modern standards this shotgun is heavy, complicated and maybe even a bit ugly to some, but it works. Whether valued for its reliability or classic cachet the A-5 isn’t going away anytime soon.
The contender in this competition is Franchi’s Hunter model. This shotgun represents what can be done with the basic John Browning long-recoil design, modern materials (such as aluminum) and the cost savings associated with modern manufacturing techniques. Aesthetic changes, such as smoothing out the “Hump” and roll-etching a wildlife scene into the lower half of a two-tone receiver, combined with an aluminum receiver and short, steel barrel which brings the weight of the Hunter model down to less than six pounds. These variations go a long way toward making this gun a modern, attractive package to the fair portion of the market that could never quite find favor with the A-5. The Franchi is a shotgun that handles well, operates reliably and is a dream to carry in the field.
As a precursor to any testing, I disassembled both guns to ensure that their friction rings were set in the “light load” position and applied light lubrication where necessary. During the course of the tests, which I spread out over several days, neither gun was cleaned or additionally lubricated. To get an idea of real-world performance I ran both guns through the gamut with a wide variety of ammunition. First, I took them out and worked through a box of #7½ trap loads to ascertain how they would function while breaking clays or upland bird hunting. Next, I ran some #2 loads through each to see how they would perform for duck or goose hunting. Third, I set up some targets at the range and fired some 1-ounce slugs off a rest at fifty yards to determine the usefulness in the big game department. And last, I ran a handful of 00 buckshot through each gun, just in case somebody might want to keep one of these by the bed at night.
In true long-recoil fashion, both of these shotguns digested the various shells I threw at them without a single jam. They both also delivered what can be considered good groups with the slugs; for some reason I’ve never been able to figure out, long-recoil autos seem to shoot slugs more accurately than any other smoothbore shotguns I’ve tested, semi-auto or otherwise. Both shotguns consistently ejected their hulls and did so into a relatively neat pile, which is a boon to anyone who has to collect them for reloading or clean up their litter.
After passing the two shotguns around to a few fellow shooters to get their perspective, I noticed that a common point of confusion was about the loading method on the Franchi. The Hunter has a mechanically activated magazine block that allows a round to move from the tubular magazine to the chamber only after the shotgun has been fired. The Browning has a magazine block as well, but it is something that has to be manually engaged by the operator in the event that they want to block the magazine for unloading or switching out rounds. The Franchi’s automatically-engaged block took everybody by surprise (yes, even me — the first time I encountered a shotgun like this I thought it was damaged). However, once my fellow shooters figured out how it worked everything fell into place and there were no further operational issues. Shooting shotguns of this type is generally an enjoyable experience and my fellow testers had no complaints about either gun in terms of function or performance.
Now that we’ve determined that these are both good shotguns of very similar design, which one is the champ of this particular shootout? As a general, all-purpose semi-auto shotgun, the Franchi takes the belt. Its lower weight and considerably lower price tag make the Hunter a shotgun that you can carry all day, but not cry over when you drop it in the mud. The liberal use of aluminum in the Franchi also makes for less of a maintenance headache. If you’re planning on doing a lot of upland bird hunting or anything that requires long days in the field, the Franchi is a definite improvement over the A-5 model tested here.
That being said, the Browning is definitely preferable when it comes to shooting heavy loads or slugs. Shooting slugs out of the light Franchi is a rather jarring experience, whereas the added weight of the Browning reduces recoil considerably. A hunter doesn’t notice such things in the field, but sighting in a shotgun like the Franchi with slugs is far more like a sparring session than a relaxing day at the range. The Browning would be my choice for duck hunting from a blind or slug hunting from a tree stand, but for anything else I’d pick the Franchi.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to interject a few tips about the care and maintenance of long-recoil operated shotguns for any potential owners.
First, the wooden forearms used on shotguns of this type tend to be very thin and, as such, are prone to cracking; swelling and shrinking as a result of use in wet weather. You can also cause the fore-end cap to split by over-tightening it. Such damage can be avoided through vigilance, but it is something the owner must be mindful of.
Second, as mentioned above, long-recoil operated shotguns make use of friction rings which ride on the outside of the magazine tube and are used to control the rearward thrust of the barrel and action. There are various configurations for these rings and they should be rearranged if you are planning on shooting a steady diet of high power loads. If you are content with shooting standard power loads you can leave these rings in the original factory configuration, which is referred to as the “light load” position in most manuals. The “light load” position will not be the same for all long-recoil shotguns from various manufacturers, so if you buy one of these firearms used, without a manual, note the position of the rings before removing them from the magazine tube for cleaning. If a used long-recoil gun doesn’t seem to function correctly it is possible that the rings may have been improperly arranged and you should seek the advice of a gunsmith for their proper ordering. And finally, never fire a long-recoil shotgun without the friction rings installed. Doing so WILL damage the shotgun and may damage the shooter as well.
If the tips above haven’t dissuaded you from getting your hands on one of these fine shotguns, you’re in luck. Both models are still in production in various incarnations from their respective companies. A brand new A-5 should set you back about $900 and a brand new Franchi will be around the $500 mark. If you’re a little more cost-conscious, the used market hosts a considerable number of both of these guns at an excellent value. I bought the Franchi featured above a few months back for $300 and I have no doubt the gun has many years of good service left in it. The A-5 in this test was borrowed from one of the local gun shops where it has a price tag of $550. Last year I purchased a rather rough-looking A-5, 16-gauge that was manufactured in the 1920’s for $450. It works perfectly and from what I can tell there isn’t a single replacement part in the entire gun, which is remarkable for a firearm that has seen a tremendous amount of use since Coolidge was in office. Long-recoil shotguns are tough, affordable and well worth the investment.