There is absolutely, positively nothing new or innovative about the Franchi Highlander. Like a fine Shakespearean play expertly performed, it is built of excellent design components familiar to us for more than a century, in this case perfectly rendered but graced with contemporary interchangeable chokes.
A well-balanced 20-gauge side-by-side is heaven for skeet and hell on grouse and other rocket-launched birds. Using Winchester’s low-recoil, low-noise ammunition, it’s a perfect vehicle for introducing novices to the shooting sports. Up-gunned with three-inch magnums, it can hit as hard as a 12 gauge.
Based on the 132-year-old Anson and Deeley boxlock (rumored to be the most manufactured firearms-related device ever), the chambers are of a monobloc design with 26-inch (all the vets at the range said they should be 28- to 30-inchers for skeet, but Franchi likes them the way they are) sueted barrels held together with well-braised ribs. The fore-end latch is of the Anson plunger type, heavily reinforced, and the ejectors are Holland pattern. Purists will have to put up with the single trigger.
There is no barrel selector, the right barrel always firing first, and the trigger breaks at six pounds for both barrels. Length of pull is a generous 14 inches. The ejectors are nicely matched and toss the spent hulls about eight feet, where they land beside each other as neatly as bedroom slippers.
The grip is of the stately Prince of Wales pattern. Which Prince of Wales was it named after, you ask? Queen Victoria’s son, who became Edward the VII, so we have another century-old design feature. The only unpleasant issue is the matter of the automatic safety. Most Americans don’t like them. But on a Eurosnob driven-game shoot the birds come fast and furious.
The dance between aristocratic shooter and working-class loader as they pass stoked and smoking guns back and forth demands an automatic safety. As an American shooter, it’s not a big issue, as I can A) train myself to take it off with each presentation or B) take it to Bob Cullen, our club gunsmith, and denounce it as nefarious.
At the range, the gun gets serious attention. It’s like walking into the room with a gorgeous woman on your arm Suddenly everyone wants to know you. The laser engraving is understated, and the lines are classic. The AAA-grade oiled Eastern European walnut on my sample is also understated and quite pretty, being strong through the small, with coarse-cut checkering to provide excellent purchase even in a heather-soaking Highland storm.
My first experience with the Highlander was at our writers’ roundtable in May 2007. The gun was fired by the likes of Boddington, Simpson, Nischalke, Wilson, Miller, Hoots, James, Wieland and others to the point that we needed a folded glove to hold it–almost a thousand rounds of clays in an afternoon. All praised its looks, balance and handling and (except for Wieland) bitched about the auto safety. I was thinking, “Argentina, baby. This gun is all about a high-volume dove hunt on the Pampas.”
For the test, Benelli’s (marketer of Franchi’s brainchild) sublime Cristie Gates sent me a production gun, which I brought to the club range here in L.A. I invited festivals staffer Kate Bartlett to try it out. She’s fired shotguns before but never a full round of skeet. Once I was able to rescue the Highlander from the pawing hands of the club graybeards, range regular Ron Cristie coached Kate through a round.
Twenty-five rounds later, she didn’t have any of the usual tyro complaints of sore arm, back or shoulder from holding up a heavy, harshly kicking firearm. And she knocked down four birds on her first try. “I really like it. It just seems to fit me right,” said the 5’9” athlete. Later, using heavier, faster loads, I knocked down 20 birds, causing Ron to remark, “Get a set of 30-inch barrels and you’ll knock ‘em all down.”
Every club has a couple of double-gun aficionados (usually sporting tweed hats and driving restored vintage cars). From the moment I put the Highlander on the rack, that crew was onto it like white on rice. After much examination, they declared it an extremely well-made gun in the finest traditions of upland hunting.