September 10, 2023
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Firearms instruction can be daunting, particularly when working with a large group of students. However, most don’t realize that, in many cases, the difficulties begin before students even register for a class. One of the biggest reservations a prospective shotgunner might have is felt recoil, often citing a previous negative experience. After more than 10 years at the helm of Renaissance Firearms Instruction, I have concluded that most bruised shoulders are a result of improperly fitted shotguns, which in turn force the user into a less than perfect shooting position. In this altered state, the shotgunner will typically take more recoil or apply it to a part of the body that isn’t best equipped to absorb it. In addition, accommodating the poorly fitting firearm becomes uncomfortable rather quickly, which impedes the user’s ability to follow through and lays the groundwork for flinching. Once a shooter starts flinching, a vicious cycle is initiated as this involuntary movement opens up a pocket for the gun to travel and smack the shoulder, leading to yet more flinching. So what I’m saying is that the pounding gets progressively worse as their shoulder is getting more and more tender.
Quite a progression from what began as “just a little uncomfortable,” eh? Proper fitment is indeed essential. So, what are our options? Well, for adults, there’s not many. Let’s look at the case of a standard shotgun being “too big,” as this is typically the situation. The classic remedy is to issue them a youth model scattergun, but this presents some challenges as they aren’t kids. First off, they aren’t 12 years old; it’s only their arms that are an inch or 2 shorter than most other adults. Youth guns are made for individuals with a more diminutive stature overall. As such, they are typically built to be lighter, fitted with a shorter barrel, and chambered in a sub-gauge, like .410. In an adult’s hands, these guns are extraordinarily handicapped and might even bring about the other end of the fit spectrum as they are likely too small. If a gun is too small, the shooter typically punches themselves in the nose with every trigger pull, again building the tendency to flinch. At the end of the day, it’s apparent that the shotgun industry does “small” and “large” quite well but hasn’t quite worked out “medium” yet, until now. Meet the Winchester SX4 Field Compact, an adult gun built for the tough-to-fit crowd (like yours truly).
In 2017, Winchester introduced the SX4 line as its latest and most advanced series of autoloading shotguns. At the core of these products is the Active Valve gas system. This design pulls all the gas it needs to cycle a particular shell before venting off anything that it doesn’t through a set of four relief ports on the forend. This aids in recoil and fouling reduction, as this excess gas would otherwise sit stagnant in the firearm. Needleless to say, this action was so well received that everybody wanted a shotgun built with it for their particular sport of choice. This ranged from left-handed duck hunters to right-handed sporting clay enthusiasts. As it is inherently low recoil, this was the natural base for a compact alteration too.
The core of the SX4 is its reduced length of pull, which comes from its shortened buttstock. At just 13 inches, this in-between ground fits most shooters who are a bit smaller but don’t satisfy the requirements for a youth shotgun. Winchester offers this in either a black composite or an oil-rubbed walnut, coupled with a forend made of the like. A word of caution to prospective buyers: only the wooden versions carry the “field” designation, so be sure to include that magic word if you are after the classically styled model. Moving onto the receiver, aluminum-alloy is used to reduce weight and susceptibility to corrosion, as these are natural properties of this metal. This serves as home to a suite of oversized features such as the polygonal triggerguard, checkered cross-bolt safety, and the stepped bolt release. These controls are built for quick actuation, even at the hands of gloved fingers, and make for an overall easier shooting experience.
Winchester’s SX4 Compacts are unique because they offer this reduced length of pull without dwarfing barrel length, and they do it without wrecking the shotgun’s balance either. My sample came with a 26-inch barrel, but models are available with launch tubes as long as 28 inches, even for the 20 gauges. Regardless of length, each is clad with a ventilated rib that keeps the barrel cool while offering a higher plane for the front sight. Sparing no expense, Winchester settled on a TRUGLO fiber-optic “bead” that I found to be absolutely brilliant when presented to a blue sky. As this is intended to be a multi-purpose gun, all barrels are threaded to accept Invector Plus-style choke tubes. The manufacturer graciously includes Full, Modified, and Improved Cylinder options along with a flat-style choke wrench.
With gun in hand, I selected Winchester’s 20-gauge AA Super Sport sporting clays load to work on some high-angle wing shooting. I was drawn to this load for its higher velocity, which is going to be more forgiving with establishing leads. It also retains a standard 7/8-ounce payload of shot that remains extraordinarily light in the recoil department, making it well-suited for the high-volume shooting I was about to partake in. Upon arrival, I started by checking the shotgun’s fit by planting my eyes on a distant object and bringing the gun to my face. The first aspect I appreciated was that the stock didn’t get snagged under my armpit, indicating that it certainly wasn’t too long for me. After just a few minutes of practice, I could spot an object and quickly plant the gun to my face with near-perfect alignment. Moreover, my shooting thumb had sufficient clearance to my nose, so thumping myself under recoil wasn’t a concern. Overall, I found it quite cozy and was ready to fire my first shot.
After screwing in the Modified choke and setting a large sheet of paper out at 25 yards, I patterned three shots. On average, the center of these groups landed approximately 6-inches under my point of aim and put the entirety of the shell’s content into a 26-inch circle that I found to be entirely concentrical. Satisfied with these results, I moved to the clay field to put the SX4 Field Compact through some more appropriate paces. Starting with straight-away targets, I was able to clean 15 in a row without missing a beat. After about the 10th one, I began to understand how the Inflex recoil pad worked as it soaked up whatever kick was left. This pad also worked with the geometry of the gun’s recoil and redirected the rearward movement to a downward angle, slightly away from my face. Happy with the mess that I had made, I progressed to 90-degree targets to test out the swinging capability of this shotgun and again saw the difference that just a few inches can make. The shorter stock put my support elbow closer to my body and gave me control that I hadn’t experienced before. Through it, I actually found myself swinging too fast and passing the target because it required such little strength to plane. After about 10 birds, I found what I needed and enjoyed a relaxed shooting experience for the remainder of my targets.
After returning home, I decided to take the shotgun apart to see how dirty it got and to clean and oil any areas that needed attention. The process started by ensuring both the chamber and magazine were empty, and I like to take it a step further by confirming nothing was hiding in the receiver area either. From here, I unscrewed the forend cap, which allowed the removal of the forend and the barrel. Taking a moment to pause, I noticed that it certainly didn’t look like a gas gun that had just digested 100 rounds. This tells me that the Active Valve gas system is not only doing its job, but the design is also particularly effective. Next, I slipped the barrel off, observing the superbly tight fit to the receiver, indicative of quality machining and high quality control. Lastly, the rest of the components that comprise the gas system slid off of the magazine tube, and cleanup was as simple as applying a rag saturated with CLP. For those looking to do a deeper dive, the triggerguard and bolt assembly can be removed after knocking out just two pins, but an ancillary inspection didn’t yield a reason to do so.
The Winchester SX4 Field Compact proved to be the answer for shooters seeking an option that fits a touch tighter to their bodies without producing that crowded feeling you get from something that is obviously built for a child. Aside from fitting my 5-foot, 7-inch body well, it swung like a champ and ran as reliably as a pump, even without a moment’s rest during an intense clay-breaking session. Lastly, Winchester designed it with features that all shotgunners seek, ensuring that the group that gravitates towards this model won’t feel slighted. If you fit the criteria or are an aspiring instructor, you owe it to yourself and your students to have one of these in your toolbox.
Winchester Sx4 Field Compact Specs
- Type: Gas-operated, semiautomatic
- Chamber: 20 gauge; 3-inch (tested)
- Capacity: 4+1 rds.
- Barrel: 26 in. (tested)
- Overall Length: 45.75 in.
- Height: 6.5 in.
- Width: 1.8 in.
- Weight: 6.4 lbs.
- Length of Pull: 13 in.
- Drop at Comb: 1.75 in.
- Drob at Heel: 2 in.
- Finish: Matte Black
- Sights: TruGlo Fiber-Optic front
- Trigger: Single-stage, 6 lbs., 7 oz.
- MSRP: $1,200
- Contact: Winchester
The article was originally posted in Scattergun magazine. You can purchase an original copy at OSGnewsstand.com. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.