Review: Winchester SX4 Waterfowl Hunter
November 14, 2018
The first of Winchester’s Super-X (SX) line of shotguns was introduced in 1974. Dubbed the “SX Model 1,” it was a fine gun made of machined steel parts, but it was expensive to produce. Most models were discontinued in 1991, but evolutionary versions of the series appeared in 1999 (the SX2), 2006 (SX3, which is still available in several versions), and 2017 (SX4). The SX4 is the culmination of an ongoing joint development of the platform by Winchester and Browning (both companies are owned by FN Herstal), and it has some great features that make it technologically advanced and eminently practical.The Heart of the Gun
The heart of the shotgun is the excellent Active Valve Gas System action, basically retained from the SX3. This gas system has a self-adjusting piston that allows the use of a wide variety of ammunition; the action automatically regulates itself for the load in use. Just enough gas required to operate the action is bled off, and the excess, however much that may be, is vented out through the four Quadra-Vent Ports near the forearm.
Several versions of the SX4 are available, and one is sure to match just about any shooting scenario. There is your basic model, called simply the SX4, that has a black synthetic stock and forearm. There are two cantilevered models with synthetic stocks and open sights. One, the Buck version, has a black stock and a rifled bore for deer hunters, and the other, the Turkey, is finished in Mossy Oak Obsession camo. The Field models have walnut stocks with satin finishes, nicely blued metal, and genuine straight-line cut checkering. There’s even a compact version of the Field with a 13-inch length of pull for shooters of smaller stature. All models come with one or two quarter-inch spacers for adjusting length of pull (two spacers are provided with the Compact so that as the young shooter grows so can the shotgun). And for the duck hunter, there is the versatile Waterfowl Hunter, decked out in Mossy Oak Shadow Grass Blades camo.
All SX4s are 12 gauge, and all versions are available with 3-inch chambers, except for the Cantilever Turkey gun and the Universal Hunter, which have 3.5-inch chambers. The basic synthetic-stocked model and the Waterfowl Hunter are also available with 3.5-inch chambers. All models function with shot charges as light as 11⁄8 ounces.
I requested a Waterfowl Hunter with a 28-inch barrel for this report. It has all the advanced features of the SX4 line but is covered in the Mossy Oak Shadow Grass Blades camo, and it has the 3.5-inch chamber.
The SX4’s chamber and bore have a hard-chrome plating that makes these surfaces highly resistant to wear, protects against the ravages of steel and High-Density shot, and helps prevent rust and corrosion. It also makes the barrel really easy to clean.
The bore is back-bored to 0.742 inch. This is not by accident. Winchester research found that this is the optimal bore diameter for a 12-gauge shotgun. Winchester says it gives the tightest and most consistent patterns. Here’s why. The traditional 12-gauge bore size of 0.729 inch is a little tight, and pellets can be deformed as they pass through the forcing cone. A bore larger than 0.742 inch allows powder gases to blow by the wad and reduce pellet velocity. It’s a “Goldilocks” thing: not too tight, not too loose, just right. The SX4’s forcing cone is cut to 5 degrees—also just right for better patterns.
As with just about all shotguns these days, the SX4 comes with screw-in choke tubes. They are the flush-fitting Invector Plus tubes that are standard on many Browning shotguns, too. They are somewhat larger than most choke tubes and mate perfectly with the SX4’s back-bored barrel. Improved Cylinder, Modified, and Full tubes are supplied. These have constrictions of 0.010, 0.020, and 0.035 inch, but Winchester offers seven additional Signature choke tubes, in 0.005-inch increments, that cover just about any load or shooting situation. Oh, there’s also a rifled tube available that doubles as a “spreader/diffuser.”
The ventilated rib and red Truglo fiber-optic front sight provide a good sight picture in all light conditions. While this SX4 is labeled the “Waterfowl Hunter,” it is right at home in the upland fields and the turkey blind, and I used it in both venues.A Smooth Operator
Overall, the camo Waterfowl Hunter is a really attractive shotgun. It is lightweight enough to carry all day, balances perfectly, and swings smoothly. I am average in size, and the SX4’s stock fits me perfectly. It is comfortable to shoot because the Inflex Technology recoil pad reduces recoil in two ways. At firing, it directs the comb down and away from the shooter’s cheek. Plus, the pad’s “footprint” is big and distributes recoil over a large area, further reducing felt recoil. It’s ingenious, and it works.
A newly designed spring-loaded ejector kicks an empty shell out of the ejection port as soon as it clears the chamber. This makes operation reliable and fast.
All the controls operate smoothly and positively. The bolt release is a big, square button below the front of the ejection port, right where it’s supposed to be. Pushing it causes the bolt to slam shut like a bank vault door. Also, this button does not have to be pressed to load shells into the tubular magazine in the forearm. The charging handle on the bolt is likewise large and easy to use. The manual safety is behind the trigger, and it, too, is quickly accessible, even with a cold, gloved finger, and it can be reversed for southpaws.
The trigger pull is darn decent for a shotgun. My sample’s pull averaged 7 pounds, 1.5 ounces and varied a mere 0.5 ounce for five pulls. While this might seem a mite heavy, the pull was very crisp. That and the consistency of the pull made the gun a pleasure to shoot.
The trigger group can be quickly removed as a unit for cleaning by pushing out two pins. It reassembles in a snap, thanks to a self-aligning bolt carrier link. The pistol grip is rounder, which makes it more comfortable when you squeeze the trigger, and the trigger is large for better access.
I did some preliminary testing of the SX4 on clays and on my steel patterning plate. My gun hit just a hair above point of aim; I’d call it about a 45 percent/55 percent pattern, which I think is about perfect for a field gun.
As a functioning test, I fired just about every 2¾- and 3-inch load I had on hand, and the SX4 worked just fine with all of them as long as the shot charge was 11⁄8 ounces or more. My 7/8-ounce skeet handload is a great load but was not powerful enough to cycle the action. But that’s consistent with Winchester’s instructions.
The SX4 is made for hunting, so hunting we went. I hunted bobwhite quail, chukar, and pheasants at the Flying Feathers Shooting Preserve near Golden City, Missouri. It is close by my acreage and is perfect for testing new shotguns in the field. The dogs and guides are first-rate, and the harvested croplands and dense native grasses in waterways make for a traditional hunt in typical upland cover.
The three species of game birds we were hunting made load selection a little difficult, as I generally shoot #8s on quail and heavy loads of #6s or #5s on pheasants. I compromised by shooting Winchester’s AA Heavy Target load with 11⁄8 ounces of #7½ shot. The velocity of this load out of the SX4 was 1,213 fps. The birds at Flying Feathers flushed fairly closely, and with the Improved Cylinder tube installed, this load and choke combination was about perfect. I missed a couple of birds, but I went home with five quail, four chukars, and four pheasants in the ice chest.
But as they say on TV, “Wait! There’s more!” When Missouri’s two-week spring turkey season opened, I put the SX4 to good use. On opening day, the weather was cold and windy, but I put out my hen decoy, snuggled back into some dense cedars down by a creek, and waited. I had the SX4 stuffed with Federal’s new Heavyweight TSS load with 1¾ ounces of #9 Tungsten Super Shot. These pellets are 56 percent denser than lead and have as much penetration as lead #5s at 60 yards. The velocity of this load out of the SX4 averaged 1,183 fps.
Not long after I settled in, a 24-pound gobbler spied my decoy with lust in his eye. He strutted to 24 yards, right in front of my hide, and one shot was all it took to bring him to bag. Alas, this was the only gobbler I saw the rest of the season.
But no matter. The SX4 Waterfowl got to earn its hunting stripes in a couple of disparate hunts, and it performed well in both. Overall, it handled great and is uniquely attractive. It is well balanced, and its slight weight-forward design contributed to a smooth swing and kept me from stopping my swing.
Interestingly, the SX4 is priced about $150 less than its predecessor, the SX3. While there are a lot of neat shotguns out there, the Winchester SX4 is a worthy contender for the wingshooter looking for a versatile field gun.