Like other hunters and shooting enthusiasts, I've had my share of shotguns over the years. More recently, my shotgun of choice is a semi-auto. It can be used to hunt any type of small game or waterfowl, big game (laws permitting), sporting clays, trap or 5-stand. Semi-autos, for the most part, are reliable and do a good job of taming recoil.
Choosing the newest Winchester SX3, the Universal Hunter, for this product review was an easy choice. First, Winchester has a reputation for making quality firearms. The SX2 was manufactured from 1999 to 2007 and the SX3 has been in production since 2006. Second, there are 11 SX3 models available with variations in gauges, chamber lengths, finishes and barrel lengths making a total of 37 different ones. Third, it was as if the design engineers at Winchester read my mind and incorporated the features I feel are the most important in a shotgun.
When the SX3 Universal Hunter arrived, I was impressed and excited. This shotgun has the look and feel of quality, and it has an aesthetically clean appearance. It shouldered and felt great right out of the box.
* * * Dissecting the Winchester SX3 Universal Hunter
Stock/Forearm The SX3 Universal Hunter stock and forearm are made from a composite material and have excellent ergonomics. The forearm has been slimmed down noticeably and the grip area of the stock is smaller. This makes the SX3 easier and more comfortable to hold, even for someone with smaller hands or a hunter wearing gloves. The hand grip and the bottom of the forearm have been further embellished with a nice textured surface, not the typical crosshatch pattern.
To further manage recoil, the Universal Hunter has an Inflex recoil pad which is designed to direct and channel recoil down and away from your cheek. When shouldering the SX3, the Inflex recoil pad is contoured to fit your shoulder and has a hard rubber rounded top to keep from snagging on your clothes.
Winchester SX3 Universal Hunter
Six shims that fit between the stock and receiver are included to adjust cast and drop at the comb. Three 1/4" spacers are used to adjust the length of pull. If the stock is too long, it can be trimmed up to 1/2" shorter if needed. With this flexibility, adjusting the stock will insure a good fit to enhance a shooter's ability.
Barrel Improving the patterning characteristics of a shotgun at one time meant taking the barrel to a good gunsmith to have it back bored, taper the forcing cone and installing an improved choke system. Winchester has already done this with the SX3 Universal Hunter barrel. In addition to being hard chrome lined, it is back bored to .742", which is considered to be the ideal inside diameter for a 12 gauge. Any larger and gasses blow by the shotcup; if smaller, pellets may deform passing through the forcing cone. The forcing cone is tapered at 5 degrees to improve shot performance and reduce recoil. The Invector Plus choke tube system used in the SX3 has a smooth taper and longer forcing cone to improve patterning characteristics and reduce recoil. The Universal Hunter comes with 3 choke tubes (Full, Modified, Improved Cylinder). Four other tubes are available (Extra Full, Improved Modified, Skeet, Cylinder).
The ventilated rib is machined from a solid piece of metal making it stiffer than a ventilated rib made from multiple pieces. This adds strength to the barrel helping to keep it straight when it gets hot. For a front sight, it is fitted with a red Tru-Glo fiber optic.
Looking at this SX3, the barrel is slim for a 12 gauge. The outside diameter measured .835" about 6" from the muzzle (a barrel's diameter on some shotguns may be larger at the muzzle to allow for choke tubes). By comparison, a Mossberg 935 measured .92", a Benelli AL391 Urika was .86" and .855 for a Remington 11-87 that is not back bored. The slimmer barrel reduces weight and moves the balance point further back, both of which improve handling.
Receiver The SX3 Universal Hunter has a receiver made from 7075 T6 aluminum alloy. Paraphrasing wikipedia, "it is strong, with a strength comparable to many steels". This tempered aluminum alloy receiver is another way Winchester has kept the weight down and retained the strength needed for handling heavy recoil. The receiver is predrilled and tapped for mounting an optic.
Trigger Assembly The ability to remove the entire trigger assembly for cleaning simply by pushing out two pins is very nice. Now, a day of great hunting doesn't have to end on a sad note if the Universal Hunter get dropped in the mud. Plus, the safety is reversible for left or right handed shooters.
Bolt Assembly The bolt assembly is made up of two components, the bolt and the bolt slide, both of which are made from 4140 hardened steel alloy. Again, paraphrasing wikipedia, this steel is "...considerably stronger and harder than standard 1020 steel." To protect against the elements, the bolt assembly is given a black oxide finish. There are easy to follow instruction for removing the bolt assembly without tools. Once out of receiver, bolt and bolt slide can be separated for cleaning.
Active Valve System This is the heart of the SX3 Universal Hunter. Unlike semi-auto shotguns where the gas pressure is used to push the piston sleeve and pushrod the full length of the cycling action, the piston sleeve and pushrod for the SX3 only move about 1/2". When fired, gas pressure goes through the piston pushing the sleeve rearward. The pushrod attached to the sleeve then transfers that energy to the bolt assembly pushing it rearward causing the empty shell casing to eject. The return spring pushes the bolt assembly forward loading another shell to finish the cycle.
This valve system allocates the proper amount of gas pressure needed to cycle the piston sleeve and regulate the bolt speed, whether you shoot 2 3/4" shells with 1 1/8 oz. loads, 3 1/2" waterfowl and turkey loads, or anything in between. The valve system directs excess gas forward out the Quadra-Vent in the front of the forearm to prevent excess velocity on the piston sleeve. The engineers at Winchester designed the Active Valve System to be very fast, reliable, minimize fowling and reduce felt recoil.
Weight One of the very first noticeable features of the SX3 is the weight. This 12 gauge with a 3 1/2" chamber and 26" barrel only weighs 7 pounds (20 gauges are 1/3 pound lighter). Every person who handled this shotgun at the Woods 'n Water Rendezvous and at a local sportsmen's club commented on how light it is. The weight savings is the result of using a magazine tube made from a high-strength alloy instead of steel, a lighter weight recoil spring system, a new lightweight barrel with a machined rib, a slimmer stock, grip and forearm.
Camo Finish The SX3 Universal Hunter is finished with the Mossy Oak Break-Up Infinity pattern. I don't critique camo patterns, but I do look very closely for how well it is applied especially at edges, creases and irregular surfaces. Winchester did a very good job with the SX3 Universal Hunter.
* * * At the Range
Reliability A flat of shells was shot through the Universal Hunters in just over an hour. The shells were 2 3/4" target loads with 1 1/8 oz. of shot. The SX3 functioned perfectly and not a single malfunction occurred. Winchester promotes the Active Valve System and Quadra-Vent as a way to remove excess gases for cleaner and more reliable operation. This photo, after 250 rounds, shows that it did stay cleaner than was expected.
Speed Test. Winchester advertises the SX3 as firing 12 rounds in 1.442 seconds (one round every .12 seconds). Removing the magazine plug to allow for 5 shells (2 3/4" with 1 1/8 oz. target load), I fired 25 5-shot strings. The fastest was .76 seconds (which was video recorded); the slowest was 1.02 seconds; the average time was .84 seconds (one shot every .168 seconds). There is no doubt in my mind that the SX3 is capable of the speed claimed; my trigger finger just isn't fast enough. The SX3 performed perfectly during the speed tests.
Mix 'n Match To test functionality and reliability, 2 3/4", 3" and 3 1/2" shells with a variety of shot sizes and loads were fired in different orders. No problems; the SX3 shot anything and in any order that was loaded.
Patterning A variety of different steel shot loads (#2 to #T, 3" to 3 1/2", 3 brands, plus Winchester Blind Side and Federal Black Cloud) were shot using the Invector Plus modified choke. All of the steel shot shells put 74% (plus/minus 8%) of the pellets into a 30" circle at 40 yards, except for Remington 3" Hypersonic #2 shot which did not pattern very well. Blind Side and Black Cloud patterned more consistently than typical round steel shot. For lead shot, the Invector Plus full choke was used at the same 40 yards with 12 different loads (#4 to #9, 2 3/4" to 3 1/2", 4 brands) including 3 " Winchester Supreme High Velocity Turkey Loads. All shells patterned very well with 82% (plus/minus 6%) of the shot hitting in a 30" circle.
In addition to determining the best shell/choke combination, another reasons a shotgun should be patterned is to determine where the pattern is concentrated (high, low, left, right) with respect to the point of aim. The SX3 Universal Hunter used for this review consistently had the center of the shot pattern right on the point of aim.
In total, about 500 shells were fired from the SX3 Universal Hunter without any cleaning and with zero (0) malfunctions.
* * * Putting It All Together
Fabrique Nationale (FN) in Belgium makes the SX3 Universal Hunter for Winchester. FN is known worldwide for producing quality firearms.
As for the warranty (taken from their web site), "Winchester Repeating Arms does not provide written warranties on most of our products and currently there is no "lifetime" warranty on any Winchester Repeating Arms Company product. Winchester Repeating Arms assures you that we support our products with the same integrity and fairness that has always been a vital part of the Winchester reputation."
Winchester customer service rates an A+. I posed 8 questions via email for this review, 4 were technical in nature and 4 were general information questions. All 8 questions were answered within 24 hours. I followed up with 3 more questions by phone. Within a couple minutes, I was talking with a very knowledgeable person and had the answers. Most questions can be answered just by looking through the owner's manual that is very thorough and nicely done.
While the MSRP of $1229.99 for the SX3 Universal Hunter may seem steep, it is actually priced very competitively when compared to other high quality semi-auto shotguns that are similar. Prices can vary on the SX3 shotguns with some models having an MSRP as low as $999.99. Consider the Winchester quality and craftsmanship that goes into each component, the light weight, the ability to tailor the fit, the reliability of this shotgun and the flexibility to use for a variety of hunting and shooting applications, the SX3 Universal Hunter is a very desirable shotgun for anyone to own.