November 22, 2022
Explaining to someone which waterfowl gun is best for them may seem like telling them which ice cream flavor they should order. Duck guns are largely a matter of personal choice, and taste plays a major role in shotgun purchases. If you grew up shooting slide-actions at passing mallards you may have an affinity for that action type, but if you spend all summer shooting an over/under at the clay range maybe that’s the action type for you. Camo patterns are even more subjective, and there have been a lot of ducks dumped with all black or shiny blued guns.
Recently, ammunition companies have muddled the waters of shotgun selection by offering improved non-toxic loads that leave us scratching our heads in disbelief. Is it also now possible that a .410 or 28-gauge is now a viable gun for hunting large ducks, making your choice even harder—perhaps when you read this you’ll decide it’s time to try something new.
Shotgun Action Type
There’s great debate as to which shotgun action is best for waterfowl hunting. Here’s the truth: they all work. Each action type has its merits and demerits, so here’s a rundown of the various action types and what you can expect.
Pump Shotguns: The pump, or slide action, is the only manually-operated repeater on this list. As such, it requires some skill and finesse to run your pump gun effectively. Since the action is operated manually, pumps tend to be very reliable, and they’re also an affordable option. I grew up shooting a Winchester 1300, and today’s iteration of that gun, the Winchester SXP, is an excellent choice for the waterfowl hunter because it’s extremely reliable and affordable. Browning’s bottom feeding/ejecting BPS is another great choice and because the safety is mounted on the tang, it’s one of the few truly ambidextrous shotguns on the market. The Browning BPS is also available in 10-gauge, if you’re so inclined.
Pump actions require input from the user to operate effectively, but once you master a pump you can run one almost as fast as a semiauto. The slide-action design also requires you to force your hand forward which, coincidentally, helps get the muzzle back on target quickly.
Semiauto Shotguns: Semiautomatics are the most popular shotgun action for waterfowl hunters, and the reason is simple: They offer three shots as fast as you can pull the trigger. Until a few decades ago there were some unreliable semiauto shotguns on the market, but they’ve pretty well been weeded out and you can expect very good reliability from most semiautos today.
Semiauto shooters are divided into two camps: There are those who prefer gas-operated guns like the Winchester Super X4, Browning Maxus II, and the Beretta A400 series, and those who prefer the inertia-operated system pioneered by Benelli and offered in their shotguns as well as Franchi, Retay, and Stoeger. Gas-operated guns harness the energy produced by escaping gasses after the shot is fired and use that gas to operate the bolt. Inertia guns, by contrast, have a bolt that operates using the energy produced by the recoil of the gun. Gas-operated guns slow the recoil curve and tend to produce less felt recoil than inertia guns, but inertia guns run more cleanly.
Gas and inertia-operated guns both work well for waterfowl, despite the ugly arguments for or against each action that appear on some internet forums. Which action you ultimately choose is a matter of taste, like chocolate or vanilla.
Over/Under Shotguns: Over/unders, or “stackbarrels,” are double shotguns that feature vertically oriented barrels. Over/unders effectively operate as semiautos, firing a second shot immediately after the first is fired, and they’re a favorite of clay target shooters because they offer a very fast one-two punch. They’re not the favored action by most duck hunters, I estimate, because they don’t offer the one-two-three punch of a semiauto or pump gun.
I’ve shot over/unders in duck blinds, and I believe most hunters will be surprised to realize that they kill almost as many birds with a two-shot stackbarrel as a three-shot semiauto. Why? Because we’re inclined to shoot with more control when we have less shots. There’s a temptation to just fill the atmosphere with non-tox pellets when you’ve got three shots on tap, and, as you might imagine, that doesn’t lend itself to stellar shot-to-kill ratios. What’s more, most shooters spend their summer breaking clays with an over under and then, inexplicably, switch action come duck season.
There are a lot of great over/unders for duck hunting but three of my favorites are Browning’s Cynergy, CZ’s Swamp Magnum, and Tristar’s Hunter Mag II. Over/unders tend to be more expensive than many pumps and semiautos, but they are very reliable. As someone who hunts with dogs, I also like that I can operate the top lever and instantly open the action, making the gun safe at a moment’s notice.
Over/under shotguns do require a lot more room in the blind to break open and clear that bottom barrel, and can be a pain in a goose pit or layout blind for that reason.
Side-By-Side Shotguns: Some of the greatest duck guns of all time like Foxes, L.C. Smiths, and Winchester Model 21s were side-by-sides, and legendary author and duck hunter Nash Buckingham’s “Bo-Whoop” shotgun (so named for the distinctive sound it made when it was fired) was a side-by-side. If you’re a waterfowling purist, a fine SxS might be just what you need.
But there aren’t a lot of side-by-side duck guns anymore, and that’s partly a result of economy. Side-by-sides, especially good ones, are expensive to build. They require a lot of hand work, specifically for regulating the barrels to shoot at or near the same point of impact at a specific distance. The average hunter in the 1930s couldn’t afford a Model 21, but he could purchase a Winchester Model 12 pump. Over time, less expensive guns surpassed—and almost killed—the waterfowling side-by-side.
Nevertheless, there are a few sensible waterfowl side-by-sides, specifically CZ’s tough Bobwhite G2 All-Terrain and Stoeger’s Longfowler.
Today’s shotgun finishes are more advanced than those from just a few years ago, and that’s a good thing because waterfowl hunting can be brutal on metal firearms parts. Cerakote baked-on ceramic finishes are very popular today because they’re waterproof (always good in a duck blind) and are available in a variety of colors.
The other new finish that’s making headlines is Benelli’s new BE.S.T. treatment, a unique plasma deposition coating that the mad scientists at Benelli have mastered and are not, understandably, sharing with their competitors. The diamond-like surface can survive exposure to water (even salt water) for extended periods, and I watched a Benelli representative strike the barrel of a Super Black Eagle III BE.S.T. gun with car keys and then wipe away the scratches. Impressive stuff.
The greatest advancement in modern waterfowling, though, is improvements to non-toxic ammunition. Just this year Winchester and Fiocchi added new bismuth loadings that are safe for use in older guns, but the biggest news is likely to introduction of TSS, or Tungsten Super Shot. Traditionally, nontoxic shot like bismuth and steel have had densities that are lower than lead, but TSS has a density that’s an impressive 56% higher than lead. That means hunters can use smaller shot to transfer the same energy to the target, and smaller shot means better penetration and fewer cripples. It also means more pellets per load.
TSS is very expensive, but it’s also very effective. I watched a gentleman in Mississippi consistently drop drake mallards at 30 yards with a .410 loaded with TSS ammunition from Apex. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not witnessed it first-hand.
The new crop of high-density non-toxic load options has also created new interest in sub-gauge waterfowl guns. Benelli recently released their 28-gauge Super Black Eagle III shotgun, which I used to kill ducks on Lake Erie, and that five-pound, low-recoiling shotgun can clear the skies. There’s also been renewed interest in the 16-gauge (in no small part because of Browning’s release of several waterfowl-oriented A5 Sweet Sixteen shotguns this year), and there are several new non-toxic 16-gauge ammunition offerings.
Choices, choices. You’ll have many aspects to consider when purchasing your first or next waterfowl hunting shotgun. But experienced waterfowl hunters reading this can attest to the fact that, love it or hate it, your next waterfowl shotgun likely won’t be your last. There’s always a little extra space in the gun safe if you look a bit closer.