Which is your choice for shooting waterfowl?
Selecting which "type" of waterfowl shotgun you're going to shoot is an important decision. That's because each of the four types listed above have a lot of individual idiosyncrasies. Sure, some folks can pick up any one of them and score pretty well, but I'd venture a guess that there are a lot more wildfowlers who won't shoot one, two or even three of the shotgun types all that well. Why is that? Let's explore at least some of the reasons, since looking a little deeper into the pluses and minuses of these shotgun types might help us understand why one of them might be better suited for you.
Although pump guns might have been the most popular of shotguns among waterfowlers 30, 40 and 50 years ago, semiautos dominate today. Perhaps the most popular reasons for this are the reduction of recoil available in the gas-operated guns, and the high tech engineering that has gone into these guns over the last several years.
Few, if any, traditional recoil-operated shotguns are made these days, especially for waterfowl shooting. These smoothbores, in which the barrel moves back appreciably upon recoil to eject the empty and feed the new shell into the chamber, were once very popular--with the model A-5 from Browning leading the pack in this category. These days only Franchi makes a recoil-operated shotgun--its 48Al, and it's a light gun aimed at upland hunters. A number of recoil-operated shotguns from other manufacturers have fallen by the wayside over the years.
Gas-operated shotguns are great because they significantly reduce recoil. The Benelli Inertia Driven shotguns do not operate on the gas principle, or the traditional recoil-operated principle. Their system is totally different, and these guns don't suck up recoil like the gas guns. However, Benelli addressed the problem by going to a sophisticated new stock. Called ComforTech, this stock has 11 chevrons that hold the top of the buttstock to the bottom of the buttstock, and each of these 11 chevrons is a recoil reducer.
Shooting a semiauto is pretty easy. Once you pull the trigger, the gun reloads itself for the next cartridge. Of course, many look at pumps and semiautos, with their three-shot capability, as being head and shoulders over a two-shot over-under or side-by-side. One certain negative with semiautos is that empties go flying to the right, which might disturb your duck blind partner. Pump guns can cause the same problem, with one exception--the bottom-ejecting Ithaca 37. Remington's new semiauto, the 105 CTi, with bottom ejection, eliminates this problem, too.
The Ithaca 37 was used by a few waterfowlers over the years, but this was a fairly light, fixed-breech pump, so it had to be a hard kicker. Many of the model 37 12 gauges had 23?4-inch chambers, so shooting 11?4-ounce lead loads at a bit less than 1,200 feet per second (fps) was probably a lot more tolerable--compared to today's steel loads of 11?8 at 1,500-fps. Modern nontoxic waterfowl loads come out of the muzzle so much faster than the lead loads of yesteryear, and is perhaps the main reason so many duck and goose buffs have switched to lower recoiling gas-operated guns.
Shooting a pump gun is different. Because so many folks shot pumps 30 and 40 years ago, they were really good at using a pump flawlessly. This is not true today. Go to a skeet range, sporting clays or 5-Stand layout. If you see someone shooting who is new to these clay target sports, and if that person is shooting a pump gun, you're almost bound to see a lot of missing. Shooting one shot is seldom a problem with a pump. But if a second shot is required (almost always in sporting and 5-Stand, and often in skeet), there's a good chance you're going to see a less than stellar performance on the pump gunner's second try.
If a shotgunner is really adept with a pump gun, we hardly ever hear anything. The noise of the pumping is so quick that it blends in with the sound of the shot. Further, the barrel never wavers; the muzzle maintains its place in the area of the target. In contrast, a person inexperienced with a pump gun has the muzzle waving about during the pumping operation. That pumping operation itself may also be anything but perfect. Perhaps the actual pumping will start too late after the first shot has been taken. Perhaps the fore-end will not be brought all the way to the rear, which usually results in either a failure to eject or a failure to feed the next round properly. Watching a person operate a pump gun perfectly is like watching someone ride a horse to perfection. The shotgunner's control is impeccable.
Over-under shotguns are popular these days, but that popularity is seen most often in the various clay target sports. These guns are also seen often in upland shooting, where a light over-under is the ticket. Light over-under shotguns are not seen in duck blinds. With today's heavy loads of nontoxic shotshells, such guns simply kick too much.
But a shooter who competes with an over-under all year can be very effective in any waterfowling situation if using the same gun, or a similar one. Although a shooter is restricted to two shots, at least no pumping is required. Consequently, the muzzle can stay right in the area of the bird(s)--with no unnatural pulling way off the target(s).
In a blind, however, an over-under has to be broken to a greater angle than a side-by-side for ejecting empties and reloading. When any double gun with ejectors is opened the duck or goose person who has shot the gun should be aware of the direction he or she is "kicking" out the empties. We don't want those fast-flying hulls hitting our shooting partners. To open an over-under fully to do the ejecting--and the reloading--it takes some extra room. Opening the gun so far can be a problem, depending upon the size of the blind.
The renowned Nash Buckingham shot a Fox side-by-side, a Bert Becker 3-inch Magnum dubbed Bo Whoop. The story that made Nash as a writer was maybe De Shootinest Gent'man, and it starred a great shooter, Harold Money, who shot a pump gun. Old Horace, his guide, was offered a dram of Money's Brooklyn Handicap for every shot Harold missed. But he never missed--in 25 tries!
But those were the days of lead loads and 11?8 to 11?4 ounces of shot that moved the shot column out the muzzle at relatively slow velocities. I don't want to be shooting an old side-by-side in the 21st century with modern shotshells that scream out the muzzle at 1,500-fps or close to it. Heck, I don't even want to do that with a new side-by-side, let alone an old one.
For most side-by-side shooting, especially if using older guns, we have to go with nontoxic shot that goes out the muzzle at reasonable velocities, but that shot has to be reasonably soft. The extra hard stuff like steel, Hevi-Shot and other tungsten-based nontoxic loads, you won't be doi
ng an old side-by-side any favors by using that type of shot. In fact, you could ruin such an old treasure by doing that.
When shooting Bismuth or Kent's Tungsten Matrix, I often bring out my Lefever that was restored by Briley in Houston, Texas. This gun was manufactured somewhere around the first World War, so I also treat the gun with ease by only firing relatively light loads out of it. I know I have to bring the ducks in maybe a little closer than I do if shooting a 3-inch load with some tungsten-based shot, but it sure is a lot of fun to hunt with such a treasured old-timer.
Finally, looking out at a greenhead, with two barrels in between the bird and your eyes, instead of one barrel, is definitely a different sight picture. Those who feel uncomfortable with this new look might try breaking some sporting clays with a side-by-side gun, and while doing so trying to work on using a swing-through shooting technique. Learning to shoot swing-through, assuming you have always been a sustained-lead-type shooter, doesn't take all that much practice, but practice is certainly required.