A friend of mine-granted, he works for an ammunition company-scoffs at the mentality of those dove hunters who pick their shots and try to kill a limit with fewer than 25 shells. "Who wants to brag about how much they didn't shoot and how much fun they didn't have?" he asks. Most people must agree with him; dove hunting is less about killing birds than it is about firing a 21-gun salute to the new season. Maybe that's the reason gunmakers haven't figured out a way to sell us a "dove special" shotgun yet; people shoot whatever they please come September 1.
Gather a group of dove hunters, and you'll see everything from duck guns to heirloom doubles to pipsqueak .410s. People select dove guns according to whim, or to show off to their friends, or because they just bought a new gun and can't wait to shoot it, not because they think a particular gun will prove lethal in the sunflower fields.
The Practical Approach
Not everyone shares such a happy-go-lucky outlook on dove guns. There's yours truly, for instance, embittered by life in a state where doves are a protected songbird. When I pack my bags and a gun in September, I am on a mission: I am out to catch up.
My approach to dove guns is entirely practical. That's not all bad; no matter how much fun dove hunting may be for us, it's no picnic for the doves. We owe it to them to choose a gun that won't litter the field with lost and crippled birds.
Doves may make tiny targets, but that doesn't call for a tiny gun. On the contrary, you need plenty of pattern density out where the target is to put two or three pellets into the front end of a bird as small as a dove. Therefore the 12, 16, and 20 make the best dove gauges. I'd lean toward the 12, if only because there's so much high-quality, inexpensive target ammunition available for it. And on days the birds fly high, a 12 gives you the option of screwing in a tight choke and shooting 11/8 trap-load 71/2s, or even 1-ounce pigeon loads.
At shorter ranges, the higher pellet count of the 12's heavier payload gives you the luxury of shooting a more open choke while maintaining adequate pattern density for clean kills. In areas where nontoxic shot is required-like many state wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges-the 12-gauge 1-ounce load of steel 7s makes a potent dove load.
Reloaders can make the 16-gauge nearly the ballistic equal of the 12, and the guns are lighter and slimmer. If you rely on factory ammunition, however, you will not be able to buy target loads nor suitable nontoxic loads for dove hunting with the 16. A 20-gauge shoots an ounce of lead shot well, and you can load it up to 11/8- or even 1-ounce 12-gauge payloads-but if you're going to do that, why not shoot a 12 in the first place? All in all, though, the 20 makes a delightful dove gun without quite the long reach of a 12-gauge. Twenty-eight-gauges are a joy to shoot and deadly out to 30 yards. There's good 28-gauge ammunition available, like the sporting clays loads of 8 shot made by all of the Big Three, but it is expensive. As to the .410, although many folks will disagree and some water-hole shooters can prove me wrong, I believe the .410's sole purpose is to teach humility on clay target fields.
Waterfowling on Fast Forward
Although doves are technically upland birds, dove shooting is really like waterfowling played on fast forward. It's definitely easier to catch up to a speeding dove with a light gun. At the same time, a dove gun, like a waterfowl gun, needs a little heft to keep it swinging smoothly and to soak up recoil.
It's hard to imagine guns that fit those contradictory requirements better than gas autoloaders like the Browning Gold, the Beretta 391, or the Winchester Super X2. They're long and light, quick to move to the target, but with enough weight forward to smooth your follow-through. The short-recoil-operateed Benellis don't offer quite the recoil reduction of gas guns, but they handle well. (For what it's worth, Benellis and Berettas make South American dove outfitters smile because they hold up so well during high-volume shoots.) I'd be remiss not to add the 20-gauge Remington 1100 to my list. It weighs about the same as the 12s listed above, it's nearly recoilless, and it's easy to shoot well. I'd be willing to bet more doves have been bagged with 1100s than with any other gun.
Everything that's true of autos is equally true of a well-balanced pump, except for the recoil reduction. The Light Contour version of the Remington 870, the Ithaca 37, or the Winchester Model 12, to name three off the top of my head, all make fine dove guns. Two-barreled guns have one huge advantage over three-shot pumps and autos: They save you money. How often has that third shot gotten you anything more than one hull closer to an empty box?
If I were buying an over/under for dove hunting, I'd look closely at a 20-gauge sporting clays gun. With their long barrels and comparatively (to the 12-gauge) light weight, they should have "dove special" written all over them. That said, one of the most often touted advantages of doubles is the "instant" choice of two chokes they offer. Unless your gun has two triggers, you will find yourself fiddling with a barrel selector when you should be swinging on a bird. All in all, the one choke and ease of reloading of a pump or auto beats the two chokes of a break-action gun that always seems to be broken open when a bird flies by. Take it from someone who lives where dove hunting is against the law: Missing a dove is part of the fun; missing a chance to shoot at one is criminal.