Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what’s beautiful in the duck marsh or goose pit is the gun that works, no matter how harsh the conditions. Picking the 15 best of anything isn’t easy, and with waterfowl guns we’ve got 120 years worth of history to consider, from the Model 1897 Winchester, the first pump for smokeless powder, to the high-tech 3 ½-inch semi-autos of today.

10 Traits of the Perfect Waterfowl Gun

The synthetic-stocked 3-inch 12-gauge Beretta 3901
The synthetic-stocked 3-inch 12-gauge Beretta 3901 is the author’s “everyday” duck gun, and has many of the features a waterfowl gun should have.Phil Bourjaily

Duck and goose guns don’t have to be pretty, the way bird guns do. All they have to do is work in the mud, in the snow, in the grit, in the rain, and in single-digit temperatures on both sides of zero. They also have to deliver heavy loads on target to cleanly kill tough ducks and geese. It’s a tall order, but there are plenty of guns out there that can fill it.

I shoot a few different guns at ducks and geese. The gun here is the closest I have to an everyday duck gun: a Beretta 3901, shown along with a greenhead and a mallard-black hybrid I shot with it last fall. It possesses many of the traits of a good waterfowl gun.

1. Gauge

The 3-inch 12 gauge covers everything from teal to swans with the right ammunition. I shoot No. 2s and BBs in steel and HeviMetal in this gun and have no complaints about its killing power. Occasionally I’ll dip into my carefully hoarded store of premium tungsten ammo on days I think I’ll have to shoot far, but steel works fine 95 percent of the time.

Throw in a 3 ½ chamber, as many hunters prefer, and you get an extra few yards of range, although at a steep cost in recoil. Personally, I shoot a 10 ½-pound 10 gauge if I want to throw more than a 3-inch 12 gauge’s shot downrange, but that’s me. Tens pattern better, but they aren’t nearly as versatile as 3 ½-inch 12s.

The 20-gauge is gaining popularity as hunters come to realize it’s enough gun for birds over decoys, but unless you shoot all your geese at 15 yards, or spend the money for tungsten, it’s probably not an all-around gun.

2. Action

Semi autos are by far the most popular action type. Mine is a gas gun, which offers the advantage of reduced kick, which I especially appreciate in the early season before I’m so bundled up I can’t feel a thing. This gun, like some gas guns, turns sluggish when temperatures sink much below 15 degrees no matter how well I strip the old oil and keep it clean. I am thinking I might replace it with an inertia gun, which won’t cut the kick much, but, in my experience, will work better in the cold.

Pumps aren’t seen as often as they used to be, which is a shame, because hand-powered shotguns work no matter what.

Over/unders make the most reliable guns of all, and I’ll bring one on days when it’s too cold for my frozen fingers to push shells into against stiff magazine springs (bad circulation in the feet and hands is a hereditary curse, and highly inconvenient if you like to hunt in very cold weather as I do).

3. Chokes

Extended choke tubes are easy to change, they let you see right away what choke you’ve got in the gun, they (often) improve patterns, and they move any stress of shooting steel out beyond the muzzle.

My preferred choke for almost everything is a Light Modified, which strikes the right balance between open enough for over-decoy shooting, but dense enough for good follow-up shots. I have other chokes for this gun, but I can’t remember the last time I used one other than the LM tube in this gun.

4. Barrel Length

Like so many duck guns, my gun has 28-inch barrels, which provide a nice amount of weight-forward balance to keep your swing smooth, and are kinder on the ears of your blind-mates than a short-barreled gun might be. I like a 30-inch barrel if I can find it, and a few makers do offer them.

5. Trigger

Yes, my gun has one a trigger. That’s all I care about. As I’ve mentioned before, I am insensitive to trigger pulls, and as long as I can make the gun go off, that’s a good enough trigger for me. For those who care about pulls, I’d say 4 or 4 ½ pounds is a good weight. Cold duck blinds are no place for light triggers.

This gun, the author's 3-inch Winchester Model 12, is a classic.
Pump guns work in any weather. This gun, the author's 3-inch Winchester Model 12, is a classic, and a great gun for cold days in the cornfield, too.Phil Bourjaily

6. Weight

Everyone seems to want lightweight waterfowl guns, except me. Shooting 3 ½-inch shells in any gun, but especially a pump or light inertia gun, hurts. Weight absorbs recoil, and it makes a gun smooth and steady. My 3901 weights somewhere close to 8 pounds with sling, which is how I like it.

7. Sling Swivels Studs

It goes without saying that any duck has sling swivel studs so you can have your hands free carrying decoys or wading—or to be ready for that suicide bird that always wants in when you’re picking up decoys. Goose guns, which are typically driven right up to the blind, don’t need slings.

8. Sights

Most waterfowl guns now come with fiber-optic beads. Personally, I can take them or leave them alone but many hunters prefer glow-in-the-dark beads for the low light of early morning. This gun has a small and fairly dull orange fiber-optic, only because the factory bead fell out and I wanted to replace it with something.

9. Enlarged Bolt Handles, Safeties, and Bolt Releases

The trend in waterfowl guns now is to trick them out by enlarging all the controls to make them easier to use with gloved hands. In theory, it’s a good idea. In practice, I don’t like it, although many do. Enlarged bolts ding the gun’s neighbor in the safe. It’s too easy to bump a big bolt release (even putting a gun in a soft case can do it) and shut the bolt when you want it open. Yes, my gun has one because a friend borrowed it and gave it back to me with the AnglePort bolt release installed on it by way of thanks. I appreciate the gesture, but hate the bolt release. As for enlarged safeties, I’m all in favor, although this gun doesn’t have one.

The author’s Browning B-80 gas gun.
The duck-scaring properties of shiny guns are overrated, and they take prettier pictures than plastic guns do too—as this photo of the author’s Browning B-80 gas gun illustrates.Phil Bourjaily

10. Stock and Finish

A gun should be fairly drab, to keep ducks and geese from spying it, but I often hunt with walnut and blued steel guns because I like them. Synthetic stocks are standard equipment on duck guns now. I shoot my wood-stocked guns when I can, but I have come to appreciate synthetics because they don’t make me want to cry after I drop my gun on rip rap or gravel, or bang it against the steel frame of a pit.

As for metal finish: A duck gun should have something better than the 3901’s easy-rusting matte metal, which is either a very dull blue or possibly a bead-blasted finish. The currently popular Cerakote is a great weatherproof finish, and an overall camo dip keeps barrels from getting rusty as well.

15 Best Duck and Goose Guns Ever

The guns on this list have proven their worth over countless sunrises, and they will not fail you. They are not listed in any particular order. —P.B.

Remington 870

Remington 870 Express
Remington 870 ExpressRemington

I’ve seen the ubiquitous 870 everywhere, from the bottom of duck boats to the gun rack at a billionaire’s duck camp. It’s earned its popularity by being slick and reliable in any weather and by being made in numbers so great—11 million and counting—that it’s almost statistically impossible not to own one.

Originally part of a "family" of rifles and shotguns that shared common parts, the 870 was built on the receiver of a 16-gauge 11-48, which explains its trim lines. They have been made in Ilion, New York since 1950. Apple pie is as American as an 870. Mine, a Super Mag, waits faithfully at home for the days it's too cold for any other gun to work. –P.B.

Winchester Model 12

Winchester Model 12
*Winchester Model 12 *Internet Movie Firearms Database

The Model 12, billed as the "perfect repeater," is widely and correctly acknowledged as the greatest pump gun ever made. Sure pointing and wonderfully slick, the Model 12 was the gun to have among waterfowlers through the first half of the 20th century. While most were plain-barreled, 2 ¾ inch guns, the Heavy Duck model, with its solid rib, three-inch chamber, and steel magazine plug for extra weight, was the ultimate in waterfowl weaponry until the 3 ½-inch magnum came along. There were nearly 2 millions Model 12s made between 1912 and 1964, and they aren't hard to find if you want to add a touch of retro-greatness to your next duck hunt. —P.B.

Browning BPS

Browning BPS Shotgun
Browning Pump ShotgunBrowning

The Browning Pump Shotgun—best known simply as the BPS—has been marketed as a waterfowl piece from the outset. Similar to the Ithaca Model 37 (which John M. Browning also designed), the BPS both loads and ejects from the bottom of the receiver. With a tang-mounted sliding safety, the gun is truly ambidextrous.

It has been made in everything from .410 bore to 10 gauge, and with a variety of barrel lengths and stock configurations, including camo synthetic for modern waterfowlers. If the BPS has a flaw, it's a bit more difficult to disassemble, clean, and reassemble than other pump-gun designs—but that's seldom a problem in a duck blind. —W.B.

Browning A-5

Browning Auto-5
Browning Auto-5Internet Movie Firearms Database

The recoil-operated, humpbacked Auto-5 was the first successful semi-automatic shotgun—and some would argue, one of history’s all-time best gun designs. Introduced in 1905, the original A-5 design remained in production until 1988, though Browning continued with some special runs of the gun in the years after that. The Remington Model 11 was a licensed copy of the original design.

Few guns that were used in the days of market hunting and prior to steel shot are still widely seen in duck blinds today, but the original A-5 often is. A modern, inertia-driven version gun of the same name (but a much different design) debuted in 2011, and is still in the Browning product catalog. —W.B.

Winchester Super X2

Winchester Super X2
A Winchester Super X2 in action.M.D. Johnson

Winchester modeled the outside of the X2 after the classic Super X1 and gave it the innards of the Browning Gold, resulting in a gun with old-school good looks and modern 3 ½-inch capabilities. It was the first really good 3-½ inch gas gun, and its heavy weight helped make it a soft-shooting, easy swinging duck gun. The subsequent X3 and X4 have only gotten lighter and uglier, making this one—I've owned three—the pick of the litter. —P.B.

Ithaca Mag 10

Ithaca Mag 10 shotgun
Ithaca Mag 10Wikipedia Commons

Ithaca's Mag 10 tamed the 2 ¼-ounce lead 10-gauge magnum shell better than any gun. Shooting one, the sensation was as a firm shove backward, as if a giant laid one finger on your shoulder. Made from 1975 to 1989, the Mag 10 was the favorite of a fanatical few goose and turkey hunters, but never a big seller. When steel shot arrived, Remington bought the Mag 10 patent, redesigned it extensively, and introduced it as the excellent SP10, which, unfortunately, couldn't compete with lighter, more versatile (if much harder kicking) 3 ½-inch 12s. —P.B.

Benelli Super Black Eagle

Benelli Super Black Eagle 3 shotgun
Benelli Super Black Eagle III shotgunBenelli

The first semi-automatic designed for 3 ½-inch shells is from an Italian company that has since dominated the modern American waterfowl gun market. Now in its third iteration, the Super Black Eagle is an inertia-driven gun that will function with 2 ¾-inch dove loads all the way up to the heaviest goose loads, without the gunk and fouling associated with gas-operated shotguns.

The inertia system, by nature, kicks and so advancements to the design have largely centered around recoil reduction. The gun is and has always been expensive, but it’s proof that serious hunters are willing to pay for performance. —W.B.

Beretta A400

Beretta A400 Xtreme
Beretta A400 XtremeBeretta

The problem with 3 ½-inch 12-gauge shells is that they administer a beating on par with elephant rifles, particularly out of pump-action and inertia-driven semi-automatics. The 3 ½-inch Beretta A400 Xtreme is one of the softest-shooting duck guns in the marsh, thanks in part to Beretta’s “kick-off” technology, which uses spring-loaded shock absorbers to help soften recoil; that it’s a gas-operated gun helps, too. It’s also famously reliable with even the lightest 2 ¾-inch loads. —W.B.

Remington 11-87

Remington 1100 and 11-87
A neck-collared Canada goose and a Remington 11-87.M.D. Johsnon

In 1963 Remington changed shotgunning forever when it introduced the first reliable gas operated semi-auto. Designed with the aid of computers, the 1100 was cutting-edge, and its soft recoil instantly made it a hit with target shooters and waterfowl hunters. Great as the 1100 was, it wasn’t the ultimate, as you still had to swap barrels when you switched from 2 ¾-inch to 3-inch shells.

The 11-87 solved that problem in 1987, adding a pressure-compensated piston that let one 3-inch barrel handle all loads. I still believe the 1100-11/87 to be the softest shooting semi-auto of all. —P.B.

Browning b80 shotgun and mallards

Beretta 302-303

The Browning B-80 is a hump-backed version of the Beretta 300 series, under the Browning name.Phil Bourjaily

Beretta's 300 series guns are so durable and reliable they became the only choice of gas gun target shooters, and a favorite among high-volume wingshooters as well. Those same qualities made them excellent waterfowl guns. In fact, back in the 80s the 302 and 303 were so good that when Browning decided it couldn't beat Beretta with a gas gun of its own, it had Beretta put a humpback on the 302 and called it the B-80. I have one of each, a B-80 and a 302 or, if I switch barrels, a pair of Brownettas, as such a hybrid is known. —P.B.

Super Fox HE Grade

Super Fox HE Grade
Hunting Editor Will Brantley with Nash Buckingham's Bo Whoop, a 3-inch HE Grade Super FoxWill Brantley

I’m reluctant to include a two-shot antique in a rundown of “the best” duck guns, but there is something special about a 3-inch HE Super Fox. Nash Buckingham’s Bo Whoop, the most famous duck gun in history, was an HE Grade Super Fox, built specifically for the new (at the time) Super X 3-inch magnum load of No. 4 lead shot.

I used Bo Whoop during a Mississippi duck hunt a few seasons ago, albeit with modern Bismuth shotshells. It was the most exciting assignment of my career. The 9 ½-pound gun with double triggers and no safety pointed and settled on ducks in a way that a synthetic autoloader simply cannot. I get chills just thinking about it. —W.B.

Ithaca NID 10-gauge

Ithaca NID 10-gauge
Ithaca NID 10-gaugeJames D. Julia Auctioneers

When Winchester decided to load a new, 3 ½-inch 10-gauge magnum shell in the ’30s (standard 10s were 2 7/8 inches) they went looking for a gun strong enough to chamber the new shell. Ithaca complied with a beefed-up 10-gauge version of their NID (New Ithaca Double), a massive 10-plus-pound side-by-side with 32-inch barrels.

About 800 were built between 1932 and 1942. Although there were never many in the first place, they do still pop up used from time to time for $2,500 or so if you absolutely have to have something old, cool, and different to break out in the goose pit. —P.B.

Mossberg 835

Mossberg 835 shotgun
Mossberg 835Mossberg

When I first began duck hunting in college, my buddy had an 835. We once legitimately used it as a boat paddle, and he routinely left it in the bed of my truck—with no case—for days at a time between hunts. It handled like a waterlogged 2x4, and we lovingly called it “the Moose Turd.” Yet, despite its abusive maintenance schedule, I never saw it malfunction in any way, and it caused the demise of many ducks.

The 835 was the first 3 ½-inch pump shotgun, and it's still going strong today. The barrel is over bored and ported. My buddy's gun had a 24-inch barrel (it was really a turkey gun), and it was obnoxiously loud. I'd get the 28-inch waterfowl version if I were buying today. —W.B.

Remington VersaMax

Remington Versa Max and Phil Bourjaily
Shotguns Editor Phil Bourjaily with a pair of specks and a Remington VersaMax.Phil Bourjaily

Having hit home runs with the 1100 and the 11-87, Remington struck out with the 3 ½ inch 11-87 Super Magnum and as a result trailed badly in the 3 ½ inch magnum race for many years. With the Versa Max in 2010, Remington caught up. Their version of the 3 ½ all-load semi-auto uses a series of seven ports in the chamber.

The longer the shell, the more ports it covers, limiting the amount of gas bleeding into the action. It's simple and it works, allowing the VersaMax to shoot all loads reliably, and with a huge reduction in felt recoil. I have shot the VersaMax in Canada, where you can burn through shells by the box, and it is gentle on the shoulder and hard on the birds. It's a homely gun, but an exceptionally faithful one. —P.B.

Winchester Model 87

Winchester model 97 shotgun
Winchester Model 97Internet Movie Firearms Database

The Model 1897 wasn’t the very first pump-action shotgun, but it was the first one that really mattered to duck hunters. Another John M. Browning design, the gun had an exposed hammer and was fit for use with then-new smokeless powder. It’s maybe best known for the short-barreled trench gun versions used in World War I, but it was available with barrel lengths as long as 36 inches (though most hunting guns were 28 to 30 inches).

The Model 97 was around during the heyday of market hunting, but production ceased in 1957, years before the non-toxic shot mandate for waterfowl hunting. Though it’s rare to see a Model 97, or much of anything with exposed hammers, in a duck blind today, virtually every modern pump gun is influenced by the design. That alone earns it a place on the list. —W.B.