Beauty is only skin deep on a good duck and goose gun. It's durability, reliability, and power that bring home birds.

Field & Stream Online Editors

You can make the analogy that upland shotguns resemble sports cars-sleek, fast, and agile. It follows, then, that waterfowl guns are the pickup trucks of shotguns, built to deliver heavy loads in the worst conditions. Synthetic stocks, matte finishes, screw-in chokes, and improved mechanisms make the current generation of waterfowl firearms the toughest, most reliable ever. But the best duck and goose guns share the following specific traits.

Repeaters rule the marsh. For duck and goose hunting, the pump's or autoloader's three shots and one choke beat the double barrel's two shots and two chokes almost every time. That third shell is worth a pack of retrievers for anchoring lightly hit birds and swatting cripples. Moreover, when hunting in a cramped blind, you can reload a repeater much more quickly and easily than you can a break-action gun.

Pump or auto? Pumps are cheap, durable, and keep on shucking in the worst weather. That said, modern autos function with such monotonous reliability that no one calls them "jam-a-matics" anymore. Simpler gas systems and cleaner-burning waterfowl loads render gun maintenance almost optional. And most important, autoloading actions dull the sting of the hardest-kicking magnum loads. An auto may hurt your wallet, but it's gentle on your shoulder. Sticker shock aside, autoloaders are the way to go.

Throwing mass quantities of light, bulky steel pellets at ducks and geese requires a roomy shotshell. Hunters have three options: a 10-gauge, a 31/2-inch 12-gauge, or a 3-inch 12. The 10-gauge reigns as the King of Capacity. However, weighing 91/2 to 11 pounds, 10-gauge guns are too heavy for all-around waterfowling.

The real choice lies between the 31/2 and the 3-inch 12-gauges. The bigger 12 is more versatile: The 31/2-inch Roman candle loads offer near 10-gauge ballistics in a much more maneuverable shotgun, and you can load 3- and 23/4-inch shells in the big 12. However, the 3-inch 12 packs enough shot for 99.9 percent of duck hunting and all but the longest long-range goose shooting.

You almost never carry a waterfowl gun at port arms. It's slung over your shoulder or cased and stowed in a boat or strapped to the back of an ATV. Extra gun weight won't hurt here. In fact, it helps, by soaking up recoil. Pick a 12-gauge in the 71/2- to 81/2-pound range.

Shots at ducks and geese tend to be long. A 28- or even 30-inch barrel smooths your swing and encourages a positive follow-through. Twenty-six-inch barrels will do, but anything shorter is too light in the muzzle, and deafening to the guy sitting next to you. Steer a wide berth around 21- to 24-inch barrels and-if you value your hearing-the people who shoot them.

Waterfowling tortures guns. They bounce on boat hulls, fall on rocks, sink in mud. Synthetic stocks may be ugly, but the abuse of waterfowling doesn't make them any uglier, and they clean up with Armor All. You can't say the same for wood.

A duck blind or goose pit is no place for shiny bluing. Go with a matte or camo finish to hide your gun from sharp-eyed birds. Sling swivels are a must for carrying the gun along with all your other gear to the blind; quick-detachable swivels let you remove the strap, which may otherwise hang up in the foliage when you rise to shoot.

In the days of lead shot, choosing a waterfowl choke was simple: You chose Full. Things aren't so simple anymore. Steel, tungsten, bismuth, and Hevi-Shot all exhibit different patterning behaviors. Screw-in chokes and a few sessions at the patterning board are essential for figuring out which chokes to use with different loads.

Forr most waterfowl hunting, a Modified choke performs best as an all-around choke with most nontoxic ammunition. Open up to Improved Cylinder for close over-decoy or timber shooting, and tighten up to Improved Modified or even Full for pass shooting. Some custom choke manufacturers now simplify choke selection by offering aftermarket tubes designated "ducks over decoys" or "pass-shooting geese."