Any list of favorite waterfowl guns is by its very nature highly arbitrary. The following half dozen selections are some of my favorites, and I fully expect that I will be required to debate the merits of each next time I'm in a duck blind.
**Winchester Model 12 **
A long-barreled, Full-choked Model 12 reigned as the last word in duck guns for nearly half a century. Introduced in 1912, “the perfect repeater” ushered in the Golden Age of beautifully machined, hand-fitted American pump guns, elevating the slide action from game hog’s harvesting tool to gentleman’s prestige gun. Thanks to its slick stroke and uncanny pointing characteristics, the Model 12 dominated trap and skeet fields as well as duck blinds for nearly 40 years.
The Model 12 reached its apotheosis as a waterfowl gun when Winchester debuted the Heavy Duck Gun version in 1936. The Heavy Duck was chambered for the then-new 3-inch magnum cartridges. With its Full-choked 30- or 32-inch barrel, the Duck Gun was as close to coastal artillery as a waterfowl gun could come.
The Golden Age of pump guns lasted until the 1950s, when mass-produced 870s and, later, Mossberg 500s drove costlier pumps off the market. The Model 12 remained on life support until 1978 when it was finally discontinued.
There are thousands of Model 12s in used-gun racks, most of them with Full chokes, long, ribless barrels, and 23Â¿Â¿4-inch chambers. Have a gunsmith open the choke or install choke tubes, and get that old Model 12 back out into the blind where it belongs before some collector buys it and puts it away.
**Browning A-5 **
If ever a gun design stood the test of time, it’s John Browning’s Auto 5. Patented in 1900, the A-5 was the first autoloading shotgun. Those early A-5s and identical Remington 11s gave market hunters the firepower they craved to cut swaths in huge flocks of ducks and geese. “Before the automatic, we had nothing to kill them with,” said one. The ingenious A-5 outlasted the market era to become the darling of generations of duck and goose hunters.
Great as it was, the A-5 couldn’t handle 23/4- and 3-inch shells interchangeably; Browning built both standard and magnum versions. Browning discontinued the A-5 in 1998 in favor of the Gold, which shoots everything from target loads to 31/2s but will never replace the “Humpback Browning” in the hearts of waterfowlers.
Leave the Belgian A-5s to the collectors and pick up one of the Japanese versions made after 1976, which handle steel shot without a whimper. Smear two drops of 30-weight motor oil on the mag tube, make sure the friction rings are properly set, and an A-5 will keep on knocking down ducks just as it has for 100 years.
**Remington 870 **
Ask any hundred waterfowlers to choose one gun to take with them to a desert island. Ninety-nine will pick Remington’s 870 pump. Here’s a gun so ubiquitous, so dead-bang reliable, that, as a friend of mine put it flatly: “If you don’t own an 870, you don’t own a shotgun.”
The 870 debuted in 1950, spawned by the World War II mass-production techniques that armed GIs with such stamped-parts wonders as the M3 .45 submachine gun (a.k.a. “Grease Gun”). Critics raised on the machined, hand-fitted pumps of the Golden Age like the Model 12 and Ithaca 37 derided it as the “punch-press gun.” Fifty years and 7 or 8 million units later, this unkillable, well-designed shotgun has buried its early critics and will probably outlast the rest of us, too.
Needless to say, there are approximately a zillion 870s on used-gun racks just waiting to wear out their next owners. If you prefer a new gun, consider the 870 SPS Super Magnum, with synthetic stock, camo finish, sling swivels, and 31/2-inch chamber. Those of us who view duck and goose hunting simply as an excuse to play in the mud can get along fine with the bare-bones, matte-finished, sub-$300 Express model.
**Remington 1100 **
Waterfowlers suffer from extreme magnumitis, and no gun ever made takes the sting out of heavy loads better than Remington’s 1100.
Gas autoloaders had been around for a few years when the 11000 debuted in 1963 to render them all obsolete. Unlike previous gas guns, the 1100 worked reliably and took full advantage of gas operation’s potential to soak up recoil. Gas guns don’t actually reduce recoil, but as they bleed expanding gases out of the barrel to cycle the action, they spread the recoil out over a longer period, turning a sharp kick into a shove.
The 1100 became an immediate favorite with target shooters and waterfowlers addicted to 17/8-ounce lead magnums. Over 3 million 1100s were sold between 1963 and 1988. A hunter with an 1100 at the ready and spare O-ring barrel seal in his wallet is equal to nearly any waterfowling situation.
Demand for an auto that could interchangeably shoot 23/4- and 3-inch loads created the 1100’s successor, the nearly identical 11-87. Despite the success of the 11-87, the 1100 refuses to die. A few years ago Remington revived the 12-gauge 1100 in an all-black, synthetic-stocked version perfect for waterfowlers.
**Benelli Super Black Eagle **
The Benelli Super Black Eagle’s price tag — around $1,250 — and its status as the fin de siecle waterfowler’s prestige gun have earned it the nickname “Arkansas Purdey.”
The Super Black Eagle was created around a new shotshell, the 31/2-inch magnum. In the late 1980s, hunters demanded 10-gauges to hold large payloads of steel shot. Federal Cartridge Company and O.F. Mossberg teamed up to offer an alternative: a 31/2-inch 12-gauge cartridge and a pump gun (the 835) chambered for the new round. The Super Black Eagle debuted soon after as the first 31/2-inch autoloader. It cycled everything from 31/2-inch goose loads to 11/8-ounce target ammo, giving hunters 10-gauge punch and 12-gauge versatility.
Hunters who bought Super Black Eagles soon found there was much to like about the gun besides the length of its chamber.
The Benelli action is a masterpiece of simplicity. There’s no mechanism at all up front save the magazine tube, which helps keep the action clear of crud and unburned powder. As a result, the Super Black Eagle will cycle rounds forever in almost any conditions.
New Super Black Eagles feature a welcome recoil reducer installed in the stock to take the bite out of heavy 31/2 loads. As befits modern tastes, the guns come with shorter barrels than the 30- and 32-inch Long Toms of yore, as well as synthetic stocks and camo finishes.
Benelli’s Nova pump is built to take more abuse than a Jerry Springer guest. The heart of the Nova is a unique one-piece polymer stock and receiver molded around a steel “cage” that stiffens the action. Elements bounce off the Nova’s stock and receiver. All you have to do is wipe down the barrel and magazine tube; if you clean the rest of the exterior with anything, it’s probably Armor All.
The rotary bolt design makes this one of the fastest, slickest-shucking pump guns around despite the extra-long stroke required by its 31/2-inch action. A long forearm accommodates those of us who like to place our forward hand back near the receiver.
The Nova’s butt pad twists off without tools, allowing shooters to drop in a recoil reducer if they insist on feeding the Nova a steady diet of 31/2-inch magnums.
Truly a gun for the 21st-century waterfowler, the Nova combines all the features waterfowlers want with durability and a price so low — under $400 — you don’t mind leaving it in the bottom of the boat.