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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what’s beautiful in the duck marsh or goose pit is the waterfowl shotgun that works, no matter how harsh the conditions. Picking the 15 best of anything isn’t easy, and with the best duck and goose 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 3½-inch semi-autos of today.
10 Traits of the Perfect Waterfowl Gun
The best 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 shotguns at ducks and geese. The gun in the photo above 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. Let’s go through them, one at a time.
A 3-inch 12-gauge shotgun covers everything from teal to swans with the right ammunition. I shoot No. 2s and BBs in steel and HeviMetal in my 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 3½ 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 10½-pound 10-gauge if I want to throw more than a 3-inch 12′s shot downrange, but that’s me. Tens pattern better, but they aren’t nearly as versatile as 3½-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.
Semi autos are by far the most popular action type these days. 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. My 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 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).
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 it.
4. Barrel Length
Like so many duck guns, mine 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.
Yes, my gun has 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 4½ pounds is a good weight. Cold duck blinds are no place for light triggers.
Everyone seems to want lightweight waterfowl guns, except me. Shooting 3½-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 weighs somewhere close to 8 pounds with a sling, which is how I like it.
7. Sling Swivels Studs
It goes without saying that any duck gun should have sling swivel studs so you can have your hands free for 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.
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.
10. Stock and Finish
A waterfowl 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 the best duck and goose 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 waterfowl shotgun 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
No matter how much waterfowl hunting changes, the best duck and goose guns have more or less the same traits. That’s because they all have the same one job to do, and that is to deliver their heavy payload on target no matter how cold and wet the weather, nor how muddy the hide. The waterfowl guns on this list may not all look the same, but they have proven their worth over countless sunrises, and they will not fail you. They are not listed in any particular order here, because every last one of them is a winner. —P.B.
1. Remington 870
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 as one of the best duck and goose guns 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 were made in Ilion, New York starting in 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.
2. Winchester Model 12
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, 2¾-inch guns, the Heavy Duck model, with its solid rib, 3-inch chamber, and steel magazine plug for extra weight, was the ultimate in waterfowl weaponry until the 3½-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.
3. Browning BPS
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.
4. Browning A-5
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 gun of the same name (but a much different design) debuted in 2011, and is still in the Browning product catalog. —W.B.
5. Winchester Super X2
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 3½-inch capabilities. It was the first really good 3½-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.
6. Ithaca Mag 10
Ithaca’s Mag 10 tamed the 2¼-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) 3½-inch 12s. —P.B.
7. Benelli Super Black Eagle
The first semi-automatic designed for 3½-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 2¾-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.
8. Beretta A400
The problem with 3½-inch 12-gauge shells is that they administer a beating on par with elephant rifles, particularly out of pump-action and inertia-driven semi-automatic shotguns. The 3½-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 2¾-inch loads. —W.B.
9. Remington 11-87
In 1963 Remington [undo link] changed shotgunning forever when it introduced the first reliable gas-operated semi-auto shotgun. 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 2¾-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 and 11/87 to be the softest shooting semi-autos of all. —P.B.
10. Beretta 302-303
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.
11. Super Fox HE Grade
I’m reluctant to include a two-shot antique in a rundown of “the best” duck and goose 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 9½-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.
12. Ithaca NID 10-gauge
When Winchester decided to load a new, 3½-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.
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13. Mossberg 835
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 2×4, 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 3½-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.
14. Remington VersaMax
Having hit home runs with the 1100 and the 11-87, Remington struck out with the 3½-inch 11-87 Super Magnum and as a result trailed badly in the 3½-inch magnum race for many years. With the Versa Max in 2010, Remington caught up. Their version of the 3½, 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.
15. Winchester Model 87
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.