Last summer, after over 90 years, my home state of Iowa finally joined the other 40 states that allow dove hunting. As we counted down to our first opening day, I read numerous hunting-forum posts to the effect of “Can’t wait to try out that old .410 ­single-shot” or “This is the excuse to buy that little 28-gauge SXS I’ve been wanting.” Having never hunted doves before, Iowans made the obvious assumption: Doves are small, light birds, so you shoot them with small, light guns.

On opening day, while most of us were learning—and I was relearning—that dove hunting is the most fun you can have in 90-degree heat, the hunters who brought Granddad’s .410 out of retirement learned something else: Little birds and little guns don’t always go together.

If we walked for miles between shots and tried to hit flushing doves darting through heavy cover, a short, light smallbore would be the answer. But dove hunting is a delightfully sedentary activity. You carry your gun from a car to the field, then sit, sipping a cold Coke, waiting for and taking shots at passing or decoying doves, sometimes scores of them. From a shotgunning standpoint, the dove field has a lot more in common with the marsh than it does the uplands. The perfect dove gun isn’t a single-shot .410. So what is?

The Dove Special

If I were to draw up a shotgun made specifically for dove hunting, it would be a trim and soft-kicking 20-gauge gas semiautomatic. It would weigh upwards of 7 pounds, further dampening recoil and making the gun hefty enough to swing smoothly but not too heavy to keep up with a dove’s evasive maneuvers. It would have choke tubes, although you’d leave the Improved Cylinder in 99 percent of the time. It could come in either a matte finish to help you hide from doves, or a nice walnut and shiny blue steel to give it a dressy look for the traditional opening-day dove hunt and barbecue.

I once mentioned to a friend who worked for Briley Manufacturing in Houston that someone should market such a dove gun.

“They already do,” he said. “It’s called a 20-gauge Remington 1100. Some of our customers keep 10 of them in their safes to loan to guests.”

Currently, Remington offers a 20-​gauge 1100 sporting-clays gun with a 23⁄4-inch chamber ($1,211), and the nearly identical 3-inch 20-gauge 11-87 ($845 walnut; $804 synthetic). These are fine choices that will reach 30 to 35 yards with the standard 20-gauge load of 7⁄8 ounce of 8s. If you must shoot steel, they can take it, and a 3⁄4-ounce load of steel 7s reaches almost as far.

Benelli offers three guns—a 12- and a 20-gauge Cordoba ($2,099; and a 12-gauge Vinci Cordoba ($2,069)—decked out for doves. Cordobas are named after the high-volume dove capital of the world in Argentina, and rightly so; Benelli’s inertia guns and Beretta’s 390 series best withstand the abuse of high-volume dove hunting. Browning’s Gold and Silver and Winchester’s Super X3, all variations on essentially the same gun, run a close third.

Recently I had a chance to try the Vinci Cordoba, which is the newest of the three. The Vinci’s aesthetics remain an acquired taste, but I am doing my best to acquire it because I love shooting the gun. On the skeet field and sporting course, I found it to be one of those guns that are just easy to hit with. A 12-gauge available with a 28- or 30-inch barrel, it weighs 71⁄4 pounds and has the right balance and weight to be disciplined but responsive. With the interchangeable high target-style comb insert in place, you can keep the bird in view throughout the shot, a definite plus when a dove tries to juke out from under your gun barrel.

Along with the high comb insert, the Vinci Cordoba has interchangeable recoil pads to tailor length, stock shims for drop and cast, extended choke tubes and barrel ports, a target-style rib, and a bright orange bead. If those features add up to something that sounds suspiciously like a ­sporting-​clays gun, it’s no coincidence: A lively sporting semiauto or o/u crosses over to make a great dove gun, too.

Dove guns don't always need to be lightweight.
Dove guns don’t always need to be lightweight. Tosh Brown

You can probably put more birds in the bag with a dove special, but the truth is, your waterfowl gun probably comes very close to the definition of a dove gun—if it handles light loads well and has choke tubes. For those who can cycle a pump and make effective follow-ups on doves (that would not be me), old Remington Wingmasters, Winchester Model 12s, and Ithaca Model 37s have the right dynamics. And the beauty of dove hunting is that the car carries your gun, so you can bring a backup or two or three if you please. Break out Granddad’s .410 if you want. Just keep your shots short and keep a bigger gun in the trunk in case frustration sets in, because above all else, dove hunting should be fun.

Four More Dove Guns for Hunters on a Budget

Why buy a budget dove gun? So you have more money to spend on ammunition, that’s why. More shotshells are expended at mourning doves than at any other game bird, at an average of five to seven per bird bagged, so every penny you can save for ammo means more chances to put a bird in the bag. Pick the right new gun, and your shooting might improve a little, too, making these deals that much sweeter.

1. Weatherby SA-08

Weatherby SA-08
$650. Weatherby SA-08 Weatherby

Semi-automatic is my favorite action for doves. There’s no need for distracting pumping between shots with a semi-auto, and they’re never broken open at the wrong time the way O/Us can be. Weatherby’s Turkish-made gas gun is light, slender, and handles well. They are as reliable and trouble-free as an inexpensive semi-auto can be, and I have yet to talk to an SA-08 owner who has an unkind word for the gun.

It’s low-tech for certain, coming with two interchangeable pistons, one for heavy loads and one for light dove and target loads, but switching them takes just a few seconds, and the design helps keep the price down. The SA-08 is available in 12 or 20 gauge, with a choice of 26-inch or 28-inch barrels, with a black synthetic-stock set.

2. Remington 870 Express

Remington 870 Express
Remington 870 Express. Starts at $417 Remington

It’s hard to go wrong with the most popular shotgun ever made. The low-cost Express model comes in 12 or 20 gauge. I have one in 20, and it makes for a perfect dove shooter, since it’s light but still substantial enough to swing well and absorb some recoil. Remington has invested time and effort in improving the Express line recently, too. They’re changing assembly-line tools for often and paying closer attention to the metal finish, so the newer versions are smoother and function better than Expresses of a few years ago.

Being a budget gun, the Express isn’t much to look at. It has a matte-finished hardwood stock and forend, and a bead-blasted steel receiver and barrel with a dull finish that won’t spook birds. The 870 comes with only one choke tube, a Modified, and you might hit a few more birds if you swap it out for an Improved Cylinder tube. You also might consider switching the recoil pad, for the factory version is as hard as a hockey puck (although I don’t find my gun’s recoil to be painful). Remington also produces a compact Express model for smaller shooters, and if you look around, you might find a used 28-gauge or .410 Express, which aren’t currently in the lineup.

3. Stoeger P3000

Stoeger P3000
Stoeger P3000. $300 Stoeger

Last year I shot a bunch of shells through some very inexpensive pump guns for a magazine story, and of the ones I tried, the Stoeger P3000 was the one I shot best. The P3000 is a 3-inch Turkish-made 12-gauge. It has a rotary bolt, giving it a slick action, which comes in handy when you are trying to make follow-up shots on fast-departing doves. I put 500 rounds through my test gun, and the pump stroke only got slicker as the gun wore in.

The P3000 has an alloy receiver that makes it light for a 12-gauge, at about 6¾ pounds. I found it hefty enough to swing well, and with light target or dove loads, the recoil wasn’t excessive. The safety button and bolt release are on the small side, which might prove frustrating if you use the gun for cold-weather waterfowling, but it’s no problem on a 90-degree day in the dove field. The gun’s drawback is a very heavy trigger; the one on my test gun broke at about 10 pounds. That didn’t bother me, since I am insensitive and mash shotgun triggers as hard as I can, but if you’re a more refined shooter than I, you might have problems. The good news about the P3000 is the price: $300 in black synthetic with a choice of a 26-inch or 28-inch barrel.

4. CZ Drake

CZ Drake
CZ Drake. $630 CZ-USA

By and large, I don’t recommend inexpensive break-actions, for they’re often clunky, unreliable, and more trouble than they’re worth compared with a used name-brand O/U. CZ guns are the exception, and it’s little surprise that they’ve developed a reputation for being functional, reliable value shotguns. They are made by Huglu, one of Turkey’s better gunmakers, and there’s a service center in Kansas City. CZ’s new Drake is a bare-bones O/U at a price that will leave you plenty of money for shells and even a few rounds of pre-season sporting clays. As I mentioned, I prefer three-shot guns over break-actions for doves, but if I wanted an inexpensive dove O/U, I’d think hard about a Drake.

It comes in 12 or 20 gauge, and it’s stripped down to the essence: It has a plain walnut stock and forend, and black chrome barrels and metal receiver. The gun has extractors instead of ejectors, which will help you keep all your empties in a neat pile so that you can gather them at the end of the hunt, and a single-selective manual safety and a mechanical trigger. My test gun, a 20-gauge with 28-inch barrels, weighed just over 6½ pounds, with a distinctly muzzle-heavy balance, which I prefer for doves and targets. The Drake could use a better recoil pad, but that’s about the end of its shortcomings. It comes with five choke tubes and a hard case, all for the extremely reasonable price of $630.