Waterfowl hunters love a lively discussion. You know — wooden blocks versus plastic fakes, or Labs versus Chessies or Goldens.
Of course, guns offer another hot topic. Ever since 1898, when the Browning Auto-5 became the first mass-produced semi-automatic shotgun, hunters have debated and even bickered about which type of action was best for waterfowl. They’re all great, of course, and modern technology has made them even more efficient. I could write something trite like, “Each action has advantages and drawbacks,” but really, your choice boils down to personal preference.
Still, in the spirit of a good discussion, here are some thoughts on each.
Side-by-sides are probably the quintessential waterfowl gun. Graceful, elegant and deadly in the hands of a good shot, they’re a gentleman’s weapon. And hey, you never heard about anyone naming a pump-gun, did you (think Bo-Whoop, of Nash Buckingham fame)?
Similarly, well-made over-and-unders are extremely balanced, sweet-swinging duck and goose guns. Better, they transition seamlessly to the upland fields after the morning waterfowl shoot is finished.
I probably shoot over-and-unders better than other shotguns, but I don’t hunt waterfowl with them much anymore. Almost 25 years ago, I took my then-new Browning Citori Lightning to the duck marsh during a wet, misty day. I only fired three shells through the gun, but a post-hunt cleaning session revealed rust and pitting in the top barrel. Since then, I’ve only used it during bluebird-day duck outings. I also don’t use my side-by-side much in the marsh, as I just don’t want to subject it to the abuse most waterfowl guns take.
A walk through Joe Wanenmacher’s legendary Tulsa Arms Show about 10 years ago sparked an interesting thought. A seller from Utah had a Browning Side-by-Side in full Realtree camouflage. “Wow,” I thought. “The grace and feel of a double-barrel with a rust-proof camo finish.”
I almost bought the gun but held off. Later, a friend stuck his nose up at the idea. “You do not camouflage a BSS,” he said, rolling his eyes.
Most marketing literature describes pump-action shotguns as “rugged” or a gun for the working man. To me, it’s much simpler. They perform well, do not jam (assuming the shooter does his part) and take everything a cold, rainy day afield can dish out — typically at an appealing price point. Add a baked-on camo finish, and you have a gun that will shoot all season with little maintenance … and double as a canoe paddle, if needed.
My first duck gun was a pump: a Remington 870 I purchased in 1985 for $332 (that includes a gun case and two boxes of steel shot). I still have it, and it shoots better today than ever.
But here’s my thing with pumps: You have to pump them. For most people, that’s not a problem. And when I’m in pump mode, it’s not an issue. It’s just that I typically shoot better when I can stare down a target and worry about nothing but my swing and follow-through — not chambering the next round.
Pay no attention to my finicky nature, though. I’d absolutely recommend any quality pump-gun for duck hunting.
You’ve probably guessed that this is my action of choice. Yes, some folks view autos as slob guns or meat guns. That’s fine. Autos work. To me, a well-balanced, smooth-swinging auto with a durable camo finish is the ultimate waterfowl piece.
Of course, the semi-automatic action — as with any machine — will fail from time to time. That is, an auto might jam and not cycle your shells. Modern inertia-driven semi-autos have almost eliminated this problem. Further, gas-operated autos — my choice — function almost flawlessly if you put forth even minimal effort to keep them clean. At worst, that means a half-hour cleaning session every few days.
Oh, and my favorite aspect of semi-autos? You can’t triple on bluebills with a double-barrel.
Stirring the Pot
You’re probably nodding your head in agreement or shaking it violently while questioning my IQ. Either is cool. That’s why I love debates. So, what’s your favorite waterfowl hunting shotgun action?
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.