by Aaron Fraser Pass
If location is the key element in real estate value, comfort is the critical aspect of successfully starting a new shooter into the world of waterfowling. The comfort factor mostly falls into three categories: comfort with the gun, comfort with the recoil, and comfort in the overall situation.
This pretty much applies to any beginner, but for adult males, things are somewhat simplified. Most waterfowling guns are built to suit a grown man's dimensions. This doesn't mean that all guns are automatically perfect for any given guy who wants to give waterfowling a try, but at least they are closer to a good fit.
A recent issue of Ducks Unlimited Magazine focused on the growing number of female waterfowlers, and waterfowling dads have always tried to introduce their sons to the sport. (So maybe now they will deal with their daughters, too?) With women and youngsters, the waterfowling mentor has more of a challenge, beginning with gun fit. Most factory shotguns come with about 14 inches of stock behind the trigger. That's about right for the theoretical "average guy" standing about 5 feet, 10 inches. For taller men, or those with very long arms, adding a bit of pull is as easy as adding a thicker recoil pad.
Women and young people tend to be smaller and have less upper body strength. Both factors should be considered. Trying to shoot with a too-long stock is a real exercise in frustration. The gun is hard to mount, requires excessive and uncomfortable adjustment when it is mounted, and pretty much prohibits the development of a good shooting form. Typically, shooters with a too-long stock let the butt drift down onto the upper arm rather than mounting it solidly into the "pocket" of the shoulder. With bad form, the beginning shooter will not shoot successfully and will suffer more recoil than necessary.
Many shotgun manufacturers offer "Ladies and Youth" models. These have stocks that are about one-inch shorter than their standard models and are a good starting place. Remember, though, that cold-weather hunting means bulky coats, and that may demand an even shorter stock.
Most Ladies and Youth models are in 20-gauge. Within reasonable range, the 20-gauge can be a good waterfowl gun, particularly with some of the premium nontoxic pellets such as Bismuth, Federal Tungsten Iron, Kent Impact, and Remington Hevi-Shot. With steel pellets, the 20-gauge is more range-restricted, but with a beginner, that's not necessarily a bad thing. With a 12-gauge gun of the correct dimensions, the lighter steel loads work just fine and don't produce excessive recoil.
Most adult women remain the same size, but kids grow. Take that into account when shopping for a "starter" waterfowl gun for a youngster. It would be smart to select a model for which adult-sized stocks are also available from the manufacturer.
As mentioned, gun fit is an important aspect of the recoil issue. Gun weight also affects recoil because heavier guns absorb more of the jolt. However, this must be balanced with the fact that some female and most young shooters have less arm and shoulder strength. Light guns firing light loads are a tried-and-true solution. Also, there are several recoil-reducing devices available. Some are inserted into the stock and some go in the magazine. (Some of these replace the three-shot plug—but you should check to be sure.) The magazine devices have the added benefit of putting more weight out front, which promotes a smoother swing and better follow-through.
One of the most effective recoil-reducing measures is the development of good shooting form through lots of practice. Proper gun mounting and a good shooting stance help deal with recoil. Much recoil can be caught in the hands before it hits the shoulder. No one can teach a new shooter to do all this automatically and consistently; it has to be learned and ingrained by practice.
Practice-shooting at clay targets also adds greatly to the "comfort in the situation" part of the equation for all beginning waterfowlers, regardless of size, sex, or age. Having a degree of confidence in one's shooting ability is a great way to begin the first actual waterfowl hunt. There are enough new challenges in the real hunting experience that comfort with the gun shouldn't be one of them. Actually bagging a few birds is one heck of a good start. There's nothing like a bit of success to encourage beginners to want to go waterfowling again.
—Originally published in the September/October 2003 issue of DU Magazine