By Phil Bourjaily
Today's duck guns are marvels of engineering. They are lighter, shorter, and much more versatile than the old lead-shot-era Long Toms our grandfathers used. Modern waterfowl guns cycle a wide assortment of shell sizes and are multipurpose enough to handle everything from clay targets to turkeys as well as ducks and geese.
The best of these high-tech firearms make us realize how far shotguns have come over the past few decades. From recoil pads to the bead at the end of the barrel, these guns keep evolving. Here, in no particular order, are several of today's most innovative waterfowl guns, as well as key developments in gun design and accessories that have made these firearms truly versatile, yet at the same time specialized to meet the needs of duck and goose hunters.
Remington Versa Max
The Versa Max is the softest-shooting semiautomatic shotgun I've ever fired. With seven gas ports in its chamber, this gun vents expanding gasses quickly from the barrel, greatly reducing recoil. The ports are staggered in such a way that the length of the cartridge determines the amount of pressure used in cycling the action. The gun thus cycles everything from 2 3/4-inch to 3 1/2-inch loads without a hitch.
The Versa Max also has a soft recoil pad and comb insert. Despite its alloy receiver, it weighs around 8 pounds, which further soaks up recoil. I don't shoot a lot of 3 1/2-inch shells, but if I did, the Versa Max would be my gun of choice. The Versa Max tamed the recoil of several boxes of hard-kicking HyperSonic Steel ammo for me on a trip to Alberta a few years ago. The stock adjusts for length, drop, cast, and comb height. This gun has interchangeable fiber-optic beads, comes with a synthetic stock, and is available in a budget Sportsman version, which is an excellent value. Remington is a proud partner of Ducks Unlimited. Remington.com
GREAT GUN INNOVATION NO. 1
The recoil-reducing properties of gas- operated actions help make today's light shotguns more comfortable to shoot. In 1956, Beretta and J.C. Higgins introduced the first gas guns, both coincidentally named "Model 60." In 1963, Remington brought out the Model 1100. That first reliable gas-operated autoloader was an instant, revolutionary success.
Browning's new A5 houses an inertia system inside a humpbacked receiver reminiscent of the original Auto-5. While it resembles the old version, the A5 is much lighter than its namesake thanks to an alloy receiver. It's much slimmer, too, and a natural pointer. The A5's stock is also straighter and more modern in dimensions than the classic "humpback" and comes with adjustable shims and spacers.
At around 6 3/4 pounds, the A5 seems like the perfect companion to pack into the marsh. It's now available in a 3 1/2-inch version engineered to be no longer or heavier than the 3-inch version. Recoil, however, is greater with 3 1/2-inch shells. Browning.com
GREAT GUN INNOVATION NO. 2
Inertia-operated shotguns don't vent gas from the action to cycle the shells. As a result, these guns stay cleaner longer and work in cold and wet conditions. Before the Benelli family founded their arms company in Urbino, Italy, in the late 1960s, they met an engineer with an idea for a new semiautomatic shotgun action. The result was the inertia action now found on Benelli, Franchi, and Stoeger semiautos, as well as on Browning's new A5.
Beretta A400 Xtreme
Beretta's A400 Xtreme combines a gas system with a hydraulic recoil reducer to become one of the softest-kicking autoloaders on the market. The A400s I have tested have worked flawlessly at the shooting range and in the field with everything from superlight 7/8-ounce reloads to 3 1/2-inch magnum turkey loads. With an action spring on the magazine tube where it's easy to reach, the A400 is simple to maintain. Like all Beretta semiautos, this one comes with shims to adjust fit. The Kick-Off recoil reducer, a hydraulic system that compresses like a shock absorber, works very well.
One of my favorite features is the magazine cap, which comes off with a half turn. While that is wonderful in itself, the cap is lined with bright lime green plastic for increased visibility in case you drop it in the field. Saltwater duck hunters take note: Beretta's Aqua rustproofing finish really works, too. Berettausa.com
GREAT GUN INNOVATION NO. 3
As guns get lighter and loads get heavier and faster, recoil increases. You can't change the laws of physics, but you can cheat them with devices that reduce felt recoil. New recoil pads made of materials like Sorbothane are much softer than the hockey puck–hard rubber pads on older guns. Stocks such as Benelli's ComforTech and Beretta's Kick-Off have soft comb inserts that reduce felt recoil even further.
Weatherby SA-08 Waterfowler 3.0
With its high-tech synthetic stock and camouflage pattern, Weatherby's SA-08 semiauto has all the external trappings of a modern duck gun. The gun's gas-operated system includes two pistons—one for heavy loads and the other for light loads—that help regulate the bolt speed in lieu of a pressure-compensated system. This gives the SA-08 the versatility to shoot almost any 12-gauge load and to serve a variety of purposes in the field.
Weatherby has sold these affordable Turkish-made shotguns for a few years now, and everybody I know who has one seems to love it. I have shot a few of them, and they are surprisingly slender guns that handle nicely. Weighing right around 6 1/2 pounds, the SA-08 feels light in hand, proving that not all inexpensive guns are clunky. Weatherby.com
GREAT GUN INNOVATION NO. 4
Some 12-gauge guns today weigh less than 20-gauges. Much of that weight reduction comes from alloy receivers, which are almost a pound lighter than comparable steel receivers. The first alloy receivers were made of aircraft-grade duralumin in the 1930s for European doubles. Remington offered the Model 31 pump with an Aeromet aircraft-grade aluminum receiver in 1941. It took another 20 years for these improved alloys to become widespread in gun manufacturing.
Winchester Super X3
Winchester's Super X3 (SX3) is a reliable low-recoil gun that comes with either a 3- or 3 1/2-inch chamber. It shares the same basic, easy-to-clean gas-operated action as Browning's Silver and Gold models.
An alloy receiver and magazine tube make the SX3 light and nimble. The gun features Browning's Inflex recoil pad and comes with shims and spacers to adjust cast, drop, and length of pull.
Having shot the SX3 sporting clays gun and the almost identical Browning Silver quite a bit, I've been very impressed with their reliability and soft recoil despite their light weight. There isn't much not to like about the SX3, and its relatively modest price tag makes it even more appealing. Winchester is a proud partner of Ducks Unlimited. Winchesterguns.com
GREAT GUN INNOVATION NO. 5
Synthetic stocks may not be as pretty as wooden stocks, but they withstand the wear and tear of waterfowling better and clean up quickly with Armor All. Mossberg introduced the first camouflage-painted synthetic-stocked shotgun in 1986. By 1991 the company was offering guns in Realtree and Mossy Oak patterns, and other manufacturers soon followed suit. Camo finishes were painted on until 1996, when Tarjac Industries brought hydrographics (the "dipping" technique in which a gun is lowered into a tank with a decal floating on the surface) to the United States from the Asian auto industry.
Benelli Super Black Eagle II
Benelli's original Super Black Eagle (SBE) was the first autoloader chambered for 3 1/2-inch shells. Famous for its reliability, the Super Black Eagle is the gun of choice for many guides who need a shotgun they can shoot every day, all season long. The inertia action stays cleaner, so the gun can work a long time between cleanings.
The SBE's one drawback is recoil. It's a light gun to begin with, and its inertia system doesn't reduce recoil as much as gas systems do, especially when you're running hard-kicking 3 1/2-inch loads through it. The redesigned SBE II addresses this issue with a ComforTech stock that has a soft recoil pad and comb as well as built-in vibration-absorbing chevrons to help manage recoil. The recoil pad simply twists off if you want to replace it with a longer or shorter one. The SBE II also comes with stock shims and features a Crio choke system that I think patterns better than the original Benelli tubes. Benelliusa.com
GREAT GUN INNOVATION NO. 6
The 3 1/2-inch Shotshell
Mossberg and Federal collaborated to create a 12-gauge shell that would have nearly the capacity of a 10-gauge cartridge plus the higher pressures. The introduction of the 3 1/2-inch shell increased the versatility of the 12-gauge gun, making it capable of handling everything from target to turkey loads. It's worth noting, too, that the Mossberg barrel was bored much larger than the nominal 12-gauge diameter to help it pattern heavy loads, a practice other manufacturers have since adopted.
Mossberg made its name by offering reliable, inexpensive pump guns like the Model 500, which could be fitted with different stocks and barrels to create a multipurpose field gun. The FLEX system goes a step further, offering interchangeable stocks, forearms, and recoil pads that can be snapped together quickly without the use of tools. A socket in the stock locks onto an extension on the receiver and latches securely in seconds. Forearms and recoil pads are also easily swapped out.
While the FLEX system is new, the Model 500 is not. It's a proven design that Mossberg has marketed since 1960. I have always found 500s to be light and pretty slick out of the box, and they have undoubtedly been used by untold numbers of waterfowlers over the past half century. Mossberg.com
GREAT GUN INNOVATION NO. 7
Before the late 1980s, if you wanted to switch from 2 3/4-inch to 3-inch loads you either changed rings inside your autoloader or swapped barrels. The Japanese-made Howa Super 12-gauge barely preceded the Remington 11-87 as the first autoloader to offer total load interchangeability. Both shotguns worked by means of a pressure compensating valve that metered out the right amount of gas to drive the bolt without pushing it too fast and damaging the gun.
Introduced in 2009, Browning's Maxus autoloader has trim lines made sleeker by the conspicuous absence of a magazine cap. The gun's forearm is held in place by a latch similar to what you find on an over/under, except this one cleverly doubles as a sling swivel stud. Underneath that forearm, the Maxus has a redesigned gas system that efficiently cycles light loads and vents gases to reduce recoil with heavy loads.
The Maxus, which also features an Inflex recoil pad that is designed to direct recoil down and away from your face, is about as soft-shooting as a gun under 7 pounds can be with 3 1/2-inch loads. I have found this gun to be easy to handle when hunting pheasants, doves, and waterfowl as well as shooting clays. As a nice bonus, the gun's plug can be removed quickly with a car key if you'd like it to hold more shells for hunting snow geese during the spring conservation order. Browning.com
GREAT GUN INNOVATION NO. 8
Choke tubes finally caught on in the 1980s. One early advertisement called them "a handful of extra barrels in your pocket." Interchangeable chokes freed us from the 26-inch improved-cylinder, 28-inch modified, 30-inch full choke-barrel options offered by most gun makers during the fixed-choke era. Now you can have any barrel length and choke combination you want on a waterfowl gun, and change it in a few seconds.
GREAT GUN INNOVATION NO. 9
Once stocked only for the mythical five-foot-ten "average man," shotguns now reflect the reality that shooters come in all shapes and sizes. Shims for drop and cast adjustments now come with many semiautomatic guns. As far as I know, the first adjustable stock shims came with Beretta 303 and Browning B-80 semiautos (actually the same gun) in the 1980s. Mossberg pioneered "dual comb" inserts in the mid-1980s, and several guns now offer interchangeable recoil pads and spacers to alter stock length as well. With a few easy adjustments, you not only can make your shotgun fit, but also change the stock configuration to turn a duck gun into a trap gun—or even a scoped deer gun.
Benelli Vinci and Super Vinci
The Benelli Vinci has a radically styled love-it-or-hate-it exterior and a three-piece modular design that comes apart in seconds for compact storage. The gun uses a variation of Benelli's proven inertia action in which the action spring is housed in the barrel-extension receiver. The gun is surprisingly soft-recoiling with any load. An enlarged loading port and big bolt release button make this an easy gun to reload when the birds won't stop coming. The Vinci's safety is in front of the trigger guard, which some hunters like, but not those with short fingers.
The Super Vinci is the 3 1/2-inch version. I have shot enough magnum loads with this gun to realize that it fits in the same category as the 3 1/2-inch A5. That is, though the gun gives you the option to shoot 3 1/2-inch shells, it's a more comfortable shooter with 3-inch ammo. Benelliusa.com
GREAT GUN INNOVATION NO. 10
For some, a glowing bead at the end of the muzzle helps put the barrel on the bill. Ithaca introduced its Raybar sight on Model 37 pumps in 1955. It was a crude and dimmer version of the fiber-optic beads that appeared in the mid-1990s as a spinoff of the optical fibers used in the telecommunications industry.