From the Ducks Unlimited magazine Archives | Updated: January 2024

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Michael Furtman


Waterfowling as we know it today was largely made possible by revolutionary advances in firearms and ammunition that occurred during the latter half of the 19th century. Before the advent of breech-loading shotguns, choke boring, and smokeless powder, hunters were relegated to using black-powder muskets, which were difficult to load and fire, especially in the cramped quarters of a boat or blind. Once reliable and effective firearms and cartridges were developed, recreational hunters flocked to the marshes and fields in pursuit of the continent's plentiful ducks and geese.

Waterfowlers are a notoriously resourceful lot, and, over the years, they have invented a wide variety of specialized equipment to make them more successful and comfortable in the field. Frequently, the pursuit of profit, as much as that of waterfowl, drove these innovations. Build a better decoy or duck call, and waterfowlers will beat a path to your door.

However, waterfowlers have achieved much more than simply becoming more efficient at bagging birds. During the early 1900s, America's growing sporting community, alarmed by dwindling waterfowl numbers, organized and pressed their elected officials to bring an end to commercial hunting and to regulate waterfowl harvests. They also formed private waterfowl conservation groups, which culminated with the founding of Ducks Unlimited in 1937. At the same time, a rich tradition of waterfowling art and literature emerged, enriching the sport beyond measure. The following is a chronological look at many of the greatest moments in the history of waterfowling.

First Duck Call (1863)

No one really knows who invented the first duck call or where and when it was invented. What may be the first evidence of its existence appeared in an 1854 Nathaniel Currier art print, in which a gentleman hunter is depicted with a primitive tongue-pincher-style call tucked in his breast pocket. In 1863, Fred Allen of Monmouth, Illinois, is believed to have fashioned the first modern-appearing duck call, consisting of a barrel, stopper, and internal reed assembly.

A few decades later, another early master, Tennessee market hunter Victor Glodo, developed a more effective design, featuring a single-piece tone-board-stopper cut to accommodate a wooden wedge block. Glodo is widely considered to be the father of the modern duck call because his design was the first to survive in its original form to the present.

Smokeless Powder (1864)

Among the greatest advancements in firearms history was the invention of smokeless powder. During the black powder era, waterfowlers were enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke as soon as they pulled the trigger, making it difficult for them to see if they hit their intended target after they fired. The first practical smokeless powder for shotguns was developed in 1864 by German artillery captain Edward Schultze. He treated finely ground wood particles with chemicals to create a nitrocellulose compound that functioned as a relatively clean, rapidly burning propellant. As smokeless powder mixtures were refined and effectively marketed to shooters, increasing numbers of waterfowlers made the switch from black powder.

During this transition period, cartridge manufacturers began printing a 'drams equivalent' on shell boxes. This informed shooters that the amount of smokeless powder in each cartridge case produced the same performance as the equivalent amount of black powder measured in drams (1 dram=3.888 grams). While this measurement is meaningless among today's waterfowlers, it was quite familiar to the old black powder shooters, who typically loaded their own cartridges.

Barrel Choke (1866)

The advent of barrel choke provided a quantum leap in the lethality of a shot charge, and, along with the development of smokeless powder, ushered in the golden age of American waterfowling. European references claim that gunsmiths on the continent were producing choked barrels as early as the 1700s. However, the first patent on a specific design was granted to William Rochester Pape of England in 1866. Surprisingly, Pape didn't pursue the idea because he believed the pattern the choke produced was too tight for shooting game.

In 1868, another Englishman, Sylvester Roper, patented the first removable choke tube as part of his design for a revolving-action shotgun. Roper's cumbersome repeater failed to attract a following, and, consequently, his ingenious choke system faded into obscurity as well.

At about the same time Roper received his patent, Illinois market hunter Fred Kimble began experimenting with choke boring in America. Kimble said he stumbled upon an effective design after filing off the end of a muzzleloader with which he had been tinkering. It was from Kimble's American contemporaries, rather than Pape or Roper, that English gun maker W.W. Greener is believed to have learned of the choke-boring concept during a visit to New York in 1873. Greener went on to develop a barrel choke design of his own, and he, more than anyone else, is credited with popularizing the concept among the sporting public.

Pump-Action Shotgun (1882)

Another technological breakthrough for shooters occurred in 1882, when Christopher Spencer (of Spencer rifle fame) patented the first successful pump-action shotgun. Spencer's Model 1885 was followed by the Winchester Model 1893, designed by John M. Browning. Four years later, Browning issued a revamped and improved design, the Winchester Model 1897, which became the forerunner of the modern pump. Although many gun writers of that era suspected that it was merely a transitional design on the march to a functional autoloader, the dependable pump has outlasted its critics and rivals the semiauto as the most popular repeater among modern waterfowlers.

Vacuum Flask (1892)

What would a morning in a duck blind be without a hot cup of coffee? In 1892, Sir James Dewar of England invented the vacuum flask, later marketed in North America as the Thermos bottle.

Duck Banding (1899)

Although the practice of placing metal leg bands on birds dates back at least to the 1500s, the first organized bird banding effort was started in 1899 by Danish schoolteacher Hans Mortensen. He placed aluminum rings, inscribed with his name and address, on the legs of European ducks, storks, starlings, and hawks. Mortensen's pioneering effort served as the model for all scientific duck banding studies conducted in North America.

Autoloading Shotgun (1900)

Following John M. Browning's successful development of a functional pump-action shotgun, it was only a matter of time before he turned his creative genius toward designing the first autoloader. He found inspiration while attending a shooting match near his home in Ogden, Utah. As he watched the competitors' muzzle blasts ripple through the grass, he recognized that the forces of recoil could be harnessed to power a shotgun action that would eject an empty shell and load a fresh cartridge into the chamber in quick succession. The result was the Browning A-5, affectionately known by admirers as the 'humpback' for its distinctive squared-off receiver.

Patented in 1900, the A-5 featured a long-recoil system that utilized the weight of the barrel, which slid back and forth inside the receiver against a stiff spring, to operate the action. Rugged and reliable, the A-5 dominated the autoloader market for more than half a century. Browning, the arms manufacturing company named after the inventor, ceased production of the A-5 in 2000 after a 96-year run. Although the A-5 is widely considered to be John Browning's crowning achievement, he patented more than 100 firearms during his lifetime, including other classics, such as the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and the 1911 Colt .45 semiautomatic pistol.

Labrador Retriever (1903)

It's hard to imagine the sport of waterfowling without the Labrador retriever. Given its popularity in North America today, many hunters might be surprised that the Lab has only been a registered breed since 1903. Labs are descended from hardy St. John's dogs used by Newfoundland fishermen to retrieve floundering codfish that thrashed off long lines as they were hauled to the surface.

During the 1800s, a few aristocratic British sportsmen received St. John's dogs brought back to England by ship captains. Over the following decades, the dogs were carefully bred among the sporting elite of England and Scotland, giving rise to the Labrador retriever we know today.

The first Lab was registered in the U.S. in 1917. The breed remained relatively unknown in America until the 1930s when they began to dominate waterfowl retriever trials. Today, there are likely more than 2 million hunting Labs in North America, far more than any other retriever breed.

Outboard Motor (1907)

Before the outboard motor, waterfowlers were limited to hunting within the distance that they could row, paddle, or sail. Machinist Ole Evinrude of Cambridge, Wisconsin, conceived a gasoline-powered engine for his small boat while rowing five miles in 90-degree summer heat. His prototype outboard motor was a 62-pound, 1-and one-half-horsepower iron engine that his wife said resembled a coffee grinder. Evinrude patented his invention, listed in the U.S. Patent Office as 'Marine Propulsion System,' in 1911. He spent the rest of his life developing and manufacturing outboard motors as president of Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC).

Arkansas-Style Duck Call (1909)

To meet the demand for a more user-friendly duck call, Phillip S. Olt of Pekin, Illinois, introduced another insert modification that gave rise to what is known as the 'Arkansas- style' duck call. Olt's design abandoned Glodo's wedge block in favor of a flat piece of cork that was inserted into a groove cut in the shoulder of the stopper. This kept the reed from sliding and losing tune, and made it possible to remove the entire insert from the barrel of the call for cleaning without the components falling apart. Olt's design remains the standard used by most duck call manufacturers today.

Camouflage (1915)

During World War I, the French army employed artists to develop uniform designs that would help conceal their forces on the battlefield. The first unit outfitted in these new uniforms was called the Camouflage Division. The word camouflage is derived from the French word camoufleur, meaning to blind or veil.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918)

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, market hunters relentlessly pursued waterfowl from early fall through late spring virtually everywhere the birds congregated in large numbers. Alarmed by the decline of waterfowl populations in the face of growing slaughter, sportsmen pressed the federal government to regulate waterfowl harvests. In 1918, the U.S. Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, based upon a treaty signed by the U.S. and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada). The legislation established the first federal bag limits for waterfowl, protected threatened species such as the wood duck, and banned market hunting, spring shooting, and the use of shotguns larger than 10 gauge. The use of live decoys, however, remained legal until 1937.

Neoprene (1931)

The next time you put on your warm and waterproof Neoprene waders and gloves, you can thank Wallace Hume Carothers. The brilliant DuPont chemist first produced this synthetic rubber material in 1931. He also helped to invent Nylon, another miracle fabric used in a wide variety of outdoor clothing and equipment.

Duck Stamp Act (1934)

With the onset of the Great Depression, federal appropriations for the conservation of wetlands slowed to a trickle. Many sportsmen of that era felt a more dependable way to raise conservation funds would be to require waterfowlers to purchase a federal waterfowl stamp. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist Jay 'Ding' Darling as chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey, forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That same year, Darling and his allies successfully pushed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act through Congress. Darling even drew the first stamp himself. It sold for one dollar.

De Shootinest Gent'man (1934)

The Derrydale Press published Nash Buckingham's first collection of hunting stories, De Shootinest Gent'man, in 1934. The title story, written in 1916, is perhaps the best-known waterfowling tale ever written. Born in 1880, Buckingham came of age during the halcyon days of American waterfowling, gunning at his father's famous duck clubs, Beaver Dam in Mississippi and Wapanocca in Arkansas. Drawing heavily from the remarkable experiences of his youth, Buckingham wrote seven books and dozens of magazine articles during his career spanning more than five decades.

A gifted athlete and deadly wingshot, Buckingham was a respected authority on a variety of shooting and hunting topics. In 1921, Western Cartridge Company president John Olin sent Buckingham an Askins-Sweeley magnum 12-gauge to field test the company's new Super-X shotshells. He liked the gun so much that he commissioned Philadelphia gun maker Bert Becker to build one for him just like it. The shotgun that Becker crafted to Nash's specifications was constructed on a Fox frame with 32-inch barrels, which were overbored to deliver a 90 percent pattern of copper-coated 4s at 40 yards. Nash's good friend Colonel Harold P. Sheldon, author of the Tranquility series of books, called the gun 'Bo-Whoop' because of its distinctive hollow report. In 1950, Becker made Buckingham a replacement after the original shotgun was tragically lost in an accident after an Arkansas duck hunt. The second Bo-Whoop is now displayed at Ducks Unlimited's national headquarters in Memphis.

Stories Of The Old Duck Hunters (1936)

One of Buckingham's most talented contemporaries was Gordon MacQuarrie, who was hired as the outdoor editor for the Milwaukee Journal in 1936. While serving in this post, MacQuarrie wrote most of the Stories of the Old Duck Hunters Association, Inc. (the Inc. standing for Incorrigible). Although MacQuarrie's yarns were written more than a half-century ago, they continue to speak as eloquently of the joys and sorrows of the average duck hunter as any works of American sporting literature.

Ducks Unlimited (1937)

While funds raised by duck stamp sales helped restore critical wetlands in the U.S., little funding was available for restoring habitat in Canada, where the majority of North America's waterfowl breed. In 1937, printing magnate and philanthropist Joseph Palmer Knapp and several other prominent American conservationists founded Ducks Unlimited to restore wetlands in Prairie Canada that had been devastated by severe drought.

Knapp and his good friend Arthur Bartley named the new organization. Apparently, Knapp wanted to call the organization simply 'Ducks.' However, Bartley informed him that since the word for corporation in Canada was 'limited,' the actual name would be 'Ducks, Limited.'

'We don't want limited ducks!' Knapp snapped.

'All right,' Bartley replied. 'Ducks Unlimited.'

Wood Duck Box (1938)

By the beginning of the 20th century, overshooting and the loss of bottomland forests had dramatically reduced wood duck populations throughout much of their range. In 1938, two young biologists, Frank Bellrose and Arthur Hawkins, were hired by the Illinois Natural History Survey to conduct waterfowl research. One of their first studies was of wood duck nesting ecology in the river bottoms near Havana, Illinois.

When Bellrose and Hawkins learned that wood ducks had nested in crude boxes made of oak slabs placed in trees on the nearby Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, they decided to test the effectiveness of these artificial nesting structures on a larger scale. Applying his knowledge of wood duck nesting behavior to the initial slab boxes, Bellrose designed the first wood duck box made of boards. Needless to say, Bellrose's design was well received by the birds. The widespread use of wood duck boxes by government agencies, conservation organizations, and individuals played a vital role in the recovery of the wood duck to its present abundance.

Hollow Molded Plastic Duck Decoys (1952)

Although wooden decoys are now cherished by collectors as classic American folk art, most waterfowlers who actually used the bulky and heavy blocks were happy to get rid of them. Countless thousands of hand-carved decoys were burned as kindling or given away when the first plastic decoys came on the market after World War II. In 1952, Victor Animal Trap Company introduced a line of hollow, molded plastic decoys, similar in design to today's factory-made decoys.

Canada Goose Flute (1954)

Just as P.S. Olt refined the design of the duck call in 1909, his company did the same for the goose call in 1954, with the invention of the first flute-style call, marketed as the A-50. Designed with the reed assembly located in the front of the air channel, flute calls utilize both forward air pressure and internal back pressure to produce a much greater range of goose sounds than traditional resonate chamber calls.

Waterfowl Breeding Population Survey (1955)

In 1955, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted its first Waterfowl Breeding Population Survey—the world's most comprehensive wildlife population survey. Each year, dozens of biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, and state and provincial wildlife agencies physically count waterfowl by air and on foot along approximately 65,000 miles of standardized survey transects from South Dakota to Alaska. The data these dedicated men and women collect have been the cornerstone of North American waterfowl management for more than 60 years.

Double-Reed Duck Call (1957)

Another major innovation in duck call design occurred in 1957, when Texans Jim Fernandez and George Yentzen patented the first double-reed duck call. Without precise air control, single reeds have a tendency to stick or 'blow down' when too much air pressure is applied to the reed. In a double-reed call, the second reed serves as a vibration suppressor, which helps prevent the call from sticking, regardless of how much air pressure is blown into the call.

King Buck Stamp (1958)

Maynard Reece painted what is perhaps the best known federal duck stamp of all time, featuring John Olin's champion black Lab, King Buck, holding a drake mallard in his jaws.

Plastic Cartridge Case (1960)

Paper cartridges, which had been used by waterfowlers for some 70 years, were rendered obsolete in 1960 when Remington Arms Company introduced the first plastic cartridge case. The new plastic shells were far more durable and waterproof, and their slick sides fed much more smoothly through autoloading actions than did their paper predecessors.

Screw-In Choke Tube (1967)

More than a century passed before Sylvester Roper's idea for removable choke tubes was reintroduced by Winchester in the form of its WinChoke system. First offered in the Model 1200 pump and Model 1400 autoloader, the WinChoke system remains in production.

All-Terrain Vehicle (1970)

Not since the outboard motor has anything increased the mobility of waterfowlers as much as the introduction of the all-terrain vehicle (ATV). In 1970, Honda developed the first ATV, the seven- horsepower US 90. In 1982, Suzuki introduced the first four-wheeled ATV design, later adopted by all manufacturers for safety reasons.

Gore-Tex (1976)

Bob Gore revolutionized the outdoor clothing industry with his invention of the first waterproof, breathable fabric, Gore-Tex. When camo parkas made of the new wonder fabric hit the stores a few years later, many waterfowlers hung up their old canvas hunting coats forever.

Polartec Fleece (1981)

Anyone who hunted waterfowl before the invention of Polartec Fleece likely did a lot more shivering in the duck blind. Developed in 1981 by the Malden Mills Company, this soft, lightweight polyester fiber packs twice the insulation properties of merino wool and four times that of cotton. And, unlike goose down, fleece continues to hold warmth when it's wet, and dries quickly to vent perspiration.

3 1/2-inch 12 Gauge (1988)

Responding to the need for waterfowl loads with the capacity to hold more and larger steel pellets, O.F. Mossberg and Sons unveiled the first shotgun chambered to fire 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge cartridges, the Ulti-Mag 835. Federal Cartridge Company followed suit the following year by offering the first 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge ammunition.

Youth Waterfowl Hunting Day (1996)

To help recruit more youngsters into the ranks of waterfowlers, the USFWS allowed states in 1996 to begin holding special Youth Waterfowl Hunting Days outside the regular waterfowl season.

Alternative Nontoxic Shot (1997)

Following the nationwide ban on lead shot for waterfowling in 1991, the race was on to development a ballistically superior nontoxic alternative to steel shot. Waterfowlers got their wish in 1997, when the USFWS granted formal approval to the use of Bismuth shot for waterfowling. Several other types of nontoxic shot have followed, including Federal's Tungsten-Iron and Tungsten-Polymer; Kent Cartridge Company's Tungsten-Matrix; and Remington's Hevi-Shot.

DU Conserves 10 Million Acres And Counting (2002)

This past year, Ducks Unlimited celebrated its greatest milestone to date: the conservation of 10 million acres of waterfowl habitat in North America. This remarkable achievement would not have been possible without the generous support, hard work, and dedication of several million waterfowlers throughout DU's 66-year history. Their conservation leadership is one of waterfowling's grandest traditions.

Editor's note: Since this article was published, Ducks Unlimited has nearly doubled the number of acres it has conserved, which currently exceeds 18 million acres across North America.