Autoloading Waterfowl Shotguns
It has been a long time since those 1963 days on the Iroquois River, duck-hunting with my Dad and grandfather. Back then, if you had a Browning Auto-Five and a pocket full of 1-1/4 ounce shells with #5 lead shot, you were living large.
Years later, down in Argentina, it was good to get back to #5 lead shot and an A-5, with a B-80 thrown in for good measure. Although my Great-Grandfather's favorite gun was an old Ithaca Side by Side, as he told me time and again, it was a Remington Model 11 that got most of the work done.
For some high volume snow goose hunting in Canada, Dad was forced to forego his A-5 in favor of a Browning Gold that never fit him particularly well, while I was still shooting a B-80 and a Beretta 390. For out of the country hunts, I have subscribed to the Bruce Buck school of gas-operated autoloaders: they are like sheep and when they are alone, they don't like it.
Steel is more or less a fact of life, unless you are willing to spend more for Bismuth loads. Higher recoil, higher velocity steel #2 loads still fail miserably compared to lead #5 shot, there is no doubt about it. The extra muzzle velocity helps, but only marginally.
My idea of a good waterfowl gun is not much different from a good pheasant gun. At one time, like the departed 1-1/4 ounce lead, high brass "Duck and Pheasant" shells, they were one and the same instrument. You still want a reliable shotgun that fits you and is easy to shoulder and swing.
Sure, all 12 gauge guns shoot the same shells, more or less, but gas operated autoloaders kick less. This gives them an advantage when shooting the powerful shells typically used for hunting waterfowl.
I have a vibrant disdain for 3-1/2 inch chambered guns, an opinion that is not universally held, particularly by the guy who shoots a 3-1/2 inch chambered gun only because four inch chambered guns aren't out yet. Budget minded hunters won't like the cost, but Kent Tungsten-Matrix #3 shot, three inch shells make steel 3-1/2 loads look miserable by comparison.
Unfortunately, when a new shotgun is developed the receiver size is decided on the basis of unfolded shell length. A gun with a receiver designed for 3-1/2 inch shells is excessively long and also weaker, due to its lengthened ejection port and long shell elevator. It is poorly balanced, as the breechblock is at the front of the receiver.
The gun gets even more muzzle heavy when loaded with 3-1/2 inch shells, as the payload is at the front of the shell and the shells are in front of the receiver. (The same applies to three inch chambered repeaters when compared to repeaters chambered for 2-3/4 inch shells, and to all repeaters compared to double-barreled guns. -Editor)
Inertia guns, which have excessively long receivers in the first place, just get worse with 3-1/2 inch receivers. To add further insult, 3-1/2 inch guns often do not handle one ounce target loads well and you pay a premium for the 3-1/2 inch chamber and 3-1/2 inch shells. Short shells in long chambers means excessive free-bore and this means inconsistent results when shooting 2-3/4 and three inch shells in overly long chambers.
To cap it all, some 3-1/2 inch chambered autos are one-shot wonders when used with 3-1/2 inch shells. Most folks who buy 3-1/2 inch chambered guns don't even use 3-1/2 inch shells. When they do, for the first time, and have stove-pipes and failures to feed it can be miserably frustrating. Low-density steel is still low-density steel, so you gain little in effective range.
Depending on your price range and personal preferences, there are many currently produced shotguns that are competent duck-downers. Latitude must be allowed for personal preference, as most shooters agree on few things and this includes shotguns. The most popular shotguns in the United States are not autoloaders, but pumps, while double-barreled guns tend to be preferred by the connoisseurs who can afford them.
Prices vary, for a Benelli Super Vinci camo goes for about $1700, as does the Super Black Eagle II, while the Beretta A400 Xtreme Camo retails for a mind-numbing $1900. A Browning Maxus camo costs about $1500 and the new A5 $1300. The new Fabarm XLR5 Waterfowler sells for about $1500. (Spending over $1000 for a plastic-stocked repeater certainly boggles my mind. -Editor) Winchester SX3 three inch camo guns go for right at $950.
On the economy side, the Weatherby Element (inertia) and the Weatherby SA-08 (gas), both retailing for something like $650, are as good as it gets in a Turkish-made (ATA) gun backed by a reputable U.S. company. The Remington V3 is one of the most impressive new releases for 2016, selling in basic black for about $650 and in camo for about $100 more. The Mossberg 930 is always a solid choice, starting at $500 or so, with the upgraded Duck Commander Pro Waterfowl version running about $690.
In the warranty department, all Remington guns now come with a lifetime warranty. Benelli has a ten year warranty, Franchi has a seven year warranty and Fabarm USA has a five year warranty. Mossberg has a ten year warranty on their pump actions and two years on their autoloaders. Beretta has a one year warranty.
Weatherby, Winchester and Browning do not have written warranties, but stand behind their products. There are exceptions, as the inertia Browning A5 has a five year/100,000 round guarantee.
WHAT YOU WANT
You might want a safety in the trigger guard, but trigger guards come in different sizes. The ease of reach is more important than where the safety is in relationship to the guard. It is the relationship between your forefinger and the cross-bolt safety that matters. For others, a thumb operated tang safety is faster and more intuitive than any trigger guard mounted safety.
How well a shotgun shoulders is important, but not how it shoulders in a gun shop, as much how it shoulders when wearing hunting gear. Weight and balance are important, but not unloaded weight and balance. Unlike a double-barreled shotgun, a repeater's weight and balance change significantly when loaded and also as shells are fired.
How smoothly a gun loads and unloads is also important. Not just how well the controls seem to function in a gun shop, but how well they function with gloves on. The closer to actual field conditions, the better.
Many left handed shooters have shot right hand eject autoloaders for so long that left handed shotguns feel funny. If you are interested in a lefty autoloader, Benelli offers them, Remington has a left hand Versa Max and Fabarm USA offers the XLR5 Waterfowler and L4S Initial Hunter in left hand versions. Beretta A400 models are also showing up in left hand configuration.
Having tested multiple examples of almost every autoloader available in the United States, in past years the Winchester SX2, Browning Gold/Silver and Maxus models were the softest shooters. Right now, the Remington Versa Max wins, in part due to its substantial weight, but the Remington V3 also edges out the Browning gas gun line in the seven pound weight class. The Mossberg 930 DC weighs 7.875 pounds empty; it is a soft shooter as a result. Actually, most gas operated guns are comfortable to shoot, especially if you avoid magnum shells.
WATERFOWL SHOTGUNS TODAY
I started testing the first Remington V3 over 1-1/2 years ago and at present I have three examples on hand. The Remington V3 is, in my opinion, the best all-around duck gun for the dollar today. It is a bit softer shooting than even the Maxus. It has a better trigger and better factory choke tubes than most autoloaders on the market, and the Full choke tube is rated for steel shot use. The trigger face is generously wide and the safety button at the back of the trigger guard is nice and large; it is effortless to release. With three inch shells, four of the eight gas ports are automatically blocked by the unfolded length of the shell, making the V3 an exceptionally smooth functioning gun with the most popular waterfowl loads in use today.
The new Fabarm XLR5 Waterfowler is also worth mentioning, due to its exceptional machining and build quality, along with generously chrome plated internals. Unlike the XLR5 target guns, it has a three inch chamber. It borrows the "Long Rib" from the XLR5 LR target model; the wide and elevated rib makes for a comfortable, more head up shooting position. It is almost perfect.
Despite its poor Browning autoloader trigger and low-quality Invector Plus choke tubes, the Winchester SX3 is a solid autoloader, now that Browning seems to have its Activ valve (broken spring) issues more or less sorted out. It takes a back seat to the Remington V3, which is less costly, but gun fit is an intensely personal choice, so the SX3 rates a look if you are in the market for a new waterfowl shotgun.
Copyright 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.