The latest flock of fowling guns
by Phil Bourjaily
In the teens, with a sharp north wind strong enough to drift snow and keep the pond partly open, it was a perfect day to close out duck season . . . but maybe not such a great day to be a shotgun. It’s not that my other guns don’t work—they do—but I didn’t want to slog all the way back to the pond and be left with a single-shot. So I had picked the Browning Wicked Wing A5 as the most weatherproof, bulletproof, reliable shotgun in the cabinet and brought it along. The gun repaid my confidence with enough ducks and geese that I had to make a separate hike out with all the birds several hours later.
The A5 is typical of the latest crop of waterfowl shotguns: finished in camo and Cerakote, with extra features designed to make them more user-friendly when weather turns hostile. They share some or all of the following features.
Synthetic stocks: Boats and blinds have metal edges that chew up walnut. For those situations—or for days like the one I dropped my Benelli Nova on riprap—we have synthetic stocks. Yes, they are ugly, but unlike walnut they don’t get any uglier after you’ve beaten them up.
Camo or Cerakote finishes: Cerakote, a spray-on ceramic coating for metal, is scratch- and corrosion-resistant. Camo-dip finishes do a good job of protecting metal from the elements too.
Extended choke tubes: Extended tubes place all the stress of steel shot outside the muzzle for added insurance against steel-shot damage—plus, all other things being equal, longer tubes usually pattern better than shorter ones.
Fiber-optic beads: Bright beads show up in the half-light of early morning and late afternoon, when there’s often a flurry of birds. Some hunters love bright beads; some hate them. If you can use the fiber-optic to keep track of the gun in your peripheral vision, then it’s working. If it draws your eye off-target, unscrew it and throw it away.
Enlarged safety buttons: Numb fingers need all the help they can get to find and disengage the safety, and it’s nice when the safety button presents a big target.
Enlarged bolt closers: Bolt-release buttons aren’t easy to work with cold or gloved hands, so more and more waterfowl guns have enlarged, target-gun-style bolt-release buttons. Personally, I think enlarged bolt closers are essential on target guns and annoying on hunting guns; but when I said that in print, readers rose up to tell me I was wrong, so evidently a lot of people like them.
Enlarged bolt handles: Per “enlarged bolt closers” (above), readers excoriated me for disliking them (they are mostly good for dinging the gun next to them in the cabinet, in my opinion), insisting they are easier to pull back in harsh weather. I can’t disagree that they are. This could be another of those times when I am wrong and everyone else is right. It happens.
Enlarged loading ports: Three-gun competitors had their loading ports milled larger to facilitate fast reloads. Now a lot of guns come with enlarged ports from the factory.
Tuned triggers: Some shotgunners demand light, clean trigger pulls. Some don’t. Personally, I’m in the “don’t” category on the best days; and when my fingers get cold, trigger pulls matter even less. But that’s me.
Barrel length: Twenty-eight inches has become more or less the standard barrel length on pumps and semi-autos for waterfowl, at least in 12 gauge. A few more companies offer 30-inch barrels now, which is a most welcome change. Some 20-gauge guns offer the option of 26- or 28-inch barrels, some don’t. Personally, I think longer barrels are just as important—maybe more important—as gauges get smaller.
Light weight: I give up. Everyone but me seems to like light waterfowl guns, and the market responds to what people want. I like a 7½- to 8-pound gun that is steady to swing, sure to point and offers a little heft to absorb recoil, but such guns are harder to find every year. Whether it’s because hunters are getting older and don’t want to handle so much weight or because they want one gun for upland and waterfowling alike, I don’t know; but light weight seems to be a duck-gun selling point. So be it.
Recoil-reducing technology: From soft pads to in-stock recoil-spring systems, anything that cuts the kick of heavy loads is appreciated, especially as waterfowl guns grow lighter.
Three-and-a-half-inch chambers: A lot of hunters want the option of shooting 3½" shells whether they ever actually use them or not, so 3½" chambers are a strong selling point in waterfowl guns. Those of us who prefer 3" guns, which often cycle better with light loads for off-season practice, will find plenty of good choices in duck guns as well.
Here is a roundup of the latest waterfowl shotguns. Most of these are new for 2019, although in a couple of cases I picked the latest noteworthy guns from manufacturers who didn’t have any new offerings.
The price is so low that you almost can’t afford not to try one.
Benelli Performance Shop M2 Waterfowl Edition
In recognition of a trend to small-gauge guns, Benelli introduced a Performance Shop version of its 20-gauge M2 autoloader. A mainstay as a house gun at Cordoba dove lodges, the M2 has a reputation for reliability, making it a perfect platform for custom waterfowl treatment. It comes in camo/Cerakote with Rob Roberts choke tubes, an enlarged bolt handle and closer, and a tuned trigger. Like all M2s, it has Benelli’s vibration-dampening ComforTech stock to reduce recoil. Price: $2,799.
Beretta A300 Outlander Limited Edition
One of the best values in a gas semi-auto, the A300 is the gun I recommend to people buying their first shotgun. It’s basically the 391 with a couple of changes, including a piston that’s less of a chore to clean than the original. It’s also made in the US at an unbeatable price. At about 7½ pounds, it is a fairly light gun in 3" 12 gauge, and this year it comes in three limited-edition finishes: Mossy Oak Shadow Grass Blades, True Timber DRT and a black Mallard version with a green receiver. Price: $900.
Inertia guns tend to be light, and CZ’s new 1012 is a slip of a 12-gauge at 6½ pounds. Although the 1012 is new and hasn’t yet compiled a track record in the field, CZ reports that several early 1012s were put to the demanding test of 5,000 rounds without cleaning or oiling and that they survived with neither breakage nor malfunction. The gun comes with five extended chokes for its 28-inch barrel and offers a choice of finishes: walnut, camo or synthetic with a choice of receiver colors. And the price is so low that you almost can’t afford not to try one. Price: starting at $659.
Fabarm XLR5 Composite Hunter
The Fabarm XLR5 comes in a black-synthetic model this year, which both dresses it down for the duck blind and knocks a little off the price as well. Underneath its basic black forend you’ll find a gas system polished to blinding brightness; and there must be a reason for all that polish, because the XLR5s I’ve shot have cycled everything I’ve fed them down to my lightest and sketchiest reloads. With a 28-inch barrel, this is a light (6 pounds 14 ounces), soft-shooting 3" 12-gauge with an easy-grip soft-touch finish and a padded cheekpiece to further reduce recoil. Price: $1,695.
Being a light inertia gun, it will let you know when it goes off.
Best known for over/unders and side-by-sides, Fausti also offers a 3" gas semi-auto, the Progress, in 12 and 20 gauge. The alloy-frame gun weighs around 7 pounds in 12 gauge and less than 6½ in 20, and both the 12 and 20 come with 26-, 28- or 30-inch barrels. The gas action features a rotary bolt and an action spring on the magazine tube—not out of sight and out of mind inside the stock. The basic model has enhanced-grain walnut and a black anodized receiver decorated with ducks. For a couple hundred dollars more, you can move up to the LX, which has a silver receiver, scroll engraving and gold ducks on both sides. Price: starting at $1,389.
Franchi Affinity Elite
Franchi’s Affinity seems to hit a price-point sweet spot for a lot of hunters, and it has become very popular. The Elite series takes that basic inertia gun and gives it all the waterfowling extras: Cerakote, camo, big bolt handle and closer, and extended choke tubes. Being a light inertia gun, it will let you know when it goes off, so Franchi puts its soft TSA recoil pad on the buttstock. Elite-series guns come in Optifade Waterfowl Timber and Waterfowl Marsh and in 3" and 3½" 12 and 3" 20, so there is something for everyone. Price: $1,249 in 20 gauge and 3" 12; $1,419 in 3½" 12.
Legacy Sports pointer Phenoma
Legacy Sports’ new Phenoma comes in 12, 20, 28 and .410 in finishes from walnut to black synthetic, camo and camo/cerakote. A gas gun, the Phenoma uses two interchangeable pistons to help it cycle light and heavy loads. It also features a magazine cut-off. All four gauges come with 28-inch barrels with fiber-optic beads and dovetail accessory rails for mounting optics for turkeys. Also included are spacers for drop, cast and length of pull as well as five choke tubes. Those are a lot of features for a gun that starts at $529.
Remington V3 Waterfowl Pro
The V3 may not be much to look at, but the gun is full to the brim with inner beauty. Mine shoots everything, every time, even in cold that turns other semi-autos to single-shots. The V3 is light, points well, is easy to clean and runs a long, long time between cleanings. The Waterfowl Pro version dresses up the basic V3 in a couple of variations of camo and Cerakote. The loading port has been enlarged for easier access, and extras include an oversized safety, bolt release and bolt handle; stock shims and extended choke tubes. Price: $1,195.
Stoeger 3500 Waterfowl
Stoeger’s line of budget-priced inertia semi-autos now includes a 3½" waterfowl special gussied up with Cerakote and camo trappings, extended tubes, enlarged controls and even a paracord sling. And I have to say: The 3500 cleans up nice. At almost eight pounds with its 28-inch barrel, the 3500 is heavy for an inertia gun; but that’s more than OK, since more weight means less recoil. Price: $849.
TriStar Viper G2 Camo
TriStar is another Turkish maker that is earning the trust of hunters for producing a good gun for the money. The Viper G2 Camo is a 3" gas gun available in 12, 20, and .410. The 12 comes in every even barrel length from 24 to 30 inches, and there’s even a left-handed 12 available. All three gauges are light and feature a soft-touch-type finish on the stock. Price: starting at $655.
This gun will compete with other Italian inertia guns at higher price points.
Syren XLR5 Waterfowler
The XLR5 Waterfowler is the same good gun as the Fabarm XLR5 synthetic but with a camo finish and a stock designed to fit women. The 12-gauge Waterfowler has a shortened length of pull, a Monte Carlo stock, toe out and a tighter grip to fit smaller hands. It has a 28-inch barrel, weighs 7 pounds 1 ounce, and comes in both right- and left-handed versions. Price: $1,885 for right-handed, $2,075 for left.
The latest iteration of the Super X line, which began with the SX2, the SX4 now comes in 20 gauge. The smallbore version should be a perfect gun for doves and teal, and it will work on decoying big ducks too. Lower in price yet full of extras, the SX4 has the big safety, bolt release and handle as well as a stock that adjusts for length of pull. The SX4 comes with 24-, 26- or 28-inch barrels in black, Mossy Oak Shadow Grass Blades or Bottomlands, and Realtree Timber or Max-5. Price: starting at $940.
Weatherby 18i Waterfowler
Weatherby has a new inertia gun this year: the Italian-made 18i. The budget-priced, Turkish-made Element remains in the lineup, while this gun will compete with other Italian inertia guns at higher price points. The 18i Waterfowler comes in Mossy Oak Shadow Grass Blades and Realtree Max-5. Whichever you choose, the 18i offers another option in a 3½" 12-gauge. The gun features both a recoil pad and comb insert, to cut the kick of 3½" shells. It comes with five choke tubes and a fiber-optic bead. Price: $1,199.