Tweaking a gun for fowl weather
by Phil Bourjaily
The first time I heard the term “polar vortex” was when I went hunting in one. That day the high was 4 below with a 25-mph north wind that whipped snow off the fields. Three of us set a few dozen shells and full-bodies, and then retired to the warm truck cab and waited for birds to fly. The ducks came first (duck season was long since closed), and we took that as a signal that geese were on the way and hustled out to our blinds.
The blowing snow stung any exposed skin and found its way into my shotgun too. The gun melted, then froze, and it was a constant struggle to keep the semi-auto shooting. That morning it failed almost every way a gun can fail. It wouldn’t cycle. The magazine spring froze. The gun misfired. Somehow it shot well enough for me to scratch down a couple of geese before I noticed my hand had turned white and waxy. I warmed it under my arm, coaxed one last shot out of the gun to kill my limit bird, and then I ran for the heated truck. My frostbitten fingers throbbed as they regained feeling.
I still have all 10 fingers, but I don’t have the gun anymore. My made-over pump took its place as my indestructible, all-weather waterfowl gun. A used Remington 870 Express Super Magnum made a perfect starting point. The previous owner had switched out the stock to a Butler Creek synthetic, which saved me the pain I feel in replacing any wood—even Express-grade hardwood—with plastic.
At the range, I discovered that, like many Expresses of a certain vintage (mine is a 2004), mine had a rough chamber that occasionally grabbed hold of a spent shell and refused to let go. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you can watch a couple of YouTube videos and use an electric drill, sandpaper or steel wool to polish the chamber yourself. I took my gun back to the store, where the gunsmith said he was tired of fooling with 870 Express chambers and would send it to Remington instead.
The gun came back slick and smooth, and I boxed it up again and sent it to Rob Roberts Custom Gun Works. Roberts lengthened the forcing cone and fit the gun with his T2 and T3 choke tubes to replace the factory Rem Chokes. Forcing-cone work is said to reduce recoil and improve patterns. Honestly, having had forcing cones lengthened, I can’t tell a difference in recoil, although some people can. I chalk it up to: a) my general insensitivity and b) the genuinely subjective and variable response to felt recoil among shooters.
Likewise, forcing-cone work yields mixed improvements to patterns with hard shot. Some people see zero improvement; others claim up to 10 percent. It does make sense that anything that eases the transition of shot—even non-deforming hard shot—into the barrel will improve pattern efficiency.
The biggest advantage of aftermarket chokes is that they allow you to pick constrictions that may not be available in the original chokes. Moreover, you can be confident that you’re getting the constrictions you ask for, which is not always the case with factory chokes. By and large, extended chokes, which can have longer, more gradual tapers and shot-charge-stabilizing parallel sections, pattern more efficiently than shorter tubes. Be aware, though, that aftermarket chokes will not, contrary to manufacturers’ claims, reduce recoil, shorten shotstrings dramatically or reduce muzzle jump much, as far as I can tell.
Roberts sent my gun back with his T2 and T3 extended chokes, which are roughly Light Modified and Improved Modified. I have used the T2 in this gun and others quite a bit and find it’s a good constriction for over-decoy shooting and the occasional 40-yard shot. The T3 is great for longer-range shooting with most shot sizes.
The standard chokes that came with the gun printed standard patterns: perfectly adequate but unexciting 55- and 65-percent clusters at 40 yards. When Roberts returned the gun, he included printouts of the computerized pattern analyses he performed with the new chokes and Federal Blue Box No. 2s. The T2 shoots near 90 percent at 35 yards; the T3 does around 90 percent at 45.
Roberts also had dipped the synthetic stock and forend in Mossy Oak Bottomland camo, while the metal parts had received a tan Cerakote treatment. A mix of ceramic and polymer that is painted on and then baked, Cerakote is tough and resists both abrasion and rust. If you ever have breathed on the bead-blasted metal of an 870 Express and watched it turn orange before your eyes (only a slight exaggeration), you know it’s a gun that needs the protection of Cerakote or at least camo dipping.
Once the gun came back, I scoured the Internet for every conceivable extra that would make it more reliable and functional. As the 870 is a very popular gun and has been around forever, I found a lot. I added the following.
A sling is essential on any duck gun. I like the rubber Quake Claw Sling for use in wet environments, while I prefer the extra give of neoprene for turkey guns. If your gun needs a swivel stud added to the buttstock, Brownell’s sells a jig for a couple hundred dollars that lets you drill perfectly centered holes in gunstocks. Otherwise, take it to a gunsmith. (Confession: I have messed up a swivel-stud hole or two and, for me at least, it’s not worth the $40 I save doing it myself.)
The first step in a gun going bang is taking off the safety. Numb, wet fingers make even simple feats of dexterity tough, and an enlarged safety button is easier to find and press even when you can’t completely feel it. There are quite a few jumbo safeties on the market, especially for guns popular with the tactical crowd. For most guns they are an easy drop-in part. My 870 safety came from Wilson Combat.
Personally, I’m not picky about beads, and my advice is: Use whichever one you won’t look at. Beads are there to let you keep track of the gun in your secondary vision. Bright, fiber-optic beads help some people and distract others. I went with a white front Bradley-style bead and had a middle bead added so I could use the 870 as a backup turkey gun by lining up the beads and aiming it.
Fixed-breech duck guns kick. I had a Pachmayr Decelerator added in case I ever was tempted to shoot 3½” shells or take the cold-weather gun on a warm early season hunt where I wasn’t bundled up. Try to find a pre-fit pad. If you can’t, switching pads on hollow synthetic stocks can be a more complicated job than you would think. Holes in pads don’t always match up to the pre-drilled holes in the stock. Adding a grind-to-fit pad to a synthetic stock can require jury-rigging a kind of bridge that goes inside the stock and is drilled to fit the pad.
I put the excellent Timney trigger fix in my gun. It’s a kit consisting of a sear and three springs that let you choose among two-, three- or four-pound pulls. Anything less than four pounds tends to go off before I want it to when my hands get cold, but four pounds is about perfect.
The MIM metal extractors of 870s can break or dull over time, leading to extraction failures and problems, although it has never happened to me. It’s not going to happen, either, as I switched mine out for a milled-steel extractor from Volquartsen that I installed in a couple of minutes.
I gave the gun a new Wolff magazine spring and topped it off with an alloy follower I found in the Brownell’s catalog to replace the factory plastic piece. I also found a law-enforcement-grade carrier-dog spring at Brownell’s. It promises to improve feeding. I threw it in largely because if the police need them, then I should have one too. While I have never had cause to worry about carrier dogs up to now, it’s one more thing that won’t cost me a chance at an early morning double.
Since I had the gun put together it has been unfailingly reliable. Honestly, I usually shoot my nicer guns, but it gives me peace of mind knowing I have the right gun to save for a rainy day.
When you make over a semi-automatic gun, everything that applies to pumps—safeties, beads, slings, magazine springs, choke tubes and so on—applies to them as well. In addition, an autoloader has controls to open and close the action and an “engine” underneath its hood for you to work on. That engine is the important part. Ask hunters if they like their semi-automatics, and if they do, almost invariably they answer: “I haven’t had a bit of trouble with it”—which always seems like faint praise to me, but that’s the bottom line. Semi-autos have to function, and cold, wet weather can slow them down.
Recoil springs are the out-of-sight-out-of-mind components that make semi-autos go. Most are tucked away inside the stocks, and many never see the light of day for cleaning, yet they can collect more dirt and water than you might imagine. Simply changing out a spring for a new one is good preventative maintenance to keep a gun running right. At the very least, you should check on the spring at the end of every season to be sure it hasn’t rusted even if the gun isn’t giving you problems.
You can switch in a new factory spring, such as an increased-power spring from Wolff—which may not work well with lighter loads but will function better with the heavy stuff we shoot at ducks and geese—or you can splurge on a SureCycle system comprising a stainless spring and tube. You still will have to take care of the latter, but it’s much less likely to rust between cleanings.
I have both sent guns to SureCycle and installed the systems myself. It’s not difficult, except for the part where you can send a stout spring flying across your basement. Also be aware that some guns, like Berettas, have action springs Loctited in place that need to be heated before they can be unscrewed.
BOLTS, BOLT CLOSERS & MORE
No one’s fingers get colder than mine, so I understand the thinking behind enlarged bolts and bolt-release buttons—although I don’t personally like them on hunting guns. You, however, may want oversize controls, and they are available for most popular semi-autos. Bolt handles drop in, while most bolt closers install in minutes.
While you’re searching the Internet for bolts and bolt closers, you’ll turn up other extras, too, especially if you shoot a model that’s popular with 3-gun or sporting clays competitors. To name just a couple I have come across, a company called OR3gun offers a ventilated aluminum magazine-tube buffer for the Mossberg 930 that replaces the solid plastic factory model and helps keep the tube dry and the gun running smoothly. Taran Tactical has a carrier for the Benelli M2 that does away with the finger- and glove-grabbing forked ends of the factory models. If I owned either gun, I’d want those parts.
Briley offers crisp, four-pound competition triggers for Benellis, Berettas and Remington Versa Maxes. The company’s gunsmiths also will open up the loading ports of some guns with alloy receivers so that 3-gunners can make lightning-fast reloads, but this strikes me as a useful improvement for cold-weather waterfowling as well. Pushing shells—especially 3½” shells on those rare occasions I use them—into tubular magazines becomes difficult when thumbs get cold and weak. That enlarged chamber seems like a great cold-weather modification to me.
The above isn’t a comprehensive list, but you get the idea of what an Internet search might turn up. To be clear: Accessorizing your waterfowl gun isn’t going to turn an ugly duckling into a swan. That’s not the point. It will just turn it into a tougher, uglier duckling that you can rely on when the real things are hanging over the decoys.
CZ All-Terrain Series
For those who like shooting break-actions for waterfowl but may balk at the idea of making over a favorite double, CZ-USA has an answer in its new All-Terrain guns. At this year’s SHOT Show the company introduced 11 All-Terrain models—10 of which were O/Us or side-by-sides. They feature matte-finish walnut, olive Cerakoted metal, sling swivels, extended chokes for the O/Us and, ingeniously, small rare earth magnets in the ejectors or extractors, depending on the model. The magnets are just strong enough to prevent an unfired shell from falling out if you tilt back the gun—as you often must do when loading a break-action in the blind—and they don’t impair ejection either. The line includes 12- and 20-gauge Drake, Upland UltraLight and Redhead O/Us and Bobwhite side-by-sides (pictured), with prices ranging from $791 for the Drake to $1,123 for the Redhead. CZ-USA. —P.B.
Much as I like my third shot, on very cold days I’ll sometimes grab one of my over/unders, as they always work and it’s easier for me to drop shells into chambers when my thumbs get too numb to easily push them into a magazine. If you want to make over a break-action for the duck blind, first, obviously, you need to be sure the gun is safe for modern nontoxic loads. If it isn’t, you’ll have to find low-pressure bismuth ammunition or load your own bismuth or ITX shot.
If you plan to shoot steel or any of the hard tungsten-iron shot and the gun can take modern high-pressure loads, Briley can fit almost any barrels, even those with thin walls, with alloy chokes tough enough for steel. If you have a gun with Full fixed chokes and you don’t want to have it tubed, you should have the chokes opened to Improved Modified or Modified, to guard against barrel damage, and stick with shot sizes smaller than No. 2, although it’s no guarantee you won’t harm the gun.
Before you have any kind of barrelwork done, such as lengthening chambers or forcing cones, be sure there is sufficient steel in the barrels to have the job done safely. Also, lengthening chambers takes guns out of proof, but if you’re having the chambers of your 2½” gun lengthened to 2¾” so you can play in the mud with it, you probably don’t care that it’s out of proof and that you’re taking a chunk out of its resale value.
As for weatherproofing the outside, you certainly can have a break-action gun camo dipped, and I’ve seen the results—which are not pretty, although they are functional. If I had a break-action I was making over for hard use on waterfowl, I’d find a dull gunmetal shade of Cerakote for the metal, and then give the wood a matte or satin refinishing and rub on the occasional coat of Renaissance Wax to help repel moisture.
If you want to put a sling on your over/under, Uncle Mike’s sells sets consisting of a swivel stud for the stock and various sizes of barrel-band swivel studs. Putting a sling on a double requires a swivel base from New England Custom Gun Service, which offers both screw- and solder-on bases.
Finally, checkered buttplates look nice, but a gun needs either a permanent or slip-on rubber pad to keep it from sliding when you prop it up in a wet blind; to soak up the recoil of duck loads; and so you can practice with it during the summer, when the cold days of waterfowl season are far away.
All-Weather Duck Guns
For hunters who would rather buy their all-weather guns off the rack, there are quite a few to choose from. Here are a few that have caught my eye. — P.B.