A hunter’s guide to waterfowl guns and ammo
by M.D. Johnson, outdoor writer & photographer
Learning all there is to know about waterfowling can feel like a daunting task — especially to those new to the venture. Consider, for a moment, firearm selection. Or more specifically, choosing the firearm, ammunition and choke suitable for the situation at hand.
Folks new to ’fowling might be surprised to learn that different quarry types require their own kind of gun and ammo. Determining which kind to use might sound like a challenge at first, but the truth is that developing just such a combination isn’t difficult — especially once you’re familiar with the tools available. Here are some of my favorite ’fowl guns and accessories to consider.
With the exception of the .410, most shotguns in any gauge — from a 28 to a beefy 10 — work well as a ’fowl guns.
Why not the .410? While some may disagree, I believe that the .410, with her 9/16 ounce charge of shot, is awfully small and doesn’t leave much margin for error in terms of accuracy. Yes, even with today’s technologically advanced shotshells.
Better, I think, would be a 20, 16 or 12, with their heavier payloads, higher pellet counts and increased pattern density.
Naturally, every ’fowler has their personal favorites when it comes to shotguns. Here are some of mine:
- Winchester M24 SxS 16: My father’s first shotgun, purchased back in 1952. I’ll hunt with the M24 a handful of times each season, as long as it’s nowhere near saltwater that could blemish her. At 69 years old, she deserves to be treated well; that’s why I only shoot soft steel-friendly HEVI-Shot® Classic Doubles or bismuth.
- Mossberg M500 Pump 20: Sadly, the 20-gauge almost seems to have gone the route of the 16 in term a s of popularity among adult waterfowlers. And to be honest, there’s really no reason for it. I’ve taken big Canadas over decoys with this little pump. But for the most part, she’s filled with 3-inch #4 or #5 steel and used for close-quarters mallards, widgeon and gadwall.
- Mossberg Silver Reserve O/U 12: I love this O/U and, if I might say so myself, shoot it extremely well. Like the above pair, she’s a duck gun, being called into service both for birds over blocks, or for the few times each year I venture out to do a bit of jump shooting. True, she’s chambered for 3-inch shotshells. However nine times out of 10, I’ll drop a pair of 2 3/4-inch size 5 Kent bismuth rounds down.
- Mossberg M930 12: For 80% of the season, you’ll find me carrying the M930, whether the target be Canadas or canvasbacks. This gas-powered autoloader is everything I want a ’fowl gun to be — rugged, reliable, easy to maintain, light, fitting and hard-hitting. I can’t ask for more than that.
- Remington Versamax Sportsman 12: The very first time I ever took the Versamax afield for Canada geese, I shot a legitimate triple over an Iowa decoy spread. BANG! BANG! BANG! I even had a witness. That was in 2010 — the introductory year for the semi-auto from Big Green, and I’ve loved her ever since. Fitted with a MOJO Outdoors Fatal Shot choke tube (as is the Mossberg M930), the Versamax is my go-to goose getter.
You might say, But what about the operating system? Single shots are out there, but they obviously don’t allow for quick, follow-up shots.
Double barrels, be it an SxS or O/U, provide a fast second shot and are traditionally lighter than bulkier semi-automatics or pump-actions. That said, pump-actions are a favorite of many ’fowlers — three quick shots, rugged, dependable and simple to maintain. Semi-automatics are popular, too, with their lightning-fast trio of shots and choice of gas or inertia (recoil) systems. However, some may find the autoloaders more challenging to maintain, due to their intricate design.
At the end of the day, your choice of ’fowl shotgun is a personal one, guided by what you feel most comfortable with and what you shoot well.
Today’s menu of federally approved, non-toxic ammunition for ’fowlers is extensive — quite a difference compared to the selection available when I was making the shift away from lead in the late 1980s.
Given all that variety, you might wonder if there’s one “best” shotshell choice for ducks and geese. There is not, as each species and situation lends itself to a different type of ammunition.
Fortunately, there are rules of thumb* that can assist in helping you decide which shotshell to use.
*Note: The species listed are examples of size only; there are additional birds that would qualify for each category. Additionally, the “/” represents “or.”
Small ducks (teal, wood ducks, widgeon, ringnecks, bufflehead)
Here, it’s a matter of pellet count and pattern density, as smaller ducks — along with game birds like doves, pigeons, snipe, wood cock and grouse — can literally fly through holes in a pattern. For these birds, size 4/5 steel would work well. An alternative, such as bismuth, might call for size 5/6, while size 6 HEVI-Shot® is also a good choice.
Big ducks (mallards, pintails, blacks, gadwall)
These big ducks are strong, well-feathered and heavily muscled, which often calls for larger pellets, without sacrificing pellet count and pattern density. For these birds, I’ll load up size 2/3 steel or size 4/5 bismuth or a tungsten blend.
Divers (canvasbacks, redheads, bluebills, goldeneyes)
Divers are tough customers, regardless of where they’re found. For big-water ’cans, redhead and sea ducks in particular, size 1/2 steel would serve well, along with size 3/4 bismuth or a blend. It’s also not a bad idea, when hunting divers, to include a box of smaller steel (like size 4/5) to use as swatter loads when finishing crippled birds.
Small/medium geese (cacklers/Aleutians, lessers, snows/blues, Ross’s)
I treat these smaller geese as I do big (big) ducks, with just a slight upturn in shot size. I’m still looking for pellet count and pattern density, while at the same time wanting a bit more oomph in terms of on-target energy. Therefore, I’m going with size 1/2 steel for these ’fowl, or a size 3/4 non-steel alternative.
Big geese (western Canadas, specks, sandhill cranes)
Perhaps hypocritically (given the preceding paragraph), my favorite load for big geese over decoys is 1 1/4 ounce of size 4 Hevi-XII™ out of a 3-inch 12. Think pellet count; pattern density; energy. It’s all there. However, if the birds want to stay out on the fringes, I’ll bump up to size 2 Hevi-XII™ or steel BBs.
I’m going to guess that the new waterfowl shotgun you just bought came complete with three to five choke tubes, yes? Well, let me tell you that the modified (M) tube you received is probably the last choke you’re ever going to need — if you shoot steel, that is.
Steel is hard and doesn’t react well when squeezed tight, as with a full (F) choke. That’s why, more often than not, it seems that modified is what you’re looking for, in terms of consistent patterns. A softer material, such as bismuth or a tungsten blend — though not as soft as lead — responds to choke tubes more like lead. This can make an improved modified (IM) or F choke a better performer.
Here’s the bottom line when it comes to choke tubes and ’fowl guns: There are dozens of aftermarket choke tubes available today; some good, some not so good. Some are expensive, and others not so much.
I’ve had great success with the MOJO Outdoors Fatal Shot ($80) over the years, but I’ve also been impressed with Hunters Specialties™ UnderTaker shotgun choke tube ($20). Sadly, the UnderTaker series has been discontinued; however, tubes can still be found on eBay or, if you’re lucky like me, at garage sales.
So, do you need an aftermarket tube? Probably not. (And remember — most new shotguns include three to five choke tubes in their package price.)
It is possible that an aftermarket tube could perform better than the M tube you already have. But it might not.
Here’s the kicker: until you spend time in front of a patterning board trying, testing and evaluating any number of choke tube, shotshell and shot size combinations in your ’fowling shotgun of choice, you really won’t know. Invest the time before you invest any more money into a fancy aftermarket choke tube. You might find that combining some of what you already have gives you the perfect recipe for success.
Meet M.D. Johnson
Originally from Ohio, M.D. Johnson, and his wife/business partner, Julia, spent 18 years in Iowa before relocating to her native Washington state in 2015. A full-time freelance outdoor writer since 1992, Johnson, with the photographic assistance of his wife, has authored and illustrated six full-length books, including three on waterfowl hunting. Today, The Johnsons reside in Wahkiakum County, where they both enjoy a 107-day duck season, salmon fishing, and everything the wonderful Pacific Northwest has to offer. Oh, and if you ask, M.D. will tell you he prefers 16 gauge doubles to anything else.
Read more from M.D. on Slayer’s Blog:
– Hunting gadwall ducks: Everything you need to know
– 9 things every new duck hunter REALLY needs: Resources and gear
– Why these waterfowlers love the cutdown call for duck hunting
– Beyond the quack: Learn the different duck sounds of common species
– Top 5 duck and goose decoy spreads you have to try