DETERMINING THE BEST SHOTGUN GAUGE,
FOR MIGRATORY BIRD HUNTING?
By Richard E. “Rick” Dennis CPP
July 31, 2020
© July 2020 All Rights Reserved
WHICH GAUGE IS BETTER?
12, 16, 20, OR 28.
Back in the early 1970’s, I began hunting migratory waterfowl. More specifically, Ducks, Coots, and Geese, in the Louisiana wetlands and marshes. My first waterfowl hunting experience was a duck hunting trip outside of Lafitte, Louisiana. My hunting companion was Peggy Brown. During our previous time spent together afield, Peggy and I embarked on a myriad small game hunting trips on her family farm in Mississippi.
Our primary quarry, was the Mississippi Grey Ghost, or bushy tail Grey Squirrel, but rabbits were also on the harvesting list. Peggy was a crack shot with an open-sighted 22 rifle, and usually out scored me on most small game hunting trips. However, neithe of us had any experience hunting migratory game birds. A chance meeting with a Lafitte, Louisiana resident and an experienced duck hunter, would soon change that.
While I was assigned as a Special Agent with the Federal Strike Force; Office of Drug Abuse and Law Enforcement (ODELE), a division of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, I met a Lafitte resident who was also an experienced migratory game bird hunter. This chance meeting was made possible by my new assignment with the (ODELE) Gulf Coast Anti-Drug Smuggling group. This strike force was located in Lafitte, Louisiana and covered most of the Gulf Coast Area. Lafitte Louisiana; a well known duck hunting area, is-in close proximity of another well know Louisiana duck hunting location; Venice, Louisiana.
Acting on the advice of our local resident hunter, Peggy and I borrowed 12 gauge shotguns. Peggy used her fathers semi-auto and I used a borrowed pump action. On the barrel, both shotguns carried the Full Choke designation. Also, on the advice of our duck hunting aficionado, we both used 2 ¾ Winchester Super X high brass 7 ½ lead shot. In the 1970’s, waterfowl bag limits were very generous and a hunter could harvest three times the daily bag limit we have today, or six ducks.
Due to the generous bag limits and the quantity of decoying ducks, Peggy and I were able to harvest enough ducks to make our first hunting experience successful. What we both suffered from was wing shooting experience. More specifically, maintaining the proper lead on fast flying targets. We soon learned, our shots fired at fast flying targets usually landed behind the intended target, instead of on the target, especially on crossing shots. Another problem we encountered was: judging proper shooting distances over over open water.
After my first duck hunting trip, I embarked on a mission to acquire wing shooting experience at the skeet range while determining which shotgun gauge was the ideal shotgun size for harvesting migratory waterfowl. I also wanted to know which choke configuration was the most desirable - Full, Modified, or Improved Cylinder. During this era, most seasoned duck hunters used a fixed Full Choke at the end of their shotgun barrel. The desired shotgun barrel length was 28 to 30 inches. Over time, I tested a myriad shotgun gauges, choke configurations, and shot sizes. I hunted with the 12, 16, 20 and 410 gauges with either a Full, Modified, or Improved Cylinder choke. The same research applied to the best type of shotgun action to use and the most reliable. In the Louisiana marshes, duck hunting is accomplished in a harsh environment. Therefore, I tried: Pump, Semi-Auto, Double Barrel, or Over and Under action types.
In the duck blind, I determined pumps, double barrels, and over-under shotguns were the most reliable. However, one semi-auto shotgun stood out and was a favorite among Southern waterfowl hunters – the Browning Auto 5. The two gauges I like most are the 16 and 20 gauges. Between those two, I preferred the 16 gauge. However, I would soon learn 16 gauge shells were hard to find and in short supply.
Notwithstanding, the lengthening of the 20 gauge shot shell to 3 inches created a magnum version which wasn’t helping the 16 gauge maintain longevity - in the hunting field. The development of the 2O gauge 3 inch magnum shell made it possible for the 20 gauge to hold and propel the same amount of lead shot as a standard 2 ¾ 12 gauge shell, or 1 ¼ ounces.
For shooting ducks over decoys, my first personal shotgun, was a Browning Auto 5 Magnum 2O gauge which shot 2 ¾ as well as 3 inch magnum shells. During Teal season I’d shoot 2 ¾ shells and on opening day I’d switch to 3 inch magnums. My shotgun shell of choice was the Winchester Super X loaded with 7.5 shot. For years, that combination proved to be very successful on migratory game birds, especially over decoys. I’ve always found the 2O gauge was lighter than the 12 gauge, kicked less than the 12 , and I could swing it faster, especially on fast flying Teal. People often asked me why I excluded the 16 gauge from my regular hunting trips and the best answer I could give them was: 12 and 20 gauge shells are readily available and 16 gauge shells were in short supply. The lack of 16 gauge shells remains true, today.
It’s not that the 16 gauge isn’t a dandy shotgun, I actually prefer it over both the 12 or the 20 gauges, but again the handicap or drawback was and still is: finding the shotgun shells to feed it. Like the old adage, “The 16 gauge swings like a 20 and hits like a 12.” Truer words were never spoken, or written. The 16 gauge is a great shotgun, especially if it’s made on a true 16 gauge action. However, most firearms manufacturers deciding to chamber the 16 gauge usually does it on a 12 gauge action.
With the 16 gauge: I’ve harvested deer, waterfowl, quail, turkey, squirrels, and rabbits. In a lot of instances the 16 gauge is better than the 2O gauge, especially when shooting buckshot, and from the simple fact the 16 gauge shoots a larger pellet size. Perhaps, the most notable and well known 16 gauge shotgun ever designed, is the venerable Browning Auto 5 Sweet 16. Today, very few firearms manufacturers chamber the 16 gauge, preferring to chamber the 20 gauge 3 inch magnum models over the 16 gauge. A sad commentary to a great shotgun gauge.
INTRODUCTION OF MANDATORY STEEL SHOT REQUIREMENTS
In 1979 the duck hunting world would soon be turned upside-down, when the Federal Government implemented the mandatory non-toxic shot ruling for hunting migratory game birds. This ruling eliminated lead shot, altogether. This single ruling revolutionized the migratory bird hunting industry - from shotguns to shotgun shells, to the type of pellets they were loaded with, and the size of the shell. The first transition, non-toxic shotgun loading available to migratory waterfowl hunters, was steel shot. By itself, steel shot changed the entire perception of waterfowl hunting. It required an entire retooling of modern firearms manufacturing processes. More specifically, fixed barrel chokes were replaced with interchangeable screw-in choke tubes. Further, a new variety of shot shells were developed to meet the new federal ruling , and demand. Non-toxic shot.
PROS AND CONS OF STEEL SHOT
First of all, steel shot is lighter than lead. Second, steel shot is loaded with less pellets than lead. Third, steel shots lethal shooting distance is limited as opposed to lead shot. Fourth, steel shot doesn’t deform on impact like lead which reduces steel’s lethal ability. It’s been argued for years, steel cripples more birds that it actually kills. Fifth, steel shot doesn’t compress in the shot string like lead shot. Therefore, the duck hunter had to learn to use a more open choke to achieve the desired choke constriction, e.g., improved cylinder was the new modified. Modified was the new full choke, etc. Sixth, without the screw-in choke tubes, steel shot is hard on shotgun barrels and could damage the shotgun – making the gun unsafe to shoot.
Seventh, shot shell engineers have determined: steel shot is most effective when driven very fast and a larger shot size is introduced into the equation. However, larger shot sizes reduces the number of pellets in a shotgun shell, requiring a longer shell length to accommodate an adequate supply of steel shot. Over-the-years, shot shell engineers have also designed other non-toxic shot ingredients such as: Bismuth, Tungsten, etc. However, the other alternatives, like Bismuth and Tungsten are cost prohibitive for most water fowl hunters. The cost for ten non-toxic shotgun shells can range between 25 and 40 dollars, or more. The advantage to these types of non-toxic shot is: more pellets can be loaded in a shotgun shell, and compares to a lead shot loaded shot gun shell.
THE 12 GAUGE REMAINS KING
The one gauge which stands out the most in the duck blind is the 12 gauge shotgun. Twelve gauge loads range from 7/8 ounce in a 2 ¾ inch shell to 1 ½ ounces in a 12 gauge 3 ½ inch magnum shell. This versatility, establishes the 12 gauge as the most versatile shotgun gauge available, for the one shotgun hunter hunting migratory game birds or any other game, for that matter. Twelve gauge shot shells come loaded in lead, steel, copper plated, and a myriad varieties of non-toxic shot along with: buckshot and slug varieties for hunting large game. In reality, the 12 gauge has a shot shell for all seasons and all reasons including skeet and sporting clays, for recreational shooters. In addition to standard and magnum varieties it also comes in reduced recoil versions, which makes shooting it easier on the shoulder. Reduced recoil loadings can be used for either, practice or hunting.
Today, the 12 gauge shotgun can be manufactured where their almost as light as a 20 or 16 gauge, the balance is superb, and the recoil has been tamed by a myriad recoil reducing options. As in all things, everything has a purpose. The same is true with shotgun gauges. When choosing a shotgun gauge, analyze the intended shotgun applications the gun will be used for, the type of terrain and game you’ll be hunting, then match the shotgun shell accordingly. Example, today I hunt ducks over decoys with the diminutive 28 gauge shotgun, loaded with 1 ounce of non-toxic shot.
However, I limit my shots to decoying ducks and the occasional fly over. I never shoot beyond its intended or effective range. Over-all, under these circumstances I find the six pound 28 gauge, entirely adequate. After all the next important component, of the equation, is how well the shotgun fits the shooter which perhaps is the most important part of the equation. After all, if you can’t hit what you shoot at, gauges become irrelevant.
“UNTIL NEXT TIME, KEEP EM BETWEEN THE BRIDLE!”
Hindsight Is 20-20, Reality Is 100%
IF I COULD DO IT, ALL OVER AGAIN
By Richard E. “Rick” Dennis CPP
July 23, 2020
© July 2020 All Rights Reserved
HINDSIGHT IS 2020, REALITY IS 100%
We’ve all heard the old cliché, “If I only knew what I know today, back when I was young.” In retrospect, this is an ideal scenario. However, in one aspect, our lives are unique. As we age, we undertake as series of mistakes that drive us to a conclusion. That conclusion is, wisdom. In our younger years, it’s these common mistakes which allow us to mature into knowledgeable adults. The same applies to Duck Hunting and other facets of our lives.
WITH AGE AND EXPERIENCE, ONE ACQUIRES WISDOM
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama on an October afternoon, about 70 years ago. My family was at the Alabama State Fair in Birmingham, Alabama - when God decided it was time for me to enter the world and embark on my predestined life’s journey. At this moment in time, or the time of my birth, my family lived in a three room house at the base of Oak Mountain in Shelby County, Alabama. Oak Mountain is now a State Park. The community I grew up in, was a rural farming community. It’s located in a valley running between two mountain ranges and is known, by the local inhabitants as: Fungo Hollow, Alabama. Today, the valley is part of the Pelham, Alabama town governing body, but still aptly named Fungo Hollow.
During my early child hood, in the 1950’s, there wasn’t a lot of affordable firearms designs around which my family could afford to buy for hunting purposes. Using firearms for general recreational shooting purposes was unheard of, and taboo. The most common or principal firearm designs consisted of: Double barrel shotguns, single barrel single shot shotguns, or a twenty two rifle, of a myriad designs. The twenty two’s were either - a semi-auto, pump, bolt action or a single shot design. My first firearm was a single shot twenty two made by Winchester Repeating arms. It had a single loading port and a cocking plunger, at the rear, which controlled the firing pen. In Fungo Hollow, and parts of Oak Mountain I hunted: Turkey’s, Deer, Rabbits, Squirrels, Raccoons, and Quail. Over the years, this little rifle served me well.
It was my special rifle because it was a birthday present, from my Grandmother Jeanette Bates Dennis. My grandmother bought the Winchester Rifle at Words Store, in Pelham, Alabama, for $5.00. For the record, my grandmother shot a Browning 22 semi-auto. With that rifle, Grandma Jeanette was a crack shot. Grandma Jeannette would’ve given Anne Oakley a run for her money in a shooting contest. Grand Ma’s twenty two was her prize possession and no one shot it, except her, not even me. The only time it was seen, was when she was shooting it.
As a testament, I witnessed my grandmother shoot many-a-quail, in flight, with her twenty two. It was this experienced tried and true master markswoman who taught me how to correctly shoot my Winchester, and with precision accuracy. My practice time consisted of my grandma throwing pine cones off of one side of a bridge on Bishop Creek, with me positioned on the other side of the bridge, earnestly awaiting the arrival of the emerging pine cones from beneath the bridge. It was my duty to intercept and shoot the pine cones as they emerged from under the bridge while traveling in a swift moving current downstream under the scrutiny of my Grandma’s ever watchful eye.
VALUABLE LESSONS LEARNED
For years, I hunted with my Winchester. While hunting, I kept my ammunition in an empty metal Brewton Snuff Can. It had a snap on lid to keep the cartridges dry, and moisture out. Learning to shoot moving targets taught me two valuable lessons: 1) to aim and shoot quickly, and 2) to reload quickly. It was my job to shoot each pine cone until they made the bend in the creek and moved out-of-sight in the swift current, or they sunk in the creek from a bullet impact ahead of their arrival at the creeks bend. Another valuable lesson my grandma taught me was: “Never waste ammunition.” You need to hit a target each time you squeezed the trigger, or don’t take the shot. Still another valuable lesson I learned from Grandma Jeanette was: “Beware of the one firearm owner.” He or She knows their firearm meticulously, and is usually an expert marksman.
MORE PAGES OF HISTORY, TURN TO THE NEXT CHAPTERS IN MY LIFE
When I was seventeen I registered for the draft. When I was 18, my draft noticed arrived. In the Army, I was introduced to another type of rife – the M14. In 1969, the M14 was the official battle rifle of the Military. The Army furthered my firearms education and trained me for combat in the Vietnam War theatre. My marksmanship skills, learned in my youth, carried me through the war with the M14, along with the M60 Machine Gun, the M40 Grenade Launcher, and the GE Gatling Gun or GE Mini-Gun. My marksmanship skills landed me an assignment with the Army Air Calvary.
After the War, I entered a career in Drug Enforcement and picked up another gun – a revolver. My Military firearms training and my youth firearms training prepared me for combat in a different theatre - Urban Combat. The weapons were revolvers, semi-auto pistols and pump shotguns. I would remain in Drug Enforcement for sixteen years. It was during my time in Drug Enforcement, that I attended college; studying Criminal Justice. It was also during this time that I started hunting again. Primarily deer, but I was also introduced to a new hunting sport – waterfowl.
It was during my early days as a Drug Enforcement Agent that I was invited on my first Duck Hunting Trip, in the Louisiana Wet Lands. In order to make the duck hunt happen, I borrowed a 12 gauge Winchester Model 12 pump shotgun. Needless to say, from my first duck hunting experience I was hooked for life. There’s just something about the early morning fog vaporizing over a marsh setting, at sunrise, and the sound of decoying waterfowl that permeates a persons soul. On my first waterfowl hunt, I was very fortunate to have an experienced duck hunting partner; who knew the ins and outs. His experience made my first duck hunt a success.
Over the years, I struggled to learn how to duck hunt properly as well as acquiring the proper equipment I needed to have success on every waterfowl hunting trip. In the early 1980’s that struggle came to an end when I met Ted St. Pierre at the New Orleans Sportsman show in New Orleans, Louisiana. This happened meeting would evolve into a personal friendship and hunting partnership that lasted over 30 years, along with his business partner; Albert Guidry. Prior to my first duck hunt with Ted, I met him at his sporting goods store in Cut Off, Louisiana and inquired what I needed. Ted promptly stated “All you need today, is a proper fitting shotgun, the right shells, a camouflaged shirt and hat, and rubber boots.
EQUIPMENT – HINDSIGHT IS 2O 20
A number of years ago, I made my last duck hunt with Ted – he passed a few days after. While on this hunt I sat on my shell bucket and pondered over the vast amount of money I had spent over-the-years trying out new water-fowling guns, ammunition, and gear before I met Ted. The first mistake I made was going the “learn-as-you-go” self-education process. Being self-taught isn’t going to work out very well for the beginning duck hunter. One needs a mentor. I was very fortunate to have Ted St. Pierre as my mentor. Ted was born on a trap-line in Cutoff, Louisiana. His father was a muskrat, nutria, and alligator trapper. Ted literally grew up in the marshes of Louisiana. However, Ted also grew up to be an entrepreneur and a multi-millionaire, in his own right
Soon after Ted took me under his wing, I learned that I didn’t need: Six sacks of decoys, nor did I need a 12 gauge shotgun. Five or six decoys would suffice and a 20 gauge shotgun loaded with number six shot was just right, especially when shooting over decoys. The twenty gauge didn’t ruin as much meat as the 12 gauge, especially when shooting small ducks - like Teal. Ted’s theory was: It’s not what you shoot, but how you shoot it. Ted was a firm believer in the twenty gauge and shot a Browning A5 20 gauge magnum. He’d shoot 2 ¾ shells for Teal and early season ducks and 3 inch magnums for large and late season ducks. The only size shot Ted used, whether lead or steel, was number 6.
One morning we both had a laugh, when I pulled out my vast assortment of duck calls stored in my shooting bag. Ted said, “man you don’t need all of that, here keep this one and throw the rest away.” The call he taught me to call ducks with is an old wooden Duck Commander, which I have to this day. Again, Ted’s theory was: “It’s not how many duck calls you own, but the one you know how to use the best, and the one that’s effective in calling ducks within shooting range at the decoys!” After all, the average shooting range over decoys is 25 yards.
Hunting waterfowl all over the United States, Canada and Mexico has taught me some very valuable lessons, especially when it comes to duck hunting gear, decoy outlays, and proper calling techniques. The only time you need a 12 gauge is for late season ducks, pass shooting, or geese. Everything else can be accomplished with a 2O gauge with the right shot size. Sometimes a small decoy spread is better than a large one, especially in the late season when ducks or geese has been shot at which makes them wary of large decoy spreads. Another valuable lesson I learned is: “more isn’t necessarily better, and it saves a lot of money,”
Today, I still have that one duck call, my Browning 20 gauge A5 magnum, and my Beretta 391 12 gauge semi-auto. On occasion, I break out my latest addition to my duck hunting repertoire: A 28 gauge semi-auto that I load with 1 ounce of number 6 non-toxic shot which I’ve determined is just fine for waterfowl over decoys. That little 28 gauge will out pattern either of my other two shotguns. After all, a number 6 pellet traveling at 1300 feet per second is just as deadly whether its launched out of a 28, 20, 16, or 12 gauge shotgun shell. The only difference is the amount of shot each gauge size shell is capable of holding. Again, more isn’t necessarily better. It’s the experience of the shooter, behind the shotgun, and not the size of the shotgun shell which determines the kill factor as long as the target is within an appropriate shooting distance.
On occasion, I like to reminisce about my hunting experiences that I’ve been fortunate enough to go on and the treasured memories I’ll have with me until I depart this world. Who knew that a young man living in Fungo Hollow, Alabama learning shooting techniques from his Grandma Jeanette Dennis, and hunting techniques from his father William E Dennis, his uncle Emmett B Dennis, Jr., and his uncle Horace Dennis would be fortunate to hunt all over the North American Continent. It’s times like these, that I can sit back in my chair and reminisce about my early hunting days and I can still hear my Blue Tick Hound – Handy Andy, baritone howl reverberating in the night air and the Fungo Hollow Valley, signaling: The Chase Is On.
“UNTIL NEXT TIME, KEEP EM BETWEEN THE BRIDLE!”
Richard E. "Rick" Dennis
Freelance Writer and Author