Making the switch to a sub-gauge shotgun for ducks and geese

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For decades, 12-gauge shotguns have been the traditional choice for waterfowl hunters, but sub-gauge models, such as the Browning Sweet 16 pictured here, are gaining popularity as more shotshell and choke options become available. Photo by John Pollmann

By John Pollmann

My first shotgun was an Ithica 12-gauge pump action that my dad bought at Gary’s Gun Shop in Sioux Falls. I used it for a year or two before buying my own, a new Browning BPS 12 gauge that served me really well through high school and part of college.

Several other guns came and went in the years to follow, but one thing didn’t change — I never strayed from a 12 gauge.

This all came to a halt last year when I spent time in the field with a pair of sub-gauge beauties, a 20-gauge Beretta A400 and Browning’s new A5 Sweet Sixteen 16-gauge autoloader.

The guns traveled with me throughout the fall, including days pushing the uplands for pheasants, grouse and Hungarian partridge, but I mostly wanted to see how they would perform in the duck blind.

At first blush I was immediately impressed by using a gun that weighed so much less than traditional 12-gauge models, and, truth be known, my aging shoulder didn’t mind the reduced recoil produced by the smaller loads.

In addition to lightening the load, I also learned a thing or two about sub-gauge shotguns last fall that are worth contemplating if you’re thinking of making the switch to a smaller bore shotgun this waterfowl season.

Shotshell Options

For the last decade or so my go-to shotgun for waterfowl has been a camouflaged Browning semiautomatic 12 gauge. The availability of various shotshells and chokes for 12-gauge models simply made it much easier to find what I needed whether I was hunting blue-winged teal in slough on the opener or late-season Canada geese in a snow-covered cornfield.

However, today’s loads, regardless of gauge, are lightyears ahead of those that hunters were forced to use after lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting at the federal level in 1991, and these recent advancements in nontoxic shotshell manufacturing helped spur me to make the move to a sub-gauge gun for waterfowl hunting, particularly the nontoxic loads available for the Beretta 20 gauge.

The growing popularity of using a lightweight 20 gauge for more than pheasants has fueled a new generation of waterfowl-specific shotshells for this realm of sub-gauge shotgun. Last fall, my shell of choice for the Beretta 20 gauge was a 3-inch Federal Premium Black Cloud filled with 1 ounce of No. 4 shot. I chose this load because of the success that I’ve had with a similar loads for my 12 gauge, and the 20-gauge shells performed as advertised.

While there are plenty of options when it comes to shells for a 20 gauge, the same cannot be said for the 16 gauge. I had difficulty finding shells for the Browning Sweet Sixteen, though the Federal Premium Speed-Shok waterfowl loads that I used worked great on mallards over decoys.

This fall I look forward to trying 16-gauge offerings from Hevi-Shot.

Choke Down

Mirroring the advancements in sub-gauge shotshells for waterfowl hunting are those in the world of aftermarket choke tubes. I could not find a waterfowl-specific choke for the Browning 16 gauge, but there were plenty to choose from for the Beretta 20 gauge. As an added bonus, many were designed specifically to promote the features of Federal’s Black Cloud waterfowl loads.

I paired the Beretta A400 with a Triple Threat (T3) from Rob Roberts Gun Works, which helped produce the pattern density needed to cleanly kill ducks at close- to mid-range over decoy spreads.

I did not use this choke-and-load combination on geese, but I would not hesitate to do so this fall, should the opportunity arise.

If you’re debating which sub-gauge to choose, I’d give the edge to 20-gauge shotguns simply because of the current options and availability of both shotshells and choke tubes. At the same time, I’m excited to see what new shotshell and choke offerings will soon be available for 16-gauge models now that this “tweener” gauge is once again rising in popularity.

Practice Makes Perfect

It should go without saying that a person should spend time at the range with a new shotgun before hitting the field, but I didn’t. And it took me a while before I stopped missing shots that are normally well within my wheelhouse.

The biggest hiccup in the switch to both the Beretta and Browning revolved around finding and using the safety. Neither safeties were hard to use, but the mechanics of the process were different than what I had done for more than a decade with my old semi-automatic. Any hesitation in the process quickly impacted my confidence and timing, leading me to miss several shots that normally would have resulted in birds on the game strap.

By the end of last season, however, I was pretty well back to form in terms of shooting, including the time I was on a December hunt for mallards. The Browning Sweet Sixteen was in the blind with me that day, and I made the most of the chances I had at flocks of big greenheads dropping in over the decoys.

The colors of a drake mallard — the green head, the speculum’s iridescent blue, the subtle herringbone pattern on the flank — have long been my favorites of fall, but the purple and yellow hulls of spent sub-gauge shotshells are becoming a close second.

About the Author: Waterfowl columnist John Pollmann is from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.