Waterfowl hunting is a gear-intensive sport, but there probably isn’t a single piece of equipment more important than a shotgun. Choosing the right firearm for the job requires some planning. Here are a few thoughts on how to make the right choice.

12 vs. 20
When steel shot became the law of the land for waterfowl hunting in 1991, hunters discovered that the first generation of non-toxic shells were a far cry from the hard-hitting lead shells they grew up with. In response, waterfowl hunters looked to send more pellets toward the target hoping to overcome the limitations of these early non-toxic shells. Ten-gauges and 12-gauge guns chambered to handle 3.5-inch shells surged in popularity.

Thankfully, non-toxic loads have come a long way since, and most hunters have moved away from the bigger guns and loads. Today, a 12-gauge chambered for 3-inch shells is the top choice for waterfowlers. Many folks appreciate the versatility afforded by the gun and different available loads that can handle everything from green-winged teal to greater Canada geese and swans. The popularity of the 3-inch 12-gauge, and wide selection of non-toxic ammunition, also means that you’ll be able to find shells just about anywhere.

In recent years the 20-gauge, and to a lesser extent the 28-gauge, has become increasingly popular for waterfowl hunters, thanks in part to the development of hard-hitting, modern non-toxic loads like copper-plated bismuth. Pair these shells with an after-market choke that produces tight patterns with more pellets on target, and these sub-gauge shotguns can pack a punch.

I’ve used such a combination for ducks on prairie potholes in South Dakota, flooded fields in Missouri, and cypress swamps in Arkansas. I’ve found it to be a good option for mallards, gadwall, teal, and other ducks over decoys, out to about 35 or 40 yards.

However, if you’re expecting longer shots to be the norm or if you plan to target tougher birds like Canada geese or sea ducks, I’d leave the sub-gauge on the shelf and go with the 12.

Wood vs. Synthetic
The debate over whether to buy a shotgun with a wood stock and forearm versus a synthetic material really boils down to personal preference.

Yes, there are real differences between the two. Synthetic materials are much more resistant to moisture. A synthetic stock is not going to shrink or swell after several seasons of getting wet in the marsh or field. Synthetics also clean up easier and will withstand the normal, and not so normal, bumps, scrapes, and drops better than their wooden counterparts.

But there’s just something about the stylings of a wood gun. In some ways, a shotgun outfitted with wood is a bit of a nod to tradition. I know more than one waterfowler who looks at the scratches in the wood of his shotgun as badges of honor.

Personally, my waterfowl gun is of the modern variety. I don’t like to scratch wood, and I don’t want to think twice about setting my shotgun down on top of a muskrat hut while grabbing a duck from the dog, or submerging the gun up to the trigger guard in a slough while kneeling to hide from a flock of decoying mallards. That’s just my preference.

Regardless of whether you go old school or synthetic, I’d recommend adding a sling. You’ll appreciate the ability to hang your gun over your shoulder or a short tree branch if don’t have a safe or dry place to set it down. A sling also frees up your hands for handling a dog, hauling gear, grabbing birds, or shoving your fingers in your coat pockets when it’s cold outside and the birds aren’t flying.

Pump vs. Semi-Auto
Several seasons ago, a good buddy and I found a big bunch of mallards bouncing between a section of a small river and nearby cornfield. We couldn’t get permission to hunt the corn, so we decided to set up on the water through public access.

The thermometer in my truck showed 9 degrees when we rolled up the next morning, but we could hear the river running from our windows. We walked in, spooked just a few mallards out of our spot, and waited for the rest of the ducks to arrive. Our hide was not the best, so in order to stay out of sight we had to kneel. Any water that splashed up on to my coat or my gun—a semi-automatic—froze instantly.

When the first flock of mallards appeared over the treetops and dropped into our decoys, my buddy and I rose together. I dropped a fat greenhead with my first shot and, as I swung the barrel to the left after another drake making a getaway, I squeezed the trigger and… nothing. I looked down to see the action of my gun was frozen about three-quarters of the way shut. I manually shucked the shell from the action and tried to find a greenhead in range, but the remaining birds were long gone.

Meanwhile, my buddy, who was shooting a pump, went three for three on greenheads. When I pointed out my troubles, he noted that his action was slowed by the cold, but he could put enough force into his pumping motion to get a fresh shell completely into the chamber after each shot. After dumping two more drakes with the next flock, he sat back and watched me scratch out a limit as a one-shot wonder.

I come back to that story all the time when thinking about whether to recommend a semi-auto as a waterfowl gun over a pump-action, or even a double-barrel for that matter. The semi-auto that I use today has been with me from Saskatchewan to Maryland and a lot of hunts in between, including that late-season morning on the river. I like its smooth action and I shoot well with it, but I have to keep it clean in order to make it run flawlessly in the field, especially if it’s cold.

A pump-action’s main drawback is just that—it’s a pump action. Some hunters struggle with that motion and either find themselves having trouble staying on-target after pumping in a new shell, or they simply forget to pump the forearm altogether. That said, over the years I’ve watched enough pump guns manage the dirt and grime and ice you frequently encounter while hunting ducks and geese to know that that old-school style remains a popular choice for a reason. That’s why my buddy shoots one, and I don’t think he ever cleans it either.

My bottom line is this: For a low-maintenance option that can handle the elements and usually costs less, a pump-action shotgun is a great choice. For a faster, smoother action that allows you to keep your focus on a bird, the semi-auto may be the right decision for you. Just be sure to get one that can handle the cold.

Like everything else, choose the gun that’s right for your style and budget—whether it’s a wood-grained pump-action 12-gauge, synthetic semi-auto 20-gauge, or something in between.