Save shoulder abuse, have more fun, and become a more patient duck hunter by switching from your 12-gauge to a sub-gauge shotgun. Here’s everything you need to know.
by Scott Haugen
On November 4th, this past duck season, my first five shots with a 20 gauge found me with five dead ducks. Then I missed a layup before dropping the successive two, one of which needed a follow-up. Nine shots, seven ducks. I was surprised by the accuracy and killing power of the little 20. But most of all, I was intrigued and couldn’t wait for the next hunt.
My first duck hunt at age 12, in October of 1975, was with a 20 gauge. It’s what I hunted with for two years. I couldn’t wait to graduate from a 20 to a 12 gauge, like dad and his friends used. Mind you, back then, all we shot was lead — steel and non-toxic shot weren’t even talked about.
In recent years, more of my buddies have started shooting 20 gauges and liking it. So, this season I gave it a try. From that very first hunt, I was hooked.
As with many hunters my age, I felt stepping down to a 20 gauge would be a compromise in killing power due to steel shot limitations and fewer pellets than I was used to shooting in my Browning Maxus II 12 gauge. Then I began testing loads, different types and blends of shot, chokes, and guns.
I was shooting my Browning Silver Semi-Auto 20 gauge on that first hunt and had the best patterns with the full choke that comes with that shotgun. I patterned multiple loads, and most shot well. But the killing power of HEVI–Shot’s new HEVI-Metal Xtreme loads (a mix of tungsten and steel), Federal Premium’s Black Cloud FS Steel, and Browning’s Wicked Wing steel were my loads of choice for the season. I took this gun on nearly 30 hunts and dropped a lot of ducks and geese with it.
A few hunts into my 20 gauge infatuation, I ordered a Benelli Super Black Eagle 3 BE.S.T in 20 gauge. I’ve struggled to like inertia-driven guns in the past, but not this one. Light, smooth and spitting patterns that had me smiling, this is one I instantly loved as it simply operated and killed with efficiency. I shot several late-season ducks with it using the HEVI Xtreme 4×1 loads. I had my best success going to a Carlson’s Long Range choke designed to accommodate many types of pellets.
I liked the Black Eagle 20 so much I got my hands on a Benelli’s Super Black Eagle 3 in a 28 gauge. My best-performing loads in the 28 gauge were HEVI XII — a pure tungsten load — and Federal’s Black Cloud, and both are 3-inch shotshells. This gun’s low recoil and quiet performance were great for hunting near residential areas and farmhouses, where the noise was a concern.
Finally, I took my little .410 Browning pump on a duck hunt in a small creek. I’d killed turkeys with this gun with impressive performance, but couldn’t bring myself to spend the money on TSS loads for ducks. My load of choice for the .410, using the stock full choke, was HEVI-Shot Bismuth. I’ve struggled to succeed with pure bismuth loads in my 12 and 20 gauges — except for Boss Shell’s copper-plated bismuth. But the HEVI-Shot Bismuth moves at 1,300 fps in the little .410, slower than the 12 and 20-gauge loads, and it performed with stunning patterns, accuracy, and killing power. On that first hunt, I shot nine shells in the .410 and killed seven greenheads, dropping into the decoys between 15-25 yards. On another hunt with the .410, I had to finish off a crippled duck with this load and killed that bird at just over 40 yards.
Punching paper and shooting at the range are fine, but where I learn the most about gun and load performance is in the field, on actual hunts. And the more birds I can shoot, the more knowledge I acquire.
I hate taking a box of shells and drawing conclusions. But give me a case or two that I can test in a range of weather conditions, from early to late season when feather density is maxed; then I’ll feel good about drawing a proper conclusion. Even better is being able to hunt various ducks, even diving ducks, along with geese in a range of habitats.
When shooting my Browning Silver 20 gauge, it became instantly clear how easily and quickly I acquired birds on the wing, much faster and more precisely than with my 12 gauge. Not only that, the low recoil meant keeping up with each bird was a cinch. Even when hunting with buddies who shot first, thus turning flocks, it was easy to get on fast-moving ducks.
When I went to the even lighter weight Benelli’s, both the 20 and 28 gauges, I had to slow down as I was swinging past birds and missing easy shots. For 14 years, I made my living in the outdoor industry by hosting TV shows geared toward hunting big game. With the lightweight Benelli’s, I was forced to concentrate more on my shots, ensuring I had the proper lead before pulling the trigger. It almost felt like I was shooting a rifle, and I had to keep myself from pointing the lightweight guns. Getting the bead close enough to the bird, yanking the trigger, and hopping the pattern would make me look good was something I quickly had to overcome with light sub-gauges. But, with the Benelli’s, even if the first shot was behind the bird, catching up to them was easy due to their lightweight and ergonomic design.
I’d hunt anytime, anywhere, with buddies while shooting my 20 gauge. But when I went to the 28 gauge, I quickly learned the fewer the hunters in the blind, the better. This was especially the case on windy days when birds were approaching from the opposite end of the blind from where I stood, and late in the season when birds were leery to commit to the decoys. I like hunting solo when I want to put birds in a specific spot for a shot.
When shooting a 28 gauge and a .410 I prefer to hunt alone to let the birds work and finish in the decoys. If my buddies are shooting the same sub-gauges, that’s ideal, as we’re not competing for the first shot because we want the birds in the perfect position.
When hunting with sub-guns, your blind, decoys, calls, and your gun all play an essential part in your success. If one part of the equation isn’t working, shot opportunities will be fewer with smaller gauge shotguns. The goal when duck hunting with sub-gauges is to shoot decoying birds, not birds flying overhead. And to do this with consistent success, you must know the effective killing range of your guns and loads.
A few times last season, I went back to my 12 gauge, and the first thing I noticed every time I picked it up was how heavy the gun felt and how slow I was to get on birds, especially follow-ups. I also learned that if I got my 12 gauge pointing near where I wanted it, then pulled the trigger, I usually hit birds. That’s not the case
with sub-guns. The smaller the bore, the more precise your shot placement must be. The smaller the sub-gauge, the better your shooting must be.
The first time I hunted with the .410, it was a calm morning, and the mallards slowly backed into the decoys strewn about a narrow creek that was surrounded by towering maple and oak trees. The shooting was simple. But on the next hunt with the .410, it was a windy day, and the habitat was very open, which meant birds approached from the side and fast. This situation tested my shooting ability, but because I was hunting alone and could take my time, not firing until the birds were right where I wanted them, I knocked ’em down regularly.
When hunting with sub-guns, don’t be in a rush, for the closer the birds get, the greater the chance you have of cleanly killing them. High wind days can be frustrating, especially if birds aren’t finishing in the decoys. But if you have a small creek, a confined slough, or a section of skinny sheetwater to hunt, even a good field where you can surround a layout blind with decoys, you’ll nail it.
Ultimately, duck hunting with a smaller bore shotgun than you’re used to will make you a better shot, even a better duck hunter, due to all the moving parts that must come together for success. And with today’s high tech’ loads, sub-gunning for ducks is fun, effective, and rewarding.