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Spoiled for Choice
Which gun is best for wildfowling? Eric Begbie sits on the fence.

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One of the liveliest topics on the internet’s Wildfowling Discussion Forum is the perennial question about which gun is the best choice for a sportsman intending to pursue ducks and geese on the marshes.

There are, of course, plenty of big-bore enthusiasts who strive to maintain a romantic attachment with their sporting heritage by using hefty fowling pieces in 4-bore and 8-bore. There are not enough of these great relics of the past to go round, however, so the viable options for most of us have to be somewhat more modest.

A lot of the debate is about the relative merits of a 3˝” chambered 10-bore magnum or the more recently introduced 12-bore, also with a 3˝” chamber. At one time the long-chambered 10 was very much a goose hunter’s gun and most coastal wildfowlers would use a 3” magnum 12-bore when ducks were the likely quarry.

In recent years, though, the 10 and 12-bore “super magnums” designed for use with 3˝” cartridges have become immensely popular with American waterfowlers.

The reason for this is quite simple. When the use of lead shot for shooting over wetlands was outlawed in the USA, the only available non-toxic alternative was steel shot. In terms of basic ballistics, steel is far inferior to lead and has to be used in much larger pellet sizes than was normal with traditional ammunition. To try to get a half-decent pattern with these large steel shot pellets, as many as possible had to be packed into a cartridge and the only feasible solution was to design longer shells and the guns to go with them.

It was only a matter of time before these American trends crossed the Atlantic and gave British wildfowlers the same choice of guns and ammunition. The big difference, however, is that by the time lead shot was banned for wildfowling in England and Wales, several better non-toxic materials had become available. Bismuth and Tungsten Matrix loads are much closer to the performance of lead than the early steel shot cartridges and the newer materials such as Hevi-shot and TBI could, with further research and development, possibly even exceed the ballistic efficiency of lead.

So, just as 3˝” chambered 12-bores, like the Beretta Extrema and the Benelli SBE, are becoming popular, it may be that the reason for their evolution is about to vanish. That does not mean to say, of course, that wildfowlers will not still welcome the additional firepower that the more powerful cartridges provide. Especially on the foreshore, ducks and geese can often be near the limit of normal shotgun range and a little extra “oomph” up the spout can be useful.

It looks like the debate is splitting into three camps. Dedicated fowlers who are happy to reserve a gun purely for use on the saltings continue to make a case for the magnum 10-bore and accept that their choice will not be suitable for a broader spectrum of shooting sports. The second group prefer the more universal appeal of a 12 but opt for the maximum available chamber length despite the disproportionately higher cost of 3˝” cartridges to feed it. Last, but not least, the advent of non-toxic shot materials that approach the performance of lead has meant that quite a few wildfowlers are content to stick with the traditional 12-bore 3” magnum as the mainstay of their armoury.

At the end of the day, as in so many aspects of wildfowling, the final choice will be a personal decision by the individual fowler. That’s one of the nice thing about the longshore gunner’s craft – there is plenty of room for individualism. Debate on the Forum about the relative merits of each option may rage unabated but no-one will look down his nose at you if you have chosen a different gauge or configuration of gun and, equally, no-one will be surprised if, after a year or two, you feel you would like to try something different.