"For I was headed for some tall timber gunning and never believed in sending a boy on a mans errand."
---Nash Buckingham, on the virtues of using a heavy 3-inch, full-choked 12-gauge shotgun for serious duck hunting.
When Buckingham wrote those words ("Great Day in the Morning", Field & Stream, April 1941), he was regarded as one of the finest waterfowl hunters in the world. This ranking was based on a natural talent plus the opportunity to shoot thousands and thousands of ducks dating to the late 1800s.
He reigned amid marsh and prairie and timber when seasons were long, limits were liberal (or non-existent), and techniques such as baiting and live decoys were standard. Most important, ducks funneling down the Mississippi and Central Flyways literally blackened the autumnal sky.
And, based on this experience, Buckingham was a firm believer in using a big gun. In this stance, he echoed the great Fred Kimble, originator of choke boring during the late 1800s. If anything, Kimble (an ex-market hunter) killed more ducks than Buckingham.
Buckingham wrote in Long-Range Duck Shooting (Derrydale, 1938), "Mr. Kimble still favors long, heavy guns and big shot for rough wildfowling."
During his 70-year gunning career, Buckingham shot Winchester pumps, Parker doubles, Winchester 21 doubles, and, ultimately, "Bo Whoop"--a 3-inch magnum, 32-inch, side-by-side 12 gauge built by Burt Becker on a heavy A. H. Fox action.
Bo Whoop, choked full and fuller, reportedly could average patterns of "91 and 92 percent" with coppered 4s (lead, of course) at 40 yards on a standard 30-inch circle. Put another way, it was not a quail gun.
I recall these things because Buckingham was a beautiful wordsmith and I greatly enjoyed reading his stories. Plus, he could back up his typewriter in the field.
According to Buckingham, 40 yards represents the start of legitimate long-range duck shooting. The qualified shooter can crumple birds at 50-plus with a full-choked 3-inch 12. Beyond that--well, you should know your limits.
(Incidentally, on the subject of big guns, I suppose we could include the 3 1/2-inch 12s and 10s, but these really are specialized goose guns, a different realm.)
Conversely, a light 26-inch barrel tends to be jerky, too easy to stop. And the open pattern from an improve cylinder starts blowing apart beyond about 30 yards, creating holes and gaps for missing or, worse, crippling.
Now heres the strange part: During the early 80s I bought a classic long-range mallard boomer--a Winchester Model 12 Heavy Duck Gun. I think I paid $400. The old 3-inch magnum was built in 1951; its all factory-original and still retains most of the bluing.
It sports a thick-walled 30-inch barrel and a very cool solid rib. To help absorb recoil and balance the heft, a length of lead weight was inserted into a drilled hole in the butt of the stock. A hard-rubber red pad was fitted to the butt, and a three-shot magazine plug was installed to conform with federal migratory bird regulations.
The wooden fore end is of the slim "corn cob" style, but with a rounded semi-flat bottom. It looks graceful, feels positive, and "shucks" the big cases with authority. The length of pull (trigger to butt) is only 13-1/2 inches, deliberately cut short to accommodate the waterfowlers bulky jacket.
The Duck Gun weighs a manly 8-1/2 pounds unloaded; according to Winchester records, the big 3-inch Model 12, available with a 30- or 32-inch barrel, was not a major seller (probably because the typical buyer on a budget wanted an all-around gun, not a heavy magnum).
On long or high ducks the heft and length encourage a confident swing and a smooth follow-through; indeed, the gun wants to keep moving--a huge and often-overlooked advantage in deliberate shooting.
This great gun with its time-honored attributes sat mostly neglected in my gun cabinet for 25 years. Early on, I shot a couple of turkeys with it but lacked the resolve to tote it into a duck blind. I guess, with tight-patterning steel shot, I was afraid of looking bad with the full choke.
This past duck season I eyeballed the patient old boomer and, with a nod to Messrs. Buckingham and Kimble, pulled it from the rack. We finally started going duck hunting together.
I, well ... shot well. Surprisingly well. The old Winchester Duck Gun has authority. It radiates confidence.
My point here: During the sum of a duck season, for every one of those classic 20-to 30-yard, webs-down, decoying birds, youve probably got at least three or four 40-yard (plus-or-minus) chances outside the blocks. Some days, thats about all you get.
The Model 12 supposedly is safe with steel, but Im afraid to touch that hyper-stuff. I really am drawn to the aura of the old pump; Id rather have it than several modern guns of comparable thump and purpose, and dont want to risk "ringing" or otherwise damaging the barrel.
If the conscientious hunter has the resolve to wait with an open choke for nothing but the "ice cream" shots inside 30 yards, great--but Winchesters "perfect repeater" is a classic reminder of what all-around duck shooting is all about.
In the words of master waterfowler Buckingham, "The whole force behind such tools is to be overgunned rather than undergunned when birds wont decoy, and cannot be called within reasonable range."
The biggest mystery is why it took me more than 25 years to figure that out.