Duck guns used to be a big deal ­­- really. In the old days, it was not all that uncommon to run into a salty waterfowler toting a 12-pound 10-gauge double slung over one shoulder along with a huge bag of real wood decoys over the other. Back in the way back day, it was still possible to catch a goose hunter carrying an 8-gauge, but by the 1950s, those were mostly long gone with modern duck guns taking over the scene.

The new modern duck gun

When my dad came back from his 25 missions flying a B-24 over Germany, the first thing he wanted was a brand-new gun for shooting mallards. He and some of his buddies bought four side-by-side 20-acre tracts of land in the Ten-Mile Pond region of Southeast Missouri, still a top waterfowling area today. They built elaborate enclosed blinds and were ready to throw some shot.

After much searching, Dad nearly went into hock buying a new Remington Model 48 12-gauge shotgun at the local Western Auto store owned by one of the four duck-hunting buddies. More accurately named the Model 11-48, this was the first new shotgun that Remington produced in 1949 after WWII was over. It was a beauty.

The 48 set the standard for the day first being of semi-automatic design. Then came the 2¾-inch shotshells loaded with lead. Ah, those were the days. I can still remember as a kid fondling those old card boxes of Western shells with the real paper hulls, smelling the powder through the star crimped end.

Dad's 11-48 knocked down a lot of ducks. It took quite a few swims in the drink, too, once when the johnboat ran afoul of a submerged log and flipped over in icy January water. He had to poke around with a paddle for a while to find the gun stuck in the mud.

By the time Dad retired, nearly all the finish was gone off the stock, but the gun still worked - still does.


Time flies for shotguns, too

Fast forward through the past 60 years, and just think of all the advancements in duck guns. Besides the benchmark standards of the Remington 870 and 1100, the Ithaca 37, Browning A-5s, Winchester 12, 101 and the 1200 series and many more, today we have even more choices. We have Beretta, Benelli, Browning, Caesar Guerini, Fausti, Franchi, Mossberg, Remington, Ruger, Weatherby, Winchester and dozens more.

Remington has produced over two million 870s now. Amazing.

"For Christmas several years ago, I bought my son a Plain Jane 870, 12-gauge for doves and ducks," said James Harper of Vicksburg. "I knew that gun would catch hell, and I was right.

"To my knowledge in three years of dragging it through duck ponds and muck mud, it had never been cleaned, but it is still running like a clock.

"I did make him clean it last year, finally."

What a testament to the functionality of modern guns these days.


Shotgun evolution done right

Duck gun makers have done a lot of things right. They created screw-in choke tubes adding more versatility to any new shotgun purchase. Today one gun can do it all if it has to. Go from quail to pintails in the same day or from morning squirrels to evening greenheads. Just change out the shells and the choke tube.

Next, using new materials they have taken a lot of weight out of duck guns. A duck Remington 11-87 loaded is still less than 10 pounds, and its recoil-absorption capabilities make shooting it with 3-inch magnum shells tolerable. Speaking of which, adding the magnum chambers going from 3-inch to even the now common duck pounding 3½-inch magnum has added increased power and range.

"Duck gun finishes have come a long way, too," says Paul Thompson of Browning. "The traditional walnut stocks and blued steel receivers and barrels have been replaced with camouflage coatings over synthetic stocks along with coated barrels.

"Our latest Dura-Touch Armor Coating in Mossy Oak Break Up is highly durable, resists moisture and rusting, is non-reflective and easy to grip."

This technology is just perfect for duck hunting.


Shot debate rages on

If anything has turned the duck hunting world backwards and upside down, it is probably the federal requirement to adapt shotshells with shot made of anything but lead.

So we have non-toxic steel shot, tungsten, bismuth and some other exotics coming on the market from time to time. This has all caused a ruckus among duck hunters, especially at the cash register. Non-toxic duck shot is roughly double in price per box, sometimes more.

Initially hunters had to translate what effective shot size in lead had to be in the other materials to kill ducks. It took several seasons and many trials to finally get that worked out with some satisfaction. Many duck hunters still claim that steel shot is far from being as effective in clean kills at reasonable ranges as the old lead shot.

Next came trying to figure out which choke tubes meant for lead shot could be used with steel and produce a tight enough pattern for duck hunting. Many an old model choke tube was ruined using steel shot. Manufacturers had to gear up research, development and production to solve these problems, which now seem to be abated.

As a result of all this, an aging population of old-school duck hunters, and our failure to recruit new hunters, the ranks have dwindled somewhat. However, an exception to this might be found in the Mississippi Delta.

At a weekend hunt last year up in the Delta, I witnessed as energetic a core of young stud duck guides as I can ever remember. It was delightful to the hearts of all the duck hunters in camp. There is hope.

Since my dad nervously put cash down on his Remington 11-48 in 1949 to duck hunt, many flocks of ducks have darkened the skies over many a duck pond in the south. Progress in duck guns, shells and gear has not dampened the spirit of blind-sitting hunters watching an overhead group of greenies setting their wings and waiting for the call to "bust 'em." May it always be that way.