What’s to a dove gun?

What’s to a dove gun?

Bourjaily, Phil

Doves are America’s most popular game bird, but there’s no such thing as a “standard” dove shotgun. So what’s important when it comes to scatterguns and mourning doves?

The mourning dove accounts for more shotshells fired than any other species, making it America’s most popular game bird. You’d think by now some “smart” gunmaker would have put all the features dove hunters want into a shotgun, called it a “dove special” and made sure there were a ton of them on dealers’ shelves come August.

Frankly, I doubt it would sell. Dove hunters shoot whatever they please. There are those who limit out with .410s, choosing their shots carefully near decoys or a waterhole. I can remember reading a magazine article by a writer who may have been a dram short of equivalent entitled something like “Doves with a 10 Gauge? You Bet!” in which he shared his pet handloads for plucking doves from the stratosphere with an Ithaca Mag- 10. Some use the dove field as a place to show off an elegant new side-by-side or an heirloom double. A few shoot blackpowder-ending their day in the field covered with soot-while hardcore waterfowlers swing duck guns as a warm-up for more serious hunting later in the fall.

It’s probably fair to say doves are shot with a wider variety of shotguns than any other game bird. Nevertheless, perhaps it’s possible to narrow down the qualities that make up the mythical “dove special.” And while the “dove special” may not be a marketing idea to make gun companies rich, you yourself might want to have the best gun for the pleasant job of staking out the edge of a sunflower field in September.

First, let’s establish our criteria. A dove gun will be fired a lot and carried little. It shouldn’t kick too much, although it won’t be required to handle more than 1 1/8 ozs. of shot. It needs to be responsive to stay with its small, evasive target, yet smooth-swinging for a positive follow-through. It should be effective at 15 yds. or 50.

As we ponder the perfect dove gun, let’s start with a detour to South America. Dove shooting in South America is to regular dove shooting what the Indy 500 is to a drive in the country. Dove hunters in South America rack up huge numbers2,000 or more cartridges a day-putting tremendous stress on guns and shooters alike. And, just as improvements made on Indy cars eventually trickle down to the family sedan, so perhaps we can learn from there about what the ultimate dove gun looks like, even if we never plan to hunt in Columbia or Argentina.

The closest I’ve come to South American dove hunting was the Buenos Aires airport on my return from a duck, pigeon and tinamou hunt in Uruguay a couple of years ago. Waiting for the plane to Miami, I ran into a group of rice farmers from Mississippi who had been on a dove hunt. One of them pulled up his shirt to show me a raw, bleeding bruise on his shoulder the size and color of an eggplant.

“Jeez, didn’t that stop being fun after a while?” I asked.

“When you’re trying to shoot 1,500 birds in a day you’ve just gotta’ grit your teeth, ignore the pain and go for it,” he told me.

Me, if I want pain I’ll go to the dentist. Apparently veteran SouthAmerican dove hands agree. “Most of the work we do for people on dove guns is for shooters who’ve already made the trip to South America once. They come to us and say, ‘I don’t want to go through that pounding again,”‘ says John Clouse of Ballistic Specialties in Batesville, Ark.

Clouse works over several guns a year specifically for hunters on their way to South America. Invariably, customers bring him an autoloader-usually a Beretta or a Benelli, the two makes that hold up best under the highvolume torture test of South American shooting. (While not gas-operated, some shooters believe Benelli semiautos do kick noticeably less than do fixed-breech guns). Clouse says 20s are popular because of their lighter recoil, although plenty of his customers choose 12s. Most guns sport 28″ barrels to add a little extra weight up front where it can smooth a follow-through.

To reduce recoil, Ballistic Specialties usually ports the barrel and lengthens the forcing cone. Porting, in my view, doesn’t reduce recoil so much as it cuts muzzle jump, but since muzzle jump translates into a smack in the teeth, ported guns are distinctly more pleasant to shoot all day long, and they help shooters stay on target for second and third shots. Lengthening the forcing cone, says Clouse, doesn’t reduce recoil a great deal, but it improves pattern performance and, as he points out:

“People may shoot as much in a day as they will in several seasons at home and every little bit of recoil reduction helps. We do some backboring of dove guns. It’s expensive, and you only feel the difference in recoil reduction if you shoot several hundred rounds in a day, but our customers who are target shooters demand backboring, forcing cone work and a custom choke tube.”

For immediately noticeable recoil relief, Ballistic Specialties adds recoil pads to dove guns. Sorbothane recoil pads like the Kick-Eez are made of the same shock-absorbing, shape-retaining material that goes into the soles of running shoes, and they work much, much better than traditional hard rubber pads. Clouse also recommends that shooters of narrow combed guns-such as the Remington Model 1100-put a soft pad like Kick-Eez’s self-adhesive Cheek-Eez on their stock.

To smooth functioning problems in the field, Ballistic Specialties polishes all the parts inside the receiver to help keep the guns running when they’re hot and dirty. “You will superheat your gun down there,” Clouse observes.

As for lubing South American dove guns, Clouse proffers an unusual tip: “We recommend a trick we learned from one of our customers. He strips all the oil off his gun and puts a light coating of Vaseline on it. That’s not something you want to do with a gun unless you’re going to shoot it a lot and clean it that night. Too much stuff sticks to the Vaseline to make it a good lubricant for most field use.”

Our stateside “dove special” will not be required to shoot more than two or three boxes of shells in a day, so we’ll skip the “Vaseline treatment.” Recoil reduction is still an issue since we’ll be wearing no more padding than a T-shirt. Chuck Webb of Briley Mfg. in Houston confirms that his customers order plenty of ports and pads prior to the opening of dove season.

Webb says Briley’s customers want choke tubes installed in dove guns. “Choke installation is the biggest thing we do for dove hunters,” says Webb. “People might not want to spend $1,000 for a new autoloader so they’ll have us tube their old guns.” Webb agrees with his customers that the versatility of choke tubes is a must in the dove field. “For a waterhole shoot you’ll need skeet chokes, but you might have to switch to modified or even full when you pass shoot,” says Webb. “You never really know from one day to the next what kind of shooting you’ll have.”

Finally, Webb says some dove hunters like sling swivels on their guns to make it easier to carry, along with a seat and a cooler, into the field.

Actually, says Webb, there is a “dove special,” at least in his part of the world, and it goes by the name of “1100.” Specifically, the 20-ga. Remington Model 1100 that, according to Webb, is as ubiquitous in Texas as the Suburban or the cowboy hat. “There must be more 20-ga. 11 00s in Texas than anywhere. People own 10 of them. They hand them out to their sons, daughters and guests on the dove field,” he says.

The soft recoil and light weight of the 20-ga. 1100 makes it a pleasant gun to shoot, especially for hunters who may not take to the field except for a few afternoons of dove shooting a year. “It’s a party,” says Webb. “People who don’t go very often want to shoot three times. Part of the fun for them is emptying the gun.”

Call me no fun, but I’d rather hit a dove with one shot than miss it with three. Nevertheless, I’d put the 20-ga. 1100 on my short list of good dove guns. Number one with a bullet, so to speak, is Beretta’s 391. I shot a Urika in the dove fields last September, and I’d be hard-pressed to say how it could be any better. Mine weighed in at just 6 3/4 lbs. with a 28″ barrel; I believe a long, light shotgun like an alloy-receivered semisiest gun light weight makes it responsive enough to follow any mid-course correction the dove makes, yet the long barrel offers enough forward weight for a positive follow-through, and the gas- operation keeps perceived recoil to a level where I never notice it.

Browning’s Gold makes my list for similar reasons. And if my opinion isn’t enough, you have only to look at any Sporting Clays event to see that the champs find the Beretta and the Gold to be easy guns to shoot well. In fact, while I prefer over-unders in the uplands and pumps for waterfowl, I think the autoloader makes the best choice for doves because of its low perceived recoil, ease of loading, and because I, for one, have trouble pumping a slide-action while swinging after a joking dove I’ve already missed once.

In an over-under, I’d be tempted to shoot doves with a 30″-barreled 20-ga. sporting clays model, say the Roger Red Label or Browning’s 425. I’m not convinced the two chokes of a double are a big advantage in the dove field, but I know the lack of a third shot is a big plus: Honestly, how many times has your third try at a dove resulted in anything more than another smoking empty at your feet? The two-barreled gun’s drawback is that you must break it open to load it, and you often find yourself with an open gun just as another dove flashes by.

Despite my own problems shucking and swinging on doves, there’s certainly nothing wrong with a pump gun, especially given that you might shoot one for waterfowl later in the season. Last fall, I experimented with a 20-ga. Ithaca UltraFeatherlight that weighed Sf lbs. It swung very smoothly despite its light weight because I’d ordered the gun with a 28″ barrel. Remington’s Light Contour 870 in 12 or 20 ga. makes a fine dove pump as does Browning’s 28-ga. BPS.

To sum up my ideal dove gun? A fairly light gas-operated, semi-automatic with a 28″ barrel. I’d want to add a full set of choke tubes, an aftermarket recoil pad and barrel ports. As for gauge, I’ll leave the lOs and .41 Os to the eccentrics, the 16s to the traditionalists and the 28s to the waterhole hunters. Make my dove gun a 12 or a 20 ga. There’s simply more quality ammunition readily available for the 12 and 20, and if I happen to take my dove gun to a field where steel shot is mandatory (as is the case on many state wildlife areas) I’ll have no trouble finding shells.

You can argue that my practical approach to dove guns is downright boring; that part of the fun of dove hunting is shooting, say, an English hammer double, an ancient, full-choked Model 97, your grandmother’s 16-ga. Fox or a 10-ga. muzzleloader. And I can’t really argue the point. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re lucky enough to be sitting at the edge of a field when the doves are flying, and the banging of shotguns all around you signals the start of a whole new hunting season, whatever gun is in your hands is the finest dove gun there is.

For more information on having your shotgun worked over for doves, contact: Briley Mfg. (Dept. AR), 1230 Lumpkin, Houston, TX 77043; (800) 331-5718 Ballistic Specialties (Dept. AR), 100 Industrial Drive, Batesville, AR 72501; (800) 276-2550; www. angleport.com

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Sep 2001

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