Deer are America's most popularly hunted game and likely always will be. However, the director of marketing for a major firearm manufacturer tells me waterfowl hunters are his second most important demographic.
"Waterfowl hunting is popular, sure," he said, "But duck hunters are also more willing than a lot of hunters to invest in their sport. They buy guns. It only makes sense to respond to that demand."
Therefore many companies offer "waterfowl edition" shotguns, typically among their flagship lines. One recent introduction—and a fine one at that—is the semi-auto 12-gauge Remington Versa Max Waterfowl Pro.
Given that the standard Versa Max shotgun was introduced in 2010, let's just touch on a couple key points before getting into the new duck-related features. The most innovative aspect of the Versa Max is the simple genius of its 7-port, twin gas-piston design. The longer the shell, the fewer the exposed gas ports, tailoring the amount of escaping gas to the load. For instance, all seven ports are utilized for 2 ¾-inch shells, affording sufficient gas flow to cycle the lightest target loads. Just four ports are utilized for 3-inch loads and three ports for 3 ½-inch loads. So, no adjustments are needed to switch from target loads to magnum duck shells. There are other no-adjust pistons on the market, but few that operate with the Versa Max's reliability across such a wide shell spectrum.
So, what separates the Waterfowl Pro from its Versa Max cousins? Several distinct features draw the eye, all designed to ease operation with heavy gloves. First, there's the oversized, extended bolt handle, a design borrowed from tactical shotguns in the Remington lineup. I don't know that it will help you kill ducks, but it's a real convenience: With a gloved hand it provides noticeably better purchase. Just beneath the handle you'll find a substantially enlarged bolt release—again, a nice accouterment for gloved fingers. One of my favorite add-ons for the Waterfowl Pro is the huge, klutz-proof, cross-bolt safety button. Fine motor skills tend to break down during frigid, late-season hunts, but this feature takes them out of the equation.
Then there are two less obvious design elements: an enlarged feeding port and ultra-slick "competition" carrier. These are additional carryovers from Remington's tactical line and facilitate ease of loading with, you guessed it, gloves.
Again playing on this theme, many manufacturers enlarge the trigger guard on their waterfowl models, but the standard Versa Max already has ample space. The guard measures roughly 1 3/4 inches. For perspective, my current go-to duck gun—which doesn't always allow me the hand-wear I'd like—is about a quarter-inch narrower.
As a final touch, Remington includes a wide, well-cushioned Allen sling with purchase. It's a good, grippy sling that will no doubt keep the shotgun in place while wading through the decoys.
A duck gun also has to be tough, and the Versa Max is clearly built for harsh conditions. Corrosion is fought by a nickel barrel, nickel-Teflon plated internal components, and nicely applied Mossy Oak Shadow Grass Blades camo dip. Suffice it to say a modicum of cleaning should keep the Waterfowl Pro rust-free and running smoothly.
However, the moment I became sold on the Waterfowl Pro occurred at the range. Remington does not refer to the four included Wingmaster HD Rem Chokes by the standard nomenclature but rather as "Turkey/Predator," "Pass Shooting," "Over Decoys" and "Flooded Timber". Respectively, they roughly equate to extra full, full, modified and improved cylinder. For my test, I selected the "Over Decoys" (modified) choke and positioned a target at 30 yards. The Waterfowl Pro threw nice, point-of-aim patterns with a variety of duck loads, except for one budget-priced shell that oddly hit a whopping two feet right of center. Patterns with Winchester Blind Side and Federal Black Cloud—both 3-inch, 1 1/4 ounce loads of No. 2's—were among the best I've ever seen. They were similar in nature: A uniform 30 inches in breadth, with a dense cluster averaging 75 pellets (just under 50 percent of the pattern) in the middle 15 inches. That, my friends, will kill a duck.
While I don't buy claims that the Versa Max "reduces recoil to that of a 20-gauge", it was quite manageable. The gun has one of the thickest and best recoil pads I've tested in some time, plus a recoil dampener on the comb. Further comfort as well as solid purchase are achieved by overmolded, rubber grips on the stock and forend.
If the recoil pad is too thick for your length-of-pull, thinner versions are available. Spacers are also included to adjust length, and interchangeable combs are available to adjust drop. These adjustments tailor the gun to the shooter, of course, but also allow tweaks late in the year should a heavy parka alter your dimensions.
What don't I like about the Waterfowl Pro? At 7 ¾ pounds, it's a touch light compared to the duck guns of yore, but these days that's true pretty much across the board (a Benelli SBE II is even lighter at 7 ¼ pounds). I prefer heavy duck guns—8 pounds or more, to suck up recoil and smooth technique errors—but I am old fashioned in this regard. These days many people want one gun to hunt ducks as well as upland birds, and certainly the Waterfowl Pro has this capability.
Obviously this is a minor, subjective gripe. The Waterfowl Pro is a duck gun through and through—a solid performer built for hard use and heavily gloved hands amidst the harshest of waterfowling conditions.
Type: semi-automatic shotgun Gauge/Chamber: 12/3.5" Barrel: 28"; ventilated rib, threaded for Rem Chokes Sights: green fiber-optic Safety: cross-bolt Stock: Synthetic; LOP 14 1/4" (adjustable); drop at heel 2 7/16" (adjustable); drop at comb 1 1/2" (adjustable) Metal Finish: Anodized aluminum receiver w/ Mossy Oak Shadow Grass Blades dip Overall Length: 49 15/16" Weight: 7 lbs., 12 oz. MSRP: $1,730 Accessories: Four choke tubes; LOP spacers