Woodcock migrate, a trait they share among upland gamebirds only with the quail that fed the Israelites. That comparison isn’t lost on woodcock hunters, who treat their favorite birds as practically heaven-sent. Step into an October cover full of flight birds that was empty the day before, and the woodcock migration does indeed seem miraculous.
Perhaps their near-religious devotion to their favorite quarry explains why woodcock hunters turn the hunt into a ritual, fussing over every detail of dogs, boots, books, post-hunt whiskey, and shotguns. Of course, they don’t have much choice but to invest in woodcock hunting with meaning, because it sure isn’t about the meat. Woodcock are an easily-acquired taste if you cook them right, but a three-bird limit might combine to weigh a pound and a half on the wing.
You won’t live off the woodcock you shoot, but they nourish you in other ways. For instance, they turn almost anyone’s dog into a star, and who doesn’t need more of that? Woodcock sight tight for pointers and flush close for Labs and spaniels. We should both be grateful to them for that fine quality, and we should also factor it into our choice of woodcock gun.
Woodcock shooting takes place at close range, and it’s more often a point-and-poke affair at birds going away in the brush. It doesn’t take a stout load of shot to bring woodcock down and it’s rare to get more than two shots at one. Both for practical and for aesthetic reasons, many woodcock hunters prefer smallbore double guns. It doesn’t have to be a double, but it should be something special. I should admit here that there’s a lot of overlap between grouse guns and woodcock guns, and any of these grouse guns will work for woodcock, too.
1. Parker 28 Gauge
You can argue that the American woodcock deserves to be hunted with an American shotgun, and Parker remains the magic name in made-in-the-USA side by sides. Originally made in Meriden, Connecticut, beginning in 1866, Parker was sold to Remington in 1934 and production was moved to Ilion, New York, shortly after. Remington stopped making Parkers in 1942.
The Parker’s glory days, the years between the world wars, coincided with a boom in grouse and woodcock numbers as abandoned farms throughout the eastern states grew into young forests. Parkers came in a variety of frame sizes, gauges and grades, and had glamor to spare. Actress Carole Lombard gave her husband, Clark Gable, a 28-gauge DHE, although there’s no record that he ever hunted woodcock with it.
Another 28-gauge DHE (“D” was the lowest high-grade Parker, “E” stands for “Ejectors”) that definitely accounted for more than a few woodcock belonged to William Harnden Foster, sporting artist, author of the book New England Grouse Shooting and the inventor of Skeet, which he conceived of as a practice game for upland hunting. Foster’s gun was built on Parker’s OO frame, making it a true, proportional 28—not a 20 gauge with 28-gauge barrels.
If you can’t find an American Parker, you can also look for one of the Parker Reproductions made in Japan in the 1980s, which were excellent guns, although they, too, have become sought after and are priced accordingly. They can also be found in 28 gauge, DHE models on OO frames.
2. CZ G2 Bobwhite 28 Gauge
If you want a bare-bones, practical double gun that you’re not afraid to drag through the bramble bushes, the G2 Bobwhite is it. The original Bobwhites were popular in my area back when we had zillions of pheasants because they were a double anyone could afford, without the clunkiness that afflict many inexpensive side-by-sides. Now the Bobwhite is back, maybe not quite as good looking as the case-colored originals, but with redesigned internals to make it a better, more trouble-free gun.
Featuring extractors, two triggers and a manual safety, it offers no frills other than choke tubes for its 28-inch barrels. It has satin wood and dull blacked metal and a tiny bit of engraving. One nicety is that the 12, 20 and 28 are all built on their own scaled frames, making the 28 especially light and slender. The other nicety is the price: $650 to $700.
3. Caesar Guerini Woodlander
Caesar Guerini embraces modern, industrial gun-making, meaning human hands barely touch the guns except to put them together and pack them in boxes. You can’t argue with the result, though. C-N-C machines mill receivers to tolerances of .0001 inch, checkering and finish are flawless and the guns function and handle beautifully.
The Woodlander is Guerini’s least ornate model, a plain but handsome O/U with no decoration besides a gold grouse on the bottom of the receiver. The stock has a Prince of Wales grip but can be ordered straight and you can specify stock dimensions, too, through the Guerini custom shop. Mine is a 20, stocked to my dimensions by said custom shop and tipped with a leather-covered recoil pad that, in theory, won’t hang up on my coat but, in practice, does little more than elevate my elegance afield. With 28-inch barrels it weighs about 6 ¼ pounds, which is an ideal compromise between light enough to carry and heavy enough to shoot.
4. Browning Double Automatic
One of the best-ever solutions to a problem that didn’t exist, the Double Automatic was the invention of John Browning’s son, Val. A short-recoil operated, two-shot semiauto, it combined the limited shell capacity of a break-action with the single choke of a repeater. So really, there was no reason for it to be a great bird gun. But it was. Made from 1955-1971, the Double Automatic was originally billed as “Tomorrow’s Shotgun Today,” thereby making it irresistible to me, who grew up in the ’70s during a time of ’50s nostalgia.
The Double Auto came in 12 gauge only, in three versions: a standard model with a steel receiver; a lightweight, alloy-framed “Twelvette;” and the super-light, 6-pound “Twentyweight,” which is the one you want to find for your next woodcock gun. I had a Twelvette for several years that, in a moment of sheer stupidity, I sold after shooting a bunch of pheasants with it. Up until then, it was a neat gun: light, well-balanced, a little softer on the shoulder than a fixed breech shotgun, and always a conversation piece when I pulled it out of its case.
5. A.H. Fox Sterlingworth
Despite the claims of founder Ansley Fox, the A.H. Fox double was probably not the finest gun in the world. It was, however, definitely more than just the finest gun ever made in Philadelphia. A.H. Fox shotguns were simple, dependable shooters, well-made in a variety of grades, and good-looking guns identifiable by their distinctively sculpted frames.
The best Foxes were made pre-1930, before Savage acquired the company and moved it to Massachusetts. In 1909, Fox introduced a low-priced, workingman’s double called the Sterlingworth. It was the same gun as the high-grade Foxes, but with less ornamentation. A few years ago, I borrowed a friend’s 16-gauge Sterlingworth to take on a preserve hunt for the Gun Nuts TV show. It was an open-choked 16 gauge with 24-inch barrels that weighed a hair under 6 pounds. It popped to your shoulder as if by itself, and it’s hard to imagine a better woodcock gun.
Like many older American doubles, it was stocked with more drop than we’re accustomed to today. Once I figured out how to shoot it with my head up, the way our grandfathers and great-fathers must have, it was deadly. Sterlingworths are fairly common on the used market, and you’ll find more than a few that have been restocked or spliced to modern dimensions.
Savage, which still owns the Fox name, recently introduced an A Grade Fox, which is, in reality, Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing’s RBL dressed up to look like a Fox. It is a fine woodcock gun in its own right.
6. Browning 725 Citori Feather
The rap on the Browning Superposed and its simplified successor, the Citori, was that it was too tall through the breech and too heavy. Not that it was really a problem for a lot of us Citori and Superposed lovers, but Browning fixed it anyway, and the result was the terrific 725 Citori. The 725 owes its lighter weight (a good ¾ pound less than a standard Citori) and trimmer lines to a redesigned, shallower frame and lighter contour barrels.
An alloy frame on the Feather versions reduces the weight even more, bringing the 20-gauge model in at under 6 pounds. Alloy-framed break actions balance differently than many lightweight guns and often have a weight-forward feel that isn’t what you’d expect in a woodcock gun, but is easy to shoot well. With its oil-finished walnut and silver nitride receiver, the 725 is pretty easy on the eyes as well.
7. Winchester Model 59
The Model 59 was either too far ahead of its time or it was just too weird, but either way, it didn’t last long. Made from 1960 to 1965, the semiauto Model 59 used the floating chamber designed by David “Carbine” Williams, the jailed moonshiner who developed the M1 carbine of World War II. The 59 had an alloy receiver and a “Win-Lite” barrel, consisting of a steel liner wound with 500 miles of glass fiber. The end of the barrel was threaded on the outside for screw-on “Versa-Lite” interchangeable chokes.
The result was a lightweight and muzzle-light upland gun that was easy to carry in your trigger hand while you fended off brush. The most famous Model 59s belonged to New Englander and sporting author Frank Woolner, who made up a pair of “Woolnerized” guns for himself. He cut the barrels back to 23 inches, leaving a cylinder bore for close cover shooting, removed the pistol grip in favor of straight stock, and shortened the magazine tube to hold just two shells and cut back the forend. The modifications made the already light gun even lighter. Woolnerized 59s are something of a cult gun among the very small group of Model 59 aficionados and a few have converted their own guns.
8. Browning B-80 Upland Special
Having revolutionized shotgunning by inventing the Auto 5 semiautomatic, Browning had a hard time figuring what do next, especially as gas guns grew in popularity. In the 1980s, Browning hit on a stopgap solution, partnering with Beretta on the B-80. The B-80 is nothing more than a Beretta 302/303 with a humpbacked receiver and a Buckmark on the trigger guard. Actually, that should read “nothing less” as there are plenty of shooters who think the early 300-series Berettas are the best gas guns ever. I am very fond of mine—a magnum 12 gauge that I use for waterfowl.
From 1986 to 1988, Browning offered an Upland Special version of the B-80 in 12 and 20 gauge. The 20 is one you want for woodcock. The guns had straight grips, 22-inch barrels and choke tubes, weighed about 6 pounds, and were perfect guns for carrying and snap shooting in the brush.
9. Beretta BL Series
Made in the 1960s and early ’70s, the Beretta BL O/Us came in grades 1-6. As the precursors to the popular 680-690 series, they bear a strong resemblance to those guns, and share their virtues of being light and trim. While prices of BL guns are creeping up and the small gauges command a premium, they still cost well below the price of a new Silver Pigeon (also a good woodcock gun) and they have a much higher cool factor.
The BL-1 is a simple, two-trigger gun with extractors. The BL-2 and 3 are both single-trigger, extractor guns. The BL-4 through BL-6 have ejectors and increasing levels of decoration. They all have fixed chokes, as guns did back then, and you may have to get a gunsmith to open them up for close-range shooting.
Nobody needs an impractical old double to hunt woodcock, but then again, nobody needs to hunt woodcock, either. So why not carry something unusual into the woods? And since woodock are odd birds, so it seems appropriate to shoot them with an odd shotgun. The sliding breech Darne, made in France since the 1890s, fits the bill perfectly.
When you pull back the Darne’s eared opening lever, the gun doesn’t break. Instead, the breech slides back far enough for you to load the barrels. It’s a beautiful, strange looking gun, and light and lively, too. Even a 12-gauge Darne weighs under 6 ½ pounds. I have read that the tight head-spacing of the Darne action reduces recoil, which doesn’t make much sense to me, but it seems like as good a justification for buying a Darne as any. Darnes are still made today in several grades as a custom gun, and there are lots on the used market as well, including plain field grades like the R-12.
Honorable Mention: 2 ½-inch British Guns
Pick an English-sounding name at random—say, Gibbs or Boswell or Monk or Lancaster—and chances are it’s the name of a now-vanished gunmaker that saw its best days before World War II. A number of them made less-expensive boxlock guns, many of which are 12 gauges with 2 ½-inch chambers. Do your research, learn who’s who, then find one and take it hunting. They are surprisingly affordable, at least in a relative sense. You could have one for the price of a new 725 Feather, for instance.
Two-and-half inch 12s are often quite light, weighing about the same an American 20 gauge, and often they have long, open-choked barrels that make them handle well, even in a thicket. You will need to either buy short shells for them from RST (although Aquila Minishells and Federal Shorties work, too), or trim cases and reload for it. Any of those short shells, as a bonus, packs a perfect light payload for woodcock.