Federal law limiting shotguns for waterfowl hunting to three shells has been with us since the 1930s.
The official regulations read, “No persons shall take migratory game birds: … b) With a shotgun of any description capable of holding more than three shells, unless it is plugged with a one-piece filler, incapable of removal without disassembling the gun, so its total capacity does not exceed the three shells.”
The reasons for the law carry over from market hunting days. A gunner would sneak up on rafted waterfowl and shoot into them on the water and as they took flight. The more shells he could fire rapidly, the more ducks he could ship off to market.
The unintended consequence of the law is that weird stuff gets shoved into tube magazines of pump and semi-auto shotguns. I’ve done it. You probably have, too.
It’s dark in the blind; five minutes to shooting time. You’re sipping coffee with your buds, jawing about the ducks that will momentarily suck into your decoys. Somebody brings up the day three years ago when the goofballs across the lake got busted for not being able to tell a buzzard from a blue wing.
“Hmmm…,” you think. “Busted? Game wardens? Did I take the plug out of my gun for the flurry shoot at the club?”
You’re certain you didn’t, but you slide a third shell in the magazine with practiced fingers, and it goes all the way in with an ominous click. CRAP!
Your buddies snickering, you unload and disassemble your shotgun on the floor of the blind, if you’re lucky enough to have a floor. It’s all even more interesting if you’re working from your back in a layout blind.
Shooting time arrives and ducks flood in just as you boasted. The din of the shooting is more deafening on top of the blood pressure pounding in your ears.
At this point, you grab the closest cattail stem or corn stalk and break it off. “Uhhhh! How long do I make this thing?”
You whip out your knife and cut one end square. You dig out two shells, lay them end to end and check your math. “Gun holds five, means magazine holds four. I need to cut it to two. So if I take up the space of two, means the gun will only hold three in total. Check!”
Next, you pull another shell from your pocket because one of the first two already disappeared into the black mud. You measure the length and cut off the stalk. If you forgot to bring a knife, you gnaw it to length like a hypertensive beaver. Your buddies are far too busy shooting to loan you one of theirs.
Next comes removing the cap on the end of the magazine. This may involve pushing, turning, pulling, prying or unscrewing at least one tiny screw that would be difficult to see under a lighted magnifier — usually some combination of these. With some shotguns, you are screwed!
After freeing the cap comes the most delicate part of the surgery — removing it without the magazine spring bolting for freedom. And like a buck with blue-tongue, the spring invariably heads for deep, dark, black water.
Catch the spring, and you’re nearly home free. Drop the stem down the magazine, recompress the spring, then use your third and fourth hands to reinsert the cap and reverse the process to secure it. Tighten the barrel back in place, load your legal limit of three, and you’re back in the game.
Of course, by now the dog is bringing the last of your buddies’ limits through the doggy door and proudly shakes right all over you. You pop your head through the top of the blind, and … the sky is empty.
There’s an odds-on chance there are more pump and semi-auto shotguns out there with vegetation in their magazine tubes than OEM duck plugs. And sometimes, what a gunsmith pulls from the magazine is truly unusual.
I once took a pocket comb, broke out all the teeth and used the spine to plug the magazine. I’ve seen Sharpie markers used, too. And I know a guy who knows a guy whose gunsmith claims to have removed a feminine hygiene product from a 20-gauge. From what must have been a truly desperate case, a gunsmith reported finding a bone serving as a duck plug. We can only hope the hunter brought fried chicken along for his lunch.
I’m sure the founding fathers of modern duck hunting never saw this coming.