By Ken Perrotte
There is something special about being in a duck blind during the predawn quiet, anticipating a sky filled with waterfowl. The rapid wingbeats of a small flock buzzing your blind in tight formation generates a uniquely muffled roar that fuels a wingshooter’s passion.
Most waterfowlers have their go-to shotguns, models often selected for various hunting scenarios due to their fit, function and reliability. Taking any new shotgun out to hunt waterfowl for the first time is exciting. After all, you might be shouldering a gun that could become one of your favorites.
I got to try a new, 12-gauge, semiautomatic Weatherby 18i Synthetic (MSRP $1,099) during the recent Virginia waterfowl season, first running some rudimentary patterning tests and then taking the shotgun on a few hunts in marshes, fields, boats and blinds.
This is Weatherby’s first shotgun since the company moved from California to Wyoming and it is a step up from the eminently affordable, Turkish-made Element (MSRP $549 for comparable model) series, one of the first of their guns to use an inertia-driven system. The 18i is made for Weatherby in Italy by Marocchi (www.marocchiguns.com), a firearms manufacturer founded in 1922. Examining the overall look and cosmetics of the 18i Synthetic and comparing them to photos of Marocchi’s I-First line of shotguns, it is hard to see much difference, except maybe in some details of the forearm.
The 18i is also built on the well-proven inertia system. Many shooters like the inertia-driven system since it does not build up carbon in the action like gas-operated semiautos. A good, clean gas-operated shotgun should give you reliable service all day long on a waterfowl hunt. In a dirty gun, though, that carbon can cause sluggish cycling or jamming of shells. Routine, regular cleaning is imperative.
Most inertia-driven guns I have fired in field situations performed reliably, except for one 12 gauge on a snowy/sleety morning in a Minnesota layout blind. The likely cause there was a very cold, wet gun coupled with the fact I likely was not shouldering it properly when rising from the blind. An inertia-driven gun needs that recoil to be met by a firmly resisting shoulder for the bolt to reliably cycle.
Weatherby’s 18i is decently balanced, with slightly more than half the total 7 pounds of weight desirably forward in the 28-inch, chrome-lined barrel with ventilated top rib. The barrel accommodates the Benelli Crio Plus Choke system. The shotgun comes with five choke tubes and a true choke tube wrench. The single-piece receiver is machined from billet aluminum. The synthetic stock has a soft-touch area on the cheek rest. The palm and foregrip are textured.
The Weatherby 18i Synthetic comes with a 4+1 capacity or 2+1 with the included magazine-limiting plug.
I like the 18i safety position right behind the trigger, the ideal location for quick response in rapid-action waterfowl scenarios. I also liked the thin forearm and comfortable pistol grip. The slightly over-sized trigger guard made it easy to slip in a gloved index finger. The shotgun has a high-luminosity LPA fiber front sight.
Now, I am hard on duck guns -- most waterfowlers are. Muddy marshes, boats, blinds with wire, wood and natural camouflage all take their toll on a shotgun. Keeping a gun free from debris is one thing; keeping it from knocking into things as it is quickly grabbed for a shot or transitioned from blind to boat to case is another.
The last hunt of the season, a special late season opportunity for youth and military veterans saw the Weatherby 18i in a beautiful tidal duck marsh just off the historic Pamunkey River. It was a second hunt with Monquin Creek Outfitters (www.facebook.com/MonquinCreek), one of the top waterfowl guiding operations in Virginia. The first was a cold, bluebirdy day in a blind that was easily accessed on foot. This final hunt featured a creek ride in a crowded jon boat to a small blind framed with fence wire and brushed up with cedar and pine.
Somewhere on that final hunt, I busted the fiber optic sight out of the Weatherby 18i’s mount. In full disclosure, I recall doing this with each of the last three waterfowl guns I have tortured on multiple hunts.
I love the visibility of the newer fiber optic sights, but they can be delicate and easily break or dislodge from their mounts -- at least for me, apparently a ruffian when it comes to duck guns.
The good news is anyone who has slung a lot of steel at ducks usually does not need a bead or any front optic. I am fairly sure the goose that fell to this gun that morning dropped sometime after the orange piece of fiber optic vanished on the floor of the blind. A solid, old-school, single bead at the end of the barrel still works for me in a duck gun.
The 18i’s length of pull is 14 1/3 inches, well manageable for most large-frame shooters. Length of pull and how cleanly a shotgun transitions to the shoulder is essential for wing shooting, especially in cold weather when shooters are wearing bulky clothing or parkas. Stocks and recoil pads can hang up in clothing as the gun transitions to a shoulder. I encountered no such difficulty, including a hunt during a late January snowstorm that had me in full, cold-weather parka mode.
The 18i Synthetic’s line brethren, the 18i Deluxe (MSRP $1,899) and the camouflaged 18i Waterfowler (MSRP $1,199) use the same choke system. The stylish Deluxe model is available only with 3-inch chambering.
I will say this about patterning the 18i Synthetic. It was a joy to shoot with 3-inch loads, with largely imperceptible recoil differences – to me, anyway – when compared with comparable loads shot from gas-operated shotguns. A few rounds of 3.5-inch steel and tungsten shots, however, had me thinking about how their substantial thumps might affect my “fun-factor” across a full morning of shooting. Some people might tolerate heavy magnum loads with ease, but my shoulder and cheek felt a big difference compared to the 3-inchers.
I tested patterns at 27 yards and 35 yards, using both modified and improved cylinder chokes and shooting at plain flip-chart paper 27 inches by 34 inches in size. The modified choke clearly delivered the best patterns at either distance.
Ammunition was hard to find so I dipped into my eclectic, personal stash of waterfowl loads collected over the years. Since I was unsure how much duck hunting I’d get to do and how many birds I might encounter if I was able to get out a few times, pattern testing was rudimentary, basically trying to see what I might shoot at birds ranging from wood ducks to geese.
Without doubt, Federal Black Cloud loads in #4 or Kent Fasteels in #3 were my best wood duck, teal and other small waterfowl options.
Sadly, there were not enough shooting opportunities at actual birds to determine whether the Weatherby 18i earned “new favorite” status, but there was plenty of evidence to indicate that this well-priced semiautomatic shotgun merits another chance. It performed admirably and is welcome to join me in a duck blind, field or boat any time.
For more information, please visit Weatherby.com. And for the entertaining “Cooking with Colton” wild game cooking videos produced in partnership with The Hunting Wire, see Ken Perrotte’s weblog at www.outdoorsrambler.com.