By Brent Birch, contributing editor
Although the official start of fall doesn’t occur until the third week of September, the vibe around my house noticeably shifts from weekends at the lake to college football and the great southern tradition of dove hunting. Although doves don’t seem as plentiful as they used to (nor the manicured sunflower fields and other habitat that congregates those fast flyers), the opening weekend for doves officially kicks off what I affectionately call “shotgun season.”
A typical dove season is short and sweet as most shooters don’t chase them much after the initial weekend. Notice as I didn’t say hunters as it’s not really “hunting” as the typical person that partakes barely hides and simply shoots as they whiz around the field. A chance to break out hunting gear for the first time in a good bit, a challenging target and big social gatherings after the hunt make the effort worthwhile.
But those couple of days start a routine schedule that seems to make the fall accelerate. Saturday football followed by the preparation and then the various deer seasons passes the time at what feels like a rapid pace. All in a push to get to my favorite time of year…duck season. The early arrival of migrating mallards around Halloween builds an incredible amount of anticipation as to how the upcoming season will go. Will be the season where the amount of ducks keep up with all the good times had (whether we shot a limit or never clicked the safety off).
Naturally, growing up in Arkansas, the historic duck hunting capital of the world, and being fortunate enough to start hunting ducks at such an early age, the sport of waterfowling runs deep in me. Duck hunting has a similar impact with my family as well as my dad became an avid hunter around the time I was born in the early 1970s and still pursues them as hard as ever. My adult sons also enjoy the sport and even my wife will go a handful of times each year. Not without some very specific requirements like temperatures above 60 degrees and zero chance of precipitation.
Of all my possessions related to duck hunting, the coolest thing I own came from my maternal grandfather who I never met and to my knowledge, never duck hunted. Samuel Morris Dodds passed away just before I was born and while not into ducks, he did like to hunt birds, rabbits and squirrels. Despite seeing this item historically tied to him, it was unavailable to touch, much less use while I was growing up. I had lost track of who was in possession of this piece of equipment.
Then about five years ago or so, my mother inquired if I would like to have my grandfather’s 1956 Belgian-made Browning Auto-5.
The answer came quickly with a resounding YES!
A 1950s A5 is a treasured shotgun with many still in use today. The manufacturing of the gun was halted for World War II but began again in the 1950s and its popularity skyrocketed. The reliability of Browning’s long recoil system where the bolt and barrel kicked backwards at the same time cycled shells faster than anything on the market.
My grandfather’s version was an A5 Light as he primarily hunted small game. The “light” version was anything but light in weight but only provided for 2 ¾” shells. If you’ve ever had the good fortune of shouldering one of these weapons, they are quite heavy. Especially compared to today’s 12 gauge guns.
We estimated the gun had not been fired in over thirty years as it was far too nice to drag around rice fields and wet dogs. While the timeline is a bit fuzzy as to the last time it was in action, there was no doubt it definitely had not since the requirement of steel shot. I am not a collector of guns so if I was going to be in possession of using this shotgun, my first order of business was to find a compatible barrel capable of shooting modern waterfowl loads.
Given the gun was chambered for 2 ¾” shells, my field was narrowed quite a bit to get a 26” vent rib barrel with an improved cylinder choke viable for duck hunting. I stumbled across a gentleman that had an archaic website but carried oodles of hard to find gun parts. His inventory included a Japanese milled authentic Browning barrel with the exact specifications I was seeking. Japanese gun manufacturer Meroku began exclusively making Browning A5s in 1976 in an attempt to reduce costs. Miroku produced A5s until 1999 while also making the popular Browning Citori over and under shotgun.
An obvious next step was to find out if the gun would still function after all that time. I had very little doubt the gun would still fire but I had my doubts whether it would still cycle shells effectively. A local gunsmith put the old A5 through its paces and determined all it needed was a little lubrication in the right places and some new springs.
After some basic upgrades that were light on the pocketbook, I was in possession of perhaps the perfect nostalgic shotgun ideal for hunting the historic flooded green timber of my home state. As previously mentioned, this gun is far too nice and way too heavy to tote on a field hunt. Also, with 2 ¾” shells, the knockdown power of steel shot wasn’t ideal for anything over 30 yards.
Despite all the upgrades, I don’t break it out very often as I would like to keep the legacy of the gun moving forward. I’ve probably ventured out with the A5 a dozen times since restoring it in 2018 and it has performed flawlessly. My aforementioned sons would come into possession of the gun one day and my hope is they get to take it along on special hunts as I have.
I’m certain my late grandfather never, ever envisioned his shotgun still being in use in 2022 or getting to go in some of the historic places it’s been. My guess is he would be as fascinated by the gun's adventures as I am that it still functions as well as it does. As it stands today, the odds of this gun making it to the 100 year mark are strong and hopefully ducks and duck hunting will sustain.
Otherwise, what would there be to look forward to if there were no ducks to look forward to during “shotgun season”?
About the Author
The author (R) and his oldest son, Reid, with the 1956 A5 “Belgian Browning” in the flooded timber of Arkansas.
A lifelong waterfowler who cut his teeth duck hunting in the White River Bottoms at Crocketts Bluff as well as rice fields and reservoirs across Lonoke, Prairie, and Arkansas counties, Brent Birch is the publisher of The Grand Prairie: A History of Duck Hunting’s Hallowed Ground, which details the legacy of Arkansas’s rich waterfowling history. He is also co-creator and editor of Greenhead: The Arkansas Duck Hunting Magazine and co-founder of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame located in Stuttgart, Arkansas.