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The Littlest Shotshell

By Ralph M. Lermayer

The Littlest Shotshell
It takes a lot of self control to pass on the long shots. But for close-rising birds, you’re not undergunned with a 3-inch .410.

Here’s a question that could win you a cool one the next time you get together with your buddies.

Which has more power - a No. 6 pellet fired from a .410 or a No. 6 pellet fired from a 10-gauge magnum?

The answer? They are exactly the same.

Pellet energy from a .410 field load or a 12-gauge field load are identical. The only difference is there are fewer pellets in the .410. You might think the littlest shotshell has less power than its bigger cousins, but in truth, its shot will fly as fast and far with as much punch.

It just doesn’t throw as many punches. If you want to pick nits, the .410 might actually hit a little harder, as the smaller bore raises pressure, and the lighter load gets a tad more velocity. So much for the “puny” .410 rap.

The .410 is the only shotshell named for its true bore size as opposed to gauge. Gauge refers to the number of equally sized balls of a particular diameter than can be cast from a pound of lead. With a bore measuring .779 (12 gauge), you can cast 12 balls. The .410 is a true caliber. Its bore measures .410 inch.

It evolved from the vintage .44/40 rifle cartridge as a shot load designed to be fired in those rifles. It was a handy thing to have around the farm or ranch to back up such a rifle if pot or pest hunting was in the job description. At first, paper-wrapped shot loads were used in the bottleneck cases, but eventually the case was straightened and conventional wadding was added. Cases settled in about 2 1/2 inches long, went from brass to paper, and the .410 was born. It originally carried 3/8 to 1/2 ounce of shot until the early ’30s, when Winchester stretched it a bit to 3 inches so it could pack 3/4 ounce of shot. The Winchester Model 42 pump was chambered for it, and from that time until now, a 2 1/2- or 3-inch .410 has become known as the kid’s, women’s or barnyard pest control option. That might be the biggest misunderstanding in shooting.

Here are some more eye-opening facts to ponder when “measuring up” a .410. All shotgun gauges deliver a circle of shot that’s the same diameter with the same size shot and choke. At 25 yards, the diameter of the pattern of No. 6 shot fired from a 12-gauge modified choke is the same as that fired from a .410 with a modified choke. The difference is in the number of pellets in that circle.

A 3/4-ounce load of No. 6s for the .410 has 169 pellets. A 1 1/4-ounce load of No. 6s normally found in a 12-gauge field load contains 281 pellets. Although the 12 gauge’s circle is the same size as the .410’s, more than 100 more pellets will be inside it. That means fewer holes in the pattern of the 12-gauge load (more density). The question is, at 25 yards, are any of those so-called holes in the .410 pattern big enough to let a quail or pheasant pass through unscathed? Likely not, and it would be one very lucky bird.

The Littlest Shotshell
The 3-inch .410 and the original 2 1/2-inch. Most major manufacturers offer a .410 load for clays or field use.

I have patterned many .410s at 25 yards, and if a dove, quail or pheasant can get through those holes, you better call him Houdini. As distance increases, the diameter of the shot circle increases and the holes in the pattern increase to where they could create an escape hatch. But at 25 yards and under, the .410 kills them just as dead, just as fast. It’s at its best at 25 yards or less, and, in that range, gives up very little to the big guys.

Sunday and Thursday evenings find me at my local trap club. I usually bring along one of my .410s for a break between the 12 gauge work. I don’t shoot handicap with it. It’s a range thing. But from the close singles position (17 yards from the trap), I come very close to my 12 gauge scores. Inevitably, one of the guys will want to give it a whirl, and they’re always amazed at how well they do. Most trap birds on singles are taken well within 25 yards. The guns are light and lively, and tend to point well, and I think the shooters just concentrate a little harder, thinking they are somehow “handicapped.” In truth, they’re shooting the same downrange pattern (with fewer pellets) as they are with their big 12s, without the recoil and weight.

Beyond that, she’ll quit you fast. But inside of 25, with any load, a .410 is no slouch, and if holes in the pattern are a problem, switch to No. 7 1/2 shot. A 3/4-ounce load of 7 1/2s has 262 pellets. That’s about what you send downrange with the 12 gauge and No. 6s, only no more holes. Can a woodcock, quail, rabbit, squirrel, pheasant or clay bird get through? Not likely. Are 7 1/2s adequate for close pheasant? Trainloads have been killed with that load.

Today’s 3-inch .410 is usually stoked with 1 1/16 ounces of No. 4, 6, 7 1/2 and 8 shot. The 2 1/2-incher is usually packing 1/2 ounce of shot in those sizes. There’s even a slug available that is somewhat marginal for deer, but should end a dispute with a fox or coyote. For hunting, the 3-incher is the clear winner, especially if you prefer larger shot sizes. For a challenging round of skeet or close-rising quail over good dogs, however, the 2 1/2-inch .410 is a hoot.

The Guns

In spite of the fact that 12s and 20 gauges dominate sales, a surprising number of current makers still have a .410 in their lineup. Actually, you’re hard pressed to find a major manufacturer who doesn’t offer one. Single shots, side-by-sides, over-and-unders, semiautos and pumps abound. There has even been some interesting and wholly unexpected buyer acceptance of Winchester’s lever option, the 9410. Apparently, a lot of people beyond a bunch of women and kids understand the hidden virtues of this great and mighty midget.

Quality, of course, runs the gamut from ultra-cheap single shots to moderately priced pumps, and the crown prince of .410s, the high-end O/U double. Many are built on a frame size designed for larger gauges, and as such, they are larger and heavier than those designed and built solely for the .410. High-end imports from AyA, Hueglo, Beretta and such are a joy in the hands, as are those from Browning, Charles Daly, Ruger and Weatherby. They pack feather light and shoulder lightning fast, but the heavier guns aren’t without a virtue of their own. The recoil from a 3-inch .410 is mild, but when fired in a heavier framed shotgun, it’s almost non-existent.

Case in point: Two of my most used .410s are recent imports by Remington. The Spartan line is built in Russia and while humble and rugged in appearance, they are reliable and tough to a fault. Both are built on a 20-gauge frame and weigh about 6 1/2 pounds with selective-single trigger, one barrel fixed, full choke, the other modified. The added weight gives them the heft and feel of a 20 gauge, so follow-through takes no getting used to when I switch. With either, I can shoot multiple rounds of doubles and walk away from the line never knowing there was a nudge on the shoulder. In the field, they’re a delight. Retail: under $400. Budget busters? No way! Workhorses? All day long!

Subscribe Today!From the high-end Perazzi, whose price tag is not for the faint of heart, to the combination .22/.410 Savage 24V, there is a .410 to match any need. No, it’s not for pass-shooting ducks or geese, but don’t count it out for upland game, squirrels, upland birds or at the range. There’s even been a few turkeys in my freezer that have felt the punch of this misunderstood and much maligned sleeper. Wait until they’re close, and a face full of No. 4 or No. 6 shot is more than adequate. Pattern such a load through a full-choked .410, and you’ll be surprised at how many pellets fall in the kill zone.

If there’s one problem with the existing lineup of fixed-choke .410s, it’s in the constriction of the full-choke barrel. Many are what I believe to be overchoked to the standard .020 constriction designated the norm for a .410 full choke. Inside 25 yards, patterns can be excessively tight. My field guns carry a .010 to .015 constriction, more along the lines of modified. These perform far better in the field and at the range. Changeable choke tubes are the answer, but that will usually move you up in price. For a reasonable charge, Briley ( will open up your fixed-choke barrel.

Stick with the 3-inch field loads, No. 7 1/2 for upland or No. 6s for the heavier stuff, keep shots within 25 yards and give that .410 a whirl. You’ll discover you’re not nearly as undergunned as the pundits say, and you’ll have a lot of fun shooting.

Reprinted from the November 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine

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