By Marshall Williams.
I love the .410. I also like bigger guns; I am aware of their advantages; and I use bigger guns when a .410 is inappropriate. But that cannot diminish my affection for the smallest of the common bores, and I also use .410s whenever they are appropriate.
I have not hunted, at least in the ordinary sense, in about 15 years, yet I would guess that during the preceding 25 years, when I hunted every chance I got, I walked more and pleasanter miles carrying a .410 than any other gun. The first game I ever shot, two cottontail rabbits, I killed with a little bolt action Mossberg .410. I have limited out on doves with a minimum number of shells using a Model 42, a pistol gripped gun with Cutts Compensator and spreader tube. I could not even guess how many South Texas blue quail, pygmy cottontails, and jack rabbits I killed using an old Remington 11-48 Skeet gun. I once killed six bobwhite quail on consecutive shots using the finest .410 I ever owned, a straight gripped and Skeet choked Winchester Model 42. I am now reduced to just one .410, a Remington 870 Skeet gun, but, when I regularly shot it at Skeet, I broke a surprising number of 25s and an occasional 49/50. Is it any wonder that I love .410s.
I seem to be the exception. Other shotgunners have no luck with .410s and don't like them. Why? A fair question, and one to which I think I can supply some of the answers.
The .410 is a short range gun. All you need to do is consider the shot charges available in .410 shells. Presently there are two: one half ounce in the 2 1/2 inch shell, and 11/16 ounce in the 3 inch shell. Even the 3/4 ounce shot charge for the 28 is larger than the present shot charge in the three inch .410 shell. (The 3/4 ounce charge was formerly available in the three inch .410, and, on those rare occasions when I load three inch .410s, sometimes I still use 3/4 ounce.)
Faced with limitations imposed by the diminutive shot charge, many shooters believe they can increase the effectiveness of the .410 by using the tightest chokes. While the reaction appears instinctive, the instinct is wrong. It is foolish to put tight chokes on a short range gun. You will note that most of my success with .410s involved open choked guns. Chokes only tighten patterns; they don't make guns more effective unless your shooting requires tight patterns. The .410 is a short range gun and tight patterns make it hard to hit a moving target at close range. Long experience convinces me that most .410s have too much choke.
According to the ancient rule of thumb, the killing part of a full choke pattern spreads at the rate of about one inch for each yard of range. At any given range, the full choke .410 pattern is no bigger than the full choked 12 gauge pattern. At 20 yards, the killing pattern of a full choke 12 gauge gun is about 20 inches wide. At 20 yards, the killing pattern of a full choke .410 is that same 20 inches wide. Skeet is shot at about 20 yards, but Skeet shooters don't use full chokes, they use open chokes, cylinder, Skeet, or improved cylinder. And Skeet guns give much wider patterns at these short ranges.
Think about that. One starts with the gun with the shortest potential range and then gives it tight chokes to make it a long range gun. Does anybody try that with 28 gauge guns? Not that I can tell. Every 28 I see is choked Skeet, IC, or mod. And that is what the .410 needs.
Let us look at what most .410 owners buy. I have abstracted all the .410 shotgun patterns from The American Rifleman between 1978 and the present. During that period, the 'Rifleman staff patterned nine conventional .410 bore barrels plus several unconventional ones. In deference to the short range promise of the .410, the 'Rifleman staff patterns .410s at a range of 25 yards. The 'Rifleman staff also patterns most Skeet guns at 25 yards. A comparison of .410 patterns with Skeet gun patterns is revealing.
For a great many years, the technical staff at The American Rifleman have used a very useful and interesting method to pattern-test shotguns. First, they count the number of pellets in ten shells of the type to be patterned and obtain an average number of pellets in the ammunition; then they average ten patterns with the shells and report the average. To take aiming error out of their pattern calculations, they shoot their patterns first and then draw their circle around the densest part.
To draw the circle, they use a circular template which has an outer diameter of 30 inches, but also has an inner ring of 21.4 inches cut out concentric with the outer circle. The 21.4 inch inner circle has exactly half the area of the 30 inch circle.
Nearby is a chart showing the NRA's .410 patterns plus patterns for a Ruger 20 gauge Skeet gun. Seven of nine .410 patterns (patterns 1.-7.) averaged 88% of their shot in the 30 inch circle and with an extremely dense 73% in the 21.4 inch ring, leaving a fringe of only 15% in the outer ring. These seven patterns are tight full choke patterns and, if extended to 40 yards, probably all would make a full 70% or even slightly better. But at 25 yards, half of the pattern area has only about 20% as much shot as the other half.
No wonder people think .410s pattern poorly. If you don't center your target with the full choke pattern, it will receive few hits indeed. And if you do center it, even the light charges of the .410 may badly damage it.
Compare those pattern numbers with the patterns (patterns 10. and 11.) for the Ruger 20 gauge Skeet gun directly below. The Ruger, which, by the way, gave particularly open Skeet patterns, averaged 55% in the 30 inch circle, 33% in the 21.4 inch circle and 22% in the outer ring. These patterns have extraordinarily well distributed shot placement for 25 yard shooting. In fact, most of the NRA's Skeet patterns run nearer 65% at 25 yards.
However, the magic is not in the 20's larger bore diameter; it is in the CHOKE! The Kimmel camp gun with 18 cylinder bored barrel (pattern 9.) shot patterns entirely comparable to the 20 gauge Ruger's Skeet patterns. The Browning Model 42 shot a very useful 65% pattern at 25 yards which, notwithstanding the full choke marking on the barrel, translates to about improved cylinder.
Which would you choose to shoot quail over dogs, 88% patterns or 50% to 65% patterns?
These patterns demonstrate the main problem with .410 bore shotguns better than any explanation. The .410 Skeet guns with which I did my best shooting gave patterns somewhere between the Kimmel and the Browning Model 42. My suspicion is that the best .410 to be a 20-30 yard bird gun would pattern somewhere between the Kimmel's 52% cylinder and the Browning Model 42's 65% modified. In fact, a .410 double patterning 52% and 65% at 25 yards would be a wonderful small game gun.
These patterns also dispel another .410 myth. Four of the tight patterns were shot with 2 1/2 inch shells in 3 inch chambers and three were shot with 3 inch shells in 3 inch chambers. There is no significant difference between the patterns of 2 1/2 inch and 3 inch shells when both are shot in 3 inch chambers.
I have said before (and I shall repeat it whenever I have the chance) the tightest full choke can not make a .410 into a 40 yard gun, but an improved cylinder or loose modified can make a .410 into a very nice 20 to 30 yard gun. Perhaps that is why I love the .410.
YARDS, NRA STANDARD PATTERN CIRCLES
25 YARDS, NRA STANDARD PATTERN CIRCLES
Headings: "Issue" is the issue of The American Rifleman in which the pattern appears; "gun" is an abbreviation of the manufacturer or importer of the gun used; "Charge" is the weight of shot charge; "size" is the shot size; "choke" indicates the marking on the barrel; "30"" is the percentage of the shot in the 30" pattern; "21.4" is the percentage of the shot in the central one-half the pattern's area; and ring" is the percentage of shot in the outer ring, the other half of the pattern's area.
Reprinted curtesy of Shotgun Sports Magazine, P.O. Box 6810, Auburn, CA 95604. www.shotgunsportsmagazine.com