The very first shotgun that I owned was a single shot New England Firearms .410 Pardner model I received on my eighth birthday. Owning that gun symbolized a major step toward adulthood, for I would then be able to break clays and hunt squirrels, rabbits and quail alongside my dad. I’m not sure I was as excited to receive my first car, because the .410 was the key that opened the door to hunting for me.
Over time I decided that I had outgrown the .410, and five years later stepped up to the more versatile 20 gauge. Eventually I started shooting a 12 gauge, and the little single-barrel .410 was relegated to the dark confines at the rear of the gun safe where I presumed it would stay until my own kids were old enough to shoot a shotgun.
Surprisingly, though, I find myself using my old .410 single-shot more frequently in my 40s than I did in my teens. It’s my go-to gun for controlling nuisance starlings and rats around the barns on my farm, and I still use it regularly when I’m hunting cottontails and squirrels. The light-recoiling, easy-to-carry .410 bore chambering (note: it's a caliber, not a gauge) doesn’t afford me the range or payload of a 12 or 20 gauge. That said, thanks to new high-density shotgun pellets, it has proven effective for killing turkeys at ranges of 35 yards (or even more) and has become the new “it” gun among gobbler hunters.
The .410 has also become a popular choice for personal defense, especially in revolvers like the Taurus Judge and Smith & Wesson Governor, and ammunition companies have started developing dedicated self-defense loads for the .410. With very low recoil and surprising versatility the .410 is seeing a resurgence in popularity among shooters of all ages and experience levels.
What’s in a Name?
Twelve, 16, 20- and 28-gauge firearms are named based upon the number of lead balls measuring the diameter of the gun’s bore that are required to weigh one pound. The 16 gauge, then, has a bore diameter that is the equivalent of a one-ounce lead ball, 16 of which would be required to make a pound. The 12 gauge, then, requires just 12 bore diameter lead balls to make a pound, so bore diameter is inversely related to gauge.
The .410 is the only popular shotshell not listed by gauge but rather caliber, so technically speaking the term “.410 gauge” is incorrect. If the .410 were listed as a gauge is would be referred to as a 67 gauge. You do occasionally see factory ammunition labeled “.410 Gauge,” probably because so many hunters and shooters incorrectly believe that is the proper name.
Why the .410 is Becoming More Popular
The .410’s first major popularity jump in recent memory came when Taurus began selling Judge revolvers over a decade ago. That wasn’t the first time that the .410 was ever conceived as a self-defense firearm; after all, .410 shotguns have protected American homesteads against intruders for over a century. Nor was it the first time that a handgun had been chambered in .410 (the Thompson/Center Contender single shot had been offering .410/.45 Colt Contender barrels before the Judge arrived).
Still, it was perhaps the novelty and the super-cool look of the oversized Judge that initially attracted buyers. What was soon discovered is that the .410 was relatively easy to shoot from the Judge, especially when firing 2½-inch shells. Ammo manufacturers jumped on board to offer loads for America’s new Judge owners, and many of these defensive designs were as unique and innovative as they were effective. Hornady’s 2½-inch Triple Defense featured two .35-caliber lead balls packed behind a .41-caliber FTX slug; there's also Winchester’s PDX1 .410 Defender, which fires four plated Defense Disc projectiles and 16 plated BBs with each shot.
When lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting nationwide in 1991 it forced ammunition companies to look for effective alternatives. Steel was one of the first projectiles used in place of lead, but steel was much less dense than lead and thus didn’t possess equal killing power. Bismuth and tungsten were effective but expensive alternatives. Then came Tungsten Super Shot, or TSS. TSS is a tungsten alloy that is has a density of 18.1 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc). By comparison, lead has a density of 11.3 g/cc and steel just 7.9 c/cc.
What does this have to do with the .410? A great deal, actually. Because TSS is so incredibly dense, and because kinetic energy is a result of velocity multiplied by mass, TSS packs a lot of punch into a little projectile. For instance, a #9 pellet of TSS hits with the same energy as a #4 lead pellet. And since you can fit a lot more #9 pellets in a small shell than #4s, TSS has reimagined the limitations of the .410 shotshell.
I’ve seen what TSS can do for a .410 first-hand. While hunting ducks on Mississippi’s Beaverdam Lake last year, I was joined by Jared Lewis of Apex Ammunition. Jared was carrying a .410 shotgun, and I had real reservations about how well a .410 would do on ducks. I needn’t have worried. The first bird Jared killed, a mallard drake at about 30 yards, dropped cleanly from the sky after a single shot was fired.
Turkey hunters have been overwhelmingly impressed by how well .410 shotguns with TSS perform on gobblers. To see why these dense .410 loads are so effective one needs only to look at the pattern these shells print on a turkey target. Remembering that each one of those pellets of #9 TSS carries the same energy as a #4 pellet of lead it’s not uncommon to see tow or three times as many pellets in the vitals with TSS as with regular lead shot.
A .410 for All
There are a wide variety of shotguns and handguns chambered in .410 for a range of hunting and shooting. The aforementioned Taurus Judge and Smith & Wesson Governor revolvers are effective personal defense firearms (although a bit on the large side for concealed carry), and they’re also quite fun to shoot at the range. Rossi’s clever Circuit Judge is a revolver with an 18.5-inch barrel and a full-length stock, which essentially makes it a revolving shotgun that’s great for everything from turkey hunting to home defense.
Lever fans will love Henry’s stylish lever action .410, and their one-of-a-kind “Axe” .410 lever-action with short stock and barrel is a novel concept for personal protection. There are a number of .410 shotguns designed for turkey hunting, everything from Savage’s Model 301 single shot (which carries a price tag under $200), to semiautos like Mossberg’s SA-410 Turkey and Tristar’s Viper G2. For those who want to hunt doves and upland birds, Browning’s classic BPS pump is once again available in .410 and is one of the few shotguns that works equally well for right- or left-handed shooters, and Mossberg International’s striking new Gold Reserve over/under is a lightweight gun that produces mild recoil and works perfectly for hunting small game or upland birds or for shooting clay targets.
Is the .410 the perfect shotgun? No. It’ll never possess the power or range of a 12 or 20 gauge, but thanks to modern high-density shot, it’s inching closer to bigger bores in terms of performance. Today’s .410 is a legitimate and ethical gun for taking turkeys and ducks, something that couldn’t be said a few years ago, and it remains a popular choice for personal protection. The best part? It’s fun to shoot, producing very little punch compared to the more popular 12 and 20 gauges. The .410 is still a great beginner’s gun, but now it’s suitable for a much wider range of applications than ever before.