Sep 10, 2014

The Little Guns

By: Mike Yurk

     The 28 gauge and 410 shotguns may be the little sisters of the shotgun family, but they have been around a long time and found a place in the hearts and minds of shooters who have kept those guns alive.

     The 410 is the one most people remember. It has remained a popular shotgun for over a century. Although it is a shotgun, its bore is not measured as a gauge that determines shotgun sizes, such as a 12 gauge shotgun. The 410 is actually a caliber and is still, at times today, misidentified as a 410 gauge shotgun.

     It was first introduced to shooters in the mid 1800s and was initially considered a gun for naturalists and as a defense firearm in walking canes. In those days, it came in two inch shells. Sometime in the early 1900s, it became popular in the United States, and for years has been considered the ideal small game gun for rabbits and squirrels.

     For many small game hunters, it still is the gun of choice. With smaller shells and less shot, it reduces damaging the meat as opposed to heavier shotguns such as a 12 or 20 gauge. In the early years, it was found in single shot and double barrel shotguns and bolt actions shotguns. The guns were inexpensive and the shells were also less expensive than the large shot shells so it was ideal for small game hunters on a budget. Throughout its history, the 410 has accounted for an awesome amount of rabbits and squirrels being put on the table.

     The 410 was also considered by many as the perfect gun for beginning hunters. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, a lot of young hunters received a 410 as their first shotgun. It had, of course, a lighter recoil which many people considered important for young hunters. I had a boyhood friend of mine who had a bolt action 410. There were a number of companies making bolt actions shotguns in those days, typically, with a three round capacity. Not only did he shoot a lot of rabbits with his 410, but it also had enough power for the occasional pheasant.

     The 28 gauge shotgun always seemed like an elite shotgun when I was a kid. We knew they were out there, but we seldom ever saw them. It seemed most people who wanted a small shotgun stuck with the 410 because shells were easy to find and the guns were inexpensive. If someone wanted something a bit bigger they normally went to 20 gauge.

     Anyone who had a 28 gauge usually had enough money to buy several guns. The 28 gauge remained a specialty gun for only the most avid and experienced hunters who normally hunted quail or grouse. Shells, at least in central Wisconsin when I was growing up, were hard to find. I do not ever remember going into a normal sport shop and seeing 28 gauge shells. It seemed to us then that those who shot a 28 gauge reloaded their own shells which seemed to add to its mystique.

     I do remember once walking through the woods in back of my parent’s house in the country north of Oshkosh and there, in the colored fall leaves on the ground, I saw a spent shell I had never seen before. I picked it up and examined it. It was a spent 28 gauge shell. I had heard of the 28 gauge before but never saw one. Someone apparently had been hunting in the woods with one. I was fascinated by it. I stuck it in my pocket and put it on a shelf in my bedroom for a number of years after that.

     By the 1970s, the 16 gauge shotgun was headed towards obscurity and it looked like the 28 gauge was also quickly disappearing. In Europe, both the 16 and 28 gauge remained popular with some bird hunters. Most people are surprised to know that, in addition to those two guns, English hunters have used 14, 24 and 32 gauge shotguns. Those last three shotguns are still in some limited use in Europe. Normally, shells are specialty ordered or hand loaded by those who own those guns.

     As the 16 and 28 gauge guns seemed to be disappearing, the 410 remained popular. I remember in my early teens sitting in a barber shop to get my monthly haircut. The normal routine was the barber normally ignored you if there were other adult customers there and only called you after you seemed to be sitting there forever. That was okay, as far as I was concerned, as it gave me time to read all the hunting and fishing magazines I normally didn’t see anyplace else.

     In one of the hunting magazines there was a story by Donald Hamilton who wrote a lot of spy books in those days. His best known character was Matt Helm, later played in the movies by Dean Martin. Spy books and movies were the rage in those days with the success of the James Bond series. He also was a big hunter and wrote a lot about guns and hunting. I still have a copy of his book on guns and hunting.

      I read his article about the advantages of the 410 as I patiently waited to be called for my haircut. Apparently, he had a problem with his shoulder and could not shoot any of the other shotguns because of the recoil, so he switched to the 410. He said shooting a 410 was a bit more challenging because there was less shot in each shell but it was still an effective shotgun for all birds, including ducks. This would have been in the days prior to the steel shot requirements for waterfowl.

     Many years after I read Donald Hamilton’s story, a friend of mine also bought a 410 for a similar reason. He was involved in two serious car crashes. He was rear-ended in one, and hit head-on in another. His neck and shoulders were permanently damaged and he thought his hunting days were over. However, he still wanted to hunt so he bought a semi-automatic 410 and thought his neck and shoulders could withstand the lighter recoil of it. He and a lot of other hunters who could no longer take the recoil of the larger shotguns are extending their hunting and shooting days by switching to the 410.

     I have always felt perhaps the 28 gauge shotgun could also be used by hunters who needed to reduce the recoil found in larger guns. The 28 gauge has had resurgence in the last twenty years. The 28 gauge shotguns I have seen are light and seem to have a quick point that appeals to hunters of smaller game birds. Quail and grouse hunters have found the 28 gauge to be ideal for the hunting they do. Although the 28 gauge can be challenging to shoot because it also has a smaller shell with less shot, it is a light gun, easy to carry all day when hunting and in the hands of a good shooter, it can be extremely effective. Because of the challenges of shooting a smaller gun it has a special appeal to some hunters.

     The 28 gauge also has found a place in trap and skeet shooting. A number of gun clubs have special competitive categories for the 28 gauge. At the trap and skeet range, I practice on before my annual pheasant hunting trip, they sell almost as many boxes of 28 gauge shells as they do 20 gauge. It has also found a place with women shooters both on the range and in the field. The daughter of one of my fishing and hunting buddies owns a 28 gauge side by side shotgun. I have shot trap with her and she is good with her little 28 gauge.

     Since the 410 and 28 gauge shotguns are not going away and are starting to gain more interest by shooters, companies making shells have recognized the need to provide a variety of shells to those who use the little guns. The Winchester Super X game loads have probably the widest selection. They have four offerings for the 28 gauge in the two and three quarter size in 5, 6, 7 and ½ and 8 shot. It is interesting to note the 28 gauge shells have one ounce of shot which is the same amount of shot Winchester puts in their 20 gauge shells.

     The Winchester Super X provide three shells both in the three inch and two and a half inch sizes. They come in 4, 6 and 7 and a 1/2 shot. The three inch shells carry 11/16 ounce of shot and the two and one half inch comes with a half ounce of shot. The 410 shells also come in slugs for both the two and a half inch and three shells. I read one report where a shooter wrote he hunts deer with a 410 slug and has killed deer with it.

    With the exception of perhaps Donald Hamilton, most people do not consider the little guns as practical waterfowl guns so I have never seen any shells for either guns loaded with non-lead shot.

    Gun companies have seen the renewed interest in the 28 gauge and the continued popularity of the 410 and have added them to their lines. In the days of my youth, the 28 gauge seemed to be found only in very expensive double barrels. However, the 410 was found in single shot, double barrel shotguns and bolt action guns. The bolt action shotgun has disappeared all together in any size. The last ones, I know of, were discontinued in the mid 1990s. They are still found on used gun racks from time to time, but no one is making them anymore.

     Today, both the 410 and 28 gauge can be as expensive as you want but several companies are making them in various models that are moderately priced. The Remington Wingmaster 870 pump shotguns now carry a 410 and a 28 gauge. They also have a 410 in their 1100 semi-automatic shotguns.The Mossberg 500 offers a pump shotgun in 410.

     Many people, including me, love the feel and lines of double barrel shotguns. Thankfully, there are a number of companies offering both over and under and side by side shotguns in both the 410 and 28 gauge that are great to look at and shoot for a reasonable price. The Mossberg International Silver Reserve offer the 410 and 28 gauge in an over and under and 28 gauge in a side by side. The Stoeger Condor has two models in both the 410 and 28 gauge over and under and one model each in 410 and 28 gauge in their side by side Uplander Field models. The Stevens 512 Gold Wing offers both a 410 and 28 gauge in an over and under shotgun.

     All these guns, the pumps, semi-automatic and double barrels I just mentioned, can be purchased for less than a $1000, and many of them run in the $600 to $700 range. The Stoegers sell for about $500.

     The 410 has also found a life in pistols. As a young hunter, I remember the 410 was offered in a single shot pistol with a long barrel for a pistol, but short for shotguns. It was called the Snake Killer, or something like that, and presumably was designed for that purpose. The 410 and 45 Colt have essentially the same base size on their shells so today a number of gun makers are now offering revolvers in a 45/410 combination. The cylinders of the pistols are longer to accommodate the 410 round and will accept both the two and a half and three inch shells.

     There have been rifles chambered for the 410. In 2003, Marlin made one of their Model 1895 lever actions in a 410. Although it was a unique gun, and found a devoted following, it wasn’t enough to justify continuing to make it after 2003. Currently, Harrington & Richardson, owned by Marlin, makes a rifle called the Survivor for the 410 and Colt 45. Taurus, who chambers a 410/45 Colt in their Judge revolver, also makes a rifle they call Circuit Judge Rifle, chambered for the 410/45 Colt combination. It is a unique looking rifle using the pistol cylinder that is used in their pistol. The entire rifle is a little less than 3 feet long with an eighteen inch barrel.

     The pistols and rifles are primarily used for 410 slugs. Although the manufacturers do not say you can’t use shot in the rifles and revolvers, the barrels are rifled and could possibly be fouled or damaged if shot was used in them.

     The little guns have found a spot in the hearts and minds of shooters, having survived and even thrived in today’s shooting world. If you are looking for something unusual or a shooting challenge, look at the little guns.