Choosing the Right Shotgun Gauge
January 27, 2017
Like most youngsters growing up during what I fondly describe as the era of innocence, the first shotgun I received from my father was chambered for the .410 shotshell. Unlike most other kids, I never managed to outgrow our littlest shotshell, and to this day I use it for a great deal of my upland hunting. I have used it to take about every game bird you can think of, from perdiz and doves in Argentina to ptarmigan in Canada to ringneck pheasant, ruffed grouse, and Hungarian partridge in between.
My proudest achievement with the .410 is taking the Grand Slam of quail during the same hunting season. For the benefit of those who might not be familiar with all six species found in the United States, they are the bobwhite, Mearns, scaled, Gambel, mountain, and California, the latter also commonly known as valley quail. The gun I used during my quest was a Weatherby Athena over-under.
I enjoy hunting with the .410 because it is so much fun to shoot and because of the great little shotguns that have been chambered for it. My favorites, in addition to the Weatherby Athena, are a Winchester Model 42 pump gun and two side-by-side doubles, an L.C. Smith and an Iver Johnson Skeet-er.
The Weatherby was given to me years ago by one of my best friends, and the L.C. Smith was built during the year of my birth, making both especially special. The Skeet-er was built decades ago, back when skeet was still a hunter's off-season sport and many who participated used side-by-side doubles. I also have Briley .410 insert tubes for my 28-gauge AyA double and for my Browning Superposed Lightning in 20 gauge.
I use the 2½-inch shell when shooting skeet with the .410 and have also used it when shooting liberated quail on hunting preserves, but for the most part I stick with the 3-inch shell. The 11/16-ounce loads from Remington and Federal are quite good, but in some guns, Winchester's 3/4-ounce load is a tad better simply because it holds a few more lead pellets. After spending hours at the pattern board and taking a lot of birds ranging in size from quail to pheasant with the 3-inch shell, I have concluded that in the hands of someone who knows how to shoot, it is capable of doing anything that can be done with the 28-gauge shell when it is loaded with 3/4 ounce of shot.
The .410 has long been criticized as being difficult to hit with, and I believe it stems from the fact that most guns chambered for it in the old days had Full chokes. In addition to being an avid hunter, my father was quite knowledgeable about guns. He was also right at home in a machine shop. My first .410 was a single shot made by Iver Johnson and prior to giving it to me, he opened up its choke to what I later determined to be about Improved Cylinder. Once I learned how to shoot the little gun, I had no problem holding my own in the field with Dad and his hunting buddies. I am not sure who was more proud of that, my father or me.
Even though I love the .410, I am quick to admit it is not for every hunter. In the hands of a good shotgunner it will cleanly take birds up to the size of pheasant out to 30 yards, but beyond that distance, pattern density starts to become too thin for consistent kills. Anyone who cannot turn down more distant shots at birds should hunt with a bigger shotshell. Those of us who hunt with the .410 have something in common with those who hunt with a muzzleloading rifle; we love hunting with what we hunt with so much we are willing to accept its limitations.
I fell in love with the 28 gauge during my skeet shooting days and have since used it to take about every game bird in North America. I have also used it to bump off a few doves in South America. I hunt with the 28 gauge for the same reason I hunt with the .410â€”-its light recoil makes it a joy to shoot and some great guns have been and still are chambered for it.
The Weatherby Athena I mentioned earlier is one of them; in addition to having barrels in .410, it also has barrels in 28 and 20 gauges. Also favorites are a pair of side-by-side doubles, a Parker and a No. One grade AyA. I also hunt a great deal with a Winchester Model 12 and a Remington Model 1100. I used to hunt some with a 28-gauge Franchi 48AL until an old quail hunting pal talked me out of it for his wife.
When I am headed to Alaska for a big-game hunt, I sometimes take along a New England Pardner single shot. It weighs very little, takes up practically no space when taken down, and using it to hunt ptarmigan during the few days often left in a hunt after taking my moose or caribou or bear is much more fun than sitting around reading a book.
As I mentioned before, when the two are loaded with 3/4 ounce of shot, the .410 and 28 gauge are performance twins, but switching to Winchester's 1-ounce loading of the 28 gauge extends its practical range to about 10 yards beyond that of the smaller shell. The 28 gauge really leaps ahead of the .410 when the larger shot sizes are used simply because it holds more of the bigger pellets. When hunting pheasant, I want nothing smaller than No. 6 shot and actually prefer No. 5, and the 28 gauge holds enough more of those than the .410 to make it a better choice for shots beyond 30 yards.
When we get to the 20 gauge, we arrive at all the shotshell most of us need for most of the upland hunting we do. It is not a good choice for waterfowl simply because it does not hold enough of those big steel pellets for anything but close-range shooting over decoys. For the same reason, it is not a good choice for hunters who shoot deer with buckshot. For everything else the 20 gauge is a better all-around choice than smaller shells, and from a practical point of view it is as good a choice as anything bigger.
The 2¾-inch 20-gauge shell loaded with an ounce of shot will handle about 90 percent of upland wingshooting, and for the remaining 10 percent there is the 3-inch shell loaded with 1¼ ounces of shot. I have been hunting with the 20 since I was a teenager, and the only time I move up to the 3-inch shell is when hunting pheasant late in the season when they have a tendency to flush wild. For that type of shooting I prefer to use No. 4 shot, and the longer version of the 20-gauge shell holds enough of them to deliver adequate pattern density as far away as I care to shoot.
When it comes to hunting deer with a shotgun, 12-gauge sabot loads deliver a heavier blow, but when we consider that some 20-gauge loads are not too far behind the performance of 300-grain .45-70 factory loads, it becomes obvious that the 20 is plenty for the biggest buck in the woods. For distances much greater than 100 yards, and for really big black bears at any range, I'd pick the 12 over the 20, but for shots at woods ranges on deer, I'd just as soon have the smaller gauge.
Same goes for bumping off Thanksgiving dinner. There was a time when no 20-gauge load came close to equaling the effectiveness of 3-inch, 12-gauge turkey loads, but the introduction by Federal of its 1½-ounce Heavyweight load in the 20 gauge totally leveled the playing field. Due to the extremely high density of Heavyweight shot, a No. 7 pellet delivers the same energy at 40 yards as a No. 5 lead pellet, and since there are 337 of them in Federal's 20-gauge turkey load, it will do anything that can be done with any 3-inch, lead-shot loading of the 12-gauge shell.
I love the 20 gauge for upland wingshooting for the same reasons I love the 28 and .410; it is comfortable to shoot, and many guns chambered for it are slim, trim, and easy to carry. Favorite guns? Well, the Weatherby Athena I have mentioned twice already is one. Another is a Remington Model 1100 Skeet gun that was one of my father's favorite quail guns. Then there's Dad's beautiful little Lightning-grade Browning Superposed. Last but not least is a Winchester 101 over-under; I bought it at Pepper's Hardware in Easley, South Carolina, during the 1960s, and it has dropped a lot of doves and quail through the years.
Even though I do about 90 percent of my upland hunting with smaller gauges, I will have to admit the 12 gauge has a lot going for it. Guns built around it don't feel as lively in the hands as the smaller bores, but over-unders with steel-reinforced aluminum receiversâ€”such as the Winchester 101 Light, CZ Upland Ultra Light, and Beretta Ultralightâ€”come mighty close. Those guns weigh from 5¾ to 6¼ pounds. Not long back I hunted pheasant in South Dakota with the Winchester and had to keep reminding myself that I was not carrying a 20. A few of the lightweight side-by-sides from Ruger, AyA, Merkel, Arrieta, CZ, and a few others are also quite nice.
When it comes to versatility, the 12 gauge is the clear winner. Ammunition choices range from light target loads that come close to duplicating the recoil of the 20 gauge to shoulder-pounding, waddle-pulverizing turkey loads capable of dropping a big gobbler at half the length of a football field. For waterfowling with steel shot, only the 10-gauge is equal to the 3½-inch 12 gauge, but the problem is only Remington and Browning offer guns for it. Those who use dogs to harvest deer and end the chase with a load of buckshot have to have nothing smaller than 12 gauge, and while some 20-gauge slug loads are plenty effective on deer, the number of different loads in 12 gauge far outnumber them. Another advantage to owning a 12 is anytime something new in shotshell loads is developed, it almost always appears first in the 12 gauge.
Since I hunt more with the smaller gauges, I have more favorite guns chambered for them, but I am quite fond of a few 12s as well. I no longer shoot registered skeet, but when I did, a Krieghoff 32 with tubes in 20, 28, and .410 is what I used. I still shoot a bit of trap for fun, mostly with a Remington 90T single shot for singles and a Remington 3200 over-under for doubles. When shooting sporting clays I probably use a Remington 1100 that was stocked by the Remington custom shop more than anything else. My favorite 12-gauge hunting gun is a 1920s-vintage Fox Sterlingworth, but I also enjoy chasing pheasants with an old Winchester Model 97 pump gun. I often head to the turkey woods with a Remington 870 wearing a scope, and among modern autoloaders, the Beretta Vinci has really impressed me. I also shoot the Browning Maxus reasonably well.
16 & 10 Gauges
Neither the 16 gauge nor the 10 gauge is very popular among hunters anymore, but if I don't at least mention them, I am sure to receive a few letters and e-mail messages from their fans. I like both, and an old 16-gauge L.C. Smith that used to be one of my father's favorites is now one of my favorite hunting guns. It fits me like a glove, carries almost like a 20, and has proven quite effective on everything from ruffed grouse in Michigan to pheasant in South Dakota to sharptail grouse in Montana. Even so, only those who are either addicted to the 16 or who enjoy hunting with something everyone else is not hunting with buys guns chambered for it these days simply because of the limited variety of loads available. It's a pity because I can remember when the 16 gauge was second in popularity only to the 12 gauge and far more popular than the 20 gauge.
The 10 gauge is my favorite for goose hunting, but my preference has as much to do with gun as with shotshell. The 3½-inch 12 gauge holds as many of those gander-folding, triple-B steel pellets, but no gun chambered for its is as comfortable to shoot as Remington's SP10. I have one built during the first year of production, and it is identified as such by the "LE" (Limited Edition) prefix in its serial number. I prefer it over any 12 gauge for goose hunting because its weight makes it more comfortable to shoot with heavy waterfowl loads than any 3½-inch 12-gauge gun I have tried.
Choosing the right gauge boils down to what a shotgun will be used for, but why pick just one when you can have one of each? Truth of the matter is, I cannot imagine anyone owning too many firearms of any type, and that includes shotguns.