“You can have any shot size you want, as long as it’s #6.”

The trouble with empiricism

How many times have you walked into your local firearms dealer’s premises and asked for a box of .410 cartridges? Assuming you have, you’ve probably been confronted with the problem implicit in the question that forms the title of this article.

Shotgunning, like everything else in life, is subject to a number of pervading myths and false truths. Folk discover that something works well or doesn’t work at all, but for one reason or another can’t explain why – either it’s too complicated or the theory just doesn’t tie up with the evidence in front of them. This can be particularly true of field shooting.

The trouble with this empirical approach isn’t people asserting that something thing works or doesn’t work. Although they may have no hard evidence to back up what they’re saying, they may be telling the truth on the basis of their own, very real experience. That’s fair enough.

Rather, the problem with empiricism is second-order: people have become so used to accepting as gospel the opinion of self-professed experts or even anyone with a modicum of greater experience than themselves, that they don’t question any more whether the things that are claimed are based on solid evidence, or even substantial experience. For this reason, some “facts” about shooting which are at best questionable and at worst, simply wrong, have come to be held as truth, when in fact, the reality is quite different.

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of the .410.

What Voltaire didn’t say

Consider several beliefs, often held to be “truth” amongst shooters and yet no more than common myths:

“The smallest shot size suitable for live quarry is #6.”

Without reference to range, the type of bird or even the type of shot, it is a widespread myth (or perhaps, to use a kinder word, a “tradition”), that game birds ought to be shot with #6 shot (or larger). Anything smaller is frequently branded as “inhumane” and arguments on this subject frequently break out when a group of hunters find themselves in the same room with nothing else to talk about.

“The .410 isn’t meant for birds, but for ground game.”

Another common myth: a .410 is good only for shooting stationary targets at short range, which means a sitting rabbit at 20 yards is fine, but a bird? No-one shoots wingéd game with a .410, do they!?

“If a .410 isn’t choked full, it won’t kill properly.”

Pervading any discussion of the .410 or small bores in general is the common assumption that there are so few pellets in any .410 cartridge that it is impossible to achieve a usable pattern density without a gun choked full (and full) – conveniently forgetting the fact that average pattern density will tend to be approximately 10% (or one degree of choke) higher, for every 5 yards closer you get to the target.

“The .410 is for boys and women who can’t handle a full-sized gun.”

What about the final, great .410 untruth – that it is an “introductory” bore size used to introduce petite ladies and small children to shooting, before they move onto a “proper” gauge?

Between them these myths probably account for the woeful state of the .410 gun and cartridge market in this country (and a lot more of the prejudices against which open-minded shooters have to compete besides). It would be easy to blame the cartridge manufacturers for this of course, but they can hardly be blamed for providing the product that shooters think they want rather than the one which might actually maximize the capabilities of those shooters’ guns – they have to make a profit after all.

Rather, an apparent conspiracy of shooters’ ignorance and the unwillingness of the shooting media to disabuse their readers of their mistaken perception of the .410, allows them to continue unabashed in their belief that guns of this bore size have no place in “serious” shooting.

The #6 Myth

To return to the title of this article, it is neither true, of course, that all .410 cartridges are loaded with #6 shot, although the difficulties that many of us have in obtaining cartridges loaded with anything else might suggest that to be the case. Although it is hardly possible to stuff enough #6 pellets into a 3″ .410 cartridge to make a pattern usable at 30 yards, let alone one suitable for all reasonable ranges (e.g. 40 yards), it has been the author’s experience that firearms dealers very rarely stock anything else because customers generally will not pay money for cartridges that contradict the prejudices listed above. In fact, upon receiving one’s inquiry, the dealers will often promulgate these very myths themselves, in an attempt to sell what they have rather than what one actually wants. In short, the market is skewed to the point where hardly anyone has an interest in whether what they’re selling is the best tool for the job – provided it sells.

It could reasonably be argued that #7 shot is a little on the small side for rabbit. It could likewise be argued that, if the user of a .410 expects to be limited to an effective range of 25 yards, that the atrocious patterns thrown by cartridges loaded with tiny charges of unsuitably large shot do not matter – except of course, that their inevitable failure to kill reliably at longer range compounds the mistaken impression that the .410 is too limited and incapable to be genuinely useful.

Happily, a small, dedicated band of enthusiasts know better. We know that the history of the gauge is not found in the grouse moors and pheasant fields of England, but in the control of small pest species in an agricultural environment, particularly in the area of fruit farming.

We recognize that the commonly found, modern 2″ .410 loading, containing 9 grams of #6 shot is about as effective as simply hoping that our quarry will simply fall out of the sky and into our bag without our intervention, but that its ancestor – the same cartridge loaded with #10 or #11 shot – is an extremely effective killer of the sparrows and other songbirds which decimate vineyards and olive groves in the regions where those crops are cultivated. (If you have ever explored the websites of the Italian cartridge companies and wondered at the range of cartridges loaded with seemingly gigantic loads of tiny shot and dispersante wads, this is the reason they exist.)

What we understand more than anything however, is that the .410 was never intended to be a “do-everything” gun and that those who try to make it do the job of a 12 gauge will always be disappointed. Historically, the .410 has more in common with the rimfire shot shell gauges than it does with the 28 gauge, although in purpose it has since moved away from the Flobert cartridges towards the 28. The introduction by Winchester in 1933 of the 3″ case was a nod in the direction of versatility, though even that development – whilst going some way to addressing the payload deficiency inherent in the smaller 2″ / 2½” shells introduced its own peculiar issues (which are discussed elsewhere on this site).

The Solution

So how would the team at SmallBoreShotguns.com improve the situation?

The .410 can be made into a very effective small-to-medium game gun with proper attention given to the mitigation of the factors which are detrimental to all gauges but which in the .410 are particularly pronounced. However, attempting to address those factors without first satisfying the basic requirement of a cartridge which balances the competing requirements of pellet energy and pattern density will always be somewhat unproductive.

The single greatest improvement that could be made to the market for the .410 in the UK is to take a lesson from the continental tradition and demand from the cartridge companies loadings in smaller shot sizes. A concerted move away from cartridges loaded with #5 and #6 shot, which are prevalent but undoubtedly too big to provide the best balance between pattern and energy, towards the smaller sizes, would go a long way to encouraging a general re-evaluation of the gauge and its capabilities. The pellets in Eley’s 12.5g/#5 “Fourlong” load, for example, would probably still kill a game bird at 50-60 yards – but the pattern to do so will have failed at around 20 yards, even with a gun giving full-choke performance, which is clearly indicative of a poorly-balanced cartridge. There are many similar commercially-available examples.

Were such a re-evaluation were to happen, it might turn out that, in spite of the designs on many a box of .410 cartridges, the gauge is not best suited to the control of rabbits, but is rather most at home dealing with small birds at moderate ranges – pigeons over decoys or early season grouse, for example. It might – one would hope – provoke a renaissance in controlled, moderate shooting which would go some way to counteracting the higher, further, faster trend which pervades modern game shooting, no doubt enriching the few in possession of cliffs over which to drive birds, but – in many eyes – doing nothing to improve the quality of the sport. Perhaps to some extent, this swing back to “reasonableness” is already under way with recent increased interest in shotgun reloading and the greater availability of kit and components with which to do so.

Smaller Shot, Better Patterns

For small to medium game birds (e.g. pigeon, grouse, partridge), the use of #7 shot would seem quite reasonable and in the typical 16-18g 3″ loadings, will provide sufficient pattern density to kill effectively as far out as 40 yards in a moderately-choked gun. #7 shot will also kill ground game, although to do so reliably, one would ideally keep the ranges shorter to ensure that the pellets retained sufficient energy to cleanly kill the quarry.

To step further along the path of smaller shot sizes: our natural prejudice against using “clay” size shot for game shooting, for fear of wounding birds, makes us think twice about using smaller shot than #7, but a cloud of #8’s at average velocity will kill at 25 yards and #7½ shot will reach out to 30 or even 35 yards. Provided we are disciplined enough to restrict our shooting to birds genuinely within those ranges, there is no reason that any of the aforementioned sizes should be considered unsuitable for game shooting. At the ranges listed above, as little as 8½g of #8, 12½g of #7½ and 16½g of #7 (respectively) through a half choke will give the pattern density required* to reliably bring down a small-to-medium game bird.

Beyond that, the fate of the .410 lies in better education. Some shooters, or even most of them, have no interest in the great labyrinth of detail which exists within shotgun shooting and only scratch the surface of the knowledge developed and extended over many generations of hunters and hunting. We do not argue that they will be or are unsuccessful in their ignorance, but they may not get the best out of themselves, their equipment or their hunting life.

Shot well, or even half-well, a double .410 is an excellent tool for the hedge-wandering hunter – challenging, satisfying, requiring of self discipline and quite remarkably effective if used within its capabilities. In the current market, with few affordable double guns and even fewer sensible cartridges available to the average .410 shooter, it is perhaps difficult for many of us to discover that fact for ourselves, or to provide evidence supporting those assertions to others who are sceptical. Here at SmallBoreShooting.co.uk however, our happy band of enthusiasts will continue to make the case for the .410 as vigorously and in as evidence-based a way as we can.

Thanks for reading!

* = 120 pellets in the standard 30″ circle at 40 yards.