winchester model 42 pigeon grade shotgun
Winchester Model 42 Pigeon Grade Skeet Slide Action Shotgun, via Rock Island Auction Company Rock Island Auction Company

What lovelier shotgun can there be than a .410 built on the proper-sized action? The old Winchester Model 42 is sleek as a Ferrari, and the new Tristar G2 Viper .410 is equally svelte. Go to the National Rifle Association’s museum and check out the .410 Purdey, Boss, Holland & Holland and other classic British doubles in the Robert Petersen Collection, and they look like magic wands. But the .410 isn’t all a bed of roses.

Often touted as a “beginner’s gun” the truth is that it is far from that. Instant success is the key to attracting new shooters (especially young shooters) and the .410, with its thin patterns, doesn’t deliver a high-voltage charge of enthusiasm. But to understand why the .410 is so lovely, you must first understand its history.

The origins of the .410 go back to the end of the nineteenth century, when farmers shot birds and small game to feed their families. There wasn’t any wing shooting involved here, just pop them wherever they were and take ‘em home for mom to cook. The .44-40 pistol/rifle cartridge came factory loaded with shot specifically for small game, but because it blasted through a rifled barrel, the shot spread very fast and its effective range was only about 10 yards. The J. Stevens Company was probably the first to manufacture a firearm to shoot .44-caliber shot shells—the Stevens Pocket Shotgun chambered in .44-50 (2-inch shells) and .44-65 (2 ½-inch shells). It was followed by Marbles’s over/under Game Getter in 1908 with a .22 rimfire barrel on top of a smoothbore lower barrel in .44 caliber. The .410 as we now know it took shape in 1911 when the bore diameter was reduced to .410. Some shells were head stamped 12mm/.410 giving credit to the German origin of the paper cases.

At this point, I should clarify: The .410 is a caliber, not a gauge. Yes, ammunition companies print their ammo boxes .410 Ga., but that’s a misnomer. If the .410 was rebranded as a gauge, it would be a 67 Gauge. There is also some confusion with the .410 and the 32 and 36 gauges, which are recognized as gauges. Never heard of them? Don’t worry, few have, but side-by-side shotguns in those gauges were made mostly before World War I (though RST Shells in Friendsville, Pennsylvania makes commercial loads for the 32 gauge).

The clay-target game of Skeet essentially kept the .410 alive. Invented by William Harnden Foster in about 1932 as a way for him to keep in shape for grouse hunting in the off season, it evolved into a highly competitive game shortly thereafter. Today some sporting clay competitions also feature .410 courses. In Skeet, the rules mandate the use of a 2 ½-inch shell loaded with a half-ounce of shot, though since targets are no more than 22 to 24 yards from the shooter, the contest is still within the .410’s limitations. Likewise, sporting courses also take into account the limited range of the .410, and like Skeet, limit the shot charge to a half-ounce. The allowable quantities and shot sizes for Skeet and sporting clays are 174 No. 7 ½ pellets, 204 No. 8 pellets and 298 No. 9 pellets, per half-ounce charge respectively.

Many refer to the .410 as a “fun gun,” and to the extent it is used with good sense, it really is. There’s minimal recoil and it can consistently kill game within 25 yards. Some years ago, I did a pattern test using Briley thin-wall choke tubes in one of my Winchester Model 42 .410 pumps chambered for both 2 ½- and 3-inch shells. The other is a Skeet chambered specifically for 2 ½-inch shells. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, the best choke at 25 yards proved to be and improved cylinder (I.C.). Shooting lead No. 7 ½ shot these were the most even patterns while the full choke delivered patchy patterns. I used both 2 ½- and 3-inch shells and the shorter ½-ounce load also patterned more evenly. Why? Because the very long shot column necessary with the 3-inch shell causes more pellet deformation as the shot rockets down the barrel at about 900 miles per hour. During this brief passage, it crunches together and is abraded by the barrel walls, regardless of the plastic shot collar, and the many deformed pellets no longer stay within the pattern.

beretta 687 410 shotgun
Beretta 687 in .410, via Cabela’s gun library. Cabela’s

The late B. C. “Barney” Hartman, the great Canadian skeet champion of the 1960s and ‘70s shot a Model 42 that he claims was choked to deliver the shot charge to about the size of a pie plate at 21 yards. “I either hit them or I miss them,” Hartman said. In the late 1970s, he broke 398 of 400 targets at the Canadian Skeet Championship, and the two misses were with the fickle .410.

All of this leads to the question of whether or not the .410 is a beginner’s gun? Yes, there is no recoil, but the limitations prescribed by the ammunition really prohibit a beginning shooter early success. Now, if you just want to go to a skeet field and shoot the low outgoing target at Station 7, that’s fine for first shots at a moving target, because you only need to shoot directly at the clay. It’s here where success and fun can come quick. However, the gun must also fit the shooter to ensure breaking even these simple targets. But vary from that, or take a new shooter into the field after pheasants or quail with a .410, and the results can be frustrating.

On a more positive note, the development of commercially available tungsten super shot loads like Federal’s Heavyweight TSS, has created an opportunity for the .410 to make a name for itself as a turkey killer. The light weight and low recoil of a .410 shotgun make it ideal for a young or small-framed turkey hunter. Or, the turkey hunter who is tired of lugging around a 12-gauge and is dedicated to calling in toms as close as possible.

Read Next: Federal Heavyweight TSS .410 Turkey Load

With the exception of that specialty, the best gauge for beginner shooters is the 28, or perhaps the 20, with light loads. Guns in these gauges typically handle better than most .410s, which tend to be whippy and hard to control. Most important, the larger gauges offer a sufficient payload of shot to be effective on any game-farm bird, dove, rabbit, etc. All of this of course presupposes some instruction, practice on clays, and a gun that fits the shooter. Seeing a youngster trying to mount and shoot an adult-sized shotgun is not pleasant.

A number of years ago, shotgun expert Robert N. Sears penned these words, “A few true experts use .410-bore guns creditably in the field. More than wing shooting skill is involved. Recognition of the gun’s limitation and the ability to judge range are as important as pointing skill in avoiding unacceptable crippling losses.” That pretty much sums it up.

stevens 301 turkey hunting gun
Stevens 301 Turkey Gun. Stevens

Classic .410 Shotguns

Today there are a number of .410 shotguns available, some were made many years ago, and some you can buy at your local shotgun dealer. Here’s a quick look at some of the finest ever made.

  • The Winchester Model 42 looks like a miniature of their classic Model 12, but it was a totally redesigned gun. First released in 1933, the 42 was discontinued in 1963 in the great Winchester purge, but there are a few available for sale on the used market.
  • The Remington 11-48 was the last of the gun maker’s long-recoil operated shotguns. Intended primarily for skeet, many carried a Cutts Compensator–a muzzle-mounted device intended to soften recoil and an attachment for interchangeable choke tubes. The 11-28 is also no longer produced, but you can find previously owned models on the used market.
  • The Browning Winchester 42 is a faithful copy of the original Model 42. There was a limited production of this gun made by B.C. Miroku in Japan, but you may still find used versions at auctions or from a gun broker.
  • The Iver Johnson Skeeter was a side-by-side hammerless .410 made by Iver Johnson in the 1930s.
  • Winchester’s Model 21 is a side by side often made as a two-barrel set of 28 gauge and .410. Manufactured on a light 20-gauge frame, these guns fetch high dollars on the used market. If you’d like a brand new model, the Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company in New Britain, Connecticut currently builds the gun on special order.
  • The Winchester 9410 .410 is a novelty shotgun made by Miroku on the familiar Winchester Model 94 lever action that was in production for only a very short time. If you get your hands on one, it’s appropriate for hunting squirrels and casual fun like shooting at clays in the backyard.
b rizzini aurum 410 shotgun
The Rizzini Aurum. Rizzini

Modern .410 Shotguns

The following .410 shotguns are currently being produced.

  • The iconic Remington 1100 is a gas-operated semi-automatic shotgun intended for Skeet and sporting clays. It wasn’t the first “gas gun,” but for a 60-plus-year-old shotgun, it’s still holding its own. Remington has sold millions of the Model 870 pump gun, and it might likely be the most popular shotgun in U.S. history. Robust and durable, Remington makes a .410 870 in youth and standard models.
  • Browning’s BPS pump-action is a variation of a John Browning design that features bottom loading and bottom ejection that’s similar to the well-known Ithaca Model 37. This gun is fun to point and shoot and unsurpassed in reliability.
  • B. Rizzini Aurum and other models of their Italian-made over/unders are available in .410 from Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing.
  • Fausti shotguns are made by three sisters who inherited the company from their father. They offer a number of 3-inch chambered .410 over/unders at a wide range of prices.
  • CZ Bobwhite and several other models in both side-by-side and over/under are available from this Czech firm at a variety of prices.

Read Next: Gun Test: Henry .410 Lever Action Shotgun

  • Mossberg offers their Model 505 pump-action .410 in a youth model with a shorter stock and a 20-inch vent-rib barrel. The Mossberg International Silver Reserve II is another .410 over/under available at a reasonable price.
  • Franchi Instinct is an attractive, Italian-made over/under with a nice Prince of Wales-style stock, single selective trigger, and automatic ejectors.
  • Beretta makes several versions of its popular 687 over/under, including the .410. Their popular Silver Pigeon series is a good place to start for a skeet, sporting, or hunting gun.
  • Tristar’s Viper G2 Bronze is an attractive gas-operated semi auto available at a very reasonable price that will digest both 2 ½- and 3-inch .410 shells. Fun for clays and hunting within the limitations of the .410.
  • Savage/Stevens’ 301 Turkey is a single-shot break action that goes for $199. It features a synthetic stock in Mossy Oak camo and as the name implies, it’s designed for turkey hunting with TSS loads.