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WW Greener, and British .410s fitted with ejectors are rare. (Brian Reilly collection)

.410: A blessing or a curse?

The conversation I overheard at the neighbouring table at the shooting club went something like this: “The .410 is not a youngster’s gun, it’s an expert shot’s gun. Any father should rather start a youngster on a 20- or 28-bore.”  This statement struck a chord with me, and on the drive home I started pondering this statement. Many of us started our shooting careers with the ubiquitous .410 because there wasn’t much else available. 20-bores were scarce when I was a youngster, and I was 40 years old before I saw my first 28-bore gun. The first 28-bore cartridge I encountered was from a case of CIL cartridges unearthed from Federated Timbers in Springs in the 1960s. The whole case was duly dismantled for components to load something more useful.

This second smallest of the better-known shotguns after Louis-Nicolas Flobert’s 9mm garden gun (invented in France for controlling garden pests) first appeared as Lancaster’s pinfire ammunition in Eley’s 1857 catalogue. By 1874 the .410 was well-established in Britain in its modern guise, first as a 2-inch cartridge, and later in 2½- and 3-inch formats (it was, rather surprisingly, never produced in 2¾-inch format). Its first appearance was alongside the 360 No 1, No 2 and No 3 rimfires. All these cartridges were designed for pest control in cheap, break-action guns and even as “walking stick” guns, presumably for self-defence as part of a gentleman’s must-have gear at the end of the 19th century. Nobody, however, can be sure who the first gentleman was who stepped into a well-known gunmaker’s rooms and ordered a bespoke double in .410.



The .410 differs from other shotguns in that its nomenclature actually refers to the bore diameter at .410-inch, which computes to somewhere around 67-bore. It is often erroneously referred to as a 36-bore, which I can only surmise to be a vague reference to the diameter of its ball ammunition, or even a reference to the obsolete US 36-calibre rimfire shot cartridge, but this is just my personal opinion.


The .410 first made an appearance in the United States and Germany at the beginning of the 20th century and remains in production to this day, largely thanks to its inclusion in the US clay target line-up post-1926. Not all .410s were created equal, though, so for purposes of discussion, let’s exclude self-defence and all other survival, pest-control and poachers’ guns in .410.


Most .410s floating around in SA are of single-barrel, break-action design, along with a scattering of bolt-actions and combination guns – particularly the Savage which were mostly a .22 Long Rifle over a .410 barrel. These were general-purpose guns kept on farms to deal with snakes and other pests. Most of us were oblivious of their shortcomings but we knew how to stuff cartridges into them, and the little gun delivered a much more satisfying bang than an airgun.


The .410 in side-by-side, double format is a scarcer item, and many of British origin were cheaply produced as keeper’s guns. Many surviving .410 side-by-sides have unfortunately also endured severe abuse, and rare is the beast that was ordered by a member of the gentry from a known maker and produced at a best-quality level. Best-quality .410s command high prices, and in the United States the most collectable guns are the higher-grade Parker .410s.



Anyway, how good is the .410 in practical terms? I’m going to put the cart before the horse here and recount my experience of my son’s development as a field shot. I acquired a Jeffery side-by-side non-ejector for him when he was 9 years old. It was not a high-grade gun but after a refinish it was ready to go, and at 4lbs on the dot it was easy for him to handle. He used it for five seasons and my observations of him shooting with it was that he either missed cleanly or we had a dead bird, and I can recall only one francolin that was very much alive on retrieval.


Other gamebirds shot included guinea-fowl as well as two yellowbill ducks over decoys on the same evening – both came down stone dead. My only experience of the 3-inch version of the .410 was an American friend using his Abbiatico & Salvinelli over/under on a pheasant shoot in South Dakota. The application of ¾oz (20 grams) of Winchester Super-X No 6s on a fast-flying ringneck pheasant was, to say the least, very satisfactory and I couldn’t do better with a 20-bore loaded with 1oz of copper-plated 6s.


I decided to do a few experiments to be better able to articulate final opinions on the .410. To be practical, I would pattern the .410 at 22m using a 50cm circle with a flying guineafowl outline superimposed in the middle of the circle.


My current .410 is a recent upgrade on the Jeffery. It is a cased ejector Joseph Needham boxlock choked quarter and three-quarters that also weighs in at 4lbs – a worthy collector’s item since British-made .410s fitted with ejectors are as scarce as hen’s teeth. Rummaging through the ammo cupboard unearthed CIL paper-cased No 4s, Remington No 6s, Winchester No 9s, all in ½oz (14-gram) loads. I also had some Hull Game & Clay ⁷⁄₁₆oz (12-gram) No 7s.


With the limited selection of factory loads, I decided it would make sense for both cost and effectiveness to try and establish some benchmarks with local powders. The long shot column dictates the use of very slowburning powders, leaving us with S241, S251, MP300 and S265 (Not all of these powders are currently in production – Ed). I also managed to unearth a can of Hercules (now Accurate Arms) 2400. Not having access to a radial transducer (who has?) to measure pressure we will have to make do with velocity as a surrogate. I chronographed a minimum of three of each cartridge and load at exactly one metre from the muzzle after first benchmarking the factory ammo.


Most .410s seem to be choked rather heavily, so the patterns were all fired with the ¾-choke barrel. Cases where new Fiocchi primed cases with Remington wads, with the exception of the few ⁹⁄₁₆oz (16-gram) loads. Here I used Ballistic Products wads with the stem between the over-powder wad and the shot cup removed. Cartridges were loaded on my Pacific DL 155 press with original .410 dies. Shot used was factory SP No 7½ which actually measure out as No 7s at 2.4mm with 175 pellets fitting in ½oz (14-gram) loads, and yes – I counted them!


On the whole I found the Hull a little disappointing, but the American stuff is the real deal and the Winchesters spoke with authority but without undue recoil or pressure signs. It is no wonder that they are the load of choice of Skeet shooters. With the handloads I was somewhat in the dark. Ancient SP manuals show 20.1gr of MP300 giving 1 155fps with a ⁷⁄₁₆oz (12-gram) load for 47 MPa of pressure, and 15.4gr giving 965fps, which correlates well with my findings. S265 is listed as 1 178fps with 15.4gr, again with ⁷⁄₁₆oz (12-gram) of shot. No pressure figures are given, but it would appear that S265 is not the same as MP300. With 15gr of S265 and ¹⁄₂oz of shot, we averaged 1 237fps with a low extreme spread. I could find no reference to any loads with S241 or S251. MP300 was very dirty burning so I think hotter primers are required or expect some powder wastage and problems with case capacity. I also managed to get hold of some Hodgdon Lil’ Gun which is specifically designed for the .410, and 13gr powered ¹⁄₂oz of No 7s to 1 273fps with an extreme spread of 36fps.

My choice of loads will be S241 with both oz (12 gram) and ¹⁄₂oz (14 gram) of shot for doves and clays. Hodgdon Lil’ Gun and S265 at 13- and 15gr, respectively, behind ¹⁄₂oz of shot will make good all-round loads, and I’ll use S251 and AA2400 at around 15.5gr with ¹⁄₂oz (14 gram) of shot for francolin. These should get around 1 200fps. I will also continue to use the Remington and Federal field loads.

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So, back to the original argument. Are we any the wiser about the .410? Is it a youngster’s gun? Most definitely so, for the simple reasons of availability and its light weight. I’ve seen many youngsters develop bad habits because of the weight of the guns they were forced to use, and many fathers insist that their 7-year-olds “man up” by using a 12-bore. Instead, the balance of a 4lb .410 is between the hands of a youngster, doesn’t compromise his/her balance, and they are therefore not forced to compensate by leaning backwards. The big issue with the .410 is to limit the range to about 25m. Learning this discipline is not a bad thing and will stand them in good stead later on.


Out to 30m in the hands of an above-average shooter, the .410 will keep you honest and we should all occasionally try a round of skeet with a .410. The problem here is how to control a gun with no momentum – it’s all up to your muscle control! I think doves flying a little low, quail in the Eastern Cape and francolin over a good dog can all be handled by an expert with a .410 and a bit of discipline.


So, the answer is yes – know your gun and ammo, have some discipline, and don’t pass up the next little double that comes your way.