Waterfowl Special: The 10 Gauge

By Chuck Hawks

The 10 gauge shotgun has a nominal bore diameter of .770 inch. It is the largest bore shotgun for which shells are still commercially manufactured. In the 1880's it was considered an all-around gauge, and it was very popular. (The men riding "shotgun" on Wells Fargo stagecoaches in the Old West were issued 10 gauge doubles.) But the 12 gauge superceded it as the all-around gauge in the 1890's, and the 10 became a specialized waterfowl gauge.

The 19th Century became the 20th Century, and as the years and decades went by the 10 gauge continued to slip in popularity. Guns and shells became scarce and hard to find. At one time it seemed as if the 10 gauge would go the way of the 8 gauge before it, but questionable science and the US Government eventually saved the big 10 by mandating non-toxic (steel) shot for waterfowl hunting. Although I am sure it was not their intention, the effect of this law was to resurrect the dying 10 gauge shotgun.

For years the only new 10 gauge guns on the market had been cheap, imported, side-by-side double barrel guns. These were not things of beauty, and they kicked like the devil. The introduction of the Ithaca 10 Gauge Magnum autoloader changed all that. The Ithaca's gas operation system moderated the perceived recoil of the big gun, and the more efficient 10 bore patterned the 3 1/2" steel loads better than any 12 gauge gun. The 10 gauge was back, and began to regain market share.

Today there are a number of good quality, name brand, 10 gauge autoloading, pump, single barrel break action, and double barrel break action shotguns on the market. The autoloaders are all gas-operated, and are generally favored over the other types for their ability to subjectively reduce recoil. They feel no worse to shoot than a regular 12 gauge gun.

The discount department store where I do a lot of shopping sells guns and carries a reasonable selection of ammunition. I have noticed that when it comes to shotgun shells, they stock more 12 gauge shells than anything else. They carry everything from rifled slugs to buckshot to #9 sleet loads to 3 1/2 inch steel shot magnums. The 20 gauge is also well represented with a wide variety of premium and promotional loads. After that the selection of shells for the remaining gauges drops off fast, but it is probably the 10 gauge for which they stock the next most shells, somewhat ahead of the .410 and way ahead of the 16 and 28 gauges. The latter two they don't bother to keep in stock at all. Now, granted, I live in a waterfowl hunting area and the 16 gauge has been very weak in the Northwest for years, but I find the relative strength of the 10 gauge impressive.

The 10 gauge is almost exclusively a waterfowl gauge, so most 10 gauge factory loads from the "big three" American ammunition companies are non-toxic steel shot loads. Also available for the big 10 are a few tungsten-iron or other alternative non-toxic shells and a limited number of lead "turkey loads." All 10 gauge shells from the "big three" are loaded in 3 1/2" Magnum cases; the standard 2 7/8" case seems to have been discontinued. Note that not all brands offer all of the shot sizes listed below.

The most common 10 gauge loads contain 1 3/4, 1 5/8, or 1 3/8 ounces of steel shot, depending on brand. Steel Shot sizes offered are usually T, BBB, BB, 1, 2, and 3. These are all large to very large shot sizes due to the poor density of steel shot (density=7.8).

Premium loads offer 1 3/8 ounces of Winchester Super Steel, or Federal Premium Tungsten shot in sizes ranging from BBB to 4. Remington's Hevi-Shot premium load comes in 1 3/4 ounce doses, probably because Hevi-Shot is even denser than lead (density=12.0).

The 10 gauge lead shot loads are usually intended for turkey hunters. These come with 2 or 2 1/4 ounces of shot due to the fact that lead is both cheap and heavy (density=10.9). The shot sizes offered are BB, 4, 5, and 6.

Winchester and Federal offer 10 gauge buckshot loads with size 00 Buck (18 pellets). Winchester offers a 10 gauge load with size 4 Buck (54 pellets). These make the 10 gauge a fearsome, if clumsy, home defense gun, shades of the old Wells Fargo days!

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Copyright 2002, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.