February 10, 2023
By Joe Engesser
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The mighty 10 gauge shotgun is the largest and most potent legal waterfowling gauge in the United States today. Before the invention of smokeless powder, the 10 gauge side-by-side found favor with hunters, shopkeepers, and those tasked with defending stagecoaches and trains. Why did the 10 gauge fade from prominence, and how common is its current use?
A 10 gauge shotgun refers to a scattergun with a bore diameter of about .775 inches before any chokes. The measurement system for shotgun gauges dates to at least the 18th century and referred to the number of bore-sized round balls that could be made from a pound of lead. The smaller the gauge, the wider the bore. For example, if twelve identical round balls were made from a pound of lead, the diameter of one ball would be used as the measurement for the barrel's diameter and called 12 gauge. Similarly, ten 10-bore round balls would come from a pound of lead. Today, the 10 gauge is the largest bore shotgun publicly available in terms of size and chambering for which shells are still commercially manufactured.
In many ways, the 10 gauge could be called the predecessor to all modern shotgun gauges, including the 12 gauge shotguns that dominate the current sporting market. The 10 gauge shotgun has been offered in every action available as the shotgun has evolved, from the flintlock muzzleloader, the break action double guns favored across the Wild West, the lever action, the pump, the over/under, the autoloader, and the somewhat obscure bolt action shotgun.
By the time of the first cartridge side-by-sides in the 1860s, the 10 gauge shotgun had cemented itself as a versatile option for deer hunting, wing shooting, and close-quarters combat. In the American West, English imports from manufacturers like J. Purdey, W.W. Greener, and Westley Richards dominated the market, though American models like the Remington-Whitmore 1874 and the Colt Model 1878 gained a sizable footing.
When it came to guarding wagons and stagecoaches against the highwaymen who plagued the lonely roads and trails of frontier America, the stopping power of the 10 gauge coach gun was unrivaled. Lawmen across the Old West also saw the inherent advantages of the 10 gauge shotgun platform, which offered an intimidation factor unlike any other firearm of the era and was an ideal choice when a sheriff needed to disperse an unruly crowd.
While the double barrel shotgun was efficient, new designs allowed greater capacity, like the Spencer pump action and Winchester Model 1887 lever action shotgun. Firearms technology was rapidly evolving, including advancements in shotshells and propellants that provided higher velocities and longer ranges. The lighter 12 gauge shotgun benefited the most from these improvements, and by the 1890s the market share enjoyed by the 10 gauge began to wane.
The greater amount of lead offered by the 10 gauge shotgun became less significant with the advent of smokeless powder. The improved ballistics of smokeless shells allowed the easier-to-handle 12 gauge shotgun to fill many roles previously occupied by the 10 gauge, and with a cheaper ammunition cost.
In 1938, the Federal Firearms Act banned the use of the 8 gauge shotgun as a waterfowler in the United States, as well as prohibiting the mammoth punt gun, which came in 4 gauge, 2 gauge, and even a colossal 1 gauge variant. The 10 gauge shotgun continued to fill this niche instead, but it was fading elsewhere, and manufacturers took notice.
As the decades passed, arms makers focused their developmental research on the more popular 12 gauge and 20 gauge shotgun models. The 10 gauge shotgun and the shells it chambered received less innovation. 10 gauge models grew more scarce, and so did the ammunition, which was already more costly than its smaller-sized brethren. Improvements such as more reliable interchangeable choke-tube designs added even more versatility to the already successful 12 gauge.
A Winchester Model 1200 with the WinChoke system (top) and a Browning A500 with the Invector choke system (bottom.) The WinChoke was the first widely popular, interchangeable choke-tube system and by the early 1980s the screw-in choke tube had become the norm across the industry.
The 10 gauge saw a glimmer of hope in 1975 with the introduction of the Ithaca Mag-10, a semiautomatic 10 gauge shotgun designed to handle the powerful 3 1/2 inch shell. Then in 1986, a mandate from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban lead shot in federal waterfowl hunting areas ended up kicking off a second renaissance of sorts for the 10 gauge shotgun platform.
As the government's lead ban was gradually rolled out over the next five years, American hunters were looking for options that could deliver large payloads of steel shot. The Ithaca Mag-10 and other 10 gauge shotguns were given a second look. The lighter steel shot that had been mandated lacked the efficiency of its dense lead counterpart, so the greater hull capacity of 10 gauge shotgun shells was considered a practical way to sling more pellets downrange.
Pump action 10 gauge shotguns like the Browning BPS from 1977 saw a brief upswing in sales, but a small lineup of new semiautomatic 10 gauges offered a better means to tame the hefty recoil of their mammoth shells. Two of the most popular semiautomatic 10 gauge shotgun models released during this period included the Remington Model SP10 in 1989, which was based on the Ithaca Mag-10's patent, and the Browning Gold 10 in 1993. These massive shotguns produced great results, but their loaded weights exceeded 10 pounds and made them better suited for the blind than the field.
In 1988, Mossberg developed the Model 835 12 gauge pump-action, the first shotgun chambered in Federal Cartridge Corporation's new 12 gauge 3 1/2 inch steel loads. This longer ammunition solved some of the problems inherent in the lighter steel shot without a hunter needing to lug around a ponderous 10 gauge shotgun. It didn’t take long for Browning, Winchester, Benelli, and a host of other shotgun manufacturers to follow suit.
Another major innovation came from improved steel alloys like HEVI-Shot and Federal’s Tungsten Super Shot that offered a lower volume lead-free replacement. Today, popular options include Winchester 12 Gauge HD shellshot and the Kent Cartridge Tungsten-Matrix load, which bills itself as “The only true, non-toxic alternative to lead.”
Since the 10 gauge shotgun is bigger than its 12 gauge cousin, it's historically been viewed as the best choice for patterning large payloads. The weight of the hefty 10 gauge shotgun also helps soak up recoil, and this is particularly noticeable when shouldering modern gas-operated autoloaders like the Browning Gold Light.
The major advantage of the 12 gauge shotgun is sheer versatility. With adjustable chokes and a multitude of ammunition options, it's no surprise that hunters and shooters looking for an all-purpose scattergun have gravitated toward 12 gauge pumps and autoloaders chambered for 3 or 3 1/2 inch shells.
The first black powder 10 gauge shotgun shells were about 2 7/8 inches long and .775 inches in diameter. The standard case today for 10 gauge ammo has been lengthened to 3 1/2 inches to accommodate more shot, with commercial 2 7/8 inch shells seemingly all but extinct.
Due to its overwhelming popularity, the price of 12 gauge shells are significantly cheaper than 10 gauge ammo. The most affordable 12 gauge shotgun shells will cost around 50 cents, while the cheapest 10 gauge shotshells run over $1.50 per round. This price disparity is also observed when comparing shotgun slugs. The current cost of a 5-pack box of Federal Premium 10 gauge rifled slugs is offered at $19.99, while its 12 gauge counterpart is only $7.99. For hunters who reload their own ammunition, the price difference between 12 gauge hulls and 10 gauge hulls is just as staggering.
Today, the 10 gauge shotgun remains in use with a relatively small but loyal segment of firearms enthusiasts, upholding a particular niche with wingshooters looking to put more large steel shot in the air against big breeds like the Canada goose. The 10 gauge also finds limited use in turkey hunting, predator control, and remains more than capable of filling the role of a lethal home defense firearm.
Some carry the 10 gauge shotgun out of tradition. For others, the 10 gauge presents the chance to shoot a specialized and unique firearm and to experience the largest bore shotgun in America for which shells are still commercially manufactured. As one of the most significant guns of the 19th and early 20th century, the 10 gauge carries an appeal for any collector of sporting arms or antique working guns.
Though new 10 gauge models have grown increasingly difficult to find, Rock Island Auction Company offers a variety of classic and modern shotguns throughout the year, particularly in our Sporting & Collectors Auctions.
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