With Browning as the only manufacturer still offering new 10-gauge shotguns, it's fair to ask whether our largest legal bore is still relevant today. Faced with competition from the 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge, and with improved ammunition driving a trend toward smaller bores, the 10 might seem like a relic. But the 10-gauge retains a cult following of hunters who appreciate what the big gun can do. Should you add a 10 to your battery? Here are some things to consider.
The 10-gauge magnum dates to 1932, when Winchester's John Olin lengthened the standard 2 7/8-inch 10-gauge shell to 3 1/2 inches. Ithaca, Winchester's partner on the project, made a magnum version of the NID (New Ithaca Double) shotgun to shoot the new shells. Although popularized by gun writer and big-bore lover Elmer Keith, the NID 10-gauge was only made for 10 years. After that, hunters who wanted a 10-gauge had to make do with hard-recoiling imported doubles and H&R single shots.
Then, in 1975, Ithaca introduced the Mag 10 semiauto, which weighed over 11 pounds. The Mag 10's weight and gas operation made it a soft-kicking, comfortable gun to shoot. And it came along at a good time. In the '70s, pass-shooting near refuges was a popular way to hunt geese, and one well suited to the 10 gauge's strengths. The switch to nontoxic shot for waterfowl in the '80s and early '90s promised mainstream popularity for the 10-gauge as hunters realized that the 3-inch 12-gauge hull didn't have the capacity to hold heavy loads of large steel pellets.
Under new ownership, Ithaca sold its patent to Remington in 1989, and the Mag 10 was redesigned and introduced as the SP-10 just as steel shot was becoming law. Browning followed with the Gold 10 semiauto and a 10-gauge BPS pump gun. However, a new 12-gauge from Mossberg ended the 10's rise to mainstream popularity before it had gathered much steam. A collaboration between Federal and Mossberg resulted in the Ulti-Mag pump, a 12-gauge gun with a 3 1/2-inch chamber, and new steel loads to shoot in it. Before long Benelli introduced the first 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge semiauto—the Super Black Eagle. The new 3 1/2-inch 12s held payloads nearly as hefty as the 10-gauge but in a lighter, more versatile gun that could also shoot 2 3/4- and 3-inch ammo.
10 VS. 12
Hunters voted with their wallets for the 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge over the 10. The trimmer, much lighter gun was versatile enough to use in the uplands, in the turkey woods, in the dove fields, and at the gun club, as well as for waterfowl. A few years after the 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge came along, the introduction of bismuth and tungsten ammunition in the 1990s gave hunters ammunition that could take waterfowl at longer ranges in a standard 3-inch 12 or even a 20-gauge.
With the advent of the 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge and alternative nontoxic shot, are there any reasons to own a 10-gauge today? I would argue that there are. If you shoot big steel pellets at longer ranges, you might benefit from the extra capacity of the 10. Also, a few years ago engineers at Federal compared a 10-gauge to a 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge in their test tunnel for me.
Their computer analysis showed that the 10 shot slightly better patterns with factory loads, and the shot strings were shorter too. Finally, the 10-gauge's heft absorbs recoil and makes it much more comfortable to shoot heavy loads than a lighter gun does. My current 10 is a semiauto, but even the Browning pump I used to own was comfortable to shoot with heavy loads. Once you accustom yourself to the weight of a 10, it's a sure and easy gun to point and swing, although I'll admit it takes some effort to sit up and shoot a 10 from a layout blind.
The 10-gauge has always been a niche gun, and its niche has become smaller than ever. Within that niche, though, nothing beats the big 10.