By Marshall Williams.
I note a number of inquiries about the suitability of .410 bore shotguns for self-defense. Because the .410 is so much smaller than other common shotgun shells, many shooters have a tendency to dismiss it as nothing but a plaything, and the notion carries over to any other potential uses of a shotgun. However, as many readers of this website are fully aware, the .410 bore gun is no plaything but quite a useful tool for taking small game, and the same characteristics may be expected to apply in the area of self defense.
SLUGS: First, let us look at the common .410 bore slug. The traditional .410 foster-style slug has a 1/5 ounce or 87.5 grain slug at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1815 feet per second (fps) and developing a muzzle energy (ME) of 640 foot pounds (ft. lbs.). More recent offerings increase the weight of the slug to 1/4 ounce at a slightly reduced MV of 1755 fps for an ME of nearly 750 ft. lbs.
Cartridges with a history of self-defense use which have characteristics similar to the .410 slug's bullet diameter and muzzle energy include top loads from a 10mm auto pistol, a .357 magnum revolver, and the standard velocity ballistics of the .44-40 and .38-40 rifles. The .44-40 was introduced with the Winchester 1873 rifle and this gun, not the Colt Single Action Army, probably was the real gun that won the west. It reputedly killed more big game than any other rifle cartridge until the .30-30 finally overtook it in about the mid-50s. The cartridge also was the most popular caliber in Winchester’s Model 92, Marlin’s Model 1894 short action lever actions, Colt’s Lightning Rifle, and virtually every short action design used in the world, as well as the second most common caliber in the big Colt Single Action Army revolver.
I have a friend who has been considerably disabled by a stroke and can no longer hunt his venison with a high power rifle. For the past eleven years he has used a .410 loaded with the common slug to kill more than 20 deer, all one-shot kills.
BUCK SHOT: Winchester makes a .410 buckshot load in a 2 ˝ inch shell containing three "triple-ought" or 000 buck shot. The 000 buck is .360 in diameter, weighs 71 grains, and the first pellet out of the two shells which I chronographed out of a Remington Model 870 with 25 inch barrel crossed the chronograph screens at slightly above 1250 fps with a muzzle energy of nearly 250 ft. lbs. The other pellets were no doubt going nearly as fast. That gives three pellets each with as much energy as a standard .38 special police load, and a total energy of 750 ft. lbs. That would have to be quite effective.
I have not used any of the "double-ought" or 00 buck shot loads, but the specs I have seen call for five 00s in a 3 inch shell with a similar muzzle velocity. A 00 buck shot is commonly caliber .33 and also commonly caliber .34, depending on whose figures you use. To be conservative, I will use the smaller.33 ball which weighs 54 grains. At an MV of 1250, each pellet develops an ME of 187 ft. lbs. Or a total energy of 935 ft. lbs. Thus each 00 pellet has about as much energy as a .380 auto pistol cartridge.
BIRD SHOT: The 2 ˝ inch .410 carries ˝ ounce of shot at an MV of 1200 fps. Fine shot sizes available in the short shell range from number 4 to number 9s. The three inch .410 shell carries 11/16 ounce of shot at 1135 fps and sizes range from 4s to 7 1/2s. Bird shot can be very effective, but its effectiveness, or rather the nature of its effectiveness will depend on range.
At contact range, either shot charge will act more like a frangible bullet than a pattern of shop and will deliver enormously destructive wound, The 2 ˝ ounce shells deliver 700 ft. lbs. of energy and the three inch shell 860 ft. lbs. of energy. Such forces are comparable to a using highly frangible bullets in .41 and .44 magnums respectively.
As the range increases, the expanding pattern will spread out the shot until, at a few feet’s distance, the pellets will start to make individual wounds -- many, many, many individual wounds. But how severe will these smaller wounds be? The individual wounds will vary quite widely according to pellet size. Larger shot sizes will penetrate much deeper than smaller sizes, and the largest can penetrate a rib bone and still inflict a nasty would. The following penetration figures are taken from Ed. Lowry’s Shotshell Ballistics for Windows.*
At ten yards, assuming no bone is struck, a #4 from the lower velocity three inch shell can penetrate an astonishing 3.4 inches of flesh. That is essentially half the depth of an average human chest from front to back. And there will be 93 such wounds in a ten inch circle.
At ten yards, #6s will penetrate 2.6 inches of flesh, and 7 1/2s will penetrate 2.2 inches of flesh.
Number 9s, the Skeet loads, will penetrate least. At ten yards, a #9 pellet from a 2 ˝ inch .410 will penetrate 1.5 inches of flesh, but there will be approximately 293 such wounds in an area of less than ten inches diameter. I would expect the full thickness of a rib bone to stop a #9 pellet. (But I may be wrong.) In any event, pattern density would insure many pellets missing bones and 1.5 inches will penetrate enough to damage internal organs. But even without sufficient penetration to damage internal organs, it is a just-plain-nasty wound, and I would expect it to take all of the fight (and most of the life) out of the average nasty customer. Indeed, even the 2 inch .410 would be effective.
What should be obvious to most shooters, but often is not, is that any gun, even a .22 short, is a dangerous and therefore useful weapon. When forced to counter a life-threatening assault, any gun is more effective than snide commentary from an anti-gun news announcer.