Scour any sporting-goods retail space for a 10-gauge shotgun, and you’d be hard-pressed to come up with even a trace of an old ten. Say you did find a used Browning or an old SP-10 goose-getter, good luck finding ammo. Special order options exist, but for a very short list of manufacturers, both in the case of shotshells and the shotguns themselves, but is the 10-gauge turkey gun a thing of the past? Is it just a piece of nostalgia from turkey hunts gone by? I hope not.
My introduction to 10-gauge shotguns was in a primitive turkey video by today’s standards. Back then, pioneers of the sport like Will Primos, Harold Knight and David Hale, and Ben Lee were some of the first to film their hunts and bring it to a greater audience. Several of them sported some mean looking scatterguns, as there were no other options that put as many pellets or as much powder into a turkey load. Then, the 10-gauge was the true equalizer, in an era where hardened, buffered lead shot were the major ballistic innovations of that day and age. Back in time decades further, the 10-gauge enjoyed widespread popularity and a wide array of load options for all kinds of hunting.
The first one I’d ever seen in person is still owned today by a good friend and turkey mentor who has harvested literally hundreds of birds with his, a 1970’s New Richland Arms double-barreled version. That gun was hand-painted in grey tree-bark, mostly worn now from carrying, and perpetually stained by the blood and mud of its last hunt. That gun has seen better days, and has even been known to fire both barrels on occasion, though in seeing its successes over the many years there’s no doubt that this firearm has stoked my fascination for 10 gauges in general.
Over the years, I’ve owned several dedicated turkey shotguns, nearly all of them 12-gauges. I remember the introduction of the 12-gauge 3.5” round, and the 835 Ulti-mag that left a bruising (and lasting) impression. From there I went to a semi-auto gas-operated gun, also in 12-gauge that handles 3.5” loads, and it has been the best patterning gun I’ve ever tested. It’s lighter than any 10, carries shorter, punches less, and hits birds just as hard. From a spec-sheet perspective, it wins in all categories.
Over time, hevi-type loads that were denser than lead brought forth a revolution in turkey patterning. Smaller, denser shot that carried just as lethal a payload downrange was able to do it with many more pellets. These were pellets that did not deform with all of the pressures and heat of a gun discharge, such that they didn’t “frisbee” to the sides and negatively affect pattern density. More pellets that pattern better, with no penalty in terms of energy, simply means more lethality in the kill-zone. As Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) rolls onto the scene this year, promising to deliver the same advances that hevi-loads did in their time, people are increasingly turning to 20’s and even .410 shotguns.
Not this guy. Not full-time anyway, though I really am a huge fan of the smaller bores, hevi-loads, and what TSS will bring in terms of efficiency for a whole new era of turkey nuts. Call me old-timey or just plain out-of-touch, but I’ve put every rig imaginable up against an old break-action 10 gauge, and seen them at-best simply match the performance. TSS is a new beast altogether, and I’ve seen the handloads, viewed the patterns. We’re talking a whole new league of shot. There’s no doubt TSS will be incredible, but so is the performance of the “has-been” 10. I’ve seen too many birds, year after year, fall to all kinds of 10-gauge guns from the several friends that carry them.
I now own one myself, a similar Richland Arms double, which I can’t seem to pattern worth a darn. Pellet counts are a fraction of what my other guns can achieve, and at first it shot a few feet, yes feet, low at 40 yards. I fixed that with an aftermarket sight, but I can’t find the ammo I’d like to shoot in a 10-gauge round, and there’s no modern choke tube system to tighten patterns of the less-than-preferable stuff that I can find. Instead I get one full-choke barrel, the other modified. It took some serious tweaking to have the confidence needed just to carry it in the woods.
When I did hike it around last spring, I’ll admit, it was mostly for novelty’s sake. Until the hunt unfolded. I was tight on a roost group that sported a few toms and more hens than I’d like. The toms flew down early within 100 yards and really gobbled hard as the hens awoke all around them. When the hens did fly down, I had a hard time convincing them that I was good for the group, and they cut across the face of my position, further than I’d prefer to shoot a gun that didn’t throw the fiercest pattern. When the last of 3 toms made his way at 47 yards, I repositioned that wagon-tongue of a gun, and squeezed the first of its two triggers. It was still relatively un-lit under the dense maple canopy, so that gun threw sparks and tried jumping out of my hands on account of how I was braced shoulder-to-the-tree. That tom didn’t flop for the first few minutes, and the load had really done its job.
I walked up to the old bird, a true limb-hanger that sported some serious spurs, and as I took a knee beside him, I was satisfied. I thought about all the toms that gun’s brethren had taken over the last 50 years and beyond, with staying power and consistency we’ve not seen in many technologies we hunt with today. It’s not an indictment against new arms and ammo, or even a preference for the 10 overall, but it’s somewhat comforting to know how well an old dog can still work.
Demand, or lack thereof, may continue to push it towards obsolescence, and I’ll probably carry it only rarely, as I understand the benefits of faster, smaller, and lighter. Still, rather than push it aside for the latest and greatest, I’ll continue to celebrate it alongside our more modern advancements.