© 2009 - 2012 B. Gil Horman
An important part of selecting a gun and ammunition combination is doing the homework before making a purchase. This includes reading articles, checking Web sites, and reviewing technical information. When I started shooting .410 shells in handguns, a few years before the Judge arrived on the scene, I was not surprised to see that very little performance information was available.
With the arrival of the Judge, I waited for the technical information to start flowing, but it never did.
Instead of the clear performance tables you would expect with any other handgun, conjecture and debate have raged on amid splashy videos of exploding melons. It’s been a heated conversation about what .45 Colt/.410 handguns can or can't do, what purpose they serve, and how they should be loaded for self defense. But without a meaningful testing process in place, no one can really support their position either for or against the .410 handgun platform.
My goal in developing the .410 FIST Test, and this web site, is to create a measuring stick for this relatively new gun and ammunition combination. This is intended to help gun owners make more informed decisions as they prepare to buy into a new shooting system. In short, I’ve built the site I wish existed when I started shooting .410 shells in handguns.
Is the .45 Colt/.410 handgun good for self defense?
The answer in this case, as in every case, is: it depends. No single gun and ammunition combination is ideal for every possible scenario. Every handgun available for self defense is an exercise in compromise. The advantage of .45 Colt/.410 handguns is a wider selection of ammunition types (bullets, slugs, buckshot, birdshot, and specialty rounds). However, this greater level of ammunition flexibility comes at the sacrifice of long-range accuracy. So, it’s up to you to weigh the benefits of this gun and ammunition combination against your specific set of personal protection requirements.
Can I shoot (insert brand) ammunition in my (insert make) gun?
If you have any questions about what ammunition can be safely fired in your handgun, always start by checking the owner’s manual and/or calling the gun manufacturer. This is especially important if you intend to fire "+P" or "+P+" rated .45 Colt ammunition. These rounds operate at much higher levels of pressure than standard rounds and may cause your firearm to rupture, with unpleasant results. Don't take any chances!
Why can't I hit the broad side of a barn when I'm shooting .45 Colt?
In my less formal tests of .45 Colt loads, I’ve found that short range accuracy (7 yards or less) is solid with .410 handguns. At 15 yards, I have been able to work close to point-of-aim with barrels over 5 inches in length. When the targets were moved out to 25 yards during my tests for NRA AmericanRifleman.org articles (The Taurus Judge vs. The Magnum Research BFR) the groups have opened up. The group averages were about 5.5 inches, with the best at 3.5 inches.
Why the reduced accuracy with .45 Colt in .410 handguns? Here’s the best theory going around at the moment. If you measure the cylinder of a dedicated .45 Colt revolver, like a Ruger Blackhawk, you'll find the distance from the .45 Colt cartridge case opening to the cylinder gap is relatively short. With the Blackhawk, it’s about 7/16ths of an inch. In order to build a revolver cylinder capable of accommodating both .45 Colt rounds and the much longer .410 shotshell, the distance the .45 Colt bullet travels in the unrifled cylinder is significantly increased. Instead of traveling just 7/16 of an inch, the bullet now has to travel anywhere from 1 5/16 to 1 3/4 inches before it reaches the cylinder gap. This allows plenty of room for a bullet to wander or start to wobble.
Does less long-range accuracy make .45 Colt/.410 revolvers undesirable guns? It depends on your requirements. Is a S&W J-frame .38 Special an undesirable gun because it can’t shoot accurately out to a thousand yards? Is a Barrett .50 BMG rifle an undesirable gun because it won’t fit neatly into a lady’s hand bag? It’s a matter of compromise. Shooters gain the flexibility of.410 shotshells at the sacrifice of some accuracy with .45 Colt rounds.
Why does birdshot spread so fast from .45 Colt/.410 handguns?
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How can a 3-inch barrel produce tighter birdshot groups than a 6-inch barrel?
This web site represents the first set of tests with just enough results to start evaluating how .45 Colt/.410 barrels affect the flight of birdshot pellets. The rule-of-thumb with smooth bore shotguns is this: the longer the barrel and the tighter the choke, the tighter the pellet groups will be at a specified distance. So, in theory, if you compare two pistol barrels, the longer one should produce tighter groups with birdshot.
Surprisingly, during tests of #9 birdshot loads in Taurus Judge revolvers with 6-inch and 3-inch barrels, the #9 shot spread more quickly when fired from the 6-inch barrel (26% of the pellets struck the target at 10 feet) than the 3-inch barrel (56% of the pellets struck the target at 10 feet). This result counters the theory that longer barrels automatically equal tighter groups.
A possible explanation is the longer barrel provides more rifling, which may be causing the wad and shot to pick up more spin, which in turn would cause the shot to spread more quickly. However, that doesn’t explain why the same 6-inch barrel produces equal or better performance than the 3-inch barrel when shooting #4 birdshot. Until we get more data, I don’t have a good explanation. This is why more testing is required
Can I shoot .410 slugs in my .45 Colt/.410 handgun?
For those who are curious about shooting .410 standard lead rifled slug** shells from a .45 Colt/.410 combo gun, the handguns tested for this site (unless noted otherwise) can safely fire .410 slugs. However, you might as well save yourself some cash and reserve the slugs for dedicated .410 shotguns. A .410-caliber shotgun slug traveling down a .454-caliber barrel results in a miserable level of accuracy.
Slugs from Bond pistols displayed signs of tumbling at distances as short as six feet. Tests with the Smith & Wesson Governor 2.75” barrel and Taurus Judge 3” barrel revolvers produced 6 and 7-inch groups at 7 yards, and with slugs wandering all over the targets set out at 25 yards, if they hit the target at all. Slugs fired from handguns with 5.5-inch to 6.5-inch barrels produce better results, but nothing to write home about. They hit close to point-of-aim out to 20 feet, but past that distance the accuracy is sketchy at best.
If you have a shooting task that requires a single, solid projectile, load up with .45 Colt jacketed bullets for the best results. If, for some reason, you are going to run .410 slugs anyway, then be selective about which slug loads you buy. American-made plastic hulled rounds ran flawlessly in all of the test guns. The imported all-metal hull shells I have tried usually jam the guns and have to be hammered out of the chamber with a cleaning rod.
**Slugs are solid, rifled projectiles fired from shotshells to allow full-sized smoothbore shotguns to perform as short-range rifles. Made with soft lead, slugs are cast with a .41 caliber diameter so they can be safely fired in shotguns fitted with full chokes.
Why is the buckshot fired from my .45 Colt/.410 handgun producing strange patterns?
Since buckshot pellets are not rifled, and because they are smaller than the bore of .45 Colt/.410 handgun barrels, it’s not possible to predict the exact shape of the pattern they will produce. We usually expect shot pellets to form a pattern that is essentially round, like like the patterns produced when shooting 12 or 20 gauge birdshot loads. But .410 buckshot loads are fundamentally different from other shotshells in one important way.
Unlike other loads, where the pellets are packed together in clusters like grapes grapes in a bunch, .410 buckshot pellets are stacked one on top of the other in a row. We also don't have much information about how the rifling in the handgun barrel is affecting their path of travel. I have seen all of the following patterns occur in the course of testing each brand of .410 buckshot:
Even Spread: The pellets spread apart at an even rate, resulting in a roughly circular pattern.
Pin Holes: The pellets fly in a straight line, producing a single hole in the target.
Clusters: The pellets spread apart, but only a little, producing a larger, ragged hole.
Flyers: All the pellets form a cluster, except for one pellet that wanders out from the rest, just like the flyers you see during pistol cartridge tests.
Chaining: The pellets spread apart at an even rate, but in a straight line. You could use a ruler to draw a line through the center of all the pellet marks.
While testing, I chose to focus on the overall size of the groups produced instead of the shape of the pattern. It does not matter what the pattern shapes are as long as the spread is an acceptable size. If your shot pellets are spreading too quickly for your needs, or your tests produce flyers that wander off the target completely, then you may want to try a different buckshot load.
If my .410 shotshell is loaded with five buckshot pellets, why are there six holes in
What you see is a mark left by the shot wad (the plastic cup that holds the shot together inside the shell). It’s common to see these marks when shooting .410 at close range into fixed targets. The wad usually leaves a tear or smear that is distinctly different from the shot pellet marks, which is handy to know if you are trying to measure the group size.
How precise are the birdshot test results?
Readers will notice the regular appearance of a little squiggle called a tilde (~) in the birdshot test tables. The tilde is a shorthand notation for "approximately." For the hard-core accuracy fans, these notations are frustrating. But there are a good reasons why testing .410 birdshot shells in handguns can’t be an exact science.
When birdshot shells are loaded at the factory, it’s much more practical to use a scale to measure out birdshot pellets by approximate weight than it is to count out the individual pellets. As a result, each shotshell in a box is likely to contain a slightly different number of pellets. These are shotshells after all, not sniper cartridges.
When figuring birdshot pattern percentages, the testing baseline starts with the approximate number of shot pellets in an ounce, which is used to find the approximate number of pellets in the not-so-exact fractions of an ounce (7/16 or 11/16) commonly used to represent shot weight. Even if you split open a shell and count the pellets, the next shell in the box may be off by a pellet or two. So, laser-like precision the starting pellet counts are doomed from the start.
An individual target’s pellet count may be off by a pellet or two, but when you look at the targets collectively, that’s when you see the intended result of the test. Namely, how does a particular size of shot pattern compared to another. You can also see how barrel length is shaping the patterns as well. And since just the number of pellets on the paper don’t tell the whole story, the targets have been included to allow for the analysis of the pattern.
If this is a site about .410 handguns, why do you have test results for shotguns?
Long gun test results were added for several reasons:
1. Ammunition Compatibility: It may be cost effective or necessary to feed a particular shot shell to both your handgun and shotgun. It’s nice to know the shell will fire and function in both.
2. Performance Reference Point: .410 Shells were originally intended for long guns, so it’s useful to see how the performance changes when they are shot from short, rifled barrels.
3. Choke Comparison:
Since I was testing the long guns anyway, I have tested the three choke types available. The most common is a full choke, but Mossberg also offers a rare cylinder bore model, and the only spreader choke I know of. All three configuration affect the pattern shapes in different ways.
4. Product Awareness:
Many shooters are not aware of the .410 defensive long guns on the market. The sporting models get noticed, but the handful of home defense models don’t get much coverage. This seemed like the right time and place to get the word out, especially with all of the the new defensive loads that can improve the performance of these defensive guns.
Doesn’t Sellier & Bellot make a 3” 5-Pellet .410 Buckshot load? Where are the results?
Yes, they do make this round, it’s relatively inexpensive, and it will fire and pattern well in 3” chambered handguns and shotguns. However, in my experience, it doesn’t always eject properly.
Here are my results so far:
Single-Shot Shotgun: All fired cases were stuck and had to be hammered out with a cleaning rod.
Side-by-Side Shotgun: All fired cases stuck tight and had to be hammered out.
Pump-Action Shotgun: Ejected successfully, but with a marked increased in resistance.
Double-Barrel Derringer: All fired cases stuck to all three test barrels and had to be hammered out.
Single-Action Revolver: Ejected successfully.
Double-Action Revolver: Ejected successfully, but with a marked increased in resistance.
Out of 6 gun types, that makes 1 successful ejection, 3 failed ejections, and 2 quite-tight ejections. And that’s not just one shell per gun or barrel. It took three or more stuck shells to make me give up, and when there were ejection problems, all of the shells fired were a problem. In comparison, I have not experienced even one failure to eject with the 19 different loads of the four American brands of ammunition I have tested. That includes 12 test guns from 6 different manufacturers (as of this writing).
My goal is not to pick on S&B, but to report test results. I have shot other calibers of their ammunition without problems. If you test their 5-Pellet buckshot in your gun and it runs properly, by all mean, buy another box. If enough readers ask for test results, I will post them. But it’s hard to see the benefit of loading a defensive firearm with a shot shell that has a significant chance of locking up the gun when so many other ammunition options are available.
Where did the results for the USFA SHOT Pistol results go?
Unfortunately, this unique pistol never made it to market. But data is data, so if you are interested, just click the link below: