Practicing and Competing with the .410 Bore

The .410 bore, commonly referred to as the little gun, has been a source of much discussion relative to how much practice one should do with it and one’s attitudes towards shooting it in competition. Let’s put it this way: some people like to shoot it and some people don’t for an assortment of reasons.

The question I am going to try to answer in this article is what the attitude towards the little gun really is; and if some of the more prominent names in skeet practice with it as much as they do other guns, and if so, why?

Since this article might be read by some new shooters, I just wanted to show the novice the difference in appearance between the various gauges and the .410 bore.

Let me describe the various lead shot capacities of each shell. The 12 gauge can be shot with either 1 1/8 oz., 1 oz. or less, and that breaks down to roughly 658 (1 1/8 oz.) or 585 (1 oz.) #9 lead pellets, respectively. The 20 gauge is 7/8 oz., which is roughly 512 #9 lead pellets. The 28 gauge is ¾ oz. or roughly 439 pellets of #9 lead. Finally, the .410 is ½ oz. or roughly 292 #9 lead pellets. So aside from the diminutive appearance in size, the .410 shell has basically ½ the lead of a 1 oz. 12 gauge. Between those two characteristics, a lot of shooters let it get into their heads.

I decided the only way to validate people’s attitudes towards the .410 was to request feedback from some world-class shooters. In this article, I have enlisted comments from Todd Bender, Robert Paxton, Van Boerner, Cliff Moller and Dan Jones. Their feedback should be typical of other high-level competitive shooters.

My personal experience with the gun, early on, was I loved to practice with it and shoot it in competition. From the time gun clubs around the country began holding the .410 event as the final event of a tournament (versus the first ever as in years past), the little gun has often been the bearer of the eventual High-Over-All winner. So, if you were not proficient with the gun, you were not likely to win a tournament, especially if it involved a shoot-off for the actual gun or the coveted HOA.

I spent a great deal of time in my early skeet shooting career attempting to get my AA and AAA Four Gun Pins. That goal required I commit to shooting the .410 regularly to raise my average to the appropriate level. I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I finally achieved that goal. In my shooting career so far, I have had 10 perfect scores with the little gun. That is a relatively small number compared to some of the skeet greats. I can, however, remember my very first one. It taught me a valuable lesson I would keep with me for the rest of my shooting career. If you can break a perfect score with a .410, you certainly can with any other gun and more importantly you don’t need to shoot a 1 1/8-oz., 12-gauge load unless perhaps you are shooting a gas gun, as there is added undesirable recoil in the fixed breech guns.

I had the great honor and privilege to be at the Dallas Gun Club in May of 2012, when the great skeet legend, Wayne Mayes, broke his 200th perfect score with the .410. Now that, folks, is not only a major accomplishment, but a World Record.

As you know, the HOA in a competition skeet tournament is shot off with the .410, so it is critically important to hone your skills with the gun as much as you possibly can. And oh, by the way, that HOA shoot-off is not only shot with the .410, but it is doubles at Stations 3, 4 and 5. In the World Championships, the HOA typically involves shooting one regular round of .410 before beginning Stations 3, 4 and 5 shoot-off doubles.

My practice regimen, before I retired, consisted of shooting six rounds, four singles, as though it were a tournament, and then two rounds of doubles. After I retired, it became too expensive for me to shoot that many rounds, so today I shoot four rounds, two singles and two doubles. One round of doubles is shot all the way around, and the last is shot at 3, 4 and 5.

Typically, I will let my reloaded shells determine when to change to the next gauge. In my early skeet shooting career, I shot factory ammunition in competition, so I have plenty of hulls to reload. In my retirement, I quickly learned I could reload a shell in any gauge to factory specifications a lot cheaper than purchasing new shells especially in the smaller 28 gauge and .410 bore. I would typically start shooting the 12 gauge, and I would reload those shells around five times. At that point, I would retire those hulls and change over to the 20 gauge. I continued that process all the way through the .410.

I still enjoy shooting practice 3-4 days a week. I have no real hard and fast rule, but I change out gauges at least once a month. I am personally a believer in cycling through all your guns during practice.

Todd Bender, one of the foremost skeet shooters in the world and one of skeet’s premier instructors, says the following regarding equipment and volume of practice:

“Back when I started in the 1970s, shooting the .410 was a bit of a challenge. Ammunition wasn’t as good as today, and tube sets hadn’t been invented yet, so barrel sets and Remington 1100s dominated the scene and were light and whippy, not as much control as their heavier tube set counterparts.

“I shot factory ammunition in tournaments and in practice because I could never load a shell as good as Remington could make. And in that diminutive bore, I considered that important and an advantage. Because confidence is such a large factor in shooting the .410, shooting factory ammunition removed a variable in the equation.

“One question I constantly get asked is ‘What do you do differently when shooting the .410?’

“My answer, ‘Not a thing.’”

“Again, in this day and age, given modern-day equipment and ammunition, nothing changes. So the bulk of my theories when shooting the .410 revolve around building and maintaining confidence. Not doing things differently, which mathematically is a moot point.

“I believe confidence is a deciding factor in shooting the .410 successfully. So I shot the .410 just enough to maintain confidence, without over-practicing and opening myself up to a poor performance that could jeopardize the confidence I worked so hard to build. Obviously, I had to put in enough time to learn how to shoot the .410 competently and confidently, but once that level was attained, I shot it no more than the other gauges.

“The last thing I wanted was aiming, measuring and being careful, notorious ‘traps’ to fall into when shooting the .410. I didn’t want that bleeding into my other gauges, such as the 12 gauge. I would much rather shoot the .410 confidently and relaxed like the 12 gauge than shooting the 12 gauge careful and timid like one might fall into shooting a lot of .410. That was the deciding factor when dividing my practice time between the gauges. I wanted to shoot something that allowed me to shoot boldly and confidently, say like the 12 or 20 gauge, that would positively affect my .410 shooting.”

Here is what a former World Champion, Robert Paxton had to say:

“Early in my career, I did practice a lot with the .410 — the theory being “If you can hit them with the .410, then you can hit them with any gauge.

“But a few years in, I changed my opinion on the subject and, therefore, my practice regimen. I found most skeet shooters would treat shooting the .410 differently than the other gauges. Since skeet shooters are, in fact, human, we can see that diminutive .410 round going into the tiny .410 chamber when we load the gun. Then, from a dark place deep inside the brain, a signal is sent out telling its human host ‘WOW, there is not much shot in that shell. You better try harder, take your time and really make sure the lead is exactly right!’ Which, of course, leads to riding targets and aiming at them instead of pointing — which, of course, leads to failure.

“I want to approach every round of skeet the same way, regardless of which gauge is being shot. For me, the key to shooting the .410 well is to shoot it with the same confident and aggressive approach I try to use in the other gauges. Therefore, I don’t practice a lot with the .410. Practicing more with the big guns helps me ignore that malicious and mysterious .410 signal from deep inside the brain. And, I stay acclimated to the recoil of the larger gauges.

“Personally, I shoot the same ammo and chokes in practice I shoot in competition. For me, there should be no difference between practice targets and registered targets, so why would I shoot something different in practice? I approach both in the same manner. But different practice routines work for different shooters. I believe the determining factor is confidence. If you have confidence in a certain routine and believe it works for you, then that is the correct choice.”

Folks, isn’t it amazing the incredible similarities between what Todd Bender and Robert Paxton had to say about shooting the little gun? It proves to me world champions think alike.

My next feedback is from Van Boerner. Van has for many years been a world-class shooter and is currently the Skeet Shooting Coach at Trinity University in San Antonio. Van replaced the former great skeet shooting coach, Colonel Tom Hanzel. Here is what he had to say:

“First, from a personal standpoint, I believe it is important to give the same attention in practice to the .410 as you would in any other gauge. After all, there is no difference in the number of targets we shoot from event to event. There is no exception made for less recoil. And, they don’t slow the targets down or let us get closer as we decrease shot capacity. The .410 is part and parcel to the High-Over-All without consideration for less recoil and less shot, and therefore, equal in value. As a result, I incorporate the .410 in my practice regimen in the same capacity as any other gauge — no more, no less. 

“In a normal practice week, which for me is usually twice a week, I will try to shoot at least two, maybe all three gauges, in some combination every week. My practice regimen will include four rounds of regular skeet (sometimes regular doubles), then two to three rounds of doubles 3-4-5. That session will always be with the same gauge. I don’t like switching gauges during the session. It’s contrary to what we do in competition. Then, I’ll come back in the latter part of that same afternoon (usually around 5:30 or 6:00 (shoot-off time of the day) and shoot three to four rounds of shoot-off doubles. Always with a different gauge than used in the earlier session. So, over two days, I will have shot all three gauges in every facet of what we do, equally. 

“I do believe you can over-practice with the .410, losing touch with recoil; and I believe you can under-practice with the .410 and become tentative with it in competition. I don’t think you should give any one gauge more, or less, practice time than the other, because they all have equal value in the end. I am a firm believer in practicing shoot-off doubles with the .410 every bit as much as the other gauges. Some shooters I know shy away from practicing 3-4-5 doubles with the little gun because it can be painful. I agree, but when you consider we face more potential shoot-offs with the .410 than any other gauge, the pain can be worth it. The .410 Gun Championship, the High-Over-All, the High-All-Around and the Champion of Champions are all shot off with the .410. You can’t afford not to practice shoot-off doubles with the .410. We have a saying in the Marine Corps — ‘It is better to sweat in training, than bleed in combat.’”

Van sent me a follow-up note indicating he shot factory shells in competition and reloads in practice. His reasoning is he does not want the distraction during competition of having to make sure the shell is crimped correctly or have to deal with a blooper should one occur, so he simply eliminates the variables. He also said it is more difficult to keep up with the reloading when he is on the road where he has multiple shoots back to back. He added, it is more of a convenience than a lack of confidence in his reloads. Makes sense to me.

My next interview was with Cliff Moller, President of Briley Manufacturing. Part of Cliff’s contribution to this article was more about the evolution and improvements in Briley tubes. Cliff said early on the tubes were extremely difficult to manufacture. He and Jess Briley were working out of a garage, and all work was done by hand. He said once you have honed a tube by hand, you won’t ever forget it. Cliff said the early tubes were fixed chokes. The problem that presented was every shooter wanted to have a different choke constriction especially in the small guns. He made a great point that all the “big guns” are very “emotional” about how their targets break. He related a story about making some custom-fixed chokes in the early 1990s for Mike Schmidt, Jr., roughly .003. They went to the local shooting facility to test them in some fairly windy conditions, and Cliff frankly felt the results might not be optimal. Mike shot a perfect 100 in the .410. When the session was over, Cliff was looking for some very positive feedback for the work he had done, but Mike remarked he did not feel like the chokes were tight enough.

At that point, Briley realized in order to accommodate a wide range of customer desires, they were going to have to come up with some sort of screw-in choke. He said initially it was a nightmare because if the concentricity was not perfect, the tube would not perform well.

With the advent of some really sophisticated automation products like CNC and swaging machines, the products were greatly improved as was the morale of his employees. Cliff said prior to the sophisticated automation equipment the quality of the work depended on what kind of day the employee was having. A bad day might equal less than a quality product.

Now with the introduction of extended chokes, the performance of the tubes were improved by the slight increase in length. Cliff said aside from the slight improvement in tube performance, it was also significantly more convenient for the shooter to be able to take the tubes out without a tool, just a hammer.

Cliff shoots factory shells in tournaments, but he said his nature is to be very cost conscious, so he shoots reloads in practice. He said his 2017 season in the .410 was not good, and aside from suffering from cataracts, he simply could not get going with the gun no matter what he did, even though he shot reasonably well in the other guns. He said he spoke with world champion Dan Jones from California about a practice regimen, and so far, that has improved his game. He suggested I contact Dan and get his perspective on overcoming difficulties with the .410.

The 2014 .410 World Champion, Dan Jones, has a practice regimen for shooting the .410 that emphasizes kinetics (muscle memory) to break the cycle of people thinking ‘Oh no, it’s the .410!’.

Dan started off by saying if you can’t shoot the .410, you really can’t win. He has a little different philosophy than some of the other world champions that goes beyond just being proficient or comfortable shooting the .410. One must be able to put the fact that you are shooting the little gun out of your mind and “go after it”. Like many other world champions, he shoots tighter chokes than most. He did not start out that way, he just developed the confidence in the gun to progressively move from .003 to .006 to .008. He allowed that tight of a choke is not for everyone. However, he cautioned if you spread your pattern out too much, say 30", it is easy for a target to get through on the periphery. There are no holes in his pattern at roughly 25" to 26".

Dan says he practices two or three times a week. During that practice regimen, he shoots two days of his .410 regimen and supplements his other day by rotating in another gauge, for him, typically the 28 gauge.

He said he breaks his practice regimen into three segments. He calls them the Baseline, Middle and Corners. Dan explained the intent of this type of regimen is to practice the fundamentals by not attaching any significance to the gun you are shooting, just the muscle memory necessary to shoot well.

 

Baseline Stations 1, 7, 8

Station 1 (3) H, (1) L, (2) Dbl.

Station 7 (1) H, (1) L, (1) Dbl.

Station 8    (6) H, (6) L

 

Corners Stations 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Station 2 (2) H, (2) H, L, Dbl.

Station 3 (1) H, (1) L 

Station 4 (1) H, (1) L 

Station 5 (1) H, (1) L 

Station 6 (2) L, (2) H, L, Dbl.

 

Middle Stations 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Station 2    (2) H, L, Dbl.

Station 3 (3) H, L

Station 4  (3) H, L

Station 5 (3) H, L

Station 6    (1) H, L, Dbl.

 

Dan said even though he called part of the regimen the “Corners”, you still get one pass at the middle stations. And the same is true for the “Middle”, you still get one pass at the Corners. Dan felt this particular shooting regimen allowed him to shoot more .410 100s in the 2017 season than anyone else. I, for one, plan on trying his practice regimen as soon as possible.

Bottom line, many of the world-class shooters have different reasons for the way they practice and shoot the .410 in competition, so you will have to come to your own conclusion as to which practice regimen works best for you. However, don’t do like other people I have witnessed. When we are practicing the .410 and switch to practice doubles, they go to the car and change their tubes out a bigger gauge. Shoot the .410 in the doubles, eventually you are going to have to in order to win.

For me, this last recommendation is something that should be an absolute given, but not everyone recognizes it. Go to your pattern board or what some people call the grease plate. Take a stick with a 13"-15" string on it and draw yourself a circular pattern in the middle of the plate. Depending upon the chokes you use, you will find the pattern is roughly the same as your other guns, roughly between 26" to 30" at 21 yards. Only the periphery of your pattern in the .410 has a whole lot less pellets out on the edges, unless you shoot tighter chokes. Also remember, the pattern board is a two-dimensional representation of your pattern. So, not all the shot gets there at the same time…there is a shot string, however small it might be. The better shooters have discovered it is possible to influence your pattern, in a positive way, through testing various shells, loads and chokes.

One final anecdotal comment. Years ago, my shooting partner and I had the pleasure of shooting with Linda Steen, Wayne Mayes’ wife. Wayne was at the field observing her shoot. After the rotation was over, Wayne asked what chokes my partner was shooting in the .410. Sheepishly I said, I thought they were skeet, as I bought the gun as a skeet gun. He said, “In my opinion, her chokes are too tight.” I immediately took the gun to the pattern board and much to my surprise and dismay, Wayne was 100% correct. I swear the .410 pattern at 21 yards was just slightly larger than a pie plate. I immediately changed chokes to a light skeet choke of .003 to .004. My partner picked up 10 birds the next tournament we shot in. If you are not sure of your choke performance or point-of-impact, take your gun to the pattern board. I have personally known people going for years never knowing why their shooting performance was off, especially in the .410, only to find their point-of-impact or chokes were simply wrong.

Good luck and good shooting. SS


John Bulger started his skeet shooting career in 1988 at 42 years of age. He shot his first 100 straight the following year in the 28 gauge and since then has broken a total of 239  perfect scores: 90 in the 12 gauge, 77 in the 20 gauge, 54 in the 28 gauge, 10 in the .410 bore, and 8 in the doubles. John has been on 16 All-American Concurrent Teams, 21 Texas State Teams. John has earned both his AA and AAA pins including a 4x50 Pin earned at the Hodgdon Mini-Southwest in 2010. John’s most memorable accomplishments were winning the Briley Bradshaw in 1997, the Texas State 12 gauge Champion in 2002 and the Texas State Doubles Champion in 2011. That same year John was awarded the Earl Barroso Award for winning the Senior HOA at the Texas State Championships. John was also the Senior HOA Champion at the Mini-World in 2010.  During his career John has shot 170,050 registered targets. While he’s had a couple of 399s, a 400x400 is still on John’s bucket list. John served on the TSSA Board of Directors from 1997-1999 and has been a member of the Dallas Gun Club since 1989. John has been a contributing writer to Shotgun Sports since 2013.

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