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After punt guns and giant 4- and 8-bores were banned for hunting in the early 20th century to protect waterfowl populations, the 10-gauge remained our largest legal hunting shotgun. It still is today. The 12-gauge is the most popular gauge by far, and the 3 ½-inch chambered 12-gauges throw almost as much shot as a 10. When it comes to the 10 gauge vs 12 gauge, is the 10 gauge still relevant? 

10 gauge vs 12 gauge: Table of Contents

  • 10- and 12-gauge magnum history
  • 10 Gauge vs 12 Gauge by the Numbers
  • The Bottom Line
  • 10 gauge vs 12 gauge: Frequently Asked Questions

10- and 12-gauge magnum history

In the late 19th and into the 20th century, the 10-gauge was in widespread use as an all-purpose shotgun for hunting ducks, upland birds, and small game, much as the 12-gauge is today. It had a 2 7/8-inch chamber, and those shorter shells often held 1 ¼ ounces of shot, not much more than a standard 12-gauge hunting load. In 1932, Winchester Ammunition collaborated with Ithaca Gun Company on a new, 3 ½-inch magnum and a massive double-gun to shoot it. The fearsome 10-gauge magnum held up to 2 ounces or more of lead shot, and it became the ultimate long-range waterfowl gun. 

Later, as wild turkey populations rebounded across the country, serious turkey hunters took to the 10-gauge as well. It was even made into a law-enforcement gun in the 1970s, when Ithaca made its Mag-10 gas semiauto in a short-barreled version called the “Roadblocker.” For all that, the 10-gauge remained a niche gun. It was heavy. Usually weighing over 10 pounds, and it wasn’t suitable for anything other than long-range shooting.

Two Ithaca 10 gauge shotguns
Two Ithaca Mag 10 10-gauge shotguns. Rock Island Auction Company

Meanwhile, the 12-gauge also received magnum treatment in the 30s, when 3-inch shells and guns chambered for them became available. In the era of lead shot, however, 2¾-inch 12s were common, and very capable of anything from target shooting to deer hunting with slugs and buckshot. Only waterfowl and turkey hunters chose 3-inch magnum 12-gauge guns.

With the ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting in the late 1980s, hunters discovered that the best way to make clean kills on ducks and geese was to shoot much larger sizes of light steel shot than they had used with denser lead pellets. The 2¾- and even the 3-inch 12-gauge couldn’t hold enough BB, BBB, and T shot pellets for good long-range patterns. Some hunters turned to the 10, but when Mossberg and Federal Cartridge Company teamed up to introduce the 3 ½-inch 12-gauge, they stole most of the 10’s thunder and market share. The 10-gauge slid in popularity, while the 3 ½-inch 12-gauge took off, especially after Benelli introduced the Super Black Eagle in the early 90s, and other manufacturers came out with 3 ½-inch 12s of their own.

10 Gauge vs 12 Gauge by the Numbers

Comparing the two big guns shows why the 3 ½-inch 12 became so popular. The 10-gauge has a .775 compared to .729-inches for the 12, which does give it an advantage in hull volume. However, the 3 ½-inch 12-gauge is spec’d to higher pressures than the 10-gauge, so it can shoot loads almost as heavy and sometimes faster than the 10-gauge can. The 10 can shoot 1 5/8-ounce loads of steel thanks to its larger hull, although the 3 ½-inch 12 can shoot 1½ loads at higher velocities, so it’s almost a wash between the two in terms of power. When it comes to pattern efficiency, the 10-gauge has a slight edge, especially when it comes to shooting loads of big shot, such as BBB. Many experienced long-range goose shooters will tell you the 10 beats the big 12 even though they shoot nearly identical loads.

Weight really distinguishes the 10 from the magnum 12. Ten-gauges have big frames, and most weigh 10-12 pounds. Twelve gauges, even 3 ½-inch guns, keep getting lighter, and you can find them anywhere from 8 pounds down to 6 3/4-pounds. That weight cuts both ways. A light gun is easier to carry, and, in some cases, such as shooting from a layout blind, easier to handle. But, the lighter the gun, the harder it kicks, all other factors being equal.  Since the two gauges shoot nearly identical loads, there is definitely less recoil in a 10-gauge than with a 12, assuming you’re shooting loads of the same weight and velocity.

The 3 ½-inch 12-gauge wins for versality. The lighter weight means you can carry it in the uplands or the turkey woods easily, and a 3 ½-inch gun also shoots 2 ¾- and 3-inch shells. It’s difficult to find lighter field or hunting loads for a 10, and impossible to get target loads for it.

Man with a shotgun and a dead turkey
The author with a turkey and a 12-gauge Benelli Super Black Eagle 3. Phil Bourjaily

The Bottom Line

Hunters have voted overwhelmingly with their pocketbooks for the 3 ½-inch 12 gauge. It’s a lightweight, versatile gun that can be loaded up to 10-gauge levels if need be. You see more 3 ½-inch 12s on the market every year, and for many gun companies, their top-of-the-line 3 ½-inch 12-gauge semiauto is their “flagship gun.”

On the other hand, the 10-gauge, while not dead yet, is in decline. Only Browning still offers a 10, in both pump and semiauto versions. The 10 patterns well for long-range shooting, and its recoil is comparatively mild, but its weight and lack of lighter ammo options make it a special-purpose gun only.

If you want a versatile gun that can handle big magnums, choose a 3½-inch 12-gauge. If you do a lot of long-range pass-shooting at geese, or hunting turkeys from a blind, the slight increase in pattern efficiency and lighter recoil from a 10-gauge might make it a good choice for you, but you’ll still need a 12-gauge for other types of hunting and for target shooting.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does a 10-gauge kick harder than a 12-gauge


Gauge has nothing to do with recoil, which is a function only of the weight of the shot charge, its velocity, and the gun’s weight. A 10-gauge and a 3½-inch magnum 12-gauge shoot nearly identical loads, but a 10-gauge weighs 4 to 5 pounds more, so it will have less recoil.

How far can a 10-gauge shotgun shoot?

With the proper choke and load of large steel pellets, you can get a 10-gauge to shoot good, clean-killing patterns to 50 yards and beyond on big birds like Canada geese and swans. Switching to a denser non-toxic material like bismuth or tungsten-iron pellets potentially increases the gun’s range even further. The 10-gauge doesn’t have a huge advantage over the 3½-inch 12, but many experienced long-range shooters swear they can tell a difference between the two, and that the 10 rules for long shots.

What is the most powerful shotgun gauge? 

The 10 and 12 can each lay claim to being the most powerful legal shotgun for hunting. The 10-gauge can hold an extra bit of shot over the 3½-inch 12-gauge thanks to its larger hull. The 3½-inch 12-gauge, because it was introduced 55 years after the magnum 10, can be loaded to higher pressures, which means it can shoot almost as much shot as the 10, but at higher velocities, giving its pellets more energy. When it comes to loads like OO buck, both the 10 and the 3½-inch 12-gauge fire identical, devastating, 1100 fps, 18-pellet loads.