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Super magnum shotguns — do you need one?

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been nearly 25 years since the 3½-inch 12-gauge, or “super magnum” as it’s commonly called, was introduced. In the late 1980s, waterfowlers found themselves mandated to use non-toxic shot, which back then meant steel. The 12-gauge hull was lengthened a half-inch in direct response to steel shot. Because steel is lighter than lead, larger pellets are required to match the ballistics and energy of smaller lead shot. Greater hull capacity was needed to squeeze in more of those larger steel pellets and maintain sufficient pattern density. Prior to the development of the 12-gauge super magnum, waterfowlers turned to the 10-gauge’s massive 3½-inch hull to deliver adequate payloads of large iron shot on target.

Mossberg built the original 3½-inch, 12-gauge shotgun, the 835 Ulti-Mag pump, while Federal developed longer 12-gauge ammo to feed it. A couple years later, Benelli introduced the first super magnum semi-auto, the legendary super Black Eagle.

Although this shotgun initially was created for waterfowling, turkey hunters were also quick to jump on the super magnum bandwagon, because when copious amounts of small lead shot were stuffed into the long 12, something truly special was achieved. My uncle got a first-generation 835 for geese and turkeys, while my duck-hunting mentor carried an early-model SBE. When I could afford one in the late 1990s, I bought a 3½-inch-chambered American Arms over/under, followed by a Remington 870 super Mag when it came out. Today, most of my 12-gauges are super magnums, which I imagine is also true for many reading this.

When first introduced, the super magnum garnered a lot of positive press, with many gun writers touting it as the best thing since sliced bread. Ten years later, it was still being referred to as “new” and “revolutionary” and receiving high praise, as more super magnum shotguns were introduced each year.

Today, many of those same writers who originally sung the super magnum’s praises have become detractors. They decry its necessity, claiming 3-inch loads are sufficient. Why the change of heart? I suspect many of them went through what I’m currently experiencing: getting older and becoming more recoil-sensitive.

True, non-toxic ammo has improved greatly since the early steel-shot days, making 3-inch ammo a practical choice, both in terms of cost and recoil. Admittedly, I use 3-inch loads for most of my duck hunting. However, for larger birds, like geese, I frequently turn to the super magnum. Just because 3½-inch loads kick more than 3-inch or 2¾-inch fodder doesn’t mean they aren’t more effective, because they are.

Consider this: A standard 3-inch steel round has a 1¼-ounce payload, while a standard 3½-inch load has 1 9/16 ounce. That 5/16-ounce difference means a steel pellet increase of around 22 BBs, 39 No. 2s or 60 No. 4s. Even with a reduced charge of 1½ ounce, as many 3½-inch loads now have, that still equates to approximately 18 more BBs, 31 more 2s and 48 more 4s flying at a duck or goose. Waterfowling days are precious. I’ll take all the help I can get.

Because the super magnum has an extremely long shot string, guns with over-bored barrels typically pattern 3½-inch loads a little better than guns with regular-diameter bores. Over-boring allows more room for all that shot to spread out as it moves down the bore, resulting in less pellet deformation and fewer erratic flyers upon exiting the muzzle. Mossberg’s original 835 and new 935 semi-auto have barrels over-bored to near 10-gauge dimensions. Other shotguns have less dramatic over-boring (Browning Invector-Plus and Remington ProBore systems come to mind), but it’s still enough to accommodate larger and longer payloads of shot. That said, many hunters, myself included, have bagged plenty of birds shooting super magnum charges out of standard-bore scatterguns. Still, however slight or nominal, over-boring usually has an edge in pattern performance.

I believe more hunters than the naysayers care to admit tote super magnum shotguns. I frequently find spent 3½-inch hulls lying around marshes and river bottoms, and they’re not all from me. Apparently, there’s a continued demand for the long 12, because more models are brought to market annually.

Some, like Beretta’s A400 Xplor and Remington’s VersaMax, began life as 3½-inch guns, while others are initially offered as 3-inch models and later super-sized. Benelli’s 3½-inch super Vinci quickly followed on the heels of the 3-inch Vinci, and Browning’s new A5 was initially introduced last year as a 3-inch gun, but already there’s a special run of 3½-inch A5s out this year.

Other guns, like Winchester’s super X2 and super X3 and Browning’s Maxus, were available from the get-go as both 3-inch and 3½-inch guns, but it was the super magnum versions that got most of the attention — and sales.

While autoloaders help tame super magnum recoil, pumps remain popular. Besides Mossberg’s trend-setting 835, there’s Benelli’s Nova, Stoeger’s P350 and Remington’s new M887, all rugged pumps built from the ground up to handle 3½-inch powerhouse loads. Among doubles, Browning, Beretta and TriStar have all offered 3½-inch over/unders at some point.

Don’t forget Stoeger’s M3500 semi-auto and Winchester’s new 3½-inch SXP pump. The list goes on and on, growing each year. The super magnum market must be strong, or gun makers wouldn’t keep making them. Waterfowlers, in particular, seemingly crave them, because the majority of new guns are introduced first as waterfowl models, followed by other variants later. 

Whether the super magnum need is perceived or real, 3½-inch guns keep selling. I believe it’s kind of like the big SUVs we drive. We may use four-wheel drive only a handful of times each year, but we like knowing it’s there if we ever need it. Likewise, although 2¾-inch or 3-inch loads might be used 99 percent of the time, it’s still nice to have that 3½-inch capability, just in case. This is America, after all. Bigger is almost always better.

Do you need a super magnum? Only you can answer that. A better question might be do you want a super magnum? I’m betting the answer to that one is yes.

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