While the 8-gauge shotgun is obsolete and illegal for hunting, it still serves a purpose today.
The 8-gauge shotgun was, emphasis on was, a specialized fowling piece dating back to 19th-century waterfowl hunters. At that time, 8-gauge shotguns were loaded with a handful of black powder and threw up to two ounces of lead shot at a time. The barrels on these shotguns were long, often 30 inches or more, and that extra barrel length allowed the black powder to achieve maximum velocity. The 8 gauge could reach out to 80 and even up to 100 yards. I can only imagine that the recoil was incredibly stout.
Barrels on older 8-gauge shotguns made before 1900 were made of Damascus, iron and steel layers that were hammered and twisted into a tube. A typical black powder load with Damascus barrels meant 1.5 to 2 ounces of lead shot. These barrels work as intended with blackpowder loads but will peel back like a banana if smokeless shells are used due to the higher pressure. Early 8-gauge shotguns were flintlock and percussion guns, some with a single barrel and others with double barrels. These shotguns were specialized tools intended for use on waterfowl.
19th Century Heyday
Market hunters, those hunters that harvested birds to sell commercially, used 8-gauge shotguns to kill multiple birds with one shot, similar to a punt gun. Punt guns were too large to shoot from the shoulder and were typically mounted to the bow of a small boat. These were obviously far less maneuverable than an 8-gauge shotgun designed to be fired from the shoulder. This type of hunting pre-dated hunting and fishing regulations and waterfowl like the Labrador duck were hunted to extinction by 1878. Market hunters not only sold the meat but also the feathers of certain birds for use in ladies’ hats which made quite the fashion statement at the time.
The 8-gauge made the transition to cartridge shells, as did 10- and 12-gauge shotguns, but it was never as popular as those two smaller gauges. By the late 19th century, the barrels on 8-gauge shotguns were made of fluid steel and able to take the pressure of smokeless powder. That meant the 8 gauge could deliver a load of lead shot in the range of 2 to 2.5 ounces. These 8-gauge shotguns ranged from inexpensive scatterguns perfect for a family settling in the West to lavishly engraved side-by-sides suited for royalty. European double gun maker Greener was one of the more famous builders of 8-gauge guns.
The largest manufacturer of 8-gauge shotguns in the U.S. was Parker Brothers, though the company only built 246 guns in total. Colt was well known in the late 19th century for the Model 1883 side-by-side shotgun. These doubles were typically only available in 10- and 12-gauge, but Colt did produce one 8-gauge model as a custom build for President Grover Cleveland, an avid hunter and two-term president.
Dangerous Game Loads For 8-Gauge Shotguns
Blackpowder 8-gauge cartridges found another use in Africa when loaded with a large lead bullet like an 862-grain spherical ball or 1,257-grain conical bullet. These loads produced muzzle velocities of 1,645 fps and 1,500 fps, respectively. The 8 gauge was considered the standard caliber on all dangerous game besides elephants (the 4 gauge was reserved for pachyderms). These side-by-side guns typically weighed about 15 pounds, but I am sure the weight was welcomed when touching off a shell.
Obsolete And Illegal By The 20th Century
By the time 8-gauge cartridges became available, the writing was already on the wall—it was simply too cumbersome compared to 10- and 12-gauge shotguns. Sure, the 8-gauge held more shot than the smaller two did, but that proved to be what market hunters wanted. While 8-gauge shells came in lengths ranging from 3 to 4 inches, the maximum length for 10- and 12-gauge shells was only 3.5 inches.
If user preference for the more manageable sizes wasn’t enough to kill the 8-gauge shotgun, the 1918 ban on using anything larger than 10-gauge for hunting migratory birds was the final nail in the coffin, at least in the U.S.
The 8-Gauge Today: Masterblasters And Ringblasters
While the 8 gauge is as extinct as the Labrador duck in the traditional sense, it is still used for industrial purposes today. From the mid-20th century throughout today, the 8 gauge has found another role, just not in duck blinds or on African plains.
The 8 gauge is used for tough industrial jobs found in power plants, incinerators, kilns, silos and other work environments for certain tasks. In silos, for example, an 8-gauge shell can be used to clear out excess build-up. In places like power plants, these loads are designed to be deployed as part of the maintenance process to prevent excessive ash accumulation while the plant is online.
To fire these shells, massive single-shot industrial 8-gauge shotguns are used. They’re mounted to an assembly with large elevation and traverse wheels for aiming and have a lever or lanyard for the operator to pull as a firing mechanism. There are two major versions of these in use, one from Remington Industrial called the Masterblaster and one from Winchester Industrial Products called the Ringblaster.
Other models are designed for use in smaller spaces that are more portable, but these still require a tripod that suspends the shotgun from a chain. These smaller models are Remington’s Boiler Gun and Winchester’s Western Industrial Tool, and they’re specifically used in large power plant boilers for blasting off gunk that would take too long to remove by hand. While 8 gauge is no longer used in a traditional sense, the existence of these tools is enough to keep it from truly being considered extinct.
Expensive Wall Hangers
If you want an 8-gauge shotgun today, expect to pay a premium. Even the most basic models in less-than-stellar condition typically sell for between $1,000 and $2,500, and guns from desirable manufacturers like Greener can go for over $10,000.
You’ll find them in many forms, ranging from single-barrel guns with a flint or percussion side lock to double-barrels with or without hammers. The rarity of these guns is what drives their price, and since you can’t find ammo to shoot them with anymore, they’ll be some very expensive wall hangers. Hunting one down definitely isn’t recommended for most people, but if you feel like you must add an 8-gauge shotgun to your collection, best of luck on finding a good deal.
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