You hear it all the time these days from waterfowlers and turkey hunters: “I don’t need a 12-gauge anymore.” “I’ve switched to a 20. It’s all anyone needs,” they’ll tell you. They are almost right. With the introduction of TSS turkey loads, improved steel shot, and the comeback of bismuth pellets, the 20-gauge has become quite capable in the woods and the blind — it was already great in the uplands and the dove field. But is the 20-gauge taking the 12-gauge’s mantle of the do-it-all shotgun chambering?
Short answer: No, it’s not dethroning the 12. Anything the 20-gauge can do, the 12 does better. The longer answer is, the superiority of the 12 notwithstanding, you could absolutely own nothing, but a 20-gauge and rarely feel under-gunned. High-flying geese or Olympic medals might be out of your reach, but almost anything else lies within the capabilities of the 20.
Hunters and shooters like light, trim guns, and while I would grumpily argue that bulky, heavy guns are easier to shoot, many people disagree. The 20-gauge is everyone’s darling right now, and there is a lot to like about it. They’re light without being too light— usually ranging from about 6 to 6 1/2 pounds — making them light enough to carry but heavy enough to shoot reasonably well. And while the gauge does not affect a gun’s recoil, the lighter, slower payloads do kick less.
I’ve shot a 20 at pheasants these past couple of years — not pen-raised birds, but tough wild ringnecks. I like the gun for the same reason everyone likes 20-gauges: It’s slim and easy to carry. And because I hunt over pointing dogs and I’m choosy about my shots, I don’t need the extra few yards of range that a 12-gauge would give me.
For the way I hunt pheasants, a 20 is a great choice. And it might be right for you, too, for all kinds of hunting. There’s no question the 20 is the “it” gun right now, at least until everyone decides the new 3-inch 28-gauge is “all anyone needs.”
The 20-gauge has a nominal bore of .615 inches and, like other shotgun gauges, gets its name from the 20 lead balls of .615-inch diameter that add up to one pound.
Today, most 20-gauges have 3-inch chambers, but plenty of older guns were made for 2 3/4-inch shells only. The 20 is at its best with 7/8 ounces of shot (the standard target/small game load), up to an ounce of lead, steel, bismuth, or HEVI-Shot. Three-inch 20s hold 1 1/4 ounces of lead, 1 ounce of steel, or up to 1 1/2 ounces of Tungsten Super Shot (TSS).
The smaller hull of the 20 means it’s not a good vehicle for large pellets like BBs for geese or 00 buckshot. Indeed, 20-gauges can’t achieve the velocities you can wring out of 12s, but in my opinion, velocity is overrated anyway.
Shotguns in 20-gauge can be found that tip the scales at just over 5 pounds, which is great to carry, but, frankly, hard to shoot. A 5-pound 20 will also dispel the notion that 20-gauges don’t kick. A long-barreled 20 made for sporting clays may weigh more than 7 pounds.
A Quick History Lesson
Twenty gauges were certainly around in the 19th century, but black powder muzzleloader ballistics demanded bigger guns with bigger bores to hold more powder and shot. The 16-gauge was the more common small-bore chambering until the advent of breechloading guns.
When Winchester announced its first loaded shotshells under the name “Rival” in 1886, the shells were offered in 10-, 12-, 14-, 16- and 20-gauge.
The improved ballistics of smokeless powder helped increase the 20-gauge’s popularity. In 1912, when Winchester introduced the Model 12 pump, it was available in 20-gauge only, with the 12 and 16 coming out the following year.
Sometime during the 1920s, the 2 1/2-inch 20-gauge chamber went away, probably as an indirect result of the popularity of skeet shooting, which seemed to encourage standardization of 12-, 20-, and 28-gauge chambers at 2 3/4 inches (.410-bore chambers remained at 2 1/2 inches — don’t ask me why) and in 1954, Winchester introduced the 3-inch 20-gauge magnum.
The 3-inch shell helped the 20 surpass the 16 in popularity, so much so that by the 1970s, the 20-gauge was second only to the 12 in sales, comprising about 20% of the market. The 3-inch shell and the fact that the 20-gauge was used in registered skeet competition while the 16 was not all helped the 20-gauge win out in the end.
The 3-inch 20 also started the first “all you need is a 20-gauge” fad. Gun writers loved it, especially Francis E. Sell, who practically made a career out of championing the 3-inch 20 as the gun for everything, including long-range waterfowl. And a 3-inch 20 holding 1 1/4 ounces of shot and loaded with high-quality lead protected by a ground plastic buffer does make a good waterfowl or pheasant load.
With the switch to non-toxic shot in the 1980s, the pendulum swung back to big-bore guns with high-capacity cartridges: the 3- and 3 1/2-inch 12, and even (briefly) the 10-gauge, became popular. With the advent of bismuth and HEVI-Shot waterfowl loads and even improved steel, the 20 is ticking up in popularity again. All of those loads are appropriate for waterfowl over decoys.
In the turkey woods, Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) makes the 20-gauge equal to or better than most 12s loaded with lead shot. Likewise, for anyone who still shoots deer slugs, 20-gauge sabot slugs offer flat-shooting performance that, while not as hard-hitting as 12s, are more than enough for whitetails.
Top 20-gauge Shotguns
There has never been a shortage of 20-gauges, and the current 20-gauge fad means there are plenty of shotgun models to choose from right now. Here are a few:
One of the better values in the gas-operated semi-auto category is the Winchester Super X4. It comes in a 3-inch 20-gauge model with your choice of 24-, 26- or 28-inch barrel.
The gun comes with length spacers to help you adjust the length of pull, and there’s a compact model available as well with a 13-inch stock and the same choice of barrel lengths for smaller stature shooters. It’s easy to clean, it shoots reliably, and it kicks very little. There’s nothing not to like about it. MSRP: $849 in black synthetic, wood versions start at $999, camo at $1,149.
For 30 years, the SBE has been the last word in waterfowl semi-autos in the minds of many hunters. Last year, Benelli introduced a 20-gauge version of its flagship gun to meet (and maybe help create) the growing demand for 20-gauge duck guns.
It’s a scaled-down version of the 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge model that shares all its features: the recoil-dampening ComforTech stock, the Easy Locking Bolt System that eliminates out-of-battery misfires, the enlarged controls, and the overall trim feel of the SBE3, but trimmer. The SBE3 is available with 26- or 28-inch barrels. MSRP: starting at $1,799 in black.
Browning Citori 725 Sporting
If you’re looking to shoot targets and/or doves with a 20-gauge, you could do so much worse than a Browning 725. Browning O/Us are durable, they always work, and the 725 version of the Citori is much livelier than the original Citori, or maybe even livelier than the legendary Browning Superposed. It’s definitely trimmer, and at a little more than 7 pounds, it’s a nice compromise: lighter than a 12-gauge but heavy enough to swing and shoot well.
The 725 Sporting is available with 30- or 32-inch barrels It comes with all the sporting clays features, like ported barrels and extended chokes, but it’s just right for the dove field. MSRP: $3,419.
Caesar Guerini Woodlander
A Woodlander has been my constant pheasant hunting companion these past two seasons. It has all the qualities I like in an upland gun. At about 6.25 pounds, it perfectly splits the difference between light enough to carry and heavy enough to shoot well.
It’s a good-looking gun but not so good-looking that I’m afraid to hunt with it; I do regret dropping it on some rocks one afternoon while helping my puppy round up a crippled pheasant. The gun has a rounded Prince of Wales grip that’s a nice compromise between a straight stock – which I’d prefer – and a more aggressive pistol grip. The frame is case-colored with no more decoration than a single gold ruffed grouse inlay on the bottom. MSRP: $4,275
CZ Redhead Premier
You don’t have to spend a huge amount of money to get a good 20-gauge hunting gun. The CZ-USA line has several good and affordable break-action shotguns, both O/Us and side-by-sides.
The Redhead Premier, to pick just one, is a solidly-made O/U with ejectors and a single selective trigger. You can get 26- or 28-inch barrels that come with five choke tubes that can shoot any type of shot. I hunted with the All-Terrain version of the Redhead a couple of duck seasons ago and liked it. MSRP: $1075
20-Gauge Ammo Breakdown
It’s the ammo, not the guns, that are driving the 20-gauge renaissance.
By buffering the shot in the shells with plastic microbeads, Winchester has figured out how to prevent the brittle bismuth shot from shattering under the extreme acceleration of being launched out of a shotgun shell at nearly 900 mph. The result is more pellets that stay round, fly true, and print tight patterns. The shells come in boxes of 25 for $45–$50.
HEVI-shot was the first denser-than-lead pellet. The Original Recipe HEVI-Shot, now known as Hevi-XII is back. It comes in three different 3-inch 20-gauge loads of No. 4 or No. 6 shot.
Because it’s harder and denser than lead, it patterns tighter and carries more energy. This is the stuff you want to shoot if you need a 20 that can run with the 12s in the duck blind.
Fiocchi Low Recoil Trainer
One of the most under-appreciated and, unfortunately, un-copied loads on the market, the Fiocchi 20-gauge, 3/4 ounce, 1075 fps Low Recoil Trainer load is a very soft-kicking, quiet load that’s perfect for training new shooters, or for shooting a few rounds of skeet yourself when you’re tuning up with your featherlight bird gun.
Tungsten Super Shot (TSS), once the secret weapon of a small cult of handloaders, went mainstream a few years ago and is now commercially loaded by several manufacturers. TSS pellets are much denser than lead; they’re made of the densest tungsten-iron alloy available to the civilian market. That means they retain energy better, penetrate deeper, and pattern tighter.
You can use TSS shot as small as No. 9 for turkeys and still get adequate penetration of bone and vertebrae. A 20-gauge can hold ridiculous numbers of the small TSS pellets and can send swarms of shot downrange that would be the envy of any 12 loaded with lead.
Of course, a 12 loaded with TSS beats a 20, but a 20 can sling more than enough TSS to take turkeys at long range. Yes, you have to pay $5 to $6 per shell, but this stuff is the real deal.
The Future of the 20-Gauge
The 20-gauge is having a moment right now, but it’s not a passing fad. The new 3-inch 28-gauge ammo and guns will cut into 20-gauge sales a little, but 20-gauge ammunition will always cost less than 28 – it’s a matter of volume – and the 20 should hold its advantage.
Its current popularity may ebb slightly, but the 20 isn’t going away any time soon or ever. Steel loads have gotten good enough that even if tungsten and bismuth prices get so high as to be unaffordable, a 20 loaded with steel or lead, where legal, still makes a fine hunting gun. At the same time, it won’t make the 12-gauge obsolete (the way the12 is currently making the 10-gauge obsolete), but it will always be a good choice for someone who wants a slimmer, lighter gun that can do almost anything we need a shotgun to do.