July 6, 2022


12 and 20 gauge shotshells

I’ve had several experiences during the past few months that have impacted my ideas about shotguns. One was the research and shooting tests involved in firing more than two dozen shotguns while writing “The Preppers Guide to Shotguns” for Skyhorse Publishing. Another was seeing my oldest granddaughter embrace the shooting sports. At 14, she is slightly built, but is serious about shooting. A 12 gauge shotgun would beat her up and get her off to a bad start in shotgunning.

Another experience was breaking out and firing an old Browning Automatic Shotgun. The 21-inch barrel 12 gauge has been modified into what was easily one of the finest combat shotguns of its day — and one I trust completely. I had forgotten how much recoil-operated shotguns kick and didn’t fire it very much. Perhaps there is something to the 20 gauge shotgun for defense. I took a hard look at the 20 over the past six months and learned a lot about the smaller gauge.

12 gauge shotshell left, 20 gauge shotshell right 20-gauge for defense
A yellow 20 gauge shell stacked up to a 2¾-inch 12 gauge shell.

12 Gauge vs. 20 Gauge

I have deployed the 12 gauge for service use and now as a civilian for personal and home defense. While the 12 gauge hits hard and demonstrates greater wound potential, there is some merit in the lighter gauges. I don’t think the .410 is that useful, but the 20 gauge has many good points. The primary advantage is low recoil.

If you do not have a problem using the 12 gauge, by all means do so. With the proper technique, most folks can handle the 12 gauge. However, no matter how good you are, the 12 gauge shotgun kicks and kicks hard with some loads, while the 20 gauge kicks less. Some pretty hard-bitten cops in big cities were once issued 20 gauge shotguns. So, there is some precedent for using the 20 gauge operationally — for those who simply do not get enough practice. As far as terminal ballistics, wound potential, payload and effectiveness, the 20 doesn’t equal the 12, but it is a good gauge for many uses.

Gauge is determined by bore diameter. A 12 gauge shotgun has a bore of .729 inch and 12 lead balls of this diameter would weigh one pound. The 20 gauge .615 bore would require 20 balls to weigh one pound. That is how gauge is measured. The payload of the larger bore is heavier.

The pattern, which is set by the choke, is also a factor in terminal effect. Buckshot tends to travel in pairs and this may be verified by firing the shotgun load at a large piece of paper at seven yards. 12 gauge shells typically hold about 1⅛ ounce of shot, while the 20 gauge deploys a ⅞ ounce of shot. There are slightly heavier loads in each gauge. The smaller payload of the 20 gauge results in less felt recoil.

The weight of the shotgun itself is lighter in most 20 gauge shotguns. The Remington 870 Express Youth Model is a very fast-handling shotgun. While 12 gauge riot guns with 18 to 20-inch barrels handle quickly, they also kick hard due to their light weight. A 20 gauge pump with a 21-inch barrel is well balanced and offers excellent hit probability. The H&R Pardner full-size sporting shotgun is docile.

10-yard shotgun pattern
At 10 yards we have a fair pattern.

20 Gauge Load Selection

Load selection is important. The shotgun isn’t a death ray or Thor’s hammer, it isn’t infallible. Birdshot uses a cloud of tiny pellets intended to humanely take a small fowl with a few pellets. In ballistic testing, #7½ or #8 pellets penetrate perhaps three inches in gelatin. These pellets could be stopped by a heavy jacket or outer clothing.

I once investigated a suicide in which the victim placed a 12 gauge shotgun under his jawbone and pulled the trigger. The jawbone was pulverized and the palate dented by birdshot. A single pellet made it into the brain cavity and ended up causing brain death. The victim lived for several hours. Examining this data seems to indicate birdshot would not penetrate the cranium.

Buckshot, depending on the type and whether it is copper plated, will penetrate 12 to 16 inches. The 12 and 20 penetrate the same the size of the total load is greater with the 12 gauge. With the 12 gauge, buckshot has greater recoil than birdshot, but in the 20 gauge, the difference is less pronounced.

buckshot pattern in a silhouette target
Two loads of buckshot at close range. Note that the wadding traveled to the right. While it may not be deadly, this makes shotguns unsuited to hostage rescue!

The 12-gauge shotgun generates 25 to 30 pounds of recoil energy. The 20 gauge averages 20 pounds with buckshot. That is a considerable difference, but that doesn’t rule out the 20 gauge for defense. This isn’t the whole story, the weight of the shotgun matters as well.

The 20 gauge shotshell is a bit small for 00 buckshot, so the typical 2¾-inch long 20 gauge shell contains 20 #3 buckshot balls, versus 8 or 9 #00 in the 12 gauge. The 12-gauge may be loaded with single 0 and #4 as well. A three-inch magnum 20 gauge shell may carry 18 #2 buckshot. The three-inch magnums are a little hard to find, but worth the search for an added edge in personal defense. These loads have given excellent results in water and gelatin testing, and they are good choices for home defense, with greater wound potential than any handgun. The 20 gauge shotgun is also lighter and handles quickly.

Bob Campbell shooting a 20 gauge Remington 870 shotgun 20-gauge for defense
The author found the Remington 870 smooth and reliable.

Conclusion: 20-Gauge Shotguns

Not long ago, I fired my old Remington 870 riot gun loaded with reduced-recoil Federal Cartridge Company buckshot against the Remington 870 Express 20 gauge loaded with standard 2¾-inch buckshot. The goal was to fire four shells as rapidly as possible at seven yards and destroy the center of the target. I did so with each shotgun. I fired four 20 gauge shells into the target in the time it took to fire three 12 gauge shells, and I am pretty good with the 12 gauge after 40 years of training. The 20 gauge shotgun has a place in personal defense and just may be the best choice for the majority of homeowners.

What do you think of the 12 gauge versus 20 gauge for defense? Have you done any testing of your own? Share your answers or results in the comment section.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September of 2018. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.



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