Tactical Talk: The 20 Gauge for Defense

By Bob Campbell published on in Firearms, Hunting

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 serious about shooting. A 12 gauge shotgun would beat her up and get her off to a bad start in shotgunning.

12 gauge shotshell left, 20 gauge shotshell right

A yellow 20 gauge shell stacked up to a 2 ¾-inch 12 gauge shell.

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. I took a hard look at the 20 over the past six months and learned a lot about the smaller 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.

12 and 20 gauge shotshells

A 20 gauge 3-inch magnum is stacked against 12 gauge shells. This is a lot of power for the size.

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 7 yards. 12 gauge shells typically hold about 1 1/8 ounce of shot while the 20 gauge deploys a 7/8 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 and R Pardner full size sporting shotgun is docile.

10-yard shotgun pattern

At 10 yards we have a fair pattern.

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, #7 ½ 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.

Interpolating 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. 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 2 ¾-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 3-inch magnum 20 gauge shell may carry 18 #2 buckshot. The 3-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. 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 2 ¾-inch buckshot. The goal was to fire four shells as rapidly as possible at 7 yards and destroy the center of the target. I did so with each shotgun.

Bob Campbell shooting a 20 gauge REmington 870 shotgun

The author found the Remington 870 smooth and reliable.

Conclusion

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 home owners.

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

SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

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Comments (36)

  • King Paris

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    I bought a Mossberg 500 youth model in 20 gauge. My wife can shoot it comfortably from the hip and it has a nice little flashlight attached to it. It’s loaded with a round of birdshot followed by four of buckshot and it fires quickly. This makes sense to me for home defense.

    Reply

  • Mark Peters

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    I have a good friend who was in desperate need of a “loaner” shotgun for deer season about 7 years ago, and I just happened to have an older Sears youth model 20 gauge pump, that I picked up cheap for my son, just sitting in the gun cabinet, not being used.
    My buddy “field tested” that lightweight 20 gauge for the entire season, and ended up successfully harvesting a pretty decent buck.
    His comments to me were, that compared to his previous experience with hunting with a 12 gauge, the 20 gauge was MUCH easier to carry in the field for a whole day,….and that when loaded with a good quality slug, it had no noticeable reduction in “knock down power” when shooting at short to medium range.
    He expressed to me a desire to “borrow” that little pump gun for next year’s deer season,…. and now after 7 successful years of hunting with it, my buddy is so impressed with it’s low recoil and light carry weight… I might have to physically go over to his house with a couple of big guys and a pry bar, just to get it back.

    Reply

  • Chuck Cochran

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    Due to wear and tear and degenerative joint disease, I can no longer fire my 12 gauge or any of my hunting rifles without considerable discomfort. I’ve been toying with the idea of a 20 gauge, and appreciate the effort and opinions you’ve expressed in this article. Thank you, I believe I’ll go this route.

    Reply

  • SCOTT HARRIS

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    “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!”

    I disagree. You’re just using the wrong ammunition.

    Reply

  • Gilbert buffalow

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    The .410 slug is a good home deffense shotgun caliber also I have filled up .20 gauge shells with high-density soft air pellets for a non-lethal round and they are very effective to scare off intruding dogs or whatever without killing them, it probably could kill something through the eye ball or the temple, just saying. 870 express is the best shotgun in my book all around reliable firearms.

    Reply

  • 7seasdiver

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    I’m not a wimp, but I’m only 5′-4″ and 155 lbs soaking wet, and now 64 years old. I traded in my 12 ga for a Mossberg SA20 Tactical, and I load it with Remington Ultimate Defense (17 pellets of #3 buck). I can control it well enough for follow-up shots if necessary. You hit it on the head with 4 shots of 20 ga in the same time as three shots in 12 ga. Overall, I don’t see that’s much of a drop in stopping power.

    Reply

  • Jim Hovater

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    I wish Benelli or Beretta would bring out a ‘purpose-built’ 20ga self defense/combat auto shotgun.

    Reply

  • dprato

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    I am 72 years old male and I traded my youngest son my 12 guage Ithaca pump for his Remington 870 20 guage Youth Shot Gun that I bought for him when he was a kid. While a very nice shotgun the 12 guage got to be too much for my shoulder and it had a massive kick if you shot slugs out of it.
    The 20 guage is excellent for me and I generally have 2 and 3 buck shells in both 2 3/4 and 3″ length. I read somewhere that a 20 guage slug has the equivalent energy of two 44 magnum shells. So I am very comfortable in a self defense situation using a 20 guage as I can handle it much better and it has far less recoil for an older fellow like myself.

    I have other firearms as well so suffice it to say I have an array of self defense weapons with which to handle multple types of threats in a satisfactory manner.

    Reply

  • Jim in Conroe

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    I have been tempted to purchase the Mossberg Shockwave, the non-shotgun shotgun without a buttstock. It seems to be designed for home defense, and not much else. But in 12 gauge this would be a real handful.

    Now that Mossberg has come out with a 20 gauge version of the Shockwave, it’s back on the table. I think this is one application, where the lower recoil of the 20 gauge would really shine.

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      Wait until mid October if you are thinking of purchasing one of these. I recently attended a small media event, there will be big news on the Shockwave… ~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

  • Larry Schuller

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    Why does no one ever mention the “Sweet 16″ 16 Gauge shotgun in thinking about alternatives to the 12 Gauge?

    Reply

    • RKC

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      Very hard to find a 16 gauge.
      The ammo companies have not spent time upgrading 16 gauge shells as they have the others

      Reply

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