Tactical Talk: The 20 Gauge for Defense

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 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.


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 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.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (36)

  1. After having both shoulders reconstructed and my right replaced, and rulptured discs in my neck. i had to switch to a lighter recoiling shotgun. I use a browning semiauto for birds. A remington 870 tactical for home defense in 20 gauge 6+1. And an SA 20 on the range i really like the SA 20. Even with slugs and 3″ buck the auto absorbs a lot of recoil.

  2. The perfect balance, the old 16 ga. 1 oz. load, #1 buck, 12 pellets, (30 cal). Remington 11 Auto loader and Mossberg 190 KB bolt action 2 shot box mag. Both with twist adjustable choke. I think a tactical, police, home defense 16ga 20″ would be perfect. Recoil is moderate with more power and reach than a 20 ga.

  3. You MUST aim the shotgun.Pattern opens up only 1″diameter per yard traveled[e.g.5″diameter at 5 yards].Shotguns are NOT”Star Trek Phazers .As others have noted,fit is also critical.Test the shotgun with whatever [or no ]clothing you”!l be wearing.A slightly bruised shoulder during testing is a lot cheaper than a missed target/ assaillent

  4. Also, keep in mind that at defensive distances particularly in a house you are not going to get much of a spread and that is why some “experts” recommend that you aim the shotgun rather than shoot from the hip.

  5. I keep a Mossberg SA20 Tactical in the corner by my bed for self defense (photo attached). Weatherby SA08 Compact is what I use for sporting clays, I doubt you can beat it for the price. Browing Silver Micro Midas is good also, but they are impossible to find right now.

  6. Before getting a Mossberg 500 in 12GA I shopped, borrowed, tried different loads in 870’s and 500’s, singles and doubles. Across the board the 20GA guns recoiled with almost the same force, but at double the velocity into my shoulder. Some guns were 4 pounds lighter than their 12GA counterparts. The youth guns were all the worst offenders. 14.5″LOP being the “norm” doesn’t help either. If the gun doesn’t fit right it’s harder to control the recoil. a Talo Edition 12.75″ works well for a corn cob pump being 5ft 6. None of the post 2006 Remington 870’s were worth a look unless it was a Police or Wingmaster, burrs, rust, metal shavings left inside. My H&R/Norinco 870 from China has been much more reliable than a friend’s 870HD which doesn’t like to eject or feed from all the burrs.

  7. Which ever you use,know that 00 buck doesn’t pattern well.I would think #4 buck or even #2 or 4 bird shot a better choice close up[even the the 2 ounce lead turkey loads in #2,#1,BB shot or full caliber foster style slugs.

    1. Keep in mind that the size and count of buckshot in a shot shell is largely a function of the inside diameter of the shell and the diameter of the shot. #00 buck at .330 diameter fits exactly three in a triangular pattern inside a 12 ga shell at .729 outside diameter (slightly smaller inside diam.) Most 20 ga defense loads are #4 (.24 diam) or #3 (.25 diam) not because they are “inferior” but because they fit in layers better inside the shell. Two #00 won’t even fit side-by-side in a 20 ga shell at .615 diam. Not an issue with bird shot that has 200, 300 or 500+ tiny balls, they fit however they fit.
      My apologies for making this a geometry lesson, but that’s why you can’t find any size shot you want, in any size shell you want. Some fit better, and therefore pattern better, than others.

  8. This is a similar ‘discussion’ as the question of 9mm vs.45 ACP for an EDC pistol… Are you more interested in Stopping the assailant or ‘blowing them apart”? What if your Clint Eastwood Magnum carries parts of your assailant into your Neighbor’s home…and into your neighbor..?!! Or a round from my 887 Magnum with 3 1/2″ Magnum slug sends part of the home intruder across the street into my neighbor’s living room, and big-screen TV..?
    More controllable, and easier to get more shots ON TARGET in less time, just might be more important than how much of their internal parts you can scatter around your neighborhood.
    Unless Andre the Giant breaks into your home, wearing thick leather winter clothing, I think the impact of a good shot of 20 gauge will Stop the intruder from what they are doing! If needed, repeat as many times as necessary. ( I hope you are not using a side-by-side ) If they are ‘busy’ taking rounds of 20 gauge, they are not going to be able to aim and shoot in your direction…

  9. I have owned and shot both 12 gauge and 20 gauge shot guns for years. I have a 20 gauge pump Mossberg and a 12 gauge automatic Winchester. I can honestly say I love both guns.
    I first started to consider the 20 gauge for home defense when I noticed 2 things.
    1) When it came to having a gun with me to just walk my property. I quickly realized I was preferring the 20 over the 12. Mostly because it was much lighter.
    2) My wife and I love to stage clay targets. At various heights and distances.When we compete to see who can destroy all 6 faster. I would use the 12 where my wife always preferred the 20. It didn’t take long before my wife started consistently beating me. Until I switched over to the 20 gauge and reclaimed my status.
    Yes, the 12 gauge would pulverize the targets, where the 20 only broke them sometimes. Especially on the far away targets.
    But the 20’s lighter weight made it much easier to move from target to target.
    Not to mention I was usually done after a box of shells shooting the 12. Where with the 20 I could shoot three times longer.
    So I decided to perform my own tests on some plywood targets. Using #3 buck shot in both guns.
    At 10 feet the damage difference was negligible in my opinion. The 20 put a one inch hole, the 12 put about a an inch and 1/2 hole.
    As a backed up the difference between the guns became more obvious.
    Especially, once I got past 20 feet. The 12 gauges damage potential was much more obvious.
    So I stayed at 20 feet and put up 4 – 12 inch pieces of wood spaced 6 feet a part 5 feet off the ground.
    Yes, the 12 gauges hole was twice the size of the 20’s. But I was faster and much more accurate with the 20.
    Let’s face it tough, the 20 gauges 1 inch hole should be more than enough to kill some one.
    Then I went home and measured my house. To see what would be the farthest distance I would need to shot an intruder. The average was 13 feet, the farthest was 17 feet.
    It was then I modified my 20 gauge for home defense.
    I still love my 12 gauge and prefer it for hunting 90 percent of the time. But my 20 gauge will always be my preference for home defense.

  10. May I suggest Brenneke Tactical Home Defense Reduced recoil 20 gauge 2 3/4″. I have been considering this scenario and believe the attached wad may solve the issue. However, I haven’t tested this out, yet. I’ve always had really good accuracy from Brenneke slugs.

  11. The mossberg is more reliable . The follower stays up until you rack the slide making it almost jam proof. The 870 follower stays down and if a shell jumps out of the magazine, the action is jammed and the gun must be disassembled to clear. I have seen this occur on an officers 20 gauge and my son has seen it on the range with another weapon. If a shell jumps out of the mossberg it hits the ground and can be picked up and reloaded.

  12. This is one of the more well thought out articles on weapons for home defense that I have read online in probably years. Not long ago, I got an email from some survivalist, spec-ops retired military who stated that he always recommended a Remington 870 and stated that was the gold standard for home protection. I quietly unsubscribed. Sometimes, ego gets in the way of rationality and people start believing their own press and lose sight of what they are saying.
    My background with weapons goes to my childhood but became real when I went into the Army and was a Medic on a Recon Team overseas. I carried a 1911A1 as a sidearm. (And before anyone says anything, the only medics who did not carry a weapon back then were conscientious objectors and I was anything but that.
    I became an ER nurse and saw a lot of gunshot wounds and was well-prepared for that. In talking to the many cops who frequented my ER, we spent a lot of time talking guns. More times than I can count, I heard different officers recommend to female nurses who asked them about home protection, a 20 gauge, because it is easier to handle as far as recoil. I have seen too many people pick up a 12 and never touch a gun again. Never saw that with a 20.
    I taught my wife and daughter to shoot a 20 and went with one officerÔÇÖs (also an army veteran from the same time I was in) recommendation for ammo and choke. He had seen a thug shot at across the room range with a Mossberg 20,loaded with #4shot and an improved cylinder choke. Guy was struck in the chest, center of mass, and the only movement he made was dictated by gravity. He was out like a light.
    The shooter was able to rechamber and approach him to see if another shot was needed; it wasnÔÇÖt. The officer told me that the person who shot the intruder would not have been able to shoot a 12 and he had recommended that for this woman.

  13. I made the switch to a 20 ga 20 years ago. 12 ga slugs can be brutal and I have killed 4 big bucks easily with the 20 ga. I made the switch 10 years before that on waterfowl. Love the 20 ga.

  14. I’m selling off my 12 ga pumps . I just can’t work the actions a fast as I’d like . Thought about going to 12 ga semis , but they don’t function with 1-3/4 shells nor 2.2 s that I perfer . Bought a Mossberg SA20 Tactical and an assortment of slugs and buck . Mostly the 18 pellet #3 , but I bought 50 rds of RIO 9 pellet #1 bucks to try . I’m betting I can shoot that fast and accurate .

  15. My wife wanted a shotgun, so I bought her a Mossberg 12 gauge. After shoulder surgery (unrelated), she could not shoot it and I thought it would make me need shoulder surgery, too, so we sold it to a neighbor.

    My son-in-law inherited an unused Mossberg 20 gauge and I took him to the range so he could try it out. We both loved it! I could have shot it all day, but he didn’t inherit that many shells!

  16. I’m an extreme survivalist, and have been for 50 years. I prefer a Butler pistol with a side order of 12 gauge with 00 buckshot. You can find me in the National Forest most of the time…see you there.

  17. I stoke my Remington 870 youth with #3 buck since I have nothing against my neighbors. A 20 with #4 might be a bit light but indoors will certainly be persuasive. I wish companies would make shell holders for 20 gauge though. And some extended mag tubes!

  18. Shoot one before you buy. I had both the Rem Tac 14 in 12 and 20 and did not like them – Sold them both and got a 870 with a stock. I am much more accurate with a stock and it is a lot hard for someone to “Take away” if I have something to grip.

  19. 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. ItÔÇÖs loaded with a round of birdshot followed by four of buckshot and it fires quickly. This makes sense to me for home defense.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. “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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

    1. 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

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

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

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit exceeded. Please click the reload button and complete the captcha once again.

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.