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 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.


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 decicions. 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.

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