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The Popular 12 Gauge

By Chuck Hawks

The 12 gauge has a nominal bore diameter of .729 inch. For over 100 years the 12 gauge has been the all-around choice of North American and British shotgunners. It is the only choice for Trap or live pigeon shooting, the most common choice for Sporting Clays and Skeet, and the overwhelming choice for waterfowl shooting. Many upland game hunters also favor a lightweight 12 gauge shotgun, although as an upland gun it has gotten lots of competition over the years from the 16 and 20 gauges.

In terms of sales, the 12 is the 800 pound gorilla of shotgun gauges. It accounts for about half of all shells and guns sold. The 10, 16, 20, 28, and .410 divide the other half.

The standard 12 gauge load is 1 1/8 ounces of shot. The standard 16 gauge load is 1 ounce, and the standard 20 gauge load is 7/8 ounce. For 1 1/4 ounces of shot or more, favored for longer ranges and tougher birds, the 12 gauge has it all over the smaller gauges. This is particularly true when using the larger shot sizes. If you can only have one shotgun, and you want to shoot a little bit of everything with it, better make it a 12 gauge.

This ballistic advantage comes from the shorter shot column of a 12 when compared to any of the smaller gauges firing the same amount of shot. For example, one ounce of shot makes a shorter stack in a fat 12 gauge shell than it does in a skinny 20 gauge shell. A short shot column means fewer shot deformed by friction on their trip through the forcing cone, down the barrel, and out through the constriction of the choke. 1 ounce of shot in a 12 gauge has a column .690 inch long. The same ounce of shot forms a column .968 inch long in a 20 gauge, and 1.21 inches long in a 28 gauge. This means that 12 gauge guns pattern better than the smaller gauges with the same amount of shot, or just as well with more shot. The advantage is particularly noticeable at long range, as in handicap trap shooting or long range water fowling.

Patterns from 10, 12, 16, 20, and 28 gauge guns are all the same size (other factors like choke being equal), and they are all measured in a 30 inch circle at 40 yards. A full choke gun in all gauges is supposed to put 70% of its shot inside of that 30 inch circle. But because the big 10 and 12 gauge guns throw more shot, more pellets wind up inside that circle. 70% of a 7/8 ounce load of #6 shot from a 20 gauge gun amounts to about 140 pellets. 70% of a 1 1/8 ounce load from a 12 gauge gun is about 177 pellets. Either gun is equally easy to hit with, but the 12 kills better.

Naturally, 12 gauge shells are sold virtually everywhere ammunition is available, and they are often discounted. They are available in a profusion of loads and shot sizes. 12 gauge shells come in lengths of 2 3/4 inches, 3 inches, and 3 1/2 inches. 12 gauge shot is made from lead (the best and most common material), bismuth, steel, tungsten-iron, and tungsten-nickel iron. There are so many choices that it is impossible to describe them all here, but I will try to mention the most popular lead and steel shot loads.

Winchester, for example, lists ten different AA Target loads in 12 gauge, but only three in 20 gauge, one in 28 gauge, and one in .410 bore. The most common 12 gauge target loads contain 1 ounce of shot at a muzzle velocity between 1180-1290 fps, or 1 1/8 ounce of shot at 1145-1200 fps. All target loads usually contain hard (high antimony content) lead shot in sizes 7 1/2, 8, or 9. Sporting clays, trap, and pigeon loads use size 7 1/2 or 8 shot, and skeet loads use size 9 shot. All target loads come in standard length 2 3/4 inch shells.

12 gauge "sport" or promotional shells usually contain 1 ounce of lead #6, 7 1/2, or 8 shot at a MV of about 1290 fps. Traditional 12 gauge low-brass field loads contain 1 1/8 ounce of lead #4, 6, 7 1/2, or 8 shot at about 1255 fps. All sport, promotional, and field loads come in 2 3/4 inch shells.

12 gauge high-brass ("Maximum" or "High Velocity") lead shot loads generally contain 1 1/4 ounce of #2, 4, 5, 6, 7 1/2, 8, or 9 shot at a MV of about 1330 fps. With #6 shot this is the traditional pheasant load and, before the US Government banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting, with size 4, 5, and 6 shot the traditional duck loads. Again, these are 2 3/4 inch shells.

There are also popular high-brass loads using steel shot. These handle 1 or 1 1/8 ounces of shot at a MV of 1300-1365 fps. Typical steel shot sizes are #2, 3, 4, 6, and 7.

The most powerful 2 3/4 inch 12 gauge shells are the Magnums. These throw 1 1/2 ounce of #BB, 2, 4, 5, or 6 lead shot at a MV of 1260 fps. Needless to say, all 12 gauge Magnum shells kick like the very devil.

2 3/4 inch Magnum shells are also popular for waterfowl hunting. These are loaded with steel shot in sizes T, BBB, BB, 1, 2, 3, and 4. The MV of steel magnum shells is usually 1275 fps.

3 inch Magnum shells carry a bigger payload than the 2 3/4 inch variety. Typical 3 inch shells carry 1 5/8 or 1 7/8 ounces of lead shot. MV's are 1210-1280 fps. Shot sizes include #BB, 2, 4, and 6. These are popular turkey loads.

3 inch Magnum shells are more popular these days when loaded with steel shot for waterfowl hunting. They usually carry 1 3/8 or 1 1/4 ounce of shot at MV's in the 1265-1375 fps range. Steel shot sizes are T, BBB, BB, 2, 3, and 4.

The ultimate 12 gauge turkey and waterfowl loads are the 3 1/2 inch Magnum shells. These are not as efficient as the 10 gauge shells of the same length (see the paragraph about shot column length above), but they deliver the most shot of all 12 gauge shells.

The lead shot 3 1/2 inch Magnum shells are charged with a mighty 2 to 2 1/4 ounces of shot in sizes 4, 5, and 6. MV is typically 1300 fps for the 2 ounce loads and 1150 fps for the 2 1/4 ounce loads. Whew!

The steel shot 3 1/2 inch Magnum shells are usually charged with 1 9/16 to 1 3/4 ounces of shot in sizes T, BBB, BB, 1, and 2. The MV of these loads is around 1300 fps.

Buckshot loads of several types are also offered in 12 gauge for hunting and self-defense purposes. They come in both 2 3/4 inch hulls and 3 inch hulls. Buckshot sizes run 000, 00, 0, 1, and 4. For example, there are usually 12 size 00 buck in a 2 3/4 inch shell, and 15 size 00 buck in a 3 inch shell. There are 41 size 4 buck in a 3 inch case.

Traditional 12 gauge Foster type rifled slugs usually come in 2 3/4 inch cases and weigh 1 ounce. They have a MV of 1680 fps. There are also 1 1/4 ounce rifled slugs loaded in 3 inch cases. These have a MV of 1600 fps.

Sabot slug shells for 12 gauge "shotguns" with rifled barrels typically drive a 1 ounce slug from a 2 3/4 inch case at 1450 fps, or the same slug from a 3 inch case at 1550 fps. Other sabot slug weights and velocities are also available.

As you can see, there is a greater diversity of loads for the 12 than for any other shotgun gauge, and I have only touched on the most common loads here. This great selection of shells is what, more than any other factor, makes the 12 gauge the top all-around shotgun.

The principle drawbacks of the 12 gauge shotgun are the size and weight of the typical 12 gauge gun itself, especially the repeaters, and the recoil generated by the big shells. These two factors make the 12 gauge unsuitable for many shooters.

According to the Shotgun Recoil Table the recoil energy of a 1 ounce target load at 1180 fps in a typical 7.5 pound gun is 17.3 ft. lbs., about like the recoil of a .270 rifle. The typical promotional shell with 1 ounce of shot at 1290 fps in the same shotgun hits back with around 20.8 ft. lbs. of recoil energy, about like an average .30-06 rifle. These loads deliver about as much recoil as most shooters can stand on a continuing basis.

A typical high-brass load with 1 1/4 ounces of shot at a MV of 1330 fps fired in a 7.5 pound shotgun is much worse. It belts the shooter with 36.4 ft. lbs. of recoil. This is roughly equivalent to the kick of a .300 Ultra Mag. rifle. Average hunters should strictly limit the number of such loads they fire to avoid developing a flinch.

12 gauge Magnum shells are even worse. A 2 3/4 inch Magnum shell throwing 1 1/2 ounces of shot at 1260 fps from a 7.5 pound shotgun belts the shooter with 45.9 ft. lbs. of recoil, somewhat more than the recoil of a typical .375 H&H Magnum rifle shooting 300 grain factory loads! And the 3 inch Magnum 12 gauge shell firing 1 7/8 ounces of shot at a MV of 1210 fps in that same 7.5 pound shotgun slams the shooter with over 60 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. This is equivalent to the recoil of a .378 Weatherby Magnum rifle, and exceeds the recoil of a typical .458 Winchester Magnum rifle. This is literally recoil in the elephant gun class, and most shooters would be well advised to avoid such loads.

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Copyright 2002, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.