Upland Delight: The 20 Gauge

By Chuck Hawks

The 20 gauge has a nominal bore diameter of .615 inch. It is the Queen of upland guns and also widely used for skeet and sporting clays shooting, for which there are special 20 gauge events. It is also an excellent shotgun for the beginning shooter. 20 gauge shells are very widely distributed and available at relatively low cost.

20 gauge guns come in every style, from inexpensive single shot models to the most elaborate and expensive double guns, with the popular pump and autoloading models priced somewhere in between. Most 20 gauge guns offer moderate recoil and good performance in a handy, reasonably lightweight package.

Lightweight can, however, be carried too far. A 20 gauge gun should weigh 6.5 to 7 pounds to minimize recoil. Beware of extremely lightweight 20's, as they can kick like the devil.

A 6.5 pound 20 gauge gun is heavy enough to swing smoothly and light enough to get into action quickly. It is not burdensome for the great majority of shooters to carry. With their modest size barrels and receivers, most 20 gauge guns are well balanced. Svelte 20 gauge guns make the larger and heavier 12 gauge guns seem awkward by comparison. With 7/8 ounce loads the recoil of a 20 gauge gun is noticeably less than that of 16 and 12 gauge guns of similar weight, which ordinarily shoot at least 1 ounce of shot.

There are a wide variety of shot shells available in 20 gauge, making it suitable for everything from skeet shooting to hunting water fowl. 20 gauge hulls are 2 3/4 inches or 3 inches in length.

20 gauge shells are available with most shot sizes up to steel #2 or lead #4, which is probably the largest size practical for the bore, even in the 3" magnum shell. #9, 8, 7 1/2, and 6 are all practical in any 20 gauge shell, with #8 being the most common target load, and #7 1/2 being an excellent choice for most upland game hunting.

The standard light target load is 7/8 ounce of #8 or #9 shot at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1200 fps. There is also a heavy target load with 1 ounce of #7 1/2 or #8 shot at 1165 fps.

Hunting loads are available with 7/8, 1, 1-1/8, and 1-1/4 ounces of shot. The 7/8 ounce load is the traditional "low brass" field load, usually with #6, 7 1/2, or 8 shot at about 1200 fps. The 1 ounce load is a "high brass" load with #4, 5, 6, 7 1/2, or 8 shot at a MV of 1220 fps.

The 1-1/8 ounce hunting load is a magnum load in the 2 3/4 inch shell, usually with #4, 6 or 7 1/2 shot at about 1300 fps. The 1-1/4 ounce load is a magnum load in a 3 inch shell using #4 or #6 shot at around 1185 fps.

There are also non-toxic steel or tungsten-iron shot loads in 2 3/4 inch cases with 3/4 ounce of shot or 3 inch cases with 1 ounce of steel shot. Remington offers a non-toxic load using 1 1/8 ounces of Hevi-Shot (tungsten-nickel iron alloy) in the 3 inch case that gets the 20 gauge back in the waterfowl game. These non-toxic loads usually have MV's in the 1300 fps range.

In recent years the 20 gauge has become popular for home defense, and there are buckshot loads available. The 3 inch case holds 24 pellets of #3 buck and the 2 3/4 inch case holds 20 pellets of the same size. The MV's are 1150 fps and 1200 fps respectively.

The 20 gauge rifled slug of the traditional Foster type weighs 3/4 ounce (Winchester) or 5/8 ounce (Federal and Remington) at a MV of 1600 fps. For hunting there are also sabot slugs weighing 5/8 ounce, but these are for use in rifled shotgun barrels only. Rifled slugs are primarily for hunting purposes.

To summarize, 20 gauge shells are available in a wide variety of loads and at all price points and they are widely distributed. 20 gauge shotguns are usually quick handling guns of moderate weight and recoil. No wonder the 20 is the Queen of the upland guns.

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