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Twenty Gauge versus Twelve Gauge: What is Best?

By Randy Wakeman

This is one of the eternal circular logic questions that is asked again and again and answered with a host of mythological �facts� and sometimes misleading recommendations. For those that have convinced themselves there is a correct answer, there is scant reason to read further. There is no all-encompassing answer that is right or wrong. I�ll start by attempting to debunk a few of the conventional �wisdoms.�

Recoil. You�ll read that twenty gauges have more recoil, more recoil than 12 gauges, or just the opposite�that they have less. Neither answer has any basis in fact. Gauge alone is not part of any recoil equation; gauge alone means absolutely nothing as far as recoil. There is no standard weight assigned to a gauge, nor a specific frame dimension. The basics of action type remain true regardless of gauge: gas-operated guns have less felt recoil than fixed breech guns. Relatively heavy guns have less recoil than lighter guns. About the only truthful answer that can be given to �Which gauge kicks less?� is that a 20 gauge has a smaller hole in the barrel than a 12 gauge.

There are several models of twenty gauges, of various action types, that have exemplified this vividly. I�ve spent many happy hours shooting one of the older, �standard weight� 20 gauge Remington 870 Wingmasters. A tad on the heavy side compared to some 20 gauge examples, like most fixed breech guns�the heavier they get, the more fun they are to shoot for extended periods. Using this 870 with 7/8 oz. 1175 fps loads, it is just plain fun to shoot. Younger shooters have found this combination ideal, as have those of the fairer sex. So has Randy; certainly in the fun department.

Unlike rifles, where the .308 is reinvented year after year to thunderous applause, you might think that the small diversity of standard shotguns offered would support more choices, not less of them. No one I know will run out of fingers, much less toes, counting out the gauge choices. A pity there aren�t more, at least incremental changes of obvious value: like a three inch chambered 16 gauge for example. That remains a story for another day.

Despite the tortured, unsupported notions of back-boring, lengthened forcing cones and other trivia that fills the murky chatter of scattergunning, it is hard to get away from the obvious: pattern potential, lethality, and range is a function of shotshell payload far more than any other factor. We can�t expect more pellets to exist in a pattern, at any range, than we managed to get out of the muzzle in the first place. Most of the historical comparisons between gauges and notions of suitability for use are predicated on the notions of a 7/8 oz. payload being used in the 20 gauge, and an 1-1/8 oz load being used in the 12 gauge. The NSSA maximum allowable charge weights are 394 grains for a 20 ga., and 507 grains for a 12 gauge (standard payloads are 382.8 and 492.2 grains, respectively). More is more, in this case, and having a bit more than 28% increase in pellet count in a 12 gauge cannot help but foster the notion of superiority. It has. It also increases recoil if other factors (gun type and weight, MV, etc.) are equal.

However, those comparisons become moot when the payloads change dramatically. One of the lowest standards for a �dead bird� is of course the skeet field. If we miss the bird with 1-1/8 oz. of # 9 shot, we have missed it about 658 times with the very same shot. If it seems a long way from Annie Oakley dusting glass orbs in the air with her old Marlin lever action rimfire, that is because it is. Defining the suitability of a gun for clays has a lot to do with the �fun factor.� There are �serious shooters� (who usually have money on the line) and those that are serious about having fun, which defines recreational clays shooting.

For having fun with clays, there is no particular distinction. If the sport means casual use, it hardly matters. If you competing in scored events (ATA, NSSA, NSCA) is the sole definition, then naturally you use the gauge and payload that conforms to the specific event regulations. It is obvious that for non-scored shooting, lighter than standard payloads in 12 gauge are more and more popular. Either our guns aren�t as soft to shoot as we once suspected, we don�t feel we need 1-1/8 oz. of pellets to break a piece of clay anymore, or we are busy carping about lead shot prices more than gasoline these days. For dedicated 27 yard handicap trap use, relatively heavy, slow, long 12 gauge models remain as popular as they have always been. For fun, the answer is good old personal preference like most things. Shoot what you enjoy shooting.

Growing up in northern Illinois, it was a privilege for me to get to go to Dieter�s hardware store and buy the shells for the next morning�s pheasant hunt. I was a grade-schooler at the time and the shells were invariably 1-1/4 oz. Peters or Super-X 12 gauge loads. So it was for many years, a 12 gauge standardweight A-5 defining the pheasant and duck gun. It did the job then and they work just as well today.

My Dad is turning 80 years young next year and you can believe he still enjoys pheasant hunting. I�ve been a 16 gauge and 20 gauge fan for pheasants for many years, but we all understand how old habits are hard to change. Most of us don�t have reflexes that improve with age, and I�m no exception, nor is my Dad. When I was very young, my Dad would have two roosters dead in the air before I got my gun to my shoulder. You might remember what they say about �paybacks�? Anyway, quite often the tables have become exactly turned.

I�m not afraid to take advantage when it presents itself; it was a fly-to the-shoulder A 303 or B-80 that most often did the trick and still does, thirty-five wild Illinois pheasants out of the ditches and waterways every year. Dad was still lugging his A-5 standardweight. Well, as most know, even a �Light Twelve� is not particularly light. When Browning introduced their Gold, I was impressed with it. Dad ribbed me about my suggestion that he try a twenty, particular a �new-fangled gas gun,� but finally Dad succumbed to my borderline clever urging. It was a Browning. It has been the long-held belief that only Brownings are adequate for pheasants in northern Illinois. The name Browning finally weakened Dad to the point where off to Mega-Sports we went. The model that fit Dad the best cost nine dollars or so more than one that didn�t fit quite right. Dad even splurged, throwing caution to the wind, and spent that extra nine dollars, eventually. He first had to �discuss it with my Mother,� another traditional, borderline clever Wakeman ploy.

Using 1-1/4 oz. 3 in. 20 gauge shells with buffered #5 shot and the factory Browning Invector Plus chokes, the first 21 shots or so out of that gun resulted in 21 dead cock pheasants for my Dad. Lighter, to say the very least, compared to the standard weight A-5 and much faster due to weight, girth, and its 26 inch barrel. It instantly erased twenty years of time for my Dad: fun to carry, and lightning fast to the shoulder by comparison. He loves that gun so much he even cleans it every couple of years, whether it needs it or not. He still shoots it, and I don�t believe that is likely to change. It went to Argentina and took its fair share of ducks as well. It is shotgun nirvana for my father. With 7/8 oz. loads, the recoil is almost non-existent: you can barely feel the gun working.

In one of many patterning sessions, this one in particular with lead turkey loads, I�ve had 1-1/4 oz. and 1-5/16 oz. 20 gauge loads clearly, vividly, dramatically outperform 1-1/2 oz. and 1-7/8 oz. 12 gauge loads, but putting up to 100% more #5 shot holes in the turkey target at 40 yards than some 12 gauges. Naturally, I cheated again, using buffered Federal 1-5/16 oz. loads and Fiocchi Golden pheasant loads married to Trulock Precision Hunter extended chokes in the 20 gauges against fixed and factory screw chokes in the 12 gauges. We still don�t like the notion that every shotgun is an individual, but they sure are. Not all 20 gauges pattern superbly, to be sure, nor do all 12 gauges, either. Quality shells, quality chokes and patterning our shotguns at the ranges we intend to take game is the only way to find out what our gun really does. It is hard to accept, but the marking on a choke or barrel means nothing tangible. What they actually do is what counts.

So, there is no �versus.� Twenty gauges (and 16 gauges) are superb tools for pheasants, doves and turkey, at least when you use the proper shell and choke. Nothing much can live on the difference, and nothing has. When hull component capacity becomes important it becomes 12 gauge territory (steel shot) and the same can be said for dedicated handicap trap or race guns. For all else, it is 20 gauge or 16 gauge for me. That's not a versus, not a vitriolic recommendation, but personal preference. I have more fun with them; you just might as well. Besides, my Dad is always right, eventually.

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Randy Wakeman and/or All rights reserved.