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The all-around shotgun; 20 gauge.

* I'm not exactly sure when I decide the 20 gauge was "my shotgun." Perhaps it was the morning I cleanly dropped a big Canada goose up in Manitoba at 65 yards. Maybe it was the time I dropped more doves than any of my five companions, all of whom were shooting 12s (I'm not really what I'd consider a crack wingshot, but then obviously neither were they). Or perhaps it was on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake one frigid morning when I got two doubles in a row on mallards and filled out in ten minutes time.

It is understandable that we embrace a specific gun based on a few successful experiences in the field (which, in the long run, may prove not to have been representative at all), so surely those aforementioned incdients have something to do with my long love affair with the 20 gauge. But the kind of experiences cited above are few and far between and my affair with the 20 is much more substantive than that; it's based on nearly 20 years of extensive use on virtually every type of winged game from dove and quail to geese and turkey. In all that time I can count on both hands how many times I felt I was handicapped by having a 20 gauge in my hands.

My first shotgun was a Mossberg bolt-action .410. I didn't have much of an opportunity as a youngster back in northern Ohio to shoot much game with it, but I sure did in a pile of corn-marauding blackbirds for a farmer friend who rewarded me by paying for my shells. Next was a 16 gauge Ithaca double which I used long enough to decide I didn't particularly like looking over pipes oriented side by side (I know, I know; the Harris tweed and ascot types are clutching their throats at that statement, but that's their problem).

Then I got my first 20, an Ithaca 37 pump, which I never fully appreciated until I decided to buy a stable mate--another Ithaca 37, but in 12 gauge. I had both guns fitted with a vent rib and Poly-Choke with the barrels both cut to 26 inches, reasoning I now had a battery for any and all wingshooting; two guns as close in fit and feel as 12 and 20 gauge guns could be.

But it wasn't close at all; one felt heavy and cumbersome, and I was always conscious of having to "move it around"; the other so light and responsive it seemed to anticipate where I wanted it ... and it was there. Sure, a lot of it was in may head, but what the hell, most of our preferences for one thing over another boil down to arbitrray decisions, and I'll admit to being predisposed to light, fast-handling shotguns. I've always been a sports car buff, too, so I suppose there's some correlation there.

But enough of the subjective aspects. Sure I like the looks and feel of a 20, but I'm no fool; if my faith in it wasn't borne out by ballistic fact and satisfactory experiences, I wouldn't be so enamored with it. Now I'm n ot about to cite a bunch of carefully selected facts and figures, then through some convoluted reasoning process attempt to "prove" that 2the 20 gauge is somehow superior to the 12. Ballistically the 20 gauge never has and never will be as effective as a 12 gauge. Period. Anything that can be done to improve the performance of the 20 gauge shell, either by the ammo makers or handloaders, can be done with the 12 so it always maintains its edge.

How much of an edge is it? Well, a standard 2-3/4-inch 20 gauge one-ounce load contains about 350 pellets of 7-1/2 size shot, 225 No. 6s 135 No. 4s. A 1-1/4-ounce 12 gauge load tosses 25 percent more shot across the board. In the 3-inch magnum persuasions the 20 gauge's 1-1/4-ounce payload is more than matched percentage-wise by the 12s 1-7/8-ounce loading. No contest when it comes to pellet pushing potential!

In trying to evaluate relative efficiency of a given shotshell, the bottom line is not a question of payload per se but rather how much of that payload reaches the target. With a rifle cartridge, for example, there's nothing to debate; we know a 180-grain bullet exiting the muzzle is still going to be a 180-grain projectile when it hits the target, whether that target be 100 or 300 yards distant.

With a shotshell, on the other hand, only a percentage of the original charge of shot hits or, in some cases, even reaches the target. As for tht percentage of pellets that do make it into that 30-inch circle at 40 yards, a great deal depends on how the shotshell is put together and with what kind of components. Take the typical shotshell of 30 years ago, for example. In my dad's day, no one armed with a 12 gauge and "high brass" loads considered themselves handicapped for any kind of wingshooting--ducks and geese included--yet today it's possible to buy over-the-counter 20 gauge one-ounce loads that will deliver as many or more pellets to the target than did the 1-1/4-ounce 12 gauge of the '50s.

In Dad's day, less progressive burning powders, less efficient over-powder and over-shot wads, rolled crimps and the lack of shot wrapping all made for a markedly inferior shell than is available toady. Add to that technology the widespread availability of extra-hard shot in factory loads and ... well, it's just a whole 'nother ball game for modern shooters.

Without going too deeply into the internal ballistics of it, the improvements enumerated above allow a substantially greater percentage of pellets to emerge from the muzzle with sufficient sphericity to fly true. Whether a No. 2 or a 7-1/2, any pellet with a flat spot or in any way out-of-round becomes an imperfect airfoil. The net result is that the distorted pellets not only lose velocity faster--and thus "string out"--but their imperfect shape causes them to sail off and out of the pattern like so many little frisbees gone berserk. The better cushioning wads and more progressive burning powders in today's shotshells exert less violent forces to the pellets in the bottom third of the shot column, hence the "mashing effecct" which flattens and otherwise distorts sphericity during initial upset is minimized. No sooner does the shot column get moving than it enters the forcing cone and gets mashed some more. Approaching the muzzle our pellets are further deformed by "scrubbing," i.e., flat spots actually rubbed into the peripheral pellets in direct contact with the bore. With the development of shot sleeves, then integral shot cups, peripheral shot is protected during its bore travel. Sleeving also helps minimize pellet deformation as the shot column is again constricted passing through the choke. On today's premium-type hunting loads the addition of granulated polyethylene buffering material further protects each pellet from being deformed by its neighbor and also helps them "flow" through the choke more easily.

All the above advancements in shotshell technology make for much more efficient shotguns in all gauges, but the collective degrees of their effectiveness utlimately depends on the hardness of the shot used. It costs money to add antimony to harden shot, so the inexpensive foreign promotional lines of shotguns shells we see in discount stores commonly labeled "duck and pheasant" or "dove and quail" loads may use unhardened shot. With soft shot it is estimated that between 40 to 50 percent of the pellets in a given shell will deform a significant amount by the time they exit the muzzle. Bargain-price shotshells rarely come close to providing the nominal pattern percentages we're supposed to get from the various chokings, especially out beyond the 40-yard mark.

Next on the hardness scale is "chilled" shot, which contains some 1-1/2 to 2 percent antimony making it more resistant to deformation. All other things equal, chilled shot pattern percentages may go up as much as ten percent over an identical load using soft shot.

High performance hunting loads advertising "high antimony," "magnum" or "extra-hard" lead shot represent the next quality step above chilled. Here we're talking antimony content between 4-1/2 to 6 percent depending on pellet size (larger shot sizes require less antimony), which further increases patterning efficiency another eight or ten percent over chilled shot performance levels.

Even more resistant to deformation than "magnum" shot is the copper-plated stuff which, when used in conjunction with shot buffering materials, may actually provide almost 100 percent patterns with shot sizes of No. 4s or larger through a full choke at 40 yards! Copper-plated shot is nothing new, but its general availability in factory hunting loads is. Whether it's Federal's Premium, Remington's Premier, or Winchester's Super X Double XX's, copper-plated buffered shotshells are unquestionably the biggest improvements ever handed to the American shotgunner.

So good are they in fact, that the traditional choke percentages used in the past no longer apply and should be changed, especially for the coarser shot sizes used in duck and goose shooting--2s, 4s and 5s. In the "old days," nominal percentages for shot placement within that 30-inc circle at 40 yards were 40 percent for Improved Cylinder, 50 percent for Modified, 60 percent for Improved Modified, and 70 percent for Full, give or take five percent in all cases. With today's "super shotshell" you can add, say, another ten percent to those figures using No. 6 or 7-1/2 shot, and as much as 15 to 20 percent in a No. 2 or 4 load for a premium-type shell using buffered, copper-plated shot.

The point I'm trying to make here by dwelling on shotshell technology is simply this: By merely spending a few extra cents per shot for premium performance shells, today's 20 gauge surpasses the performance of even express-type 12 gauge lead load of the not-so-distant past. And the chap with the three-inch chambered gun with its capability of digesting 1-1/4-ounce payload has even more performance available to him.

I would again remind you that these advancements have benefitted all gauges and therefore today's 12 gauge is as much superior to yesterday's 12 as in the case of the 20. The 12 gauge's edge is as wide as it's always been but at this point I think we have to ask ourselves just how much gun do we really need, and at what cost in terms of size, weight, handling and pointing qualities.

It's really impossible to "measure" in a quantitative way the pointing and handling characteristics of a shotgun; those are things you feel. You know when a gun feels good yet, like trying to describe in absolute terms how a certain food tastes, find it impossible to do so other than by comparison with other tastes.

Two things we can measure and compare, however, which have a great deal to do with those attributes we can't describe, are size and weight. Generally speaking, a 20 gauge gun will weigh around 12 ounces less than a comparable model 12 gauge. This, of course, assumes each is built on a scaled receiver, something not every maker does. Winchester's (USRAC) Model 1300 pump and Ranger semi-auto 20 gauges are built on 12 gauge receivers and therefore have the same bulk and weight of the larger gun. Most makers, however, do scale their 12 and 20 gauge guns accordingly--like Remington's 1100 and 870; Ithaca's 37, and Browning's B-80 and PBS to name a few. As such, 20 gauge receivers average about 3/8-inch less in depth than the shells themselves are of the same length in either gauge, length of receiver and overall gun measurements are the same though with the 20 gauge barrel being some .115 inches thinner, there's less bulk and weight to be swung around.

With double guns, both O/Us and S/S, the same physical differences between the 12 and 20 apply; all are scaled down accordingly and thus offter the same kind of bulk and weight savings as enumerated for the single-barrel repeaters. Ruger, for example, shows a difference of 1/2 pound between the nominal weights of his 12 gauge and 20 gauge Red Label O/Us, but the two guns I have, both with 26-inch IC/Modified barrels, show a 3/4-pound difference on my scale. Indeed, I've found that the 3/4-pound figure pretty much applies to all 12/20 gauge comparison assuming comparable barrel lengths and type (vent rib or plain), pull length and stock style. As for dimensional differences, Ruger's 20 gauge receiver is nearly 1/4-inch less in depth than the 12s.

The feel, balance and handling qualities between a single-barrel repeater and a twin-barreled gun are vastly different, of course. Personally, I prefer the over/under above all others, but I'll admit to having done some of my best shooting over the years with pumps and semi-autos, so I'm not too fanatical about that preference. No one has yet proven that one type of gun is in any way superior to the others with regard to one's ability to hit with it. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that given an unlimited number of shooters and targets, both live and clay, those using softershooting semi-autos would post the best averages. Game shooting in the real world, however, does not provide the frequency of shots or consistency of target flight for us to make any kind of valid comparisons--like we can measure the grouping ability of two or more rifles fired from a bench--our choice of shotgun is based primarily on whether or not we're accustomed to it and how it strikes our sensibilities.

Fully realizing that the question of "how much gun?" is the stuff of which of made seemingly half the gun articles ever written, it is one that must be addressed. But how? Determining how much gun we "need" is futile enough when dealing with rifles, but night on impossible with shotguns. It doesn't take a greater deal of gray matter to realize that, with individual pellet velocity being the same in either gauge, the one throwing the greatest number will have the edge. It may take a box of shells for that edge to manifest itself in the form of an extra bird or two, but sooner or later it will. But when a bird flies on without so much as a ruffled feather, how do we separate the flat-out miss from "not enough gun"? And I wish it were always that cut and dried but it's not; sometimes we hit and wound, dammit, and it's in those situations that we tend to wish for more gun. If we didn't we'd be rather callous jerks. But there's some point at which move pellets won't compensate for their being in the wrong place, so what's "enough gun" is a question each of us must answer for himself based on our assessed skill and the frequency we get afield.

Those situations alluded to earlier in which I felt undergunned with a 20 involved waterfowl in every case. I've killed my share of ducks and geese with 20s using both the 1-1/8-ounce 2-3/4-inch load and 1-1/4-ounce 3-inch magnum loads, but unless the birds were decoying, I sometimes found myself wishing for the edge the 12 gauge would have given me. In these days of fierce competition often forcing hunters into pass shooting at birds 60 and 70 yards high, the 12 gauge should get the nod. Then too, steel shot regulations have now taken that decision out of our hands. Even where lead is legal I find myself these days opting for a 12 for all my waterfowling. I am convinced, however, a good, well practiced duck and goose shooter doesn't need any more than a magnum 20; I'm just not in that league ... and few of us are.

For everything else though--quail, doves, pigeons, grouse, chukar, even wild-flushing late-season pheasants--the 20 has always done the job for me. I'm just vain enough that if my companions using 12 gauges consistently brought doen more game than I, I would long ago have given up on the 20. I mean, what else can we go by other than our performance? The rest of it is all sense and perception. I like the petite size of 20 gauge guns; I like how they feel; how they mount, point and swing. Sure it's subjective stuff; after all, the dynamics of balance and movement are not quantitative things, and less weight and bulk are not inherently desirable attributes per se. So it must be a subjective decision that prompts one to opt for a 20 over a 12 because the former will always be ballistically inferior.

The 20 gauge guy is really no different from the gent who uses a 6mm for deer hunting or a .270 for elk. He knows there are more potent rounds he could use that will give him more of an edge under the worst of circumstances, but he's comfortable in the knowledge that his 20 will do the job if he does his. He knows that if on a given day he's missing with his 20, he'd in all likelihood be missing with a 12. Though over the course of the season he's aware the larger gun would probably add an extra couple of birds to his bag, that's okay with him because he doesn't measure the quality of the outdoor experience strictly in terms of success ratio. To him, the satisfaction of doing the job with a smaller, lighter, better handling, easier carrying gun more than makes up for whatever ballistic edge a bigger gun would give him. If that weren't the case, there'd be no thing as a 20 gauge.
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Author:Sundra, Jon R.
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Feb 1, 1985
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