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Who needs a 12 gauge? The 20's plenty--with one exception.


I CAN EASILY recall a time when the 20-gauge shotshell was nowhere near as popular as it is today. When I was growing up in the Deep South, more hunters used the 12 gauge than anything else and the 16 gauge was not all that much behind it in popularity. The 20 gauge remained somewhat of a stepchild until a couple of things happened. One was the introduction of shotguns scaled in weight for the 20 gauge. Prior to that, the 20 was commonly available in guns sized for the 12 gauge and most hunters figured if they were to carry a heavy gun it might as well be chambered for the bigger shell.

There was also the matter of shot charge weight. During the 1930s and into the 40s, the heaviest charge loaded in the 20 was 7/8-ounce but the gradual improvement in propellants eventually changed that. When the 1950s rolled around, the one-ounce charge was common and Remington had even gone a step further by developing a magnum load with 1 1/8 ounces of shot that duplicated the standard loading of the 16 gauge. At the time, 2 3/4 inches was the maximum length for the 20 gauge but that changed in 1954 with the introduction by Winchester of a 3-inch version loaded with 1 1/4 ounces of shot. Now that you know a bit about 20-gauge history, it is time to take a close look at what it is good for.

Wingshooting In The Uplands

The first shotgun I bought with my own money was a Browning Auto-5 in 12 gauge. The Browning was a marvelous gun but it took only a short time for me to arrive at the conclusion the 20-gauge Auto-5 used by my father at the time was, in addition to being lighter and more comfortable to shoot, all the gun required for collecting a limit of mourning doves or bobwhite quail. I sold the Browning and bought the a 20-gauge Winchester 101 over/under. I still own the 101, and have used it on hunts from Alaska to Uruguay and many points between.

Soon after buying the 101, I stumbled onto something some hunters seem to never discover-for most upland wingshooting, you don't need to throw a handful of shot into the air with each tug on the trigger. For birds up to the size of grouse, 7/8-ounce of shot is plenty and anyone who cannot get the job done with an ounce of shot has himself, and not the shotshell he is shooting, to blame. The only time I use a heavier shot charge in the 20 is when hunting pheasant. For ringnecks, I prefer No. 5s and 1 1/4 ounces is required in order to reach what I consider to be a high enough pellet count for adequate pattern density.

Bumping Off A Gobbler

Anytime the choice has been mine during the past several years, I've chosen the 20 gauge for turkey hunting. To be more specific, my favorite turkey gun at the moment is a 20-gauge Remington Model 870 weighing almost two pounds less than the 12-gauge autoloader I used to carry. Come spring and the blossoming of dogwoods and redbud, I enjoy being in the woods with a 20-gauge gun mainly because it is lighter and its kick is milder than a 12. Since I also enjoy calling a gobbler in close before pulling the trigger, the maximum effective range of my 20-gauge gun--about 10 yards less than a good 12 gauge--mattered not. I use the past tense here because the 12 gauge no longer has the edge when three-inch loadings of the two are compared.

While Winchester introduced the three-inch loading of the 20 back in the 1950s, Federal was first to increase shot charge weight beyond 1 1/4 ounces. A few years back, they bumped the shot charge to 1 5/16 ounces and while doing so amounted to an increase of only a dozen No. 6 pellets, it was a step in the right direction. Then came the development of the Flight Control wad and suddenly the Federal 20-gauge lead shot turkey load was nipping at the heels of the 12 gauge.

What really put Federal over the top in 20-gauge turkey loads actually started several years ago. I was hunting turkey on the Tejon Ranch in California with a couple of Federal guys and we were using soon-to-be-introduced 12-gauge ammo loaded with the then-new FlightControl wad and Heavyweight shot. After the hunt I suggested that since Heavyweight is much more dense than lead, a shot size smaller than No. 6 could be used. The way I saw it, doing so would make it possible to produce a 20-gauge load that was as effective as a lead shot loading of the 12 gauge. It took awhile but I finally got my wish. Actually, it turned out better than I had expected. I had in mind a 3-inch 20-gauge load that would duplicate the downrange energy and pattern density of No. 6 lead shot in the 12 gauge when in fact, a No. 7 Heavyweight pellet delivers the same energy at 40 yards as No. 5 lead. Also, since Federal is loading 1 1/2 ounces in the 20, it contains 337 pellets compared to 340 No. 5 lead pellets in the two-ounce loading of the 12 gauge. Add the FlightControl wad column and we have a 20-gauge turkey load capable of holding its own with any 3-inch 12 gauge load. My favorite turkey gun still carries like a 20 but it now shoots like a 12.

Bagging A Buck

I seldom hunt deer with a slug gun simply because I rarely hunt where one is required. On the other hand, I have killed a lot of deer, hogs and black bear with the .45-70 rifle cartridge and since several 20-gange slug loads duplicate the performance of 300-grain factory loadings of that cartridge; I can only logically assume that a 20-gauge shotgun is just as capable of bringing home the bacon as my .45-70 rifle.

Several 20-gauge loads from Federal and Remington are excellent examples of just how far we have advanced in slug technology. According to the Remington data sheet, the Premier Core-Lokt Ultra-Bonded load delivers over 1,600 foot-pounds of energy at 100 yards compared to just under 1,500 foot pounds for the company's .45-70 load. Federal charts the performance of their loading with the Barnes Expander slug out to 150 yards where it still delivers 1,220 foot-pounds. Not only do those loads offer all the power needed for hunting deer, you only have to shoot a few rounds to realize how much kinder to the shoulder they are than 12-gauge slug loads.


Despite my fondness for the 20 gauge, I will have to admit it's not a very good choice for all-around use on waterfowl. It works fine on most ducks when loaded with one of the nontoxics that duplicates the performance of lead shot, but those loads are so expensive only turkey hunters who typically fire very few rounds during a season can afford them. Since we need to increase pellet diameter by a couple of sizes when switching to steel shot, pellet count in the 20 drops to anywhere from barely adequate to inadequate. I've shot decoyed mallards up close with 20-gauge steel loads with zero cripples, but longer ranges and especially bigger birds such as geese call for a 12-gauge gun. Still, three out of four categories in favor of the 20 is not at all bad.

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Title Annotation:shotgunning
Author:Simpson, Layne
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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