When it comes to shotguns, you’ve got a lot of options from the barrel length down to your preferred finish. Since shotguns are so versatile and can be used for many purposes, one important classification to consider is which gauge you’ll need.
There are six shotgun gauges that are widely available: 10 gauge, 12 gauge, 16 gauge, 20 gauge, 28 gauge, and .410 bore. However, the most common decision for most shooters is between 12 gauge vs 20 gauge.
In this article, we’ll explain how shotgun gauge is determined, then look at different use cases to help you decide between 20 vs 12 gauge.
How is Shotgun Gauge Measured?
Shotgun gauge is determined by the diameter of the shotgun bore. Smaller gauge numbers correspond to larger shotgun bores, so a 20 gauge is smaller than a 12 gauge. Gauge is measured by the number of lead balls of one diameter equal to the diameter of bore it takes to weigh one pound. It would take 20 lead balls of the same diameter of a 20 gauge shotgun bore to weigh a pound.
Need to find a shotgun’s gauge? Check the rear of the barrel, as it’s typically marked there. You can find shell gauge on each individual shell as well as on the box from the manufacturer.
Shotshell gauge should match shotgun gauge. Never try to load shells of a different gauge into any shotgun. If you’re shooting a 20 gauge, you’ll want to use 20 gauge shells. Speaking of, did you know that 20 gauge shells are always yellow, regardless of manufacturer? Since 12 and 20 gauge are the most frequently used shotgun gauges, they’re the most likely to get mixed up.
Now, you’re not going to be able to fit a 12 gauge shell into a 20 gauge chamber. It’s too big. But if you go to load a 20 gauge shell into a 12 gauge chamber, you’ve got a problem. The shell will drop through and get stuck, causing a barrel obstruction. This can be very dangerous if the gun is fired before the obstruction is removed. 20 gauge shells are yellow so they’re easy to identify so you can avoid this issue!
20 Gauge vs 12 Gauge for Hunting
The type of game you’re hunting is important to consider when deciding between a 12 vs 20 gauge shotgun. If you want an all-purpose shotgun for hunting, the 12 gauge is the best option. But if you plan to hunt a specific type of game, you’ll want to consider getting the best shotgun for that game.
The shot pattern expands as range increases, so it’s easier to hit a target within a certain range. Your shotgun barrel will come with a fixed choke barrel or a screw in choke barrel, which can reduce shot spread to some extent. If your gun has a screw in choke barrel, never fire without making sure a choke tube is installed to prevent damage to the gun. A dense shot pattern is best for taking game that is walking slow or standing still, such as turkey, quickly and ethically. However, if you’re hunting faster game such as wood ducks it’s typically beneficial to have a wider pattern.
20 gauge shotguns are most popular for smaller game, such as quail and squirrel. Hunting with a 20 gauge means you’ll experience less recoil, but the tradeoff is in the decreased pattern density.
12 gauge shells hold more pellets when compared to 20 gauge shells that are loaded with the same size shot. More pellets mean you have a greater chance of hitting your target. A 12 gauge with a 20” spread compared to a 20 gauge with a 20” spread will have the same size spread, but the 12 gauge would most likely be holding more pellets which creates a denser pattern.
In other words, unless you’re an avid hunter of a specific type of game, your best bet for hunting is a 12 gauge. You can change the barrel, choke, and shot size as needed for your game of choice.
12 Gauge vs 20 Gauge for Sporting Clays
Sporting clays require quick reflexes, aim, and precision. The target moves quickly, and you’ve only got one shot to hit the clay. While both 20 and 12 gauge shotguns are used for the sport, the 12 gauge tends to be the popular choice. The wider spread helps maximize the odds of hitting the clay.
#8 shot is the most popular size for target shot. A typical 12 gauge target load holds 1 1/8 oz. of #8 shot, or 461 pellets per shell. A common 20 gauge target load holds 7/8 oz. of #8 shot, or 359 pellets per shell. You can use a choke to get a wider pattern with the 12 gauge compared to the 20 gauge and still maintain the same density pattern because you have more pellets. Using a choke for a wider pattern with the 20 gauge will cause you to lose density since there are fewer pellets to cover the area.
Beginning shooters often prefer shooting 20 gauge shotguns for sporting clays since they experience less recoil.
12 Gauge vs 20 Gauge Home Defense
When it comes to home defense, you need to be able to handle your gun safely and effectively. The 12 gauge is a popular choice for home defense. It has the firepower to stop an attacker. The 20 gauge is also a great choice for home defense, especially if you want a smaller shotgun. The lighter recoil makes it easier to shoot a follow-up shot if needed.
Whether you choose a 12 gauge or 20 gauge for home defense, you’re likely to be able to hit the target, even if your aim could use some sharpening. With a cylinder choke shotgun 40% of the pattern would be inside a 30 inch circle at 40 yards no matter which gauge you choose.
12 Gauge vs 20 Gauge Comparison
It’s probably no surprise that approximately 50% of the shotguns sold in the United States each year are 12 gauge shotguns. As we’ve discussed, the 12 gauge is a versatile option that works in a variety of use cases, from hunting to home defense.
12 gauge ammunition is widely available in a variety of shot sizes from #9 shot to slugs. With the right ammo, you can hunt most game species with a 12 gauge shotgun.
The most common smaller shotgun is the 20 gauge. It’s lighter weight, but it also has less firepower than the 12 gauge. It tends to be popular among smaller framed and younger shooters due to the lower recoil.
It’s available in a variety of pump and semi-auto shotgun types. Ammunition is also manufactured in nearly every size from #9 shot to slugs. The 20 gauge is most often used for upland and small game. It also works well for home defense and some shooters prefer it for sporting clays.
You can find a wide selection of 12 gauge and 20 gauge shotguns at Green Top Sporting Goods. Shop online or stop in to find the right shotgun for you!