Captain’s Key Points
As an experienced hunter, here are my main takeaways when it comes to choosing between 20 gauge and 12 gauge shotguns:
- 12 gauge shotguns are larger and more versatile, but have more recoil. 20 gauge guns are smaller, lighter, and easier to handle.
- For hunting larger game like deer or hogs, I recommend 12 gauge for its superior power and range. The 20 gauge works better for small game and upland birds.
- Both gauges offer ample ammunition selection these days. However, 12 gauge shells tend to be slightly cheaper and more available.
- Accuracy is comparable if you put in the practice. I can hit clays and turkeys equally well with my 20 or 12. But at longer ranges, the 12 gauge patterns tigher.
- Recoil is the biggest tradeoff. My 20 kicks like a dream, while my 12 has some punch even with target loads. Adding a recoil pad helps for heavy magnum hunting rounds.
- Either gauge has enough stopping power for home defense. With buckshot, they both get the job done. I’d focus more on maneuverability and getting back on target for follow-up shots.
- For new hunters or smaller shooters, I suggest starting with a 20 gauge and building up shoulder strength. Down the road you can graduate to a versatile 12 if desired. It offers a great balance before going lighter with a .410 or 16 gauge.
Understanding Shotgun Gauges
Before weighing the differences between our two contenders, it helps to understand what shotgun gauges mean in the first place. I made the mistake early on of assuming it referred to the caliber or bullet size. Boy, was I off base!
Here’s the key fact to know: Shotgun gauges describe the diameter of the bore and number of lead balls per pound. Huh? Let me break that down further.
The bore is the interior of the barrel. Its width determines how big a shell can fit inside to launch out the business end.
Now for the weird gauge numbering system. Let’s take everyone’s favorite 12 gauge as an example. What the 12 tells us is that if you took a pure lead ball sized to the exact diameter of the bore, it would take 12 of those balls to equal one pound. So the lower the gauge number, the wider the bore diameter.
A 20 gauge shotgun, therefore, has a smaller bore width than a 12 gauge. And it would take 20 of those perfectly sized lead balls instead of just 12 to make a pound. That’s why we call the 20 gauge smaller and the 12 gauge larger.
It doesn’t tell you anything about caliber or power on its own. You need to look at shell specifics for that. But it does indicate the relative size differences between gauges.
In terms of other common sizes, here is a gauge overview from largest to smallest:
- 10 gauge – Rare. Huge shells. Punishing recoil.
- 12 gauge – Most popular all-around gauge. Jack of all trades.
- 16 gauge – Less popular than 12 or 20 today. Mid-way compromise.
- 20 gauge – Pleasant shootability. Enough power for most hunting.
- 28 gauge – Specialty bird gun. Experts only.
- .410 – Great intro gun for young shooters before moving up.
There are a few even more obscure gauges, but the 12 and 20 dominate the majority of new shotgun sales today. Let’s explore why…
Size and Weight Differences
Comparing the size of 12 gauge vs 20 gauge shells shows the obvious variance in external dimensions. Since they need to fit in differently sized bores, 20 gauge shells are shorter and slimmer all around.
What does this size difference equate to in terms of real world performance? Here are the key effects:
- Weight – With smaller shells loaded into sleeker receivers, 20 gauge shotguns are lighter overall. Field models can be over a pound less than their 12 gauge counterparts. This makes them easier to swing and carry all day hunting.
- Comfort – Less heft also leads to improved comfort. Thinner stocks match smaller hands without forcing an awkward grip. Youth hunters especially benefit from fitting a lighter shotgun.
- Capacity – One tradeoff is shell capacity. 12 gauge guns often hold up to 2 extra rounds total whether in an underbarrel tubular magazine or detachable box set-up. Those couple extra shells could come in handy on high volume dove shoots.
When it comes to dimensions, you’re essentially comparing a large versus a medium frame. Neither is right or wrong. But the 20 gauge is easier packing to remote hunting spots thanks to taking the load off your arms and back.
For reference, here are some typical specs comparing representative models:
Here we arrive at what many consider the deciding factor in choosing between 20 vs. 12 gauges – recoil. Any physics major will tell you that a narrower 20 gauge shell launches a lighter projectile compared to a beefier 12 gauge. Simple law of “equal and opposite reactions” gives the nod to the 20 for less kick.
How much of a difference is there actually between the two? Let me share my firsthand experience…
I shot my buddy’s 12 gauge turkey thumper one spring morning, loaded with heavy 3” magnum shells. My shoulder was black and blue for over a week! Those rounds packed a wallup thanks to all the powder pushing 1 1⁄2 ounces of copper-plated #4 lead.
In comparison, my 20 gauge upland field gun shooting 7/8 oz target loads feels like a pellet rifle tapping my shoulder. I can blaze away all day breaking clays with only mild soreness setting in after a few hundred shells. The difference is night and day.
For a numbers look, experts estimate up to 50% less felt recoil with a 20 gauge compared to an equivalent 12 gauge load. That’s with standard 2 3⁄4” target ammo. The gap closes a bit if you move up to 3” magnum goose rounds, but the 20 retains an advantage.
Here are some additional recoil tips that have served me well:
- Use target loads whenever possible for practice. Save heavy duck and turkey mag rounds only when needed.
- Add a slip-on recoil pad for magnums. I love my Remington SuperCell and LimbSaver models.
- Improve shotgun fit. Have a qualified gunsmith adjust the length of pull and comb height to your frame. Proper fit makes a world of difference managing recoil.
- Wear shooting shirts and vests purpose-built to absorb kickback force. Gamehide and Browning make great options.
- Build upper body strength. I notice recoil less since focusing more on shoulder and chest workouts.
- Consider a gas-operated semi-auto. Internal mechanisms bleed off some recoil energy, reducing what your body absorbs.
Follow that advice and you’ll be punching paper or dropping gobblers all season long!
Variety of Shotgun Ammunition
One area where 12 gauges maintain an advantage over 20 gauges is in projectile variety. With a longer history and more popularity, almost any specialty hunting load you can imagine comes in a 12 gauge option. Several niche shells only get offered in the 12 because makers don’t see enough 20 gauge demand.
But thanks to renewed interest in 20 bore guns, most of your basics are covered. You can readily find 20 gauge target rounds, birdshot, buckshot, slugs, and turkey loads for common hunting uses. Specialty waterfowl and upland shells continue to gain traction also.
Prices are pretty comparable between the two gauges for equivalent boxes of shells. In fact, I’ve been seeing 20 gauge target loads dip lower lately as more competitors enter that segment. Slugs run close depending on premium features and construction.
If you want the absolute widest variety of weird shotgun projectiles, then 12 gauge still wins. How often are you really seeking those out though? For nearly any standard need, both gauges will serve you well thanks to expanded offerings.
One note on reloading – I would focus your component buying on the larger 12 bore if you handload. More variability there to dial-in specialty recipes for your gun using existing data as a starting point.
Shotgun Range and Accuracy
We tend to think that bigger equals longer reach and tighter patterns. Makes sense up to a point. But modern ammunition advancements let 20 gauge shotguns perform right alongside 12 gauges for enough hunting situations.
That said, maximum effective yardages do skew towards the 12 bore guns. Their larger shot capacity holds together better downrange thanks to more fringe pellets surrounding the central pattern. Those extra couple tendrils make the difference pinging 60 yard ducks.
For example, number 6 lead birdshot shows this difference comparing the two gauges:
- 12 Gauge – Useful hits out to 45-50 yards
- 20 Gauge – Useful hits out to 40-45 yards
Similar relative gains show for other shell types, assuming proper choke constrictions match your desired ranges. How much does 5 yards matter to you?
In my experience, most game birds and targets present closer than 40 steps. So I achieve hits in my effective range sweet spot with either my 12 or 20. When I practice on the sporting clays course, my scores end up consistent regardless which shotgun I bring.
If your priority is punching paper at 60 yards or dropping a leagues-away honker…go with the 12 gauge. For any normal uses inside common hunting distances, the 20 gauge shoots plenty flat and accurate these days.
Hunters love to debate terminal performance nearly as much as our wives hate hearing about it at the dinner table! Let’s keep this section brief then…
It should come as no surprise that 12 gauge shells typically contain around 20-30% more actual shot than equivalent 20 gauge rounds. That certainly contributes to extra pellet strikes and energy transfer.
We also have to consider how many of those pellets hit vitals in the first place. Just spraying a heavier payload means nothing if most miss the kill zone. Shot density and pattern consistency are key.
My advice? Use the most lethal loads you can shoot accurately instead of focusing purely on capacity size. Aim for the brain or heart and it won’t matter anyway. Otherwise you merely wound game which is unethical. I’ll take a well-placed 20 gauge over a sideways 12 gauge every hunt.
Fewer things ruin meat like a shredded animal stumbling 40 yards from too many off-target pellets. Remember that extra shot has to go somewhere! I recommend trying both gauges on ballistics gel tests to see the patterns with your own eyes. You might find more 20s passing the test than assumed.
Versatile Shotguns for Hunting
Hunters choose shotguns for chasing all sorts of quarry from bunnies to bull elk. Let’s break down how the 12 and 20 gauges compare for various game animals…
Deer – White tails are America’s favorite big game target, and high demand drives a huge market of specialized 12 gauge sabot slugs and buckshot options. For punching through thicker layers into vitals, I want as much power as I can handle. The 20 works for young hunters on easy shots inside 75 yards. But the versatile 12 and its larger slugs better match an adult whitetail’s durability at longer ranges.
That same logic applies to black bears, hogs, elk, moose, and other tough species. I suggest sticking with the high-performance ballistics of a 12 gauge. You owe it to the animal you stalked for miles to make the most ethical ending shot possible. Why limit your capabilities unnecessarily?
Waterfowl – Now here’s a category where the 20 bore catches back up let’s talk duck hunting! Those birds might seem hearty with dense plumage. But unlike thick-skinned mammals, they prove plenty vulnerable to smaller shot. My 20 gauge choke tube loaded with #4 steel drops ducks and geese dead to rights out to 35 yards easily. As long as you get sufficient pellet penetration into vital organs, shot weight itself doesn’t guarantee success.
I still recommend a 12 gauge for new waterfowlers until they master judging distances over water and accounting for shell velocity drop shooting skyward angles. Keep your groups tight with that comfortable to shoot 20 for meat hunting solo though!
Upland Birds – Wild pheasants and quail explode from cover giving us a heartbeat to shoulder, aim, and fire. Their small profiles disappear faster than any puff of feathers left behind. Having a quick, light shotgun built for snap shooting helps tremendously hunting these aerial rockets.
A trim 20 gauge comes up cleanly without the torque of a heavier 12 fighting your rhythm. While certainly deadly also, I find the extra ounces tiring mile after mile through waist high grass and brush. Save your strength for the return hike out with full vest pouches!
Turkey – Another category where you can shine with either gauge choice. Big toms have sizable bodies vulnerable to #4, #5, and #6 lead shot that both 12 and 20s lob sufficiently. I focus more on matching buffer tight choke patterns to average distances expected hunting eastern woods or western mesas. As long as your pellets concentrate well at 40 yards, the gobbler I just called in stands no chance!
While the 12 gauge hurls extras downrange, they spread too thinly to raise hit probability in my experience. I get cleaner 20-30 yard head and neck shots with my 20 seeming to put every piece of shot into a 10 inch circle compared to sparse 12 gauge edges. Patterning paper proves which gun prints the fatal density column.
Home Defense Firepower
This category stirs nearly as much internet debate as favorite pizza toppings! When it comes to defending your castle using a shotgun, all arguments circle back to recoil management.
Remember that shotpatterning wider than your target risks collateral damage. Even smaller #4 buckshot carries lethal energy through multiple walls at indoor fighting distances. Keeping them contained requires sufficient shoulder strength and technique to resist muzzle rise after the first thunderous blast.
The 20 gauge offers clear advantages here gaining rapid second shot control. While 12 gauges certainly stop invaders cold, each concussive blast forces attention to staying on target for follow up shots compared to the 20’s gentler nudging. Less drama focusing on the threat equates to better threat elimination.
My home protection pump shotgun sports a 20” barrel topped with an AimPoint enclosed red dot. Keeping 00 buck inside a man-sized space at across the living room ranges means I must keep shot stringing fast without fighting for recovery time. The 20 gauge gives me that edge when fractions of seconds count.
As US Army Ranger and tactical shooting instructor Pat McNamara says…“Smooth is fast, fast is lethal.” I’ll stick with the smooth 20 to remain fast indeed!
You might assume buying a smaller bore shotgun and its shells should save some dough in the long run. Hunting guns emphasize utility over penny pinching. But budget remains a key question for any new buyer.
Comparing prices, initial firearm and ammo outlay runs pretty parallel. 20 gauge shotguns on average list around $75-100 less than 12 gauges depending on features. Then shells cost the same or up to 25% less per box of bird loads. Slugs and buckshot stay mostly even across gauges.
Of course deals arise if watching for sales through the seasons on all hunting gear. Sign up for big box retailer newsletters and check ammoseek.com for price drop alerts. With some attention, you’ll stock either 12s or 20s affordably.
The biggest savings chance rests in components for those who handload. Cases differ notably cost-wise with 20 gauge running just 70 cents or so versus $1-2 for 12 gauge hulls bought bulk. Primers and powder set you back the same negligible few pennies per round, but reusing those hulls adds up long term investment.
As the smaller 20 gauge continues gaining shooters, economics of scale should close any product pricing gaps further. For now both offer great bang for buck if avoiding heavily marketed frills. Spend money on ammo to practice rather than fancy engraving!
Picking Your Ideal Shotgun Gauge
We covered a ton of ground differentiating these two exemplary gauges. While 12 remains the versatile gold standard everyone compares against, the 20 gauge holds its own matching or exceeding those capabilities in many regards thanks to ongoing engineering.
Rather than me directly telling you “this one is best,” instead consider what performance adjustment makes the biggest difference for your needs. Then let your preferences guide you towards sporting success!
For instance, if you husk corn-fed whitetails in the hardwoods, the knockdown power and extended reach of the 12 gauge likely matches your vision. Shooting frenzied quail that janus depart behind any cow pie just 15 yards away? The 20 conserves strength toeing steep and rocky terrain all day.
Waterfowlers wanting to push long distance shots dropped from altitude absolutely need a 12-bore’s heavier payload energy. But the casual duck hunter who sets an inviting decoy spread within easy shooting should consider a 20 gauge that patterns beautifully when they swing through the gap.
My final piece of advice remains to make the decision based primarily on recoil and second shots. Too many hunters get overeager looking for mythical stopping effectiveness rather than mastering weapon control. If you flinch anticipating sheer recoil force, follow-up shots go haywire, wounding animals instead of swiftly killing. There’s no reason to dread shooting your shotgun knowing a punch awaits!
Until next season, keep a loose grip and steady cheek weld holding on target. The bucks, birds, and bullseyes can’t evade your aim for long.
Your partner in the field,
Captain Hunter is a seasoned hunting mentor with over 20 years of experience in the field. His passion began as a young man on trips with his father and grandfather in the Colorado mountains. Today, he shares his unmatched skills in survival, tracking, and marksmanship through his website CaptainHunter.com. When he's not volunteering with youth hunting programs, you can find Captain Hunter providing expert hunting tips, gear reviews, and answers to your most pressing questions. His decades of experience make him the trusted guide to help any outdoorsman master the sport.