Is there a new duck hunting shotgun in your future? Perhaps you’re trying to decide on the right “first” duck gun for a lucky new hunter. Or, perhaps, you adhere to the golf bag approach to firearms ownership, seeking the “perfect” shotgun for each hunting situation. If so, you’re likely comparing the pros and cons of the 12 gauge versus the 20 gauge. You’re smart to explore the differences and benefits of each.

Let’s lay aside some myths. A 12 gauge does not shoot farther or hit harder than a 20 on a pellet-by-pellet basis. If you start two #2 steel pellets down the barrels of two different shotguns at the same velocity, both will travel the same distance with the same kinetic energy. Whether one launches from a 12 gauge and one from a 20 gauge makes no difference.

Nor is the pattern from a 12 gauge “bigger” than the pattern from a 20. The number of pellets in a standard 20 gauge load is fewer than the number in a standard 12 gauge load of the identical shot size, but the effect is on pattern density, not spread. The spread, or circumference, of the pattern is regulated by the choke constriction and wad design, not by pellet count.

Never forget a shotgun pattern has three dimensions. Just because you only see width and height in the pattern of holes punched in a patterning target, remember all the pellets did not strike the paper at exactly the same time. The pattern also has length as well. This is called the shot string … the distance from the first pellet to arrive on the target to the last.

Some shot stringing is essential for you to reliably hit a flying target. If the pattern flew in perfect formation like a 2-dimensional disc, you’d have to precisely time its arrival at the target on every shot. But because the shot strings out, you have a better chance of the bird flying into part of the pattern, and it only takes a few well-placed pellets to accomplish your aim. However, too long a shot string is bad because it creates voids in the pattern through which a bird or target could actually fly without being struck at all.

In pattern density and shot stringing, the 12 gauge starts to offer a slight advantage over the 20, especially with larger steel pellet sizes commonly used for waterfowl hunting. All else being equal, a load of pellets started in a proportionately longer column stays in a proportionately longer column. However, because the 20 gauge has fewer pellets by volume, the pattern and shot string are less dense, meaning bigger voids as range increases.

One advantage too often automatically credited to a 20 gauge is lighter recoil. Even comparing standard 12 gauge hunting loads against standard 20 gauge hunting loads, lighter felt recoil in the 20 is still only a maybe. Other factors like gun weight, pads, recoil reduction systems, gun fit, 3-inch shells vs 2¾-inch shells, action of the gun, and more contribute in a big way. It’s easy to make a 12 gauge shoot with less felt recoil than a 20 gauge, particularly with magnum shells commonly used for waterfowl hunting.

In making your choice between 12 gauge and 20 gauge, it may be helpful to see the pros and cons in black and white.


To compare ballistics and pellet counts in a wide variety of 12 and 20 gauge loads, visit the Federal Premium website at: http://federalpremium.com/products/shotshell.aspx.

For a head-to-head comparison of 12 gauge and 20 gauge options in a quality, entry-level semi-auto shotgun, (including both youth and full-size models) look at the Weatherby SA-08 at: http://www.weatherby.com/product/shotguns/sa_08.