20 gauges can be the right choice for duck hunting if you’re looking for a lightweight shotgun that’s easy to handle and has smaller load sizes available. It does however have its drawbacks that we’ll talk through more in this article.
Table of Contents:
Do 20 gauges have enough power for waterfowl?
One of the first topics that comes up when people talk about whether or not 20 gauges make good guns for waterfowl hunting is based around their knockdown power:
To make an effective shot on a duck or goose, 1-2 pellets must hit the duck or goose’s neck or head with enough force (a minimum of 3 foot-pounds for ducks and 4-5 for geese) to deeply penetrate the skin and feathers. A 20 gauge has enough power to shoot pellets with the required force (3-5 foot-pounds) to consistently harvest ducks and geese up to 40 yards away.
Lack of power is not the limiting factor on how far away waterfowl can be shot with a 20 gauge. The reduced range at which ducks and geese can be harvested with a 20 gauge is due to their lack of pellet density at distances further away than 40 yards.
20 Gauge Waterfowl Load Recoil
We’re using the term recoil to define the amount of energy that flows through a shotgun and felt by the hunter when fired. This’s often referred to as “kick”, and describes how much of the gun’s energy the hunter feels when shooting at waterfowl.
Does a 20 gauge kick less than a 12 gauge?
Different shotgun gauges themselves have no impact on recoil (kick). The two primary factors that determine recoil of a shotgun are: size of load (oz.) and weight of the gun.
1. Size of load being shot (measured in ounces)
The larger the load size, the more kick a shotgun has.
2. Weight of shotgun being fired
The weight of a shotgun and its recoil have an inverse relationship. The heavier the gun, the less recoil it will have.
A common misconception about 20 gauges is that they kick less than 12 gauges. If a 20 gauge and a 12 gauge are shooting the same size load (oz), and the 20 gauge weighs less, the 20 will kick more than the 12 gauge. If both guns are the same weight and shooting the same load size, they will have an equal amount of recoil.
*The chart above uses the specifications from one of the most popular waterfowl shotguns and can be applied to almost every other shotgun model with few exceptions.
*Weight of different models per Remington’s stated specifications: 12 Gauge=7.5 lbs. 20 Gauge Compact=6 lbs. 20 Gauge compact Jr.=5.75 lbs.
- 7/8 oz. shot in shown in the graph which is a common load readily available in 20 gauge shells, but not very common in 12’s. I show it here for demonstrative purposes.
- 1 oz. load are the lowest common load used in 20 gauges for duck hunting. When compared to the 12 gauge, the 20 gauge compact has 25% more recoil, and the compact Jr. has 31% more.
- 1 1/8 oz. shot would likely be the largest load used in a 20 gauge. When compared to the 12 gauge, this type of payload creates 24% more recoil in the compact 20 gauge, and 30% more in the compact Jr.
How to reduce 20 gauge recoil
Because most 20 gauges weight less than 12’s, the shotgun shell’s load must be reduced if the shooter wants to experience less “kick”. The table below demonstrates how much smaller of a load it would take for the the 20 gauge’s recoil to equal that of a 12 gauge’s. (Using data represented in Figure 1.)
20 gauge load equivalent to equal a 12 gauge’s recoil:
|12 Gauge load||20 gauge load|
|1 oz||7/8 oz|
|1 1/8 oz||1 oz|
|1 1/4||1 1/8|
This reduction in load size means fewer pellets in each shell, which makes it more difficult for a hunter to hit a duck.
20 Gauge Shot Patterns
Waterfowl Shot Pellet Density
One aspect to consider when duck and goose hunting is the patterning of the shotgun. A common measurement for patterning is how many pellets fall within a 30” circle at various distances (pellet density).
20 gauge vs 12 gauge pellet density
*In order to compare apples to apples: load sizes (1 oz.) and pellet sizes (#2’s and #4’s) are the same for both gauges, and both are using a moderate choke.
As you can see, at 30 yards (all distances between 15-40 yards show the same results, but I’m only showing the one from 30 yds to make it simple), a 20 gauge shell with the same shot size as a 12 gauge shell will produce a fewer number of pellets within a 30” circle. This is because shells for 20 gauge’s are smaller than those for 12 gauges, and therefore contain fewer overall pellets to begin with.
- #2’s fired out of a 20 gauge have 9.7% fewer pellets inside a 30” circle at 30 yards than #2’s fired from a 12 gauge do
- At 30 yards, #4’s fired out of a 12 gauge have 15.4% more pellets within a 30” circle than #4’s fired from a 20 gauge do
A 20 gauge shell’s smaller diameter means they contain fewer total pellets to begin with. But what does this have to do with waterfowl hunting?
Just because a 20 gauge and a 12 gauge have different numbers of pellets per shell, this does not mean their patterns have a wider spread than each other (this is determined by choke size).
A shot fired by either gauge will have the same percentage of their overall pellets within a 30” circle, but, because a 20 gauge shell starts off with fewer, there are fewer that end up in the circle.
20 Gauge Shot String
Another aspect worth mentioning is shot string. Shot string includes all the pellets between the first pellet to hit the target and the last to reach it.
This is a significant factor because if all pellets in the shell flew at the same speed, a shooter’s timing would have to be exactly perfect to hit a duck. The longer the pellet string, the more forgiving the pattern will be (given there are enough pellets within that section of the shot string).
Since a 20 gauge shell holds fewer pellets, its shot string is smaller, making it more of a challenge to kit a flying duck or goose.
Pros/Cons of 20 gauges for waterfowl hunting:
- Lightweight: This allows a waterfowl hunter to easily transport a shotgun in and out of areas that may require long walks, as well as makes them easier for a smaller and or younger hunter to shoulder the shotgun correctly. This is also nice for those more “mature aged” hunters who can’t get around as easily as they once could.
- Shorter barrel: This helps smaller and or younger hunters handle the gun better, creating an environment for proper shooting technique.
- Youth models available for most: These allow younger duck and goose hunters to have the proper shotgun “fit”, which can prevent them from developing poor shooting habits.
- Versatility: Not only can 20 gauges be used to hunt ducks and geese, they’re also great for upland birds, turkeys, and other small game.
- Smaller shells: A 20 gauge’s smaller diameter means fewer pellets. This translates to lower pellet density (see figure 2), and a smaller shot string. These two aspects make it harder to hit a duck or goose, which can frustrate a younger/newer waterfowl hunter.
- Lighter shell payload: Because most 20 gauges are lighter than 12 gauges, their recoil will be higher unless lighter shotgun shell payloads are used.
- Shorter barrel: While I mentioned this is a positive thing, it’s also important to point out that shorter barrels make it easier for a hunter to “swing” the gun around too far. When teaching a new hunter, it’s imperative for the safety of them and others that they learn to shoot within their shooting lanes.
A 20 gauge is a good option for someone who’s new to waterfowl hunting, or who prefers a smaller shotgun. This lighter weight comes in handy when traveling long distances on foot, and when needing to make faster barrel swings for quick ducks like teal. When possible, graduating the newer shooter to a 12 gauge would be most beneficial due to the increased pellet density and higher likelihood of one or two of those pellets hitting a duck or goose in its vital areas.
Find the Ducks!
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