When I was a kid I struggled with learning to shoot birds on the wing. The first gun I used was my grandfathers single-shot 12-gauge. It had a yard-long barrel, weighed less than 7 pounds, and kicked like a fiend. Next my father bought me a single-shot 16-gauge. It had a full choke, weighed about 6 pounds, and kicked as much as my grandpas 12-gauge. Neither was overly conducive to helping a 12 year-old learn to wing-shoot.
Then one day Dad borrowed a little 20-gauge Remington Model 870 Wingmaster for me from a friend. Suddenly I started to hit a few birds. Pretty soon I was bringing in a "mess of doves" rather than a bird or two. The reasons were obvious. The Wingmaster was a bit heavier than the single shot guns, shot a bit less powerful shell and therefore kicked less, and it had a very forgiving improved-cylinder (IC) choke.
It isnt commonly known outside the confines of the skeet-shooting fraternity (ladies included herein), but the difference in the shooting averages (the scores, measured in decimal places, or percentages) of the 20- and 12-gauges are practically non-existent. Another little known fact is that some of the top competitors in NSSA skeet, during the course of a year of competition, do not fire a single 12-gauge shell. They have found that they do just as well if they shoot 20-gauge in the 12-gauge competitions, and suffer less from recoil. I just checked one of my old score cards and found that for 1998 my 12-gauge average was .9652 and my 20-gauge average was .9720. Thats right. My 20-gauge average was higher than my 12-gauge. Just to top it off, my 28-gauge average was .9460 and .410 was .9040.
I think this demonstrates two things. One, that for targets up to about 30 yards, the 20-gauge is as good as the 12-gauge; two, that the little .410 is a lot harder to shoot well than the other gauges.
A 20-gauge shoots just as accurately as a 12-gauge at ranges of 30 to 35 yards. Photo: Steve LaMascus
Up until I actually looked up these scores a few minutes ago, I did not remember that my 20-gauge average was higher than my 12. I did know that my longest run was with the 12-gauge - 397 out of 400, breaking 375 in a row and then falling apart in the last box. However, even that run was fired with a lighter than normal 12-gauge load using 1-ounce of shot at 1150 feet per second.
For the hunter, one of the best places to take advantage of something like a quick-pointing 20-gauge is when hunting around a hot dove tank surrounded by brush. In such situations the 20-gauge has plenty of range, and the 7/8-ounce load of 7s, 7-1/2s, or even 8s will really clobber a dodging dove. I seldom use a 12-gauge in such situations and sometimes, when Im feeling really frisky, I will trot out my little Browning Citori in 67-gauge (thats a .410, in case you were wondering). My pets for such scenarios are a beautiful Browning Citori 20-gauge and an old but well maintained Browning Sweet 16.
In this situation I believe the best choke possible is improved cylinder. This choke is good to 35 yards and is the most forgiving choke available for hunting. (Note: There are more open (wider) chokes, but they cut the range down until they are useful only for very specific hunting situations. The IC is one of the best for all around upland hunting.) In any good gun the IC will throw smooth patterns that are even and well distributed all the way to the edge. This means that a bird that is hit with the edge of the pattern will still be killed and not just "feathered," so you do not have to "center" a bird with the pattern.
These days the 20-gauge is loaded with a wide range of shot charges at different velocities. I dont believe velocity has much to do with anything in a shotgun, so Ill just say it comes in the standard 7/8-ounce load (which is the most useful for most hunting scenarios), a 1-ounce load; and in the 3-inch magnum, both 1-1/8- and 1-1/4-ounce loads.
The 3-inch magnum loads bring the 20-gauge up into the realm of the 12-gauge. If you have a 20-gauge with a 3-inch chamber and dont have the funds or the desire to buy another gun for ducks and geese, you can simply buy a couple of boxes of the magnum loads with the appropriate charge of large steel or lead-free shot and go hunting.
I do not believe that the 20-gauge is equal to the 12- in such situations, even with the heavier shot loads. However, just because it is not quite as good as the 12-gauge with these heavy loads does not mean that it is not good. It is good. Its shot strings will generally be longer, the patterns a bit more spotty, but so what? How much difference there is depends completely on the gun in question. Each gun will pattern differently. Still, if you end up in a duck blind with a 3-inch magnum 20-gauge, you need not feel like a second class citizen. And around a dove tank or when hunting quail behind a good pointer, you may be certain that your 20-gauge is second to none.
I could give you shot counts and velocity quotes and other somewhat relevant measurements, but at the end of the day it is the number of birds in the bag that really counts. And as I showed you above with my old skeet scorecard, the 20-gauge holds its own very well in that respect. The 20-gauge is extremely popular and rightly so. It is one of the best possible choices for doves and quail, and will serve admirably for almost anything else. If you want a smooth-shooting, light-kicking shotgun, try a 20-gauge.