What About the 20 Gauge for Home and Personal Defense?

It turns out the 20 is more than credible. It isnt a 12 gauge, but the 20 offers good performance with lighter recoil - which can be an important factor for smaller family members.

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When a shopper is browsing the gun shop for a home-defense shotgun, they are often led toward the 12 gauge rack. The 12 gauge is the universal military and police shotgun and has plenty of power. However, the 12 gauge also has plenty of kick, and in some cases, too much kick for many shooters. Even burly males who do not practice often will find the 12 gauge startling when fired with full-power defense loads. In contrast, the 20-gauge shotgun is usually lighter, easier to maneuver, and offers less recoil. The question is — is it effective?

We have previously tested the .410 bore for home defense and found it surprisingly capable, but the .410 is certainly not in the 12-gauge’s power category. The 20 gauge was expected to perform better than the .410 in this job, and it did so, we found. But we also wanted to gauge what happened to the shooter. While the 20 gauge has a greater payload than the .410, is the recoil acceptable for young shooters and female shooters who are smaller than most men. Your body shape, bone structure, and attitude affect how you perceive recoil.

When we discuss the 20 gauge, those who benefit the most are shooters who would not deploy a shotgun if they had to deal with 12-gauge recoil. And the 12 gauge is brutal to some individuals. We are not going to take anything away from the 12 gauge because it is arguably the better choice based on power, but not on practical use, at least not straight across the board. If you find the 12 is controllable, by all means stick with the 12 gauge. But the 20 gauge gives the recoil-shy shooter a good break and heightens the ability to deliver a respectable payload on target. That is the advantage of the 20 gauge.

However, there are practical disadvantages that must be discussed. As an example, when the primary rater was given the assignment to test the 20 gauge, it was several weeks before a suitable low-cost project gun could be located. Finally, a Mossberg Cruiser in 20 gauge was discovered at a small shop and was purchased at full retail because the shop owner would not budge on the price — because the 20 is in demand. By the same token, 20-gauge shells are not available in the wide range the 12 gauge is offered, and sometimes 20’s may be difficult to locate. Likewise, parts and accessories, particularly barrels, are more common for defense-related 12-gauge shotguns.

A standard 20-gauge load is the 2.75-inch No. 4 buckshot with 27 pellets. Each pellet is .24 caliber. At about 20 grains each, that is a 540-grain payload. The 20-gauge bore is about 0.61 inch wide, so this is a big payload that creates a serious effect on the target at moderate range. No. 3 buckshot is .25 caliber, and there are 20 pellets. With No. 2 buckshot, you have a 29-grain buckshot at about .27 caliber and 18 pellets in the charge.

20-Gauge Shotgun Load Performance Data

Gun: Mossberg Cruiser w/ 18.75-in. barrel Average velocity (fps) Muzzle energy (ft.-lbs.) Pattern height (in.) Pattern width (in.) Penetration in water (in.)
Remington Express 2.75-in. #3 SP 20-3BK 1200 N/A 8 7.5 24
Winchester Super-X 2.75-in. #3 Buckshot XB203 1200 N/A 7.8 8.5 24
Federal Power-Shok 3-in. #2 Buckshot F207 2B 1100 N/A 8.5 9 18
Federal Premium Vital-Shok 3-in. #2 P258 2B 1100 N/A 11.8 9 18
Federal Power Shok 2.75-in. 3/4-oz. rifled HP slug 1573 1802 N/A N/A 18
Remington Slugger 2.75-in. 0.5-oz. rifled slug 1540 1147 N/A N/A 12
Notes:Average Velocity readings were recorded by firing 10-shot strings over a Competition Electronics Pro Chrono chronograph. The muzzle was 10 feet from the first skyscreen. Ambient temperature: 60 degrees. Elevation: 815 feet above sea level. In this type of testing, the results are much different than handgun or rifle bullet testing. Usually, only a few of the buckshot loads are captured. We recorded the maximum penetration of any shot in our standard water-jug column. For patterning, we fired three shots at a silhouette target at 21 feet and measured the result pattern dimensions.

Test Procedure

To test the loads, we fired patterns at 7 yards, a typical engagement range for home defense. We also fired the buckshot loads into water jugs, the same method used to test any bullet, to gauge penetration. Slugs were not tested for accuracy due to the Cruiser shotgun configuration. The Mossberg Cruiser features a 18.5-inch open choke barrel. Where loads generated a particular response by testers, pro or con, we incorporated that into our rankings:

Winchester Super-X 20 Gauge 2.75-Inch XB203 Buffered #3 Buckshot 20 Pellets, $5/5

These are priced at $1 a round at MidwayUSA.com, which we think is a good buy and should prove effective in practical terms. These loads burned clean. Pattern was almost as tight as the Remington, which we see as no practical difference. At this distance, facing an intruder in a hallway, this load looks hard to beat based on patterning and price.

GUN TESTS GRADE: A

Remington Express 2.75-Inch #3 Buckshot 20 Pellets SP 20-3BK, $5.49/5

Available from MidwayUSA, this was among the least expensive shells tested $1.10 a round. The pattern at 21 feet was the tightest, an advantage not easy to ignore and a lucky happenstance. While the advantage may be small, it should be taken. Remember — the load dispersion may vary from shotgun to shotgun, but chances are the Remington load will give good results. This is a coin flip with the Winchester load above for most folks.

GUN TESTS GRADE: A

Federal Power-Shok 3-Inch Buffered #2 Buckshot 18 Pellets F207 2B, $6.46/5

Priced at $1.50 a round at MidwayUSA.com, this is a standard 3-inch magnum 1100 fps loading with 18 pellets, recommended for use with medium sized game like deer and antelope. It also makes a great defensive-ammo choice. Has Federal’s Triple Plus wad technology and Power-Shok copper-plated buckshot. It worked slightly better than the more expensive Federal loading.

GUN TESTS GRADE: A

Federal Premium Vital-Shok 3-Inch Buffered #2 Copper-Plated Buckshot 18 Pellets, $8.29/5

These are priced at $1.66 a round at MidwayUSA.com. In our testing at personal-defense ranges, no advantage for the P258 2B load was noted over the standard Federal 2072B loading. It is pricier than the 2072B, so we rated it down on expense. If you like the copper-plated buckshot, it may be worth the tariff. As for effect on target or penetration, we saw no advantage to justify the extra spend. In a long-barrel shotgun with a tight choke, there may be a difference.

GUN TESTS GRADE: B

Federal Power Shok 2.75-Inch 3/4-oz Rifled Hollow Point Slug F203RS, $4.04/5

Available at this price from Cheaper Than Dirt, we usually prefer the heavier load, and in this case the Federal slug would be preferred. Penetration was slightly greater on average. These slugs are credible and should produce adequate penetration. This load delivered the greatest felt recoil of any 20 load tested, and it also delivered plenty of power.

GUN TESTS GRADE: A

Remington Slugger 2.75-Inch 1/2-oz Rifled Slug SPHV20RS, $4.99/5

This slug gave the odd sensation of pulling the trigger and finding two large holes in the target. We could not determine which was the wad and which the slug. Accuracy could not be tested with the Cruiser configuration — we are not that good! — but the slug hit about on the point of aim at 7 yards. For the price, this was a good performer. Recoil was noticeably less than the Federal slug load tested. However, energy is considerably less. Also, we were disappointed by the velocity, a recorded 1540 fps. Perhaps from a 28-inch gun, the half-ounce shell might reach its 1800 fps claimed velocity.

GUN TESTS GRADE: B

Written and photographed by R.K. Campbell, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers.

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