September 2016

What About the 20 Gauge for Home and Personal Defense?

It turns out the 20 is more than credible. It isn’t a 12 gauge, but the 20 offers good performance with lighter recoil — which can be an important factor for smaller family members.

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 found the 20-gauge Mossberg Cruiser to be controllable with attention paid to the grip.

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.

We tested several 20 gauge loads, with overall good results. We fired a mixture of buckshot sizes and slugs. The selection range isn’t as good in 20 gauge as it is in 12-gauge shotshells.

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.

The effects of buckshot in stacks of water jugs was impressive.

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  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  18 
Federal Premium Vital-Shok 3-in. #2 P258 2B  1100  N/A  11.8  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.

After impact, several pieces of shot remained in the jugs. We would have measured how far at least one penetrated to get our readings in the table above, but the pellets were always ganged together like this.

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, 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.


Buckshot has a lot of energy, as evidenced by the muzzle rise in the shotgun barrel. We were not going to shoot the tables, so we got close. We got wet!

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.


We found it possible to center a load of buckshot with the Cruiser at 7 yards and beyond. This is one of the Remington buckshot patterns. The wad struck high.

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

Priced at $1.50 a round at, 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.


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

The buckshot loads were very consistent, reaching a good pattern by 7 yards.

These are priced at $1.66 a round at 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.


Buckshot seems to travel in pairs. This is the outer edge of the Winchester pattern at 7 yards. Buckshot penetrated about 18 inches in most cases, adequate, but not excessive.

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.


For young shooters and female shooters and the occasional shooter of any size and gender, the 20 gauge makes a lot of sense.

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.


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

Comments (3)

As a shotgunner that has been shooting and hunting since I was about 12 years old, now almost 65 and a avid shooter, dedicated enthusiast of the sport, I purposely choose the 20 guage for home defense. I have trained consistently with both the tactical stock and the Pistol grip. I now use the pistol grip as the defender for my home. Practice point and shoot skills and you will be amazed at how accurate and quick this shotgun can come to target. The 20 gauge is a powerful contender for close ranges, but at the same time provides great results for handling. The pistol grip offers a light weight weapon, easy to carry through the house, easy to attach a flashlight. And last but not least, a fun weapon to train with. I am 6' feet tall and in good physical shape. I own a number of 12ga. shotguns, but the was the practical choice for home defense. Like any weapon, you have to train properly, know the firearm and then train some more. Thanks for the great article.

Posted by: davevabch | August 28, 2016 10:05 AM    Report this comment

As a sales person, I always steer people toward a 20ga shotgun, specifically the Rem. 870 Express Youth model for a few good reasons.
1. reduced recoil equates to most members of the family can be trained to use it.
2. smaller size equates to lighter and quicker to handle.
3. properly loaded for defensive purposes with #3 or #4 buck it is devastating and yet more forgiving when there are stray pellets to account for. (pure physics)
4. for the individual that is staring at the .61 hole at the end of the barrel, I doubt that they care whether it is a 12 or 20 ga or that they would even know the difference.
5. last but not least, I am a pretty good sized guy at 6'1" >200# and that last time I showed up at shotgun training with my 20ga Rem. 870 Express Youth model, everyone snickered, that is until the end of the course test scores came in and they saw my targets. the most common comment then was "damn, don't mess with Al. No one else even came close to my score. All the reasons listed above are why I carry a 20ga for defensive and tactical purposes.

Posted by: BILLYRAY | August 23, 2016 9:31 PM    Report this comment

I'd be very interested in the number of non-shooters who choose 20 ga. over 12 ga. as a home-defense platform. I have many friends and acquaintances who ask for my advice regarding home defense firearms. For those who tell me they have little to no experience with firearms (and aren't willing to invest the time to gain experience), or who are small-framed, I always recommend 20 ga. shotguns.

Regardless of my advice, staff at local gun shops nearly always steer them toward the 12 ga. for home defense.

The ONE exception to this to date was a lady friend of mine who stood 5'1" in platform heels... Sensibly, the gun shop attendant told her that a 20 ga. would be a far better choice for her.

Posted by: honkeoki | August 17, 2016 8:43 AM    Report this comment

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