20-Gauge Youth Shotguns: Are They Effective For Self Defense?

We wanted to know if these smaller, lighter guns were suitable for home protection. Tested: Winchesters Ranger Compact, Remingtons 870 Youth Express, and the Mossberg Bantam.


Several years ago a member of our staff was approached by a neighbor for advice about home protection. The woman, who lived alone, was being terrorized by a man who was stalking her. She had no firearms experience whatsoever. With an eye towards simplicity and power, our staffer suggested she buy a pump shotgun. However, a trip to the range proved that a 12 gauge was too heavy and the recoil was too punishing. Ultimately, she settled on a 20-gauge model with a short stock, and she loaded it with buckshot. Just days after her first lesson, with buttstock braced against her hip, she repelled her attacker from her house in the middle of the night. The stalker, a complete stranger, was arrested a short time later. The shotgun this woman used to ward off her attacker was a 20-gauge youth model, which was lighter and shorter than standard hunting shotguns.

Looking back on this experience, we decided to purchase and compare three youth 20-gauge pump shotguns strictly from the perspective of self defense. Also, perhaps because these guns are marketed to the youth segment, they were low-priced enough for anyone to afford. We chose the Mossberg 500 Bantam, $316; the Winchester Ranger Compact, $367, and the Remington 870 Youth Express, $332.

The similarities between our three pump shotguns were easy to see. Each had a wood buttstock and forend. All drew rounds from tubular magazines. The lengths of pull (LOP) all measured 13 inches. The barrels were topped with a flat vent rib, but the Mossberg also had a thin brass mid-barrel bead and a traditional white bead at the muzzle.

For evaluation of the controls and layout of these three shotguns in self-protection situations, we turned to Brian Hoffner, (www.hoffners.com/info.htm). A veteran police officer, Hoffner serves as the shotgun instructor at the annual IALEFI, (International Association of Law Enforcement Instructors) conference and is the Law Enforcement three-gun instructor for the Action Target Academy.

We liked the Mossberg’s thumb-operated safety, but Hoffner’s assessment contradicted that. Hoffner said the crossbolt safeties on the Remington and Winchester were safer. Remington and Winchester shooters are taught a ready position consisting of trigger finger on the safety, ready to knock it off before engaging the trigger. Mossberg shooters must have the thumb on the safety and the finger out of the trigger guard. One of Hoffner’s startle-response drills begins with the trainees on the firing line holding their shotguns at low ready, awaiting the cue to raise their shotguns and fire as fast as possible. A tap on the shoulder is the signal, and trainees are chosen in random order. In Hoffner’s experience, Mossberg shooters were more likely to cheat by having the thumb on the safety and their finger inside the trigger guard.

If you are familiar with the handling of the companies’ 12 gauge models, then these guns hold few surprises. The shorter stocks, which are the main source of their designation as being “youth” or “compact” models, were about 1 inch shorter than standard models. This fits current urban law-enforcement tactics, which call for shorter stocks. A shorter stock is needed to offset the presence of body armor, which can add up to 1 full inch of material at the shoulder.

Hoffner teaches a shooting position which he calls the Mount Lock, in which the butt of the shotgun is locked in place over the pectoral muscle instead of inside the crook of the shoulder. With the shoulders rolled forward and elbows down, the shooter in this stance can fire quickly, handle recoil, and present a smaller profile. “Pulling the elbows in creates the tactically correct use of cover,” Hoffner said.

Another aspect of the youth models helpful to the self-defense shooter are the relieved forends, which allow a full grip on the near end of the forend, which makes it easier to work the slide aggressively and maintain a compact arm position.

There were other aspects of self-defense shooting we considered in each gun’s operations, as we detail below:

The Mossberg Bantam came with three choke tubes, (Modified, Improved Cylinder, and Full). The others provided only Modified tubes. The Mossberg also came with the longest warranty, 10 years. The Mossberg distinguished itself visually because of its lighter colored wood stock and forend, plus a gold-colored trigger. Unlike the others, this shotgun used a ventilated buttpad and it came with a rear sling stud. The forward stud screwed into the magazine cap.

The magazine on this shotgun also held one more round than its competitors. Although aftermarket 12-gauge magazine-tube extensions are quite common, we could locate one only for the 20-gauge Remington (available at Wilson Combat, www.wilsoncombat.com). So the Mossberg’s factory 5+1 capacity gave it the edge.

The slide release was above the left rear of the trigger guard, and as mentioned above, the Mossberg’s safety was located toward the top rear of the receiver.

A specific measurement we thought important to this test was the distance between the forend when pulled fully to the rear and the surface of the butt pad. A shorter measurement allows the shooter to keep his elbows close to his body and still work the pump. On the Mossberg Bantam, this span measured 15.75 inches. We took this same measurement on Mossberg’s 12-gauge 590 model with Speed Feed stock, and found it to be 5 inches longer in comparison.

[PDFCAP(2)], the 20-gauge buckshot and slug ammunition still had enough kick to make shooting less than comfortable. According to our chronograph, the 5/8-ounce Remington slugs were leaving the barrel of our Mossberg Bantam at an average velocity of 1474 fps. Felt recoil in relation to muzzle energy of 1320 foot-pounds was nothing to sneeze at, so we installed a Shooter’s Friend, ($17.99, from Cabela’s, 800-237-4444). This slip-on rubbery buttpad may not be pretty, but it softens recoil as well as anything else we have tried. The increase in LOP was no more than the typical rubber buttpad, so to maintain the same length of pull, we removed the fixed buttpad and slipped the Shooter’s Friend over the bare wood. The sides of this pad can grab clothing but we coated it with Wilson’s tennis racket grip tape (nothing else would adhere) to solve that problem.

Our three test rounds were 2 3/4-inch cartridges, but each gun was capable of handling 3-inch ammunition as well. Our choices of 20-pellet buckshot loads from Winchester (XB203) and Remington (SP 20-3BK) plus the Remington Slugger (5/8 ounce HPRS), provided a good representation of widely available ammunition. Where recoil is an overriding concern, or where the possibility of overpenetration is a problem, a standard birdshot load such as Remington’s ShurShot Heavy Dove load, a 2.5-dram, 1-ounce charge of No. 8s, offers a good alternative to the slug and buckshot rounds.

But Hoffner pointed out that 20-pellet buckshot loads penetrated better than typical 20-gauge field loads and their patterns were still deadly. He also said slugs are a necessity for home defense, because they can penetrate doors, wall studs, kitchen cabinets, refrigerators, heavy furniture, or whatever else a bad guy might use for cover. If was hard for us to come up with a situation in which a homeowner would shoot a slug beyond 25 yards (and most situations would certainly be closer), so we fired slug-accuracy groups from a sandbag rest at 25 yards and patterned the shotguns at 30 feet, which we think is a reasonable engagement distance indoors.

The Mossberg landed groups ranging from 1.5 to 2.2 inches center to center with the Remington slugs. At 10 yards we managed to land 16 of 20 pellets of Winchester buckshot on a corrugated cardboard IPSC target. This target replicated a human torso target with the “body” of the target measuring 24 inches high by 18 inches wide plus a “head” measuring 6 inches by 6 inches. The desired point of impact, or A zone, consisted of a rectangle 11 inches high by 6 inches wide at center mass. Five pellets hit the A zone. Six shots were in the C zone, which adds 3 inches to the left and right of the A zone, plus 5 inches of target area below A zone and about 2 inches above. Four more shots were in the outer reaches, (the D zone) and there was one more hit in the head area. The Remington buckshot registered 7 A hits, 6 C hits, 5 D hits and 1 head shot. No malfunctions were encountered, and the action was fluid.

The Remington 870 featured darker wood than the Mossberg and a thinner circumference at the pistol grip. The crossbolt safety was above and to the rear of trigger guard. Safety on meant that it would protrude from the right side, so the right-handed shooter could knock it off with the trigger finger. The left side of the bolt contained an integral lock that would keep the gun from firing. The simple ribbed barrel measured 1 inch shorter in length than our other two shotguns, but the 870 still produced the most velocity and muzzle energy.

Like the Mossberg, the pistol grip and forend were checkered. The forend overlapped the action, and the span from the butt to the rear of the forend measured 17.75 inches when the slide was moved fully to the rear. The action was smooth, and the trigger pull weighed in at 5 pounds, the lightest in the test. Capacity was limited to 4+1. A full line of chokes are available for this shotgun, but only a modified tube was supplied as an alternative to open-bore shooting.

On self-defense targets, we thought this gun handled the fastest, but it also kicked the hardest. Patterning at 10 yards on the IPSC target results varied little from our experience with the Mossberg. The Winchester buckshot printed 19 holes (7 A hits, 6 C hits, 4 D’s and 2 head shots). The Remington ammunition left 18 holes, consisting of 5 A’s, 8 C’s, 4 D’s and 1 head shot.

Velocity produced by our slug load averaged 1496 fps, which translates to 1360 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. To put it in a self-defense context, that’s about four times what the .45 ACP pistols tested in the August 2004 issue developed when they were loaded with Black Hills 230-grain JHPs. Accuracy with the slugs was comparable to the Mossberg Bantam, with three-shot groups ranging from 1.5 to 2.4 inches.

The Winchester shotgun was the only model that did not have checkering on the pistol grip or forend. This gun had good wood; in fact, its grain and polish were head and shoulders above the Mossberg and Remington products, we thought.

The forend was ribbed and tapered, giving it a different look. The slide release was above and to the rear of the trigger guard, much like on the Mossberg shotgun. Equipped with Winchester’s Speed Pump action, the gun was smooth and crisp, and the distance between the buttpad and the rear of the slide measured 15.75 inches at rear lock open. The crossbolt safety was mounted in the trigger guard and operated from right (safety on) to left (safety off). But this design differed from the Remington 870 by placing the safety ahead of the trigger instead of behind it. We liked the forward placement of the safety on the Winchester best because our training dictated the trigger finger should be outstretched along the receiver until ready to fire.

The 1300 Ranger Compact arrived with one modified tube, and the tube offered an extended rib with checkering to make carrying a choke wrench unnecessary. But we did need a screwdriver and a little bit of nerve to make our Winchester shotgun fully operational.

When we first began handling the shotguns, we first removed dowels in the magazines that limited their field capacity to 2+1. But in the case of the Winchester, we could not even load a single round into the magazine. To remove the dowel from our Winchester required taking out the fitted retainer instead of simply unscrewing the magazine cap. We called Winchester for advice, and they insisted that we have a qualified gunsmith take care of this. If you have never done this before, it would be wise to heed their advice.

However, we pushed the wooden dowel downward against the magazine spring and pried off the retainer. But the prying motion has to be applied multiple times in a circle to move the retainer out. It was tricky, and we wore eye protection because the spring, dowel and retainer could have shot out.

In terms of weight the Winchester was the heaviest, and we thought it transferred less recoil to the shooter. The difference in weight may be attributable to the Winchester having the longest and heftiest looking receiver. The Ranger Compact outweighed the Mossberg by 5 ounces and the Remington by 8 ounces. We thought the Winchester’s metal finish looked the best.

The trigger on the Winchester shotgun required 9 pounds of pressure to break a shot but this didn’t concern us as much as usual. In rapid action, firing fast requires hammering the trigger and aggressively racking the slide. But even when approaching our group shooting at 25 yards, we did not feel hampered by the weight of the trigger. Our largest group measured 1.3 inches center to center and our smallest was just short of one clean hole, which measured slightly more than 1 inch edge to edge but only 0.5 inch center to center.

Firing at IPSC targets, the Winchester 1300 Ranger Compact placed 18 of the 20 Winchester buckshot pellets on paper. Six pellets found the A zone, 7 more were in the C Zone, and 4 more were scored as D zone hits with one pellet hole in the head area. The Remington buckshot in the Winchester shotgun was the most accurate performer in this phase of our test. We counted a total of 19 out of 20 pellets fired on target. Ten pellets were in the A zone. Eight more were not far off the center inside the C zone of the target, and the lone D zone hit missed the C zone by a fraction. Vertically, the pattern measured about 11.8 inches and horizontally, the spread was about 10.7 inches.

Gun Tests Recommends
• Mossberg 500 Bantam 20 gauge No. 54132, $316. Buy It. Its shot capacity of 5+1 was a plus. We thought this shotgun was rugged, reliable, and it came with a 10-year warranty. Yet it still cost less than the others.

• Remington 870 Youth Express 20 gauge No. 25561, $332. Buy It. This was the lightest shotgun in the test, and it handled the fastest, in our opinion. Trade-off: Recoil was however somewhat heavier as well.

• Winchester 1300 Ranger Compact 20 gauge No. 512036631, $367. Our Pick. The best-looking shotgun was also the most accurate. It produced a deadly pattern of buckshot and had one-hole accuracy with slugs.






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