Should you shoot a 20 gauge waterfowl shotgun?

The 20 gauge is the trendy gun among waterfowlers right now, and it’s easy to see why. It’s light, supposedly fast, smoother shooting with the right loads, and effective enough for ducks on candy. In some places, it’s practically a must-have gun, as a number of duck clubs and private landowners require the use of a 20-gauge or smaller shotgun, believing that the quieter ratios of these guns help keep ducks. on their property.

In June, I traveled to the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation in Dundee, Illinois, near Chicago, to participate in a study measuring the relative loudness of different waterfowl populations in the field. We did some modeling and shooting too. You can read the detailed results in their study here. Through the process of observing and helping, I learned more about why you should and shouldn’t get on the 20-gauge waterfowl gun bandwagon. Here are the questions I went in with and the answers I came out with.

Q. Is 20 gauge quieter than 12 gauge?

The trend among duck clubs to seek 20-yard shotguns began in California. The theory is that the quieter ratio of a 20 doesn’t cause as much concern to ducks as the louder blast of a 12. That logic always seemed questionable to me, and at McGraw, we learned the truth—that 20s aren’t necessarily smoother than 12s.

shotgun test photo
A scientist takes sound measurements as 10-, 12-, 20- and 28-gauge shotguns are fired at a clay range. Phil Bourjaily

We shot 20 different loads, from 10-gauge and 3 ½-inch 12-gauge to 28-gauge, while a scientist from GZA GeoEnvironmental, positioned 30 yards and 90 degrees from the muzzle, measured each report. When we compared the sound levels of 2 ¾ and 3 inch 12 and 20 gauge, we found a difference of 4 dB between the loudest 12 and the quietest 20. Most were closer to the noise level than 4 dB, and therefore invisible to the human ear (any increase below 3 dB is not perceptible to humans, and human and duck hearing are not that far apart). There was also overlap: Some 20-gauge loads were actually slightly louder than the quieter 12-gauge.


There is no guarantee that any given 20-gauge load is quieter than a 12-gauge, and even when the 12 is louder, the difference is very small where the ducks are. In the end, the idea that the smoother ratio of a 20 will keep more ducks on your property is flawed, at best.

Q: Is the 20-gauge enough gun for ducks on decoys?

Model tests conducted with the same loads from the noise experiment proved, to no one’s surprise, that a 12-gauge hits an 18-inch target circle at 35 yards more than a 20- or 28-gauge. 12-gauge 3-inch steel base load (Remington Nitro Steel, 1 1/4 ounces, 1400 fps 3 shot), you have to spend twice as much money for premium sub-gauge ammo. The best-performing 20-gauge shell in the test was a 3-inch, 1 ¼-ounce, 1,350-fps load of HeviXII 6-shot. It averaged 28 hits in the 18-inch circle versus 40 hits for the Remington 12-gauge steel load. The 3-shot steel pellets retained slightly more energy than the HeviXII 6 shot at that range, too. In other words, a 12 gauge loaded with good basic steel outperforms a 20 with premium quality and expensive ammo.


The 20 gauge is enough to fool ducks and then some. Model tests bear this out, and I’ve shot enough decoy ducks and geese at close range with the bismuth 3 to be convinced. However, it is not equal to the 12, no matter what the 20-gauge fans say these days. A 12 puts a lot more rounds on target, hits harder, and gives you a few extra yards of effective range, which can be important when you need to make a second shot at a lightly hit bird, flashing or underestimating the distance. and take a longer shot.

Q: Is a 20-gauge faster and sharper than a 12-gauge?

Duck hunter
Surprisingly, on hard-pass shots, testers did just as well with a 20-gauge as they did with a 12-gauge. Browning

After I left, the folks at McGraw set up a 10-cross 35-yard shooting test on their clay court and asked the shooters to try to hit a 12 and then a 20. To be honest, I had expected the 12 gauge guns to far outperform the 20 gauge in this test, and they didn’t. A 35-yard cross is a long shot for most people, and it turns out to be just as difficult for people if they shoot from 12 or 20 yards. Test subjects performed about the same with a 7-pound, 4-ounce 12 gauge as they did with a 6-pound 20, although they struggled with a 5-pound, 10-ounce 20-ounce. A light gun can swing as well as a heavier gun for many people, but, as the test showed, a gun can be too light. Choose your small arms wisely.

As for measure 20 being faster than measure 12, it is not. McGraw’s study refers to a test I conducted a few years ago, when I assigned shooters to try to hit a moving target as fast as they could. We used three guns: a 6 ¾-pound 20-gauge, a 7 3/4-pound 12-gauge, and the same 12 to 15 ounces of added weight in the butt and mag lid. Shooters using the weighted 12 can mount the gun and break a target in an average time of 0.77 seconds. With the 20, it took him an average of .98 seconds to get on target and make a good shot. Not only was the 12 heavy faster, it was easier to shoot. Shooters hit 72 percent of their shots at 12 and 63 percent at 20.


In the hands of average shooters, a 20 gauge can swing as well as a 12 gauge in cross country. If you want to be quick on target and hit what you’re shooting at, however, a 12 gauge does a better job. The caveat here is that if you’re too small or don’t have the strength to handle the 12-gauge, the 20-gauge is, of course, a better choice.

Q: Does a 20-gauge hit less than a 12-gauge?

People often choose the 20 because they believe the smaller bore gun will hit less than a 12-gauge. And it will—if you shoot lighter loads. But there is no free lunch in ballistics. If you want to increase your 20’s performance to as close to 12-gauge levels as possible, you’ll pay a price in recoil. Take the HeviXII 1 ¼ ounce load that performed well in the McGraw test, for example. If you shoot it from a light 6-pound gun, it will actually generate several more feet/pounds of recoil energy than the 1 1/4 ounce, 1400 fps Remington Nitro Steel load in a 7-pound load, 4- 12-ounce gauge, which has more weight to absorb recoil.


If it’s less recoil you’re looking for, choose the light, 1 ounce or 7/8 ounce load for your 20 gauge. If you load it with faster or heavier loads, it will hit as much or more than many gun combinations and load with 12 meters.

Q: So should you shoot a 20 gauge for waterfowl?

Let’s review: A 20 gauge is not as deadly as a 12. It is not faster or easier to hit. It doesn’t necessarily hit less. It’s not much quieter. However, it has two advantages: The first is that it may be a better choice for younger and/or smaller shooters who cannot afford and shoot a heavier 12 as effectively. Second, which is the biggest advantage of the 20s, is that it can put a smile on your face.


For most shooters, the 12-gauge is arguably the best waterfowl gun from a practical standpoint. But even I, a hunter who prefers 12-gauge for waterfowl, discovered that taking a 20-gauge gun to the blind and shooting it is just kind of fun. This is a good reason to shoot a 20 gauge, and many hunters now find that shooting a small rock makes them happy. If that’s you, and you shoot your 20-gauge well, who am I to tell you not to shoot it? If you want to bag more ducks and geese, shoot a 12. But if shooting a 20 gauge makes waterfowl more enjoyable for you, learn the limitations of the gun and have fun shooting it.

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