3 Reasons Why the 20-gauge is a Fine All-around Shotgun

Via Ken Bailey

The Forgotten Gun

Never Hunted with a 20-gauge? Here's What You're Missing

The 20-gauge is the underappreciated middle child of the shotgun family. It’s not as accomplished as the first-born favourite, the 12-gauge, nor is it an attention-grabbing baby like the smaller 28-gauge. But make no mistake, the 20-gauge is capable and versatile, bringing attributes into the field that none of its siblings can boast—whether you’re gunning for upland birds, ducks or big game.

#1 Upland Birds

I’ve shot many 20-gauge shotguns over the years, leading me to appreciate them for what they are rather than for what they’re not. When built on a true 20-gauge frame—not simply a bored-down 12-gauge frame—they’re ideal for long days in the upland fields, offering a balance between a tolerable weight to tote and the dense patterns needed for long-flushing birds.

While heavy enough to swing smoothly, the 20-gauge is also light enough to allow for a quick response on rising birds, making it the perfect pheasant gun. When shooting 7/8-ounce loads, the recoil is noticeably easier on the shooter than is a 12-gauge of similar weight, which typically shoots loads of more than an ounce. Grouse and partridge hunters also find the 20-gauge to be the ideal combination of portability, ease of use and lethality—little wonder it was once referred to as the queen of upland guns.

#2 Ducks

The 20-gauge is not out of place in the duck fields, either. Shooting three-inch, one-ounce loads of #2 to #4 shot, it’s ideal for decoying mallards, carrying more than enough pattern density and downrange energy to cleanly fold birds out to 40 yards. Understanding there’s a valid application and growing demand for the 20-gauge as a waterfowling option, ammunition manufacturers now offer 20-gauge options in their premium loads. Prime examples are Federal’s Black Cloud, Winchester’s Blind Side and Remington’s HyperSonic Steel. Simply put, a one-ounce load of #3 shot leaving the muzzle at 1,600 fps is plenty enough for any duck that flies.

Jump-shooters will also appreciate the 20-gauge, and for many of the same reasons that pheasant hunters do. Jump-shooting is all about walking and sneaking, pond after pond, canal after canal, creek after creek, for hours on end. The 20-gauge shines in these scenarios, its light weight making it easy to lug while sacrificing nothing in the way of effective payload.

#3 Big Game

The 20-gauge should also not be overlooked as a capable slug gun. This past spring, I had the opportunity to hunt black bears in Manitoba, and Iselected the bolt-action Savage 220 loaded with Federal’s three-inch, 275-grain Trophy Copper slugs. At the sight-in bench, the combination was shooting tacks, so I had little concern about accuracy. And I was confident the 20-gauge could handle one of Manitoba’s legendary huge black bears, considering the slugs left the muzzle at 1,900 fps and retained 2,161 foot-pounds of energy at 50 yards, the maximum distance I expected to shoot.

As hunting luck goes, I didn’t get the chance to take a giant boar, but on my last evening, I did shoot a respectable bear, hitting it perfectly behind the shoulder. The slug performed as I’d hoped, and I found the animal piled up not 40 yards from where it was hit; a follow-up shot wasn’t required. Upon examining the damage inflicted by the slug, I had no doubt whatsoever I had the firepower to easily tackle even the largest black bear.

Deer and bear hunters alike should seriously consider the 20-gauge. In the case of the Trophy Copper slug I shot in Manitoba, it carries 1,300 fps and 1,136 foot-pounds of energy out to 200 yards, well above the 1,000 foot-pounds generally held as the effective minimum for deer-sized game. And sighted to be dead-on at 150 yards, the slug drops a manageable seven inches at 200 yards.

Clearly, the 20-gauge can effectively handle the vast majority of shotgunning applications. So if you haven’t already, perhaps it’s time you also embraced shotgunning’s middle child.

Savage Selection


Featuring a synthetic stock, detachable box magazine and Savage’s esteemed AccuTrigger, the 20-gauge 220 is an affordable choice for hunters looking to join the slug-gun set. The bolt-action is drilled and tapped for scope mounts, and available in right- or left-hand action. And of course, Savage’s renowned out-of-box accuracy is a given.

Ken Bailey

Ken Bailey

An all-around hunter, Ken Bailey enjoys pursuing waterfowl the most. Based in Edmonton, Outdoor Canada's longtime hunting editor Ken Bailey has hunted every major Canadian game animal, in every corner of the country. For many years, he’s shared his deep knowledge of game behaviour, and wide expertise with all manner of firearms with OC's readers. His work has been recognized numerous times by both the Outdoor Writers of Canada and the National Magazine Awards. Ken is a committed conservationist, dedicated to habitat preservation, sustainable harvests, and passing along our hunting heritage to the next generation. He's also an avid fly fisherman, and a pretty darn good game chef.

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