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.
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.
Ken Bailey is Outdoor Canada’s long-time hunting editor.
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.