20-gauge buckshot shell

The Mighty 20 Gauge

Don't discount the 20-gauge shotgun for home defense.

By Kyle Wintersteen (RSS)
March 18, 2013

In a home-defense scenario, there’s really no such thing as too much force. Your goal, without apology, is to immobilize a criminal threat, thereby ensuring your survival and protecting the lives of your loved ones. There’s perhaps no better tool to accomplish this than the 12-gauge shotgun, which is capable of rendering roughly the energy of four simultaneous .45 ACP strikes upon the target. But don’t take my word for it. Refer to the hard numbers provided by comparing the muzzle energy of the two rounds, and you’ll come to the same conclusion.

Yet critics of the 12 gauge argue it has a large, inherent weakness: Its recoil is as stout or stouter than practically any other long gun. With standard loads, proper technique and practice, even a petite woman can achieve proficiency with the 12-gauge shotgun. Still, there will always be some individuals who are more comfortable—and therefore more accurate—with a lighter-recoiling gun. The logical choice for them is downsizing to a 20 gauge, but does this alternative provide them enough power to stop a threat?


“You hear that question all the time, but I find it really silly based on the 20-gauge shotgun’s close-range energy,” says Ralph Mroz, a firearms expert and the presenter of the “Armed Response” series of training DVDs. “Handguns certainly have their place in self-defense because they are so maneuverable. But if you need to stop an intruder right here, right now, the best choice is a rifle or a shotgun—any shotgun will do, and this absolutely includes the 20 gauge. It provides about twice the power of a .44 Mag. Nobody is getting up from that.”

By the Numbers

Here’s proof. Using the formula Energy = .5 x Mass x Velocity2, we find a typical 20-gauge self-defense load of 11⁄8 ounces of buckshot traveling at 1,100 fps produces roughly 1,320 ft.-lbs. of energy. That’s only about 200 ft.-lbs. less than a comparable 12-gauge load and, as Mroz notes, it’s at least twice as much energy as produced by most handgun cartridges.

So, yes, a 12 gauge is more powerful and fires more pellets—it is the ideal choice. If you opt for a 20 gauge, though, a criminal probably won’t notice the difference, and that’s the whole idea.

Twenty No. 3 buckshot pellets, each measuring .25-inch in diameter, give the 20 gauge a fight-stopping punch.

Think Small

It’s not surprising that petite or recoil-shy individuals are the most likely candidates to benefit from the smaller gauge. However, the 20 gauge also warrants consideration by anyone who may need to share a shotgun with someone of smaller stature.

“You might be built like Killer Kowalski, but is your spouse?” Mroz asks. “That is a necessary consideration, because ideally both you and your spouse should have the knowledge and ability to use the shotgun in an emergency situation.”

Home-defense scenarios aren’t scripted. Your spouse may be closer to the shotgun when a break-in occurs, or perhaps she’s home alone.

Advantage, Perhaps

The 20 gauge produces less recoil. Yet, the difference may not be as great as some folks allege. Many 20-gauge shotguns weigh less than comparable 12 gauges, which somewhat negates the benefit of a lighter payload.

“I’d describe it as only slightly less recoil,” Mroz says. “And let’s not forget how subjective that so-called ‘felt recoil’ can be. For instance, to me the recoil of a non-magnum buckshot load out of a 20 gauge doesn’t feel like much less than a 12 gauge at all. But different people will always feel the recoil in different ways.”

Your shooting technique and even the contours of your physique can affect the transfer of recoil to your body. There are, of course, mental factors as well. So, to determine whether you’ll benefit from the lighter thump of a 20 gauge do some experimenting. Borrow a 20 gauge from a friend, and hit the range. Run drills with shotguns in both gauges, and compare the results. Do you find the 12 gauge uncomfortable, but feel the kick from a 20 gauge is more manageable?

OK then. Make the switch.


The 20 gauge produces negligibly less power than the 12 gauge, but it is disadvantaged in another area. It isn’t as popular as the 12 gauge, and therefore manufacturers aren’t motivated to offer 20-gauge shotguns in as many configurations.

“You may have a much harder time finding a 20 gauge with an 18-inch barrel length or ghost-ring sights,” says Mroz. “And there just aren’t all the accessories out there for it like you’ll find for a 12 gauge. You can basically customize a 12 gauge any way you want, but a 20 gauge could require some pretty serious gunsmithing. That’s really the biggest reason I prefer a 12 gauge.”

Best Loads

Aside from the fact that 00 buckshot is not available in a factory 20-gauge load due to shell-size limitations, your shot selection need not be affected by switching to the 20. We will delve more deeply into shot-size selection in a future column, but Mroz and I both believe No. 2 or No. 3 buckshot to be ideal choices for the 20 gauge. Federal also offers a 20-gauge No. 4 buckshot load that, when coupled with its FliteControl wad, shows promise for delivering a tight, energy-packed pattern.

“All the experts advise using buckshot,” Mroz says. “But I think it’s kind of funny when people discuss what size. Whether you’re shooting 00 buckshot or No. 2 or No. 3 buckshot, a shotgun produces overwhelming energy. It really doesn’t matter what size shot exits the barrel. It’ll do the job.”

Another misconception people have regarding the 20 gauge is that its pellets decelerate faster. In reality, the payload may be smaller in terms of pellet count, but velocity at the muzzle is pretty comparable to that of a 12 gauge. Assuming equal velocities, a buckshot pellet that exits a 20-gauge barrel produces the same terminal energy as if it were fired from a 12 gauge, which again speaks to the 20 gauge’s adequacy for home-defense.

If the weight or recoil of a 12 gauge is simply too much for you or any member of your household, the 20 gauge warrants a look. You may find it more comfortable to shoot, which will boost confidence. Should the need arise to use it for protection, you’ll be just as well armed.

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20 Responses to The Mighty 20 Gauge

  1. cc says:

    Able ammo offers a 20 gauge buck in #1. It is Rio and comes 25 t a box. Great price and size load for home defense.

  2. Joe Duesler says:

    Thanks, 20ga with #3 buck Now comes the search for the 18″ barrel, pump. I appreciate your story.

    • Chuck Taylor says:

      I have a Rem.870 Express Magnum in 20 ga. and I just bought a 18 1/2 in. barrel for it to use for home defense.

    • Jarod says:

      If you get a Mossberg you can order a 18 inch barrel from Mossberg cost 75 dollars and takes about 2 weeks they make them when you order them

    • Chris A says:

      I bought a Remington 870 Express Magnum about 23 yrs ago. Can handle both 2 3/4″ or 3″ shotshells.
      Went for it because the same model in 12 gauge was to0 unwieldy to swing and point in close quarters due to increases size and weight.
      I is not easy to find 20 gauge buck shot at most retail stores. Have a few 3″ shells with #3 shot in it right now. Purchased a box of Spartan “00″ shot from Academy just today.

      Either should do the job within 15 yards.

  3. Frosty J. Hammer says:

    Here’s a 20ga pump action with 18.5″ barrel. Also has pistol grip, ghost ring rear sight, fiber optic front sight, replaceable choke tube and a top rail for a red dot sight.

  4. jan says:

    Shot size doesn’t matter???
    Yes it does! Buckshot only for defense or buck and slugs mixed loading in the tube or spare slugs on side of gun! I especially say slugs are more nesscisary as spare option in 20ga than 12ga, especially if on a ranch and you need to reach out a little further say 25 yds. Ranchers maybe need to go further to protect heard from mt Lions or coyotes, in that instance a good rifle is best. But back to home use, sure birdshot may kill a perp a few days later from some random pellet eventually flowing into the heart, but on instance of firing all he’ll have is a very bad puckered and minced skin bruise, however you’ll be dead on the floor for the mistake of using birdshot instead of buck or slug! In 20ga #3, #2, #1 are good, especially if you can use 3″mag. Having some 3″mag as additional option is a good idea in case you might need a little more power similar to a 12ga, but only if your gun can handle it without blowing up!

    • John Drable says:

      Not everyone live on a ranch. I live in the city and I’m not willing to save myself at the risk of shooting my neighbor or her kid through the wall of her home because I’m using a far more powerful load than I need to take down an intruder. I load my 20 gauge coach gun with #4 buckshot and the longest hallway in my home is 20 feet. If I can hit the guy he’ll go down. And hitting the guy is the issue. I served in the Army and I go to the range frequently BUT shooting at a range target when you are calm and wide awake is a hellua lot different than shooting at an intruder half asleep with my adrenalin pumping.

      I read these gun blogs and people act like we are living in the era of the walking dead.

  5. Wayne says:

    The 20 ga. 2 3/4 or 3″ is perfectly suited for Home Defense with #3,#2 and #1 Buck shots.But,firing any shotgun inside of the home will make your ears Bleed!

  6. James Nottingham says:

    Funny thing u say 20 gauge can’t get 00buck well I got some made by spartan 2 3/4 with 9 pellets at. 40 yards all9 pellets in a 6 inch group with old school revelation 310c 28 inch barell full choke

    • 900stx says:

      I cut open a so called 00 buck from Spartan. It contained 9, #1 buck pellets. Other than a different cremp, it’s the same round as the Reo #1 buck. Still plenty leathel, but not 00 buck.

  7. The discussion on the 20 guage and various size pellets was excellent. Now, I would like to address the defensive side of shooting. Considering the most common rifles and pistols used today: 5.56, .40 SW, and .308 using different bullets; FMJ, hollowpoints, penetrating, etc. What material WILL stop these loads. How effective will Level III armor be? How much dirt, wood, steel will be needed to stop and protect the home defense patriot? HELP PLEASE! I been trying to get information for months.
    Thank you

  8. Bob says:

    I live in Mississippi and have a homemade firing range in my back yard. I am lucky enough to be able to do some of my own penetration tests. After those tests, I am more than comfortable in saying that a 20 gauge is capable of devastating energy transfers to a target. I have shot tires with 7.5 shot, old refrigerators with #4 buckshot, and an old tire rim with a slug. I would hate to see what any of them would do to a human body. I find it ludicrous when I read that birdshot would only leave a bruise, etc. The 7.5 shot completely blows a hole the size of a golf ball through a sidewall of a premium radial at 10 yards. I have done a lot of hog hunting in southern MS and SE TX. I have seen a slug completely clean out a skull. The 20 gauge is a contender.

  9. ty says:

    bird shot wont kill an intruder have you ever shot # 4 pheasant loads out of a single shot with a half choke if your within 50 feet all the pellets hit in a softball sized area with enough force to easily drop sombody especially high brass and lead loads it will easily penitrate the skin

  10. Justin says:

    Hi All, I have a question I have been trying to find the answer to and can’t seem to. This group seems like a good bet for this. Can anyone tell me the recoil of a 20 gauge 2 3/4″ 7/8 oz slug in “Gs”? The reason I aks if I am looking at a scope that says maximum recoil is “1000 Gs”.. Thanks!

  11. Justin says:

    Oh and to comment on the 20 gauge effectiveness at self defense LMAO that slug or even buckshot of ANY type would devastate a human body within short distance. There are 20 gauge slug rounds that have enough energy at impact to drop a deer at 125 yards if you can aim that well (1000 ft/lbs is what’s required to knock a deer down). I’ve put standard slugs through 6 inch trees at 30 yards!!!

  12. Louis says:

    I have a 1960 Westernfield bokt action 20 guage with a polychoke. This shotgun is very powerful as I shot my first large turkey using 3 inch and 1 1/4 ounce turkey load.
    It has a need sight that grooves with a front sight, and would work well with shooting skeet as well. The recoil of the 20 guage is very manageable as the shooter really doesn’t notice the recoil.
    The shotgun, due to having an improved cylinder, would serve as a 50-60 yard deer shotgun. I will use it this fall as a backup to my Remington 870 Wingmaster 12 guage.
    The 20 guage I have is a bolt action but very efficient, in mint condition, and will handle 2 3/4 inch and 3 inch loads in buckshot, slug and birdshot
    Thank you

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