When advising others on the perfect gun for home defense, it’s become fairly en vogue these days for well-intentioned folks to say: “Just get a 20-gauge. It’s smaller than a 12-gauge, lighter, recoils less and it’s all you need.”
Like most things, it’s more complicated than that. Indeed, most 20 gauges are a pound or more lighter than comparable 12-gauge models because they are built on smaller frames. This means most are all-around smaller, generally easier to carry and, arguably, handier to wield inside a home. Loaded with full-power loads, they have ample energy to stop a threat.
But, at times the statement concerning recoil can be flat-out wrong. That’s because weight plays a significant role in recoil mitigation. For example, if the 20-gauge model chosen is a pump-action, weighs 6 pounds and is fired with a magnum buckshot load or a slug, it may well produce more felt-recoil than a 12-gauge that weighs 8 pounds.
Therefore, if you are considering going to a 20-gauge solely for recoil mitigation, do not buy an ultra-lightweight model. And, if you are an adult who doesn’t plan to wear body armor, a youth/compact model is not the correct path, either, as most feature short stocks that can actually exacerbate recoil by placing your head too far toward the receiver, driving the point of the comb into your cheek.
You should also be aware that because ammo companies have banked on most shooters using 12-gauges, there are not many 00 buckshot loads available in 20 gauge—traditionally ammo companies load 20 gauge in No. 3 and No. 4 buck. Similarly, fewer tactical accessories are available, another consideration before committing to a 20.
But, if the overall size of the shotgun is your primary concern and you don’t mind digging for accessories, a quality 20-gauge may be the ticket. Here are some I recommend:
Remington 870 20-Gauge Express Synthetic
This gun is exactly like its venerable 12-gauge brother, except it weighs about a pound less. The only problem is, with Remington’s liquidation and slow rebirth, I have no idea how the new ones are built or when they will again be readily available, so you might check the used market. These will run around $350 new.
Benelli M2 Field Synthetic
I’ve shot doves in Argentina by the bushel with the M2, and it is wonderful in terms of reliability, lightness/litheness (it weighs 5.75 pounds) and handling. This is an ultralight gun, but it’s also a semi-automatic, where the mechanism soaks up a significant portion of recoil. If you are looking for a full-size, semi-auto 20-gauge to defend your home—and don’t mind paying a premium—the M2 is your best bet. It will run you around $1,400.
Stevens 320 Security 20-Gauge
One of the few 20-gauge models that was actually made with home defense in mind, Stevens’ 320 features a nifty 18.5-inch barrel, a pistol-grip stock (with no-nonsense buttstock), ghost-ring sights and a six-round total capacity. Frankly, I’m not into the ghost rings for a home-defense gun, so I’d take those off and add a front bead, but at just $249 at the gun counter, this lightweight 20-gauge is tough to beat.
Winchester SXP Marine Defender
Winchester’s SXP is a descendant of its old 1300 “Speed Pump,” sporting an action that uses an inertial, rotating bolt to assist in the pumping process, thereby making it slightly faster than others. On top of that, the 6.4-pound Marine Defender is a legit defensive smoke wagon that holds six rounds total and has a full-size buttstock (with a great recoil pad) and a fore-end you can grip well. I like the hard-chrome finish for a home-defense gun because you can leave it in a closet—or a boat hold—and not worry about it immediately rusting. It’s handy, lightweight and affordable at $409.
Mossberg Shockwave 20
If ever there is a time for choosing a 20 gauge, it’s likely if you are looking for a Shockwave-type firearm. Because these guns are capable of being pointed and fired with one hand—which, in turn, accepts the brunt of its recoil—going with a lighter-weight 20 gauge and using light loads makes much sense to me. Whereas Mossberg’s 12-gauge Shockwave weighs just less than 5.5 pounds, its 20-gauge version weighs even less, coming in slightly lighter than 5 pounds. I’d strongly consider it over the 12-gauge version. It retails for $515.