Field & Stream Online Editors
Field & Stream Online Editors

Americans love small-bore shotguns. the rest of the world shoots 12-gauge, period. We shoot four gauges. When English shooters want a little gun, they pick up a light 12-gauge and superlight loads. We shoot a small bore, more than likely a 20.

In large part, we shoot 20s because our 12s have always been so heavy. American 12-gauges traditionally weighed in the neighborhood of 71/2 to 8 pounds, fine for waterfowling but sorely in need of wheels and a handle if you tried toting them through the uplands. By sheer necessity, bird hunters carried lighter 16s and 20s. As the 16’s popularity waned (that’s a topic for another column), the 20 rose to become our most popular small gauge. Today 20-gauge ammo outsells the 16, 28, and .410 put together.

In truth, there are finally enough lightweight 12s on the market that most of us don’t really need a 20-gauge. But we love our little guns and will keep buying 20s, both for good reasons and for bad.

Handling Qualities
The best reason to buy a 20 is because it simply feels good as you carry it in the field and bring it to your shoulder._ Low profile_ is a buzzword among shotgunners, referring to the height of a gun’s receiver. The shallower the receiver, the closer the shooter’s hands can be to the axis of the barrel(s), making it easier to point the gun at a target as if it were an extension of your hands. The 20’s slim grip and forearm add to the feeling that you’re pointing a yardstick, in contrast to so many 12s that are reminiscent of a two-by-four.

Long, light, slim guns are easy to shoot well. To make the most of the 20’s handling qualities, consider buying o/u or side-by-side guns with 28-inch barrels (30-inch, if you can find them) or repeaters with 26- or 28-inch tubes. Most average-sized adults will actually shoot better with a longer-barreled 20. You’ll still have a light gun, but it will be easier to hit with because you’ll have some weight out at the muzzle end to help you smooth your follow-through. Short, light guns promise speed, but in the field, slow and steady usually wins the race.

Gentleman’s Gun?
Though most people are drawn to 20s for light weight and slick handling, some buy them in the belief that it’s somehow more sporting to shoot 20-gauges than 12-gauge “cannons.” A few hunters are downright snobby on the subject. Unless someone declared _sporting and ballistically inferior _as synonyms while I wasn’t paying attention, the notion that 12s are for meat hunters and 20s are for gentlemen doesn’t add up.

You can load 12s down to 20-gauge levels with an ounce or even 7/8 ounce of shot with excellent results. A 20, on the other hand, performs very poorly when you try to shoot a 12-gauge load out of it. Why is it considered more sporting to shoot the same amount of shot out of a less efficient gun when real birds pay the price?

That said, the 20-gauge, loaded with 7/8 to 1 ounce of shot, is perfectly adequate for 90 percent of upland shooting. Hunting wild pheasants over my old German shorthair, I hardly ever felt undergunned by the skeet-choked 20-gauge o/u and an ounce of premium 6s I used to shoot. In a woodcock covert, where you can’t even see 40 yards, much less shoot that far, the difference between the 12 and the 20 is entirely moot.

Moreover, ammo makers have come up with some dandy 20-gauge offerings of late. Winchester’s fine new 1-ounce, 1300 fps Supreme Field Loads won’t make a 20 into a 12, but they smack pheasants with authority. Remington’s Hevi-Shot loads containing 11/8 ounce of shot traveling at 1325 fps should perform beautifully on ducks inside 40 yards.

Guns for New Shooters
The 20-gauge is a natural choice for new shooters; the guns aren’t too heavy, recoil is mild, and 7/8 ounce of shot is enough to break targets with ease. However, “Youth Model” single-shots and pumps can really kick,, and novices often find the fun goes out of shooting after half a dozen shots.

My favorite gun for new shooters is Remington’s 20-gauge 1100. The combination of its substantial weight (about 63/4 to 7 pounds) and its soft-shooting gas system makes it virtually recoilless. That’s important, because sometimes it takes a box or two of shells to get a new shooter on target.

Picks of the Litter
Among the new 20s I’ve shot lately, the SIGArms Aurora TR20U stands out as my favorite. At 61/4 pounds, it’s light enough to carry and heavy enough to shoot well. Its case-hardened receiver and straight-grip, Schnabel-forearm lines ooze Continental class, and at $1,800 it’s a tremendous amount of gun for the money. Beretta’s Whitewing lists for around $1,300, weighs under 6 pounds, and except for the sticky safety common to several Berettas I’ve handled, is an absolute delight.

Want a great, cheap bird gun? Watch the used-gun rack at your local store for a 20-gauge Remington 870 or Ithaca 37 with a 30-inch ribless barrel. If you have a little more to spend, keep an eye out for a Winchester Model 12 or Browning A-5. Without the extra and largely unnecessary weight of a vent rib, these guns are long, light, and a joy to swing. You’ll have to have the choke opened from the inevitable Full, but that’s about a $40 job for many gunsmiths, a small price to pay for putting a nice 20-gauge back in the field where it belongs.