By John Barsness, GUNS Magazine
Half a century ago, when a Montana kid just started hunting, 20-gauge shotguns were considered appropriate for women and kids. Grown men primarily used 12 gauges, because “everybody” knew any shotgun with a smaller hole in the muzzle wasn’t enough for tougher upland birds such as pheasants or any sort of waterfowl. And if some smart-mouthed kid asked why, he might be informed it was—because the 12-gauge held more shot—and might also be told well-known facts shouldn’t be challenged by smart-mouth kids.
The 1960’s was a decade of rapid change, with shotshells and their ballistics among the changes, primarily due to the plastic revolution. Remington was apparently the first American company to introduce plastic shells and shot-cups, but other companies quickly followed, because the advantages were so obvious.
The paper shells used before the ’60’s weren’t waterproof and sometimes swelled so rounds couldn’t be chambered. Duds or “bloopers” also occurred occasionally, partly because the wads, supposedly sealing the bore against powder gas, were made of cardboard and felt. The primitive wads didn’t protect shot from rubbing against the bore, resulting in patterns with thin edges, especially from smaller bores containing a higher percentage of pellets on the outside of the shot column.
A traditional 20-gauge usually weighs 6 pounds or less. This trio––a Browning BL-3 (top), Ithaca 37 and Remington 17––took the tail feathers in the ceramic pheasant, from ruffed grouse to turkeys.
One of Eileen Clarke’s favorites among her half-dozen 20-gauge shotguns is a Browning BL-3, with custom chokes and recoil pad installed by Briley.
The 3-Inch Mag
This was also when the supposedly “new and revolutionary” 3-inch 20-gauge magnum appeared, allowing the use of what was then considered the standard 12-gauge “duck load” of 1-1/4 ounces of shot. New and revolutionary are in quotations marks because 3-inch 20-gauge shells weren’t completely unknown before 1960. For example, the 1916 Winchester Repeating Arms Co. catalog listed 20-gauge “empty paper shotshells” in five lengths up to 3 inches. However, no loaded 20-gauge ammo with 3-inch shells was listed, so obviously the 3-inch empties were for custom shotguns. This wasn’t uncommon back then, because the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) wasn’t organized until over a decade later, bringing some order to the chaos of various ammo and firearm companies, each deciding on their own cartridge and chamber dimensions.
In 1916, the “standard” 20-gauge load used a 2-1/2-inch shell loaded with 7/8 ounces of shot. Even when SAAMI standardized the 20-gauge chamber length at 2-3/4 inches, the shot charge only increased to an ounce, not enough to improve long-range performance with “drop” (soft) lead shot loaded in paper shells with felt and paper wads.
This was the 20-gauge round hunters knew when the 3-inch 20-gauge appeared, and the reason most considered it suitable only for moderate-range upland birds. But the 3-inch 20-gauge magnum was loaded with up to 20 percent more shot, and the shot was often harder—sometimes even copper-plated—and held in a protective plastic cup. As a result, the 3-inch 20-gauge put considerably more shot into long-range patterns, and the harder shot penetrated deeper.
Like most humans, many shooters are slow to accept technological change. Even before this new technology, most shooters judged “shot-killing power” by the gauge. But as Dr. George C. Oberfell and Charles E. Thompson of Oklahoma State University firmly stated in their small but exhaustively researched book Mysteries of Shotgun Patterns, published in 1957, “It is the shot load that kills, not the gauge.” The 3-inch 20-gauge killed at least as well as the long-time standard 12-gauge duck load using soft shot in paper shells.
Once in a while Eileen lets John borrow her 20 for “field-testing,” pictured here with a couple of white-fronted geese taken with Hevi-Shot handloads.
The “modern” 20-gauge is more of an all-around shotgun, used much like a traditional 12-gauge on anything from upland birds to waterfowl. With a 3-inch chamber, it weighs only a little more. Nice ones include (from left) the Browning Gold, Ruger Red Label and Mossberg SA-20.
Luck Or Skill?
This smart-mouth kid was already semi-informed on this point, thanks to reporting by various authors in American Rifleman and Outdoor Life, the two magazines he’d subscribed to with paper-route money since age 12. He bought his first 3-inch 20-gauge magnum 4 years later. One evening, while hunting ducks in a local slough with two grown men armed with “proper” duck guns (including a 10-gauge), he killed the only duck that flew over, a mallard that dropped cleanly to a high overhead shot, astonishing the two men. (Of course, some luck was involved, in particular the luck of being young and perhaps a little too confident.)
Because of plastic and longer shells, by the 1970’s, the 20-gauge had become the second-most popular gauge in America, right behind the 12, with some hunters even using 20’s on geese. However, 20-gauge shotguns also started to change because most shooters now wanted the magnum chamber.
Before the 3-inch magnum appeared, 20-gauge shotguns had been pretty light, many (if not most) weighing less than 6 pounds. At first, shotgun manufacturers simply lengthened the chambers on their 20-gauge shotguns, but soon many shooters rediscovered Newton’s third law of physics: that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Light 20-gauge shotguns using 3-inch shells loaded with 12-gauge shot charges kicked like light 12-gauges.
As a result, many American 20-gauge shotguns started growing heavier, because they were being used as all-around hunting guns, just like older 12-gauge shotguns with 2-3/4-inch chambers. This was partly because 12’s had also gotten too heavy for many hunters to like lugging them around the countryside all day. This was also due to more hunters using harder-kicking 12-gauge ammunition, including high-velocity steel-shot ammo. (About 15 years ago, a major firearms company introduced a new 12-gauge “field” over/under at the annual SHOT Show, proudly unveiled during the range day held for members of the sporting press. Afterward, just out of ear’s range of the company’s rep, a shotgun writer said, “Just what the world needs, another 8-pound 12-gauge.”)
But the 20-gauge started losing ground as an all-around gauge in the 1980’s, when non-toxic shot started becoming mandatory for migratory waterfowl. Even the 3-inch 20-gauge shell couldn’t hold enough light steel shot to be consistently effective on ducks at 40 yards, though inside 40 it still worked far better than many steel-haters would admit—something I personally discovered while hunting pheasants along small creeks where mallards might rise from a deep bend.
Fast-forward another few years, and more effective non-toxic shot appeared. Most had the approximate ballistic characteristics of lead shot, but some were even denser, capable of killing at even longer ranges. New non-toxic shot still appears from time to time, while other varieties disappear, but all “designer” non-toxics are meant to improve on the performance of steel––which means they make the 20-gauge perform above its traditional role.
I often field-test new shotgun loads, sometimes with my wife, Eileen Clarke, who may be even more of a shotgun loony than I––especially about the 20-gauge. She owns six 20’s and uses them for everything from small upland birds to turkeys and geese. Her favorites are a Browning Gold semi-auto, a Beretta BL-3 with screw-in chokes and very soft Gooey recoil pad (both installed by Briley) and an old Remington Model 17 pump with a Poly-Choke, picked up cheaply at a local sporting goods store.
The Remington and Browning weigh slightly less than 6 pounds, which one she uses depends on several factors. She killed a big Montana Merriam’s turkey with the Remington after playing with the Poly-Choke to determine the tightest setting for 2-3/4-inch loads of 5’s. (She also owns three nice British side-by-sides––though none a 20-gauge––but obviously isn’t snobby about pumpguns and “dial-a-ducks.”) Over the years, Eileen’s taken a number of gobblers with the 20. If you ever run into an old video from Stoney-Wolf Productions about turkey hunting in Montana, you’ll see her drop another Montana gobbler with a 20-gauge side-by-side.
The Browning Gold is her latest waterfowl gun. After years of hunting ducks and geese with a 12, she eventually found the recoil too much even in an 8-pound, gas-operated auto. The Gold weighs just under 7 pounds loaded, and on its first waterfowl hunt dropped a pair of Canada geese with Eileen’s first two shots, using 3-inch loads made by Rio, loaded with No. 4 bismuth shot, along with a bunch of fine-tasting white-fronted geese and several species of ducks.
Eileen also brought the Browning BL-3 as a back-up––and for me to “borrow” to field test some 3-inch handloads using No. 6 Hevi-Shot, put together with components from Ballistic Products using data from their latest Advantages Manual. The little Browning also dropped a pair of geese with its first two shots, white-fronts that fell just as definitely as with steel 12-gauge magnums.
This old Remington Model 17 pump was found in a local sporting goods store with a Poly-Choke installed on the shortened barrel and has
taken Montana game birds from Hungarian partridge to Merriam’s turkeys.
The specific choke seems to have even more effect on patterns with high-grade shot in 20-gauge guns than 12’s, no doubt due to the smaller bore. Along with playing with the Poly-Choke when patterning copper-plated lead shot for turkey hunting, we tried various screw-in chokes, using the Bismuth and Hevi-Shot. Both guns definitely preferred more open chokes, patterning best with constrictions of no more than 0.015 inches.
Right now I only have three 20-gauge shotguns, and mostly use two. The unused gun is a Stevens Model 94 “Youth Gun,” a single-shot from the 1960’s, the first shotgun belonging to my cousin, Eric, and a perfect example of how not to start somebody shotgunning. Between the really full choke and weight of slightly over 5 pounds, it made him flinch and miss a lot, despite the shortened buttstock. Eric finally gave up and gave it to me. I’ve used the Stevens as a camp gun with light loads on nearby mountain grouse during big game hunts, but it really isn’t a wingshooter’s delight.
The others are an Ithaca Model 37 Ultra Featherlight with a 24-inch modified choke barrel and one of the original Ruger Red Labels with 28-inch barrels and full and “fuller” chokes. A friend in California used the Ithaca on snipe and quail for decades, but then his local bird spots disappeared into the vast maw of civilization, and he gave the gun to Eileen. She really liked the light weight of 2 ounces over 5 pounds, but found it didn’t fit her at all. She turned it over to me, and it’s great for mountain grouse.
The Ruger is our heaviest 20-gauge, weighing 7 pounds empty, so is essentially used as a 12-gauge with 3-inch loads on upland birds on the Montana prairies, especially later in the fall when they flush further out. (The chokes are too tight for steel or Hevi-Shot. Someday I may get Briley to install screw-in chokes, but maybe not.)
Eileen Clarke’s first waterfowl hunt with her Browning Gold autoloader was very successful. Here she counts white-fronted geese to make sure she and her hunting partners aren’t over the daily limit.
The popularity of the 20-gauge also results in a bunch of new models each year. Recently, I’ve been testing a very practical and friendly priced (made in Turkey) Mossberg International SA-20. With a 28-inch ventilated-rib barrel, it weighs 6-1/4 pounds empty. This might seem too light for a 3-inch 20, but the SA-20 is a gas-operated semi-auto, mitigating felt recoil. With the hollow synthetic buttstock, the weight falls right between the shooter’s hands, an essential part of the “magic” balance of a fine British game gun. It fits me so well it’s hard to make it miss claybirds, and so far it hasn’t malfunctioned even when fed a wide variety of ammunition.
Many older shotgunners might not find the SA-20 to their tastes, but most hunters under 40 have grown up with synthetic stocks and don’t find them weird, even on shotguns. The SA-20 is a far better starter for somebody serious about buying an all-around hunting shotgun than my cousin’s old single-shot, partly because like all modern shotguns it comes with several screw-in chokes––and in a “Bantam” version, with a 13-inch length of pull and 24-inch barrel for younger shooters.
I wonder how many kids have been turned away from wingshooting over the decades because somebody insisted on starting them out with a tightly choked single-shot .410 or 20. The .410 would make it almost impossible to kill anything cleanly, and the 20 would kick too much for a kid, especially with 3-inch shells––Eric’s “Youth Gun” has a 3-inch chamber.
There are still a bunch of traditional, lightweight 20’s around, perfectly suited for use as upland guns. But with modern 2-3/4-inch ammunition, such guns are also able to jump up a notch or two in performance, even to turkeys at moderate ranges. And then there are longer, heavier “modern” 20’s, capable of all-around wingshooting performance as long as we’re willing to feed them the right ammo.
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