By Phil Bourjaily
The 20-gauge duck gun is trending. Its increasing popularity may have more to do with an aging hunting population than with any ballistics breakthroughs, but I see and hear of more hunters taking 20s into the field now, using them to bag everything from teal to geese. Within its limitations, the 20-gauge can be every bit as effective as a 12-gauge. The guns are lighter, the recoil is softer, and for some, it's just fun to shoot a smaller gun.
The Case for the 20-Gauge
A small but growing number of clubs limit their members to 20-gauges. At the Dingville Duck and Social Club in California, owner and "benevolent dictator" Al Montna, who is also DU's advisory senior vice president for public policy, hasn't allowed any gun larger than a 20-gauge since the 1970s. The smaller-bored shotguns reduce the temptation to sky bust, and they are noticeably quieter than 12s, putting less pressure on the birds.
Club member Jay Goble says he wouldn't go back to a 12 even if Montna allowed it. "No way," he says. "I love the light weight and low recoil of my Franchi Renaissance over/under. Sometimes when I'm shooting teal I don't get the gun mounted all the way. That will knock your block off with a 12-gauge, but I don't feel it with the 20." Dingville members regularly take teal, sprig, mallards, and specks at their club. Additionally, Montna, Goble, and several other members have taken their 20s to Alberta to hunt big Canadas. "The guides asked, ‘What are you going to do with those?'" Goble says. "We were patient and let our birds work close and we had no trouble at all."
Chokes and Loads
Twenty-gauge hulls don't hold much shot. In the days of lead ammo that wasn't a problem, but Montna says the transition away from lead was difficult until the premium nontoxics appeared on the market. Now, he says, the 20s can cleanly take birds out to 35 yards or more. "Our members shoot HEVI-Shot or HEVI-Metal," he says. "Popular shot sizes include 4 and 6. We have learned that these loads shoot best through more open chokes like skeet, improved cylinder, and light modified. Most of our members shoot over/unders, and they'll use improved cylinder in one barrel and light modified in the other."
Missouri outfitter Tony Vandemore is another dedicated 20-gauge user, having made the switch to a Benelli M2 for all his duck and Canada goose hunting. Vandemore favors HEVI-X loads through a Rob Roberts T3 choke, which is roughly equivalent to an improved-modified constriction. "That tight choke puts a lot of pellets on target," Vandemore says. "As a guide, I'm often the last one to shoot, and with this load I can take birds out to 40 yards."
If you stick strictly to steel, you'll find the 20 is best with smaller pellets at closer ranges due to its limited case capacity. Recently I patterned some 1-ounce loads of steel 1s, 2s, and 3s through an improved-modified choke and came away thinking that 35 yards would be my longest shot with a 20.
To consistently take birds at 40 yards with a 20-gauge, you'll have to spend money on bismuth, HEVI-Shot, or even Tungsten Super Shot. Even so, if I wanted a gun strictly for long range, I'd shoot a 12, in keeping with Nash Buckingham's famous dictum: "Never send a boy on a man's errand." On the other hand, a few years ago I polled several guides across the country and found that their clients' average shot was 22 1/2 yards. Ballistically speaking, that's not anything close to "a man's errand." With a lightweight 20-gauge, it's not even a heavy lift.
20-Gauge Waterfowl Guns
Where once the only synthetic-stocked 20s were youth guns, today there are plenty of full-size, blind-ready 20s with synthetic stocks, swivel studs, and black or camo finishes to choose from. Pump shooters can pick the proven Mossberg 500 in black synthetic or Winchester's slick SXP in Mossy Oak Shadow Grass Blades. You'll find semiautos at every price point, starting with Weatherby's black SA-08 at $649 and running all the way up to Benelli's Performance Shop M2 Waterfowl Edition at $2,399. In between, you can choose among the Franchi Affinity, Winchester Super X3, Remington 11-87, and Beretta A400, complete with Kick-Off recoil reducer.