best 20gauge shotguns - cover

The Best 20-Gauge Shotguns

Michael Crites
Michael Crites

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What are the best 20-gauge shotguns?

The most common shotgun gauge used around the world has always been the 12-gauge shotgun, but many new gun owners are discovering the smaller 20-gauge offers advantages over its larger kin. A 20-gauge shotgun pairs useful loads with manageable recoil and an overall lighter gun, making it approachable for a wider variety of users than the stiffer-shooting larger bore scatterguns.

Quick List: The 20-Gauge Shotguns

Why a 20-Gauge Shotgun?

20-gauge shotguns are lighter than their 12-gauge counterparts but don’t sacrifice much in the way of performance. 3” magnum 20-gauge loads, after all, basically put the 16-gauge out of commission in the U.S. 

Many novice or young shooters prefer the approachability of the softer-shooting 20-gauge and, with the array of different models available, there’s a 20-gauger suited for every need — be it knocking down sporting clays, hunting, home defense, or learning the ins and outs of firearm ownership. 

You can also find a 20-gauge in every standard type of actions — pump-action, side-by-side or over/under loading types, and semi-automatics — so there’s little to prevent you from taking a dip in the smaller-gauge end of the pool.

Uses for the 20-Gauge

The uses for a 20-gauge shotgun are as varied as the shooter’s needs, and there’s a level of versatility baked into this gauge that makes it easy to see why they’ve become so popular.

Hunting

The beauty of a 20-gauge shotgun is that, in general, both shells and guns will be considerably lighter than larger-bore options, which means less aching in the arms and shoulders after a hike. Plus semi-auto gas guns paired with lighter target loads makes for a very pleasant shooting experience.

Those looking for a lightweight hunting shotgun need look no further: a 20-gauge with 3” mags throwing 1 ¼” oz worth of pellets downrange will get the job done without bonus shoulder wear and tear. If you are an avid small game hunter, you may want to add the Benelli Ethos 20GA to your current gun cabinet. 

Beyond the craftsmanship of the walnut stock and absurdly beautiful Giovanelli-engraved receiver, the Ethos is a beast of a gun. The Inertia Driven System gives you quick, trouble free loading and Benelli introduced a spin on their ComforTech system for recoil management. 

The walnut stock on the Ethos didn’t accommodate their standard PCS system, so they engineered a new take on the Progressive Comfort System and concealed it within the buttstock.

This new approach integrates a flexible shock absorber which, according to Benelli, reduces felt recoil 50% from their ComforTech system. It’s not a bargain basement shotty, but nothing from Benelli ever is.

Home Defense

Everyone is familiar with the 12-gauge 870s and Moss 500s of the world — either through home defense planning or seeing them plucked out of a patrol car’s trunk on the evening news. While the 20-gauge has often been relegated to the upland birders of the world, the lighter recoil and additional control of the smaller bore has started to make its way into the tactical world. Take the Mossberg 500 Special Purpose Tactical 20-gauge for example.

This Moss pairs a 20” barrel with a 6-position adjustable stock and pistol grip — looking (and performing) every bit like the room-clearing machine it is. The Special Purpose 500 in 20-gauge will make home defense training much more approachable — and give you the additional maneuverability of a lighter gun and aggressive tactical orientation.

Learning

Shotguns aren’t rifled firearms, and given that they fire multiple projectiles in a spread pattern many inexperienced shooters assume it’s sufficient to fire in the general direction of a target to land a hit. This is all kinds of wrong. Not only does it take practice to know a weapon well enough to use it effectively, it permits a lackadaisical approach to training. 

The only way to become a better shooter is to shoot. Nobody wants to be knocked off their feet in a tense situation due to improper balance, and familiarity with your firearm will help keep you in the fight.

One of the best ways to ensure training actually happens is with an approachable firearm, and “approachable” is the 20-gauge’s middle name. A lightweight shotgun makes range practice easier for everyone, and if you’re a parent, these relatively inexpensive tools make it easier for children who are ready to learn their way around a firearm. Plus, 20-gauge ammunition is often considerably cheaper per round than 12-gauge alternatives.

If an inexpensive, learning-oriented 20-gauge shotgun fits the bill, look no further than the Churchill 220 Field Shotgun.

This small budget option packs a punch and is well-balanced to ensure accuracy for structured learning. The semi-auto action is gas-driven, which uses the gas from the fired shell to cycle the action and help with recoil management.

The Churchill uses a lightweight polymer stock and has a full-length vented rib and front sight bead, making it a great, inexpensive 20-gauge starter shotgun.

Types of Shotgun Actions

In shotgun terms, the “action” is the part of the gun which contains the internal components that enable the gun to load, fire, eject, and reload a shell. The term is also used to describe categories of firearms which use said types of action. We break these down in more detail below.

Pump Action

Best Tactical Shotguns - Sporting vs Tactical Scatterguns
Pump action and single-barrel shotguns look and function differently, but are both effective tools.

A decidedly American product, slide or pump-action shotguns have been circulating throughout U.S. homes since J.M.B introduced his classic Model 1893 Pump Action Shotgun to the masses. Many folks prefer the classic pump-action shotgun model over other mechanisms for home defense, because nothing quite screams “get out of my house” like the sound of a shotty racking a shell.

The physical racking of these shotguns means they will more-or-less accept appropriately sized shells regardless of muck, dirt, moisture, or shell condition. 

Pump actions are known to eat pretty much anything you feed them, making them staple law enforcement and military firearms.

With pump-action shotguns the forend is connected to a breech bolt, which slide together as the forend is pulled rearward along a magazine tube beneath the barrel. As these components travel rearwards, the internal hammer is cocked, and a shell is pushed out of the magazine. 

The forward stroke elevates the shell via a carrier, which gets chambered into the barrel by the bolt face. It sounds like a lot, but pump-actions can be operated surprisingly quickly. The tubular magazines generally hold 3-5 shells, with extensions available to increase available firepower.

If you are looking for a compact shotgun that is lightweight and adaptable (albeit slightly impractical) investing in a Remington 870 Express TAC-14 20 Gauge Shotgun will make for an explosively good time. The 14” barrel gives you trenchcoat-length concealability, and while the TAC-14 requires a firm grip and practice to use effectively, it certainly has enough stopping power to do the job.

It’s also decidedly affordable, and despite its diminutive stature it’s not classified as a short barrel shotgun under the NFA, so you’ll stay in the good graces of the alphabet folks.

Semi Auto

semi-auto-shotgun
A semi-auto, gas-operated shotgun.

Semi-autos function a lot like a pump-action, without the pumping. The fired shell’s recoil energy or expelled gas drives the breech-bolt rearward, compressing a spring which shoves the bolt forward, loading the next shell. Ejection, feeding and chambering all occur in a matter of milliseconds.

Semis can be a little more finicky than pump actions, as the shells must provide enough oomph to power the action, which requires well thought-out design. Luckily the design has been in use for more than a century, so today’s systems are much more accommodating than initial designs.

If you are a competition shooter or avid small game hunter, you likely appreciate how a good semi-automatic shotgun can help . If you are looking for an extremely lightweight semi-auto 20-gauge shotgun, take a look at the Weatherby SA-08 Synthetic

Designed for smaller-framed shooters, the SA-08 is just under 6 lbs so you get an easy-to-carry package and that will maneuver through the toughest forest conditions. 

Over/Under & Side by Sides

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A black powder SxS shotgun

There are two other types of configurations that are worth mentioning; over/under and side-by-sides. Both are classic shotgun designs, wth many 20-gauge options available in both orientations. A pair of parallel barrels create these tried and true designs, with “double barrels” referring to both side-by-sides and the vertically-stacked over/under shottys.

Firing these shotguns can either be barrel-specific (each barrel fired independently, with their own lock and trigger) or sequentially via two pulls of a single trigger. In double trigger configurations the forward trigger fires the right barrel on a SxS, the lower barrel on a U/O.

If you are looking for a quality side-by-side shotgun that can serve a variety of needs, look no further than the Century Arms JW-2000 Coach Gun. Coach guns have been used since the 1800s to keep Wells Fargo coach bandits at bay, and the JW-200 will certainly be a conversation piece in the field. 

The short 20” barrel gives you near SBR-level maneuverability, but the double-barrel configuration ensures hard-hitting performance, classic design, and proven reliability.

Sources:

  1. Bottega Incisioni C. Giovanelli
  2. Benelli USA, ComforTech
  3. Benelli USA, Progressive Comfort
  4. YouTube, 3DGunner, 3D Animation: How a Pump-Action Shotgun works, November 6, 2020
  5. Popular Mechanics, Revival Of The Coach Gun, December 7, 2004

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