The 20 Gauge Can Get It Done
by Tom Roster
Why are more and more shooters going to the 20 gauge in 12-ga. sporting clays events? Simple: because it works. The thinking and ballistics performance issues behind the decision to use the 20 gauge in 12-ga. events, however, are not immediately obvious. So let’s think our way through this reasoning.
Fact: More and more sporting clays shooters are realizing that they can save money on ammunition costs and experi- ence less recoil shooting no more than 7/8 oz. of lead shot at most sporting clays stations on most courses. Many of them, however, shoot best with their 12-ga. guns and so naturally want to use the 12 gauge whenever possible.
Before going further, let’s stop and figure out why many shooters discover over time that they shoot their 12-ga. guns the best. Some, in my opinion, jump to the incorrect conclu- sion that the reason lies in the 12 holding more shot than their smaller gauges. I assure you such reasoning is faulty. If you set up a clay target breaking test that removes shooter error (which I have done) at 30 yards to test the effectiveness of 11/8- , 1- , 7/8- , and 3/4-oz. lead loads of No. 71/2s or 8s for breaking clays, here’s what you’ll find. Regardless of gauge, and given equal velocity levels and choke effect among loads, whether using 71/2s or 8s, you will not measure one target difference in clays broken per 100 birds (50 crossers and 50 overheads/away) between lead loads weighing 11/8 vs. 1 vs. 7/8 oz. For the 3/4-oz. load, however, you will obtain a slightly higher score with 8s vs. 71/2s, and you will usually measure one or two targets less broken per 100 versus the three heavier loads.
So the reason shooters do better with their 12-ga. guns at 30 yards or less doesn’t really have much to do with the lead load chosen. The answer lies with the gun itself. Among shotguns, 12-ga. guns tend to be heavier, with meatier fore- ends and thicker grips than smaller-gauge guns. There’s also an accentuated pistol grip on many 12-ga. sporting guns these days, which is designed to increase the shooter’s grip and control of the gun and recoil even more. All of this makes for a better-swinging, smoother gun in 12 gauge than most smaller-gauge guns.
“The simple lack of readily available 7/8-oz., 12-ga. lead target loads in No. 71/2s or 8s from US manufacturers has chased many thinking shotgunners to shooting 20-ga. barrels on 12-ga. frames.”
The idea gun manufacturers worldwide have operated under for many decades, it seems, is that the purpose of gauges smaller than 12 is to produce a lighter gun. They have done so by making 20- and 28-ga. and .410-bore shotguns with narrower, less meaty fore-ends and skinnier pistol grips as well as smaller frames when compared to 12-ga. guns. Using these means, it’s possible to produce 61/4- to 7-lb. sub- gauge shotguns with or without 30” barrel lengths for over- unders and side-by-sides that are becoming increasingly popular. Such guns are great when having to tromp miles through the uplands for shots at pheasant, quail, or chukar or forests for ruffed grouse and woodcock.
But there’s a problem. When trying to shoot such guns at long crossers and overhead shots that predominate in water- fowl hunting and similar types of shots on sporting clays courses, few seem to be able to shoot sub-gauge guns as well as they can their 12s. The reason lies first in gun weight. A 7- lb. or lighter shotgun, regardless of gauge, recoils noticeably more than a heavier gun. What is more, it is just not as smooth a swinging nor as easily controllable firearm as an 8- lb. shotgun. Numerous are the times shooters swinging up on high overhead or long crossing shots with light shotguns find themselves uncontrollably out in front of the target— spelled missing. I know it happens to me and to every other really good sporting clays shooter or waterfowl hunter I’ve ever known (and I know and have shot with one heckuva lot of them).
Which brings us back to shoot- ing the 20 gauge in 12-ga. events. If 20 gauge and other sub-bore shot- guns are harder to shoot well because of the aforementioned lighter and whippier tenden- cies and increased recoil, why would anyone want to shoot a 20 in a 12-ga. event?
At the expense of reiteration, the reason again has to do with the desire to shoot lighter loads to reduce recoil and save on ammunition expense. That’s a good goal—ammunition- wise. But now the trick is to do it in a gun that you can shoot as well as your 12 gauge. Here’s how it’s being done.
Shotgunners wanting to shoot 20-ga. ammunition contain- ing 7/8 oz. lead shot charge weights at sporting clays stations featuring targets at less than 40 yards—or light nontoxic shot loads for general waterfowl hunting over decoys—tend to gravitate to one of two 20-ga. gun options. They either shoot 20-ga. guns with 30” or longer barrels built on a 12-ga. frame or have a 30” or longer 20-ga. barrel set made for their 12-ga. gun. The latter is the option I have personally gone to, as have many other excellent sporting clays shooters I know.
Now if you’re following all this, the question logically arises: Why mess with the 20 gauge at all and just simply shoot 7/8- oz. loads in the 12 gauge? The reason for US shooters is that currently, 7/8-oz., 12-ga. lead target loads at 1,200-1,275 fps just aren’t widely available from US shotshell manufacturers. With the exception of Fiocchi’s 12-ga., 7/8-oz., 1200-fps “trainer” load of 71/2s or 8s (stock #12780Z), a careful peruser of US shotshell manufacturers’ catalogs reveals that they con- tinue to either ignore completely loading 7/8-oz., 12-ga. lead loads or they treat them as two disparate specialty loads. That is, their 7/8-oz., 12-ga. shells are either 24-gram “international” loads at screamer velocities over 1,300 fps or they take the op- posite tack and offer 7/8-oz., 12-ga. loads at 1,100 fps or so ve- locities expressly for greatly reduced recoil. Other than Fiocchi, in other words, you just can’t find a decent, US-made, 7/8-oz., 12-ga. load of 71/2s or 8s at 1,200-1,275 fps.
What’s wrong with international 7/8-oz., 12-ga. loads at 1,325 fps or faster? In a word, recoil, which defeats one of the purposes of going to the 7/8-oz. load to begin with. It’s simply a heckuva lot more pleasant to shoot a 7/8-oz. load at 1,200- 1,275 fps than at 1,300-1,350 fps.
So, the simple lack of readily available—and what should also be more inexpensively priced—7/8-oz., 12-ga. lead target loads in No. 71/2s or 8s from US manufacturers has chased many thinking shotgunners to shooting 20-ga. barrels on 12- ga. frames. They then have in hand a nice-swinging, recoil-ab- sorbing, 73/4- to 8-lb. or so gun shooting a 7/8-oz., 1,200- to 1,275-fps load of 71/2s or 8s. Maybe one of these days, more US shell makers will start producing 7/8-oz., 12-ga. lead target loads with these specifications. Time will tell.
Fiocchi’s 12-ga., 7/8-oz. load at 1,200 fps lets shotgunners break clays comfortably,
efficiently, and economi- cally with 20-ga. ballistics though their 12-ga. sporting shotguns.