Shotguns are popular firearms used for hunting a wide variety of game, including birds, rabbits, squirrels, and larger animals like deer and bear. One of the key factors to consider when choosing a shotgun for hunting is the gauge, which refers to the diameter of the gun’s barrel. The most common shotgun gauges are 12-gauge, 20-gauge, and 410-gauge, but there are several others as well, including 16-gauge and 28-gauge.
I have a strong affinity for smaller-gauge shotguns, having used both 20 and 28-gauges for hunting quail, partridge, grouse, and doves throughout the years. These guns provide a fun and effective alternative to their larger counterparts.
While I also have a soft spot for the .410, I believe it is best used for clay shooting rather than hunting. I have used a 16-gauge for upland bird hunting and find it to be satisfactory, but it does have some drawbacks, which I’ll discuss later.
On the other end of the spectrum is the 10-gauge, which I consider to be a specialized weapon with limited hunting potential, similar to the .410. Finally, the 12-gauge is the most popular of all the gauges and offers the most versatility in terms of hunting capabilities, although it may not always be the ideal choice.
It’s essential for hunters to recognize that there is no perfect shotgun gauge for every situation. Each option has its own set of pros and cons that should be carefully considered before making a decision. Let’s delve deeper into each of these gauges to examine their strengths and weaknesses.
The little .410
Many shooters may not realize that the little .410 is not technically a “gauge” at all, but rather a “410 bore” – a name that accurately reflects its bore diameter of 0.410 inches. In contrast, all other shotgun gauges are measured differently.
The number associated with each gauge is determined by the number of round lead balls of that gauge’s bore diameter required to make one pound. For example, it takes 12 lead balls measuring 0.725 inches in diameter to weigh one pound, which corresponds to the 12-gauge.
Initially, .410 shotshells were only 2 inches in length, but today, 2.5- and 3-inch shells are standard. These shells contain shot charges ranging from about 1/2-ounce in the 2.5-inch shells to about 11/16-ounce in the 3-inch version.
While I enjoy shooting the .410 for clay targets, I do not consider it a viable option for bird hunting. It is not a good choice to start a young hunter on, as it may limit their ability to succeed and possibly cause them to lose interest in the activity. Instead, a much better option would be to start with a 20-gauge, using light loads that can be gradually increased as the young hunter grows in size and stamina.
The 28-Gauge (My Favorite)
When pursuing doves, grouse, quail, and partridge, I highly recommend utilizing a 28-bore shotgun due to its light weight and nimble handling. However, I do caution against using a 28-gauge for pheasant hunting.
While some 28 enthusiasts may disagree, I believe that it is not suitable for handling the tenacity of these notoriously difficult-to-kill birds. Attempting to do so would be unfair to the birds and would likely result in many of them being wounded and escaping.
Most hunters prefer shot sizes no smaller than #6 when hunting pheasants, with many even using shot as large as #4. Unfortunately, there aren’t many pellets in the typical 3/4-ounce shot charge of a 28-gauge. Conversely, for the smaller game mentioned earlier, shot sizes of #7 1/2 and even #8 can produce devastating results due to the denser shot patterns created by smaller pellets.
The Popular 20-Gauge
I have many cherished memories of hunting with my 20-gauge shotguns. While hunting chukars, my little 20s have amazed my fellow hunters who were carrying 12s. On several occasions, I managed to take down multiple speedy chukars with shots that even impressed me.
Although it may lack the firepower of the 12-gauge, I feel the 20-gauge is perfectly suited for this type of game. Its speed and quick handling abilities, like the 28-gauge, provide an advantage over the larger gauges.
The 20-gauge gained popularity around the early 1960s with the introduction of the 3-inch version. It was often promoted as performing similarly to the 2 3/4-inch 12-gauge, but performance data does not support these claims. The 12-gauge has a slightly larger shot capacity and much greater potential for increased velocities over the 3-inch 20.
Moreover, the difference between the 3-inch and 2 3/4-inch 20-gauge in performance is only marginally better for the 3-inch. And the cost of the 3-inch ammunition is considerably higher than the 2 3/4-inch.
However, the good news is that a 3-inch chambered 20-gauge shotgun can fire 2 3/4-inch shells as well. I have owned an over-and-under 3-inch 20-gauge for many years, and I have never felt the need to shoot a 3-inch shell. The performance of the 2 3/4-inch shells is exceptional when loaded properly.
The 16-gauge which is rapidly becoming obsolete
Admittedly, my personal experience with the 16-gauge is limited. Many years ago, during the early stages of the requirement for steel shot when waterfowl hunting, I purchased a Browning “Sweet 16” A5 semi-automatic shotgun. At that time, it was allowed to use lead shot on National Wildlife Refuges if you were using any gauge other than a 12.
However, shortly after my purchase, the regulations changed, and my 16-gauge never got to demonstrate its effectiveness on ducks. Despite my limited experience, I do know some bird hunters who swear by their 16s.
The primary advantage of the 16 over its closest competitor, the 12-gauge, is its smaller size. However, some manufacturers just put a 16-gauge barrel on the same frame they used for their 12-gauges, rendering the 16 pointless.
So, when purchasing a 16-gauge, it is important to choose a model that is appropriately sized for its smaller bore. The typical lead shot charge for the 16-gauge is 11/8 ounces, although lighter shot charges are available, and occasionally larger 11/4-ounce loads can be found. As the shot charge increases, however, the velocities decrease to compensate for the potential of higher pressures, making it a trade-off between more shot and benefits and sacrifices.
The 16’s scarcity of ammunition is perhaps its most significant obstacle to popularity. Because it is one of the least popular shotgun gauges, ammunition can be challenging to locate, and if you do find a few boxes, the choice of loads and shot sizes will likely be severely limited.
The Venerable 12
The popularity of the 12-gauge shotgun among bird hunters is comparable to that of SUVs among families. It is the most widely used shotgun gauge of all time, owing to its versatility. Although I tend to avoid using it for smaller game, it is an excellent choice for birds of all kinds and, when loaded correctly, can even be used for hairy game and deer in certain situations.
When I go pheasant hunting, I usually bring one of my 12-gauges along. For turkeys, ducks, and geese, there is simply no better option. When the government banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting, it only increased the popularity of the 12-gauge, leading eventually to the development of the 31⁄2-inch 12-gauge.
Undoubtedly, non-toxic shot options such as steel pale in comparison to lead shot in terms of killing potential. If I had to compare the performance of steel versus lead shot, I would say that a heavily loaded lead 23⁄4-inch shell provides roughly the same level of killing potential as a 31⁄2-inch shell loaded with steel.
However, if you have to use those longer shells, you will pay a premium for that pleasure, both in terms of price and recoil. Like the 20-gauge, though, a 31⁄2-inch chamber can still fire the shorter shells.
The Beefy 10-Gauge
However, in today’s world, I see the 10-gauge as an example of excess, and I can hardly imagine any practical use for it besides hunting geese in a blind. Even then, if you are seeking higher potential, the 3.5-inch 12-gauge might be a more versatile option.
If you still insist on having a 10-gauge in your collection, it’s important to acknowledge its limitations. The shotgun is likely to be significantly heavier and kick with tremendous force, and the shells will be both expensive and difficult to find. Even if you are fortunate enough to come across shells, you will have limited options available to you.
The Bottom Line
Determining the ideal shotgun gauge for oneself is a personal decision that depends on individual shooting requirements. Personally, I take pleasure in owning various shotguns with different gauges, allowing me to choose the most suitable one for each shooting scenario. However, some hunters prefer to have a single shotgun that caters to all their hunting needs.
In such a case, the 12-gauge is likely the best option. It offers exceptional versatility and can effectively hunt waterfowl, upland birds, turkeys, or even doves. For larger game, a 3-inch chamber would be ideal, but a 23⁄4-inch chamber would suffice for other uses and be more affordable. If hunting larger birds is not your preference, you may want to consider the benefits of a smaller 20- or 28-gauge shotgun.
Suggested resources for preppers: