When it comes to shotgun sizes and game, there’s not a one does all best gauge. Let’s see how they measure up when you’re out in the field.
I’m quite fond of the smaller-gauge shotguns. Through the decades, I’ve hunted with a variety of both 20- and 28-gauges for quail and various types of partridge, grouse, and doves, and have had a lot of fun doing so. In those cases, a small-gauge shotgun can be a very viable alternative to the larger guns.
I also adore the little .410 but consider it to be a specialized weapon that is best suited for use on clay targets rather than for hunting. I have used a 16-gauge to a certain degree and find it thoroughly acceptable for upland bird hunting, but it does come with some baggage that I’ll discuss a little later on.
And on the far end of the spectrum is the big 10, which, like the .410, I believe to be a specialized weapon with very limited hunting potential.
And last in this impressive array of choices is the most popular of all gauges: the 12, which may be the most diverse when it comes to its hunting capabilities but may still not be the best choice for your particular hunting situation.
For the hunter looking to make the best possible decision on which shotgun gauge would be best for their particular application, it’s important to recognize that none are absolutely perfect in every way.
With each gauge, there are both positive and negative points that a wise procurer should carefully weigh. So, let’s now dive in a little deeper into each of these shotgun choices to see how they stack up.
The Pipsqueak Little .410
Unbeknownst to many shooters, the little .410 isn’t really a “gauge” at all. To be accurate in its terminology, it should be called a “410 bore.” The difference is that, in this case, the name reflects the actual bore diameter in inches (0.410-inch) while all of the other shotgun gauges are measured in a dramatically different manner.
As ironic as it might sound, the numbers corresponding to the other gauges are based on how many round lead balls of that particular bore diameter would be needed to make one pound. In other words, it takes 12 lead balls equal to the 0.725-inch diameter of a 12-gauge bore to weigh a pound.
Likewise, it takes 20 lead balls measuring 0.615-inch, which is the diameter of the 20-gauge bore, to equal one pound.
Initially, the length of the .410 shot shells was only two inches, but today both 21⁄2- and 3-inch shells are considered the norm. These typically contain shot charges, ranging from about 1⁄2-ounce in the 21⁄2-inch shells up to about 11⁄16-ounce in the 3-inch version.
As I mentioned earlier, I really do love shooting the little .410 for clay targets, but in my opinion, this bore should never be seriously considered as a viable option for bird hunting. Unfortunately, some people think it’s a good choice to start a young hunter out on, but I think it is akin to sending a child ocean fishing in an 8-foot skiff.
I suppose, in both of these cases, you could do that, but disaster will likely be the result.
A much better option for the youngster would be to start him off shooting a 20-gauge. In this case, very light loads could be shot, and then as the child grows in size and stamina, the potency of the loads could be increased.
Shooting a .410 would only limit the child’s ability to be successful—and it is extremely important for youngsters to experience success early on in whatever they are doing, or they may lose interest in that activity.
The 28-Gauge (My Favorite)
When it comes to hunting such species as doves, grouse, quail, and partridge, I advise using the 28-gauge. In these situations, the typical lightweight and quick handling of the 28 makes it ideal. I would draw the line, however, when it comes to using a shotgun in 28-gauge for pheasants.
Even though some 28-lovers will disagree with me, I don’t believe it’s well suited to tackle the tenacity of these typically hard-to-kill birds. Trying to do so simply wouldn’t be fair to the birds and would likely result in far too many being wounded and escaping.
Most hunters prefer shot sizes no smaller than #6s for use on pheasants, and many hunters even use shot as large as #4s. That being the case, there simply isn’t very many pieces of shot contained in the typical 3⁄4-ounce shot charge of the 28.
On the other hand, for the smaller game mentioned earlier shot sizes of #71⁄2s and even #8s can produce devastating results because of the denser shot patterns produced by, the smaller size shot.
The Popular 20-Gauge
I also have a lot of fond memories hunting with my 20-gauge shotguns. On numerous occasions, while hunting chukars, the performance of my little 20s raised eyebrows of my fellow hunters who were packing 12s.
In some cases, I pulled off shots that even astounded me, dropping several of the little gray speed demons before they could disappear out of sight in an adjacent canyon.
Obviously, the 20 falls short in the category of firepower when compared to its much larger cousin, the 12, but when hunting this size of the game, I personally feel it is perfectly matched. Like the 28, the 20 is favored for its speed and quickness in its handling abilities, and that provides an edge over the larger gauges.
The 20-gauge captured a great deal of attention around the early 1960s, when the 3-inch version first appeared on the scene. At that time, the 3-inch was frequently touted as being the equivalent in performance to the 23⁄4-inch 12-gauge, but if you look carefully at the performance data of these two shotgun gauges, you will find those claims to be unsupported.
The 12-gauge has about a quarter of an ounce greater shot capacity and a considerably greater potential for increased velocities over that of the 3-inch 20. And when a comparison is made between the 3-inch and the 23⁄4-inch 20-gauge, we find that the differences in performance to be only marginally better in the 3-inch.
That slight difference will cost you dearly when it comes to ammunition prices. The good news comes into play by the fact that a 3-inch chambered 20-gauge shotgun can also be used to fire the 23⁄4-inch shells. In my own case, I have owned an over-and-under 3-inch 20-gauge for many years, and I can’t think of a single time that I have shot a 3-inch shell in it.
I am perfectly happy with the astounding performance I receive with the 23⁄4-inch shells when they have properly loaded.
The Quickly-Becoming-Obsolete 16-Gauge
I must admit my own personal experience is a little light when it comes to the 16-gauge. Many years ago, when the movement requiring steel shot for use on waterfowl was in its infancy, there was a short period of time when you could still use lead shot on the National Wildlife Refuges if you were shooting any other gauge than a 12-gauge.
That inspired me to purchase a Browning “Sweet” 16″ A5 semi-automatic. Unfortunately, they changed the ruling shortly afterward, and that particular 16 never saw a single duck fall to its charms. I do have several bird-hunting friends who absolutely adore their 16s.
The obvious advantage over it and its closest competitor, the 12-gauge, is the size of the shotguns. Unfortunately, however, some manufacturers essentially opted to slap a 16-gauge barrel on the same frame they were using for their 12-gauges.
That being the case, there would be no advantage in using the 16. So, if you are considering the purchase of a 16-gauge, I would strongly recommend that you select a model that has been appropriately sized to its smaller bore.
The typical lead shot charge in the 16-gauge is 11⁄8 ounce, but frequently you will find loads with lighter shot charges, and occasionally I have seen some big 11⁄4 ounces. Mostly, though, as the shot charge increases, the velocities decrease to compensate for the potential of higher pressures, so it is a trade-off when it comes to the benefits and sacrifices of more shot.
Possibly the biggest obstacle in the 16’s popularity is the scarcity of the ammunition. Because it is one of the least popular shotgun gauges, the ammunition can frequently be difficult to find, and if you do locate a few boxes, your choices of loads and shot sizes will likely be extremely limited.
The Venerable 12
The 12-gauge is to bird hunters what the SUV is to family transportation, and as such, it is the most popular shotgun gauge of all time.
That favorability is largely supported by its potential diversity of use. While the 12 frequently isn’t my first choice when it comes to the smaller fowl species, it’s perfectly fine to use it for virtually any critter possessing feathers and, when loaded properly, even in some cases for deer and various other types of hairy game.
When I head out bird hunting for pheasants, I generally take along one of my 12-gauges. There is absolutely no better choice when it comes to turkeys, ducks, and geese. When the government proclaimed a moratorium on lead for waterfowl hunting, it only increased the popularity of the 12-gauge, and eventually, that led to the creation of the 31⁄2-inch 12-gauge. Clearly, the nontoxic varieties of shot pale in killing potential when compared to lead shot.
In this case, if I had to draw a comparison of the performance of steel versus lead shot, I would say a heavily loaded lead 23⁄4-inch shell would provide about the same level of killing potential as a 31⁄2-inch shell loaded with steel.
But if you have to resort to using those longer shells, you will be paying a premium for that pleasure, both in price and recoil. But, like the 20-gauge, you would still be able to shoot the shorter shells in that 31⁄2-inch chamber.
The Beefy 10-Gauge
I kind of relate the 10-gauge as a throwback to the era of the market hunters, when a heavy emphasis was placed on putting as much shot into the air as possible in the hope of quickly filling the boat with quackers.
In today’s world, however, I look at the 10 as being an example of too much of a good thing, and, as such, I can’t really envision any other place other than the goose pit where its use would be justifiable. And even then, if you are looking for that much more potential, the 31⁄2-inch 12-gauge could be a better and more versatile option.
Nevertheless, if you insist that a 10-gauge should be in your arsenal, you must recognize its limitations. The shotgun will likely be considerably heavier; it will likely probably kick like a blind mule; the shells will be notably more expensive and harder to find, and if you are lucky enough to find shells, the choices available to you will be minimal.
The Bottom Line
So, which shotgun gauge is best for you personally?
Only you can answer that question.
For me, however, I thoroughly enjoy owning a variety of different shotguns and gauges, and that allows me to select whichever one best fits my particular shooting needs on that occasion.
Some hunters, though, are looking for a single shotgun to serve all their hunting aspirations. In this case, the 12-gauge is probably the best answer. It clearly provides the most diversity of potential use, which is capable of being effective for waterfowl, yet it could double as a gun for upland birds or turkey hunting or for taking an occasional dove.
For the larger species, it would nice if the shotgun had at least a 3-inch chamber, but for the other applications, a 23⁄4-inch would perform perfectly well, and the cost of the ammo will be much more affordable.
If you have no desire to hunt the larger species of birds, I would encourage you to look closely at the advantages inherent in a little 20- or 28-gauge.
Suggested prepping learning: