12 Gauge vs. 20 Gauge: Hunting, Home Defense, and More

12 Gauge vs. 20 Gauge: Hunting, Home Defense, and More

12 Gauge vs. 20 Gauge: Hunting, Home Defense, and More

One of the best parts about a shotgun is its versatility. You can choose from a range of different barrel lengths, gauges, and chokes. Not to mention shot sizes and deciding between high and low brass. All these choices give the user the ability to use one shotgun for a wide variety of purposes: hunting, home defense, sporting, and more.

All this variety can be overwhelming. We’ve decided to focus on one aspect of shotgun choice: the gauge, or shell size. We’ve narrowed it down to the two most popular gauges for shotguns: 12 gauge and 20 gauge.

We’ll go over the differences in their ammo and performance. Then we’ll explore their applications, like sporting clays, waterfowl hunting, and home defense. All in the quest to answer the question: is one really better than the other?

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How Gauge is Determined

Before we get into specifics, it’s important to understand the most basic of differences between 12 gauge and 20 gauge shotgun shells. For the uninitiated, you might assume that 20 gauge is the bigger of the two, but it’s not.

With shotshells, the smaller the number, the bigger the diameter (or gauge) of the shotgun’s bore. This all has to do with weight. In a 12 gauge shell, it will take 12 spherical balls (or shot or pellets or projectiles) of equal size and weight, to equal one pound of shot. In a 20 gauge, it will take 20 balls of equal size and weight to equal one pound of shot.

Because the individual pieces contained within a shotshell are bigger in a 12 gauge than in a 20 gauge, 12 is bigger than 20.

Differences Between 12 Gauge and 20 Gauge Ammunition

Aside from the size difference, there are a lot of other differences between 12 and 20 gauge shotgun ammo. We’ll take a look at cost, recoil, performance, and uses to help you determine which one might better suit your needs.


With the recent surge in gun sales, ammo prices have risen sharply over the past year. While there’s no way of knowing what prices will be in 3, 6, or 12 months, there’s still one constant. When it comes to the cost of 12 versus 20 gauge ammo, 12 gauge shotgun shells will usually be cheaper.

On average, a 12 gauge will be cheaper, but there may be special 12 gauge shells that cost more. If this is confusing, think about car brands as an example. Think of an SUV as a 20 gauge, while a compact car is a 12 gauge. An SUV will almost always be more expensive than a compact car, but a BMW car will be more expensive than a Kia SUV.

Except unlike buying a car, the difference in price between a 12 and 20 gauge shot won’t be by a lot. Often, it’s only a few cents per round. But cents turn into dollars, and dollars add up, so it’s worth pointing out.


This one’s a bit of a no-brainer. A 12 gauge shotgun fires a bigger cartridge than a 20 gauge shotgun. So you will experience more recoil out of the 12 than the 20.

Regardless of gauge, recoil can still be problematic. It can lead to shooting fewer rounds in a given range trip. It can even put off shooting until you’re “up to” dealing with the recoil.

This is where we can talk about the many benefits of a silencer. Not only do suppressors make your shotgun quieter, but they also help mitigate recoil. Less punch in the shoulder makes for a more pleasant shooting experience no matter the gauge – period!

Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of options on the market for shotgun suppressors. Some examples include the XCaliber SS1C (in both 12 and 20 gauge) or the SilencerCo Salvo 12 (in 12 gauge only). Give us a call or email and we can help you pick the right one.


Because a 12 gauge shotgun shell has more volume than a 20 gauge shotgun shell, it fits more powder and bigger projectiles. This means you will get a harder-hitting shot at a greater effective distance with a 12 gauge than you will with a 20 gauge. In this scenario, a 12 gauge shotgun will have better overall performance than a 20 gauge.

However, packing a punch at a long-range might not be why you’re using the shotgun. You might be using it in an instance where distance isn’t quite as important and stopping power is of less concern. In a scenario like this, you might get better performance from a 20 gauge shotgun.

Performance is subjective and it has a lot of variables, which leads us to our next topic: applications.


As we’ve already mentioned, you need to know what you’ll be using the shotgun for to determine which gauge is best for you. Because of this, there may or may not be some crossover. This means there’s good news and bad news. The bad news: you might need to buy more than one shotgun. The good news: you might need to buy more than one shotgun.

12 Gauge vs. 20 Gauge for Hunting

The type of game you’re hunting will help determine the size shotgun you’ll want to use. This is the same as it is with handgun or rifle hunting. You wouldn’t hunt elk with .22LR and you wouldn’t hunt squirrels with .45-70. We’ll look at situations where 12 might be better than 20, or the other way around.

At the end of the day, the goal is an ethical and humane hunt. Choose appropriately and responsibly.

Upland Hunting

Pheasants and other upland game birds aren’t exactly big creatures. As a result, you’ll probably want to use a 20 gauge for this kind of hunt. While you certainly can hunt these smaller birds with a 12 gauge, you’re really bringing more gun than you need. You’re increasing the chances of destroying the meat you’re trying to harvest.

Waterfowl Hunting

On the other hand, birds like geese are much bigger than woodcock, and you’re probably going to want a bit more power behind your shot. So, you’ll probably want to use a 12 gauge shotgun with you to the duck blind. Again, you can use a 20 gauge shotgun here, but you’re putting yourself at needless a disadvantage. Plus, with the reduced energy of a 20 gauge versus a 12 gauge, you run a higher risk of wounding the animal instead of harvesting it.

12 Gauge vs. 20 Gauge for Sporting Clays

Generally speaking, 12 gauge shotguns are the most popular for use in sporting clays. However, there are plenty of people who play the game with a 20 gauge shotgun, too.

A lot of it really comes down to personal preference and situation. You might only own one shotgun and it’s a 12 gauge. Or, maybe you prefer the softer recoil of a 20 gauge. Some prefer a smaller gauge because it adds an extra layer of challenge to the game. Whichever you choose, they’ll both get the job done quite well.

12 Gauge vs. 20 Gauge for Home Defense

This is, by far, the most complex topic on the list when trying to determine what gauge shotgun to use. First off, let’s assume that you’ve evaluated your situation and have determined that a shotgun is best for your personal home defense needs (versus a handgun or a rifle).

You want to be absolutely sure that you can handle the gun safely and effectively. When it comes to protecting yourself and your loved ones, the gun is of little consequence if you cannot use it properly to defend your household. As such, the answer to 12 gauge or 20 gauge for home defense might actually be “both.”

Hear me out: A 6’ 1” man weighing 225 pounds will likely be able to handle the recoil and overall weight of a 12 gauge shotgun better than a 5’ 4” woman weighing 115 pounds. This means you might be in the market for “his and hers” home defense shotguns.

This is an application where “one size fits all” most definitely does not apply. If a 12 gauge for home defense works for you, great; if a 20 gauge for home defense works for you, that’s great, too.

Is One Really Better than the Other?

Is a 12 gauge better than a 20 gauge, or is a 20 gauge better than a 12 gauge? That’s a tough question to answer. The short answer is “yes” with an “if,” and the long answer is “no” with a “but.”

Whether you decide to go with 12 or 20, or one (or more!) of each, one thing is certain across the board: a suppressed shotgun is better than an unsuppressed shotgun.

Suppressors help reduce both noise and felt recoil. Whether you’re hunting, busting clays, or defending your home, those reductions can be very beneficial. Once you decide on a gun, let us help you get squared away with a suppressor for it.

Our experts are ready to help you by phone or email, Monday through Saturday from 8:00 am – 8:00 pm (CT).

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