While big-bore 12-gauges will always dominate the waterfowling world, there are several advantages to downsizing to a 20-gauge, at least for ducks. I say ducks, because the 20-gauge has limited applications on geese, mostly due to a shortage of suitable goose ammo. The largest nontoxic shot size usually offered in 20-gauge is No. 2s (although a few rare loads have No. 1s), with 3-inch payloads seldom exceeding 1¼ ounce. That limits the 20-gauge to all but decoying shots at honkers.
For ducks, though, the 20-gauge is nearly perfect, especially in the early season when smaller, fast-flying ducks, like teal, are numerous and before the regular goose season has begun. The 20-gauge shotguns are light, usually weighing one or even two pounds less than their 12-gauge counterparts. A lighter shotgun swings quicker and is easier to pack into hidden public land hotspots along with a bag of decoys.
Likewise, women, youth and even older hunters are discovering that a lightweight 20-gauge often fits their needs better than a heavy 12-gauge. It’s easier to shoulder and kicks less, especially if shooting a small-bore semi-auto. Felt recoil in a gas-operated 20-gauge is negligible, even with 3-inch loads, although it’s not too bad in other action types either. Plus, if you’re going to hit the surrounding uplands for pheasants after a morning duck shoot, the 20-gauge is a lot more pleasant to carry.
There are a surprising number of suitable 20-gauge scatterguns and shotshells available for duck hunting. Here are a few of them.
Most notable in the shotgun department is Benelli’s new 20-gauge M2 Performance Shop Waterfowl Edition. This tricked-out small-bore M2 weighs just 5.9 pounds and features numerous enhancements performed by esteemed gunsmith Rob Roberts. These include a polished and honed inertia driven operating system for improved cycling, a crisp, tuned trigger for faster follow-up shots, and an enlarged bolt handle and bolt release button for easier use with gloves.
Roberts gave the M2’s 28-inch barrel a complete makeover. The forcing cone is lengthened and polished for more uniform patterns and less felt recoil. Up front, there’s a HIVIZ fiber-optic sight with interchangeable light pipes. Finally, a set of Roberts’ excellent Triple Threat waterfowl chokes provide optimal patterns at close, medium and long ranges. The whole gun is covered in new Realtree Max-5 camo.
Less flashy yet more affordable 20-gauge, inertia-operated semi-autos can be found in Franchi’s Affinity and Stoeger’s M3020. Both weigh only 5.6 pounds with 26-inch barrels. Finishes include black synthetic or Max-5 camo. Compact versions of both are also offered.
Winchester’s SX3 in 20-gauge is a real gem among small-bore semi-autos. Its soft-shooting Active Valve gas system tames what little sting the 20-gauge has, making it a perfect choice for recoil-sensitive shooters. The SX3 is available in wood, black synthetic and Mossy Oak’s waterfowl-worthy Shadow Grass Blades and new Break-Up Country camo patterns. It comes with 26- or 28-inch barrels and weighs around 6.5 to 6.75 pounds, depending on the model.
My 78-year-old father has a 20-gauge SX3 that he shoots at everything from doves and ducks to grouse, and this spring he’s taking it turkey hunting. He often hits better with it than he does with a 12-gauge, thanks to the SX3’s light weight and low recoil. Dad’s gun impressed me so much that I recently bought a 20-gauge SX3 for my wife to use on doves. At least that’s the excuse I gave her to justify the purchase. In reality, I plan to frequently sneak it to the marsh and use it myself on early-season ducks.
There are also plenty of tough 20-gauge pumps out there, such as Stevens’ 320. With its rugged, black synthetic stock, the 320 weighs 7.25 pounds with a 26-inch barrel. This year, Winchester introduced a 20-gauge SXP. It comes in either wood or black synthetic, with 26- or 28-inch barrels, and weighs between 6.5 and 6.75 pounds, depending on the model.
Benelli’s 20-gauge Nova has a corrosion-resistant, polymer-encased receiver that’s integrated into the stock. It’s available in black synthetic or camo, with either a 24- or 26-inch barrel at 6.5 and 6.6 pounds, respectively. I have a tough little 20-gauge Nova I’ve used with great success on teal.
It should be noted that all three of these pumps have lengthened forearms that extend back to the receiver for a more ergonomic grip, and safeties located in front of the trigger.
There are also plenty of nontoxic 20-gauge duck loads to select from. Environ-Metal makes several top picks, all in 3-inch 20-gauge with 1-ounce payloads. Hevi-Metal comes in shot sizes 2, 3 and 4 at 1,350 fps, while Speed Ball has No. 3s and 5s at 1,400 fps, each with a 50/50 payload of Hevi-Shot and steel pellets. Environ-Metal’s new all-steel product, Hevi-Steel, is available in 20-gauge with No. 1s, 2s or 3s at 1,400 fps.
Spectra Shot’s lone 3-inch 20-gauge offering has 1 ounce of steel 4s at 1,350 fps. However, it’s available in four different shot colors — orange, yellow, blue and green — to help settle blind debates over who shot what. That nontoxic color coating also helps make Spectra Shot just a little denser than regular steel.
Kent has one 3-inch 20-gauge Fasteel load with 7/8 ounce of 2s, 3s or 4s at a speedy 1,550 fps, and two 20-gauge Tungsten Matrix loads: 3-inch, 1 1/8-ounce 3s or 5s at 1,360 fps; and 2¾-inch, 1-ounce 5s or 6s at 1,350 fps.
Federal Black Cloud and Close Range are available in 3-inch 20-gauge with 1 ounce of 2s or 4s at 1,350 fps. Speed-Shok comes in 3-inch with 7/8-ounce of 1s, 2s, 3s,or 4s, or 2 ¾-inch with ¾-ounce of 4s, 6s or 7s.
Likewise, several 20-gauge steel offerings are available in Winchester’s Blind Side, Drylok and Xpert lines, as well as Remington’s HyperSonic, Nitro-Steel and Sportsman Steel lines.
Whichever shotgun or ammo you choose to shoot, rest assured the diminutive 20-gauge won’t disappoint on ducks.