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Have Fun With a Twenty Gauge Gun

by Ed Migale

They say you never forget your first love.

And even if you do, maybe you can be forgiven IF you eventually remember.

Which is how I might find salvation because after years of absence, I’d truly forgotten just how much fun it is to shoot the twelve gauge’s little brother, the twenty gauge.

A 12th birthday gift from my grandfather, a twenty gauge shotgun – in the form of a gas-operated, lightweight Remington 1100 autoloader – was my very first firearm, and did I love that gun! It was my cherished and exclusive partner on every hunting trip for the next seven years, helping me bag ducks, pheasants and rabbits whenever school and sports allowed. And I never felt undergunned on the small, brackish water duck club grandpa belonged to in the Napa marshes on the edge of San Pablo Bay.

But when my grandfather passed away and I joined a duck club in the Central Valley, a twelve gauge 3-inch magnum was in order; after all I was 19 and old enough to handle the 12!

Over the years, the 12 bore saw more and more time afield with the 20 relegated mainly to upland jaunts. But about three years ago, another gift from a family member –my youngest brother, Pete – put a new 20 gauge in my hands.

This trim Italian beauty, a Beretta 3901 autoloader, has rekindled that old love affair with the 20. Oh, I still use the 12 on almost all of my waterfowl hunts, but the 20 has become my go-to gun for skeet, sporting clays, doves, chukar and pheasant. Here’s why I like the 20:

  • Light recoil – The older I get, the more I like it … less recoil, that is. With less ejecta per load than comparable 12 gauge offerings, a comparably weighted twenty of the same action type just kicks less. Period.
  • Less weight – Slimmer and trimmer – the little gun’s bore measures just .615 of an inch compared to .729 for the 12 gauge -- the 20 can be a joy to carry afield. So much so that it’s my gun of choice when long hikes are in order to find wily rooster pheasants and high-desert dwelling chukar.
  • Versatility – If you’ve only seen factory loaded options, you might think that all you can feed 2 3/4” chambered 20’s are a skimpy assortment of 7/8 to 1 ounce lead loads and a few paltry offerings of ¾ ounce steel loads. And that’s exactly why you should handload for the 20! Lead handloads range from just ½ of an ounce to 1 1/8 “baby” magnums. And they work, no matter which end of the spectrum they’re matched to. A few years ago my wife, Crystal, was having some work-related neck pain. To help lessen the recoil for her sporting clays and dove shooting, I decided to load her some very light ¾ ounce loads for her side-by-side 20 bore. Propelled with Hodgdon Powder Co’s “International Clays” powder, these loads are so light they barely worked the action of my gas operated repeater. But in the S X S they were pure pleasure.
  • Economical – With lead prices through the roof, those ¾ ounce loads looked mighty appealing for my skeet and sporting clays, too. Another recipe with IMR “PB” powder increased operating pressures enough to work the action flawlessly. These loads crush targets while saving 3 ounces of lead per box ... with less recoil than 7/8 ounce loads!
  • Kid friendly – Let’s see: It weighs less, has slimmer dimensions, takes well to light loads and costs less to shoot. Sounds like the perfect choice for youngsters, doesn’t it? Maybe grandpa was on to something. (The 20 might be just right for wives and gettingmore- than-a-little-gray 50-plus guys like you-know-who, too!)
  • Challenging – No doubt about it: Throwing less shot out of a smaller bore has its disadvantages. Unless, of course, you like to challenge yourself. I do and while it took some time to get my sporting clays scores back up on par with the 12 gauge, I now feel more than confident with the 20. And as confidence on the target range translates to success in the field, I never consider myself under-gunned with the twenty.

It also feels good to rekindle that old flame. Grandpa, I’m sure, is pleased.

SIDEBAR: Loading for the Twenty

I bought my first loading press – a MEC 600Jr. in 20 gauge -- at age 15 for $39. In the 35 years since, I’ve lost count how many rounds I’ve loaded on that machine, which still operates perfectly. The only upgrade I’ve added to the 20 gauge work area on my loading bench is a MEC Super Sizer, which uses a collet system to re-size the brass section of fired hulls back to factory dimensions. So, for a total outlay of $115 on machinery, I’d guesstimate that I’ve saved thousands of dollars in ammunition expenses over the years.

Add to that figure the benefit of versatility associated with handloading for the 20 such as the ability to load shot sizes not readily available in factory offerings. Take # 7’s for example, which fill the gap between # 7 ½’s and # 6’s. One ounce of # 7’s makes a great long-range dove load in the twenty.

Want to use the 20 for waterfowl? Go ahead; my wife has used her S X S with 2 ¾ inch ¾ ounce loads of #3 steel for years to take everything from greenwing teal to Canada geese. But it can be difficult to find factory ammo with #3 steel, which has just the right mix of penetration to pattern density in the ¾ ounce loads.

Are tough upland game birds on your quest list? Load nickel plated shot when after pheasants, chukar, even turkeys, and you won’t be disappointed.

20 Gauge Handloading Sources

  • Alliant Powder Company – Shotgun powders including the new clean burning “20/28” propellant. www.alliantpowder.com
  • Ballistic Products -- Handloading components, tools, and manuals. www.ballisticproducts.com
  • Hodgdon Powder Company – Shotgun powders under the Hodgdon, IMR, and Winchester brands. www.hodgdon.com
  • Mayville Engineering Company – MEC handloading presses. www.mecreloaders.com
  • Precision Reloading, Inc – Handloading components, tools and manuals. www.precisionreloading.com
  • RCBS – Handloading presses and the new “RCBS Handbook of Shotshell Reloading”. www.rcbs.com
  • Reloading Specialties, Inc. – Steel shot handloading components and manuals. Available through Bucks Run sports Supply, Inc. www.bucksrunsports.com

Ed Migale Articles

While big game, waterfowl, and upland game bird hunting, as well as saltwater fishing for the past two decades Ed Migale has had hundreds of articles published in national and regional publications and has received numerous writing awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of California. Ed has hunted and fished for over 40 years throughout California, as well as in five western states, three Canadian provinces, and in both mainland Mexico and the Baja Peninsula. In March of 2011 he called in and killed an Osceola gobbler in central Flroida, thus completing a ten-year quest to bag all five subspeciies of the wild turkey in North America — the "Royal Slam."

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