Likewise, many parents are unwilling to subject young hunters to the same abuse. A scaled-down 20 gauge fits young shooters better than a bigger, heavier 12 gauge, and the lighter recoil engenders better shooting habits. I introduced my pre-teen son to duck hunting with a youth model Remington Model 870. He learned to take only responsible shots at responsible distances, and he was proficient. When he was big enough to scale up to a 12-gauge, he declined. He was perfectly happy with his 20 gauge.
Joe Morgan, 75, of Little Rock, Arkansas serves on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He hunts in the flooded timber in southeast Arkansas near the famous Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, and he has used only a 20 gauge for 30 years.
“If I’d had any sense, I wouldn’t have used a 12 before that,” Morgan said.
And that’s because flooded timber, if uncrowded, is an ideal venue for a 20-gauge.
“When I was hunting in Bayou Meto 25 to 30 years ago, it was a different world,” Morgan said. “You didn’t have a gun behind every tree, and you could bring ducks in. Twenty-five yards was a long shot. You didn’t need the extra horsepower. The guns were lighter and easier to handle. They were easier on the cheek and shoulder.”
By the early 2000s, steel shot marginalized the 20 gauge for duck hunting, which was becoming an increasingly long-range exercise thanks to the increasing popularity of the 3½-inch, 12-gauge super magnums. Improved steel shot, along with non-toxic steel alternatives, performs on par with many 12-gauge waterfowl loads. Tungsten alloys and Hevi-Shot are comparably lethal to lead shot, making the 3-inch 20 gauge favorably comparable to the 3-inch 12 gauge.
Even so, modern steel shot loads are plenty sufficient for shooting ducks in flooded timber. Morgan uses 3-inch Winchester Blind Side with 11/16 ounce of No. 5 pellets.
“A 20-gauge gun will kill ducks as well as a 12,” Morgan said. “The only difference is the number of pellets. The velocity of a 12 and 20 gauge, there’s not enough difference to talk about. Most of the ducks you shoot in timber are coming right to you. You don’t have to lead them much. If you’re a relatively decent shooter, a 20 gauge is all the gun you need.”
Morgan says he stands about 5-feet, 11 inches. He wears a 34-inch sleeve, so he said he likes a gun with a length of pull of about 14¼ to 14½ inches. He says the Beretta A400 fits him perfectly.
“A gun has got to fit you. If it doesn’t fit you, you won’t shoot it well,” Morgan said. “I like the way the Beretta sets up for me, and it is a gas operated gun. It has a lot less recoil. Not that a 20 gauge is going to beat you up anyhow, but I just prefer Beretta.”
I stand 5 feet, 6 inches. The 20-gauge guns that fit me perfectly out of the box are the Winchester SX3, the Remington 870, Remington 1100 and 11-87. My favorite is a Weatherby Athena Grade III. It is a gentlemen’s shotgun for outings when such a piece is appropriate.
The SX3, if you can find it, is available with a 26- or 28-inch barrel and Invector Plus choke tubes. The Waterfowl Edition wears Mossy Oak Bottomlands Camo. It also has a speed loading feature and a high visibility front bead. For me, it swings like a dream, and it patterns very well.
With its short barrels, the over/under Weatherby Athena is perfect for taking mallards fluttering down below the tree canopy.
Morgan uses a modified choke in his Beretta. He is aware of the 3-inch, 20-gauge reputation for blowing out patterns, but he said that has not been his experience using a modified tube.
“I’ve hunted some holes that are small enough I could use improved cylinder, easy,” Morgan said. “If you’re shooting a hole that’s 30 or 40 yards across, I recommend modified. You have to pick your shots, but I don’t have any problem with its killing power.”
The 20 gauge isn’t restricted to ducks. Morgan said that it’s also effective on geese, within limits.
“If you have geese within 25 yards, it’ll do the same thing that a 12 will,” he said. “The 12 has more pellets, and you can get some pretty hot loads. If you’re crazy enough to shoot a 3½ (inch magnum 12), you need an orthopedic guy on standby to put your shoulder and jawbone back in place.”
For Morgan, it’s a matter of matching the gun to the game.
“The bottom line is you don’t need an elephant gun to kill a little ol' duck,” he said.
Bryan Hendricks, an avid shotgunner, is the Outdoors Editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Arkansas. He also served eight years with Missouri Department of Conservation and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. He has credits in more than 1,000 articles in nearly 80 publications worldwide.