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Which Shotgun Gauge is the Best for Upland Bird Hunting?

With so many options, does your choice of gauge really matter? The answer is maybe.

Which Shotgun Gauge is the Best for Upland Bird Hunting?

There are many factors to consider when choosing a shotgun gauge to hunt upland birds. (Brad Fitzpatrick photo)

There’s some debate about which shotgun gauge performs best for upland game, and odds are you have a personal favorite. Perhaps your choice has less to do with passion than practicality: You wanted one gun for shooting clays and upland birds so you went with a 12-gauge, or maybe your grandfather passed his 16-gauge down to you and that’s what you carry. Perhaps you’ve never really given the gauge of your shotgun much thought at all.

Does gauge matter? Yes and no. Today’s shotshells have closed any gaps that existed in the modern shotshell lineup, and in fact there’s a good deal of overlap. Consider that you can carry 1-ounce magnum 28-gauge loads or 1 1/8-ounce 12-gauge shells to the field. But there’s more to gauge selection than bore diameter. Certain gauges offer benefits in terms of load availability, reduced gun weight and recoil, and more. Here’s a rundown of the good and bad for the most popular gauge options.

Shotgun with Hungarian partridge
Whether you prefer a 12-, 16-, 20-, 28-gauge or .410 shotgun, the right gun should be one you are comfortable and confident shooting. (Brad Fitzpatrick photo)

12-Gauge 

Pros: The 12-gauge is far and away the most popular of the shotgun gauges listed here, and it’s the favorite choice of competition shooters. Because sport shooters typically fire many more rounds than hunters, 12-gauge ammunition is widely available on store shelves, and competition keeps pricing for 12-gauge ammo relatively low. Part of the reason the 12-gauge is so popular, is that it’s so versatile. 1 1/8-ounce loads are perfect for breaking clays and hunting quail and doves. You can step up to magnum loads for pheasants or hard-flying chukar, and 12-gauge guns with 3 ½-inch chambers nearly match 10-gauge payloads and ballistics. Almost every shotgun model is available in 12-gauge, and some, like the new Browning Maxus II, are only available in 12-gauge.

Cons: The most obvious disadvantage of a 12-gauge gun over the other guns listed here is added recoil. With a magnum load, a six-pound 12-gauge produces on the order of 40 foot-pounds of recoil energy, which is on par with a .375 H&H Magnum rifle. Heavier guns recoil less, but you’ll have to make a decision: light gun or low recoiling gun. While the 12-gauge remains quite popular and will into the future, the advent of ultra high-density projectiles like TSS is closing the gap between the 12 and the other gauges.

Benelli ETHOS BEST shotgun

My Favorite 12-Gauge Shotgun: My Benelli ETHOS BE.S.T. weighs just over six pounds, is impervious to even the worst weather, and effectively shoots everything from target loads to magnum shotshells. What more could you ask for?


16-Gauge

Pros: Let’s start with cool factor. For a gauge that isn’t particularly popular among shotgun and ammo manufacturers, the 16-gauge has assembled a legion of loyalists for whom the ubiquitous 12-gauge won’t do. While the 16-gauge was never more popular than the 12, it did eclipse the 20-gauge in the middle 20th century. Research into Federal Ammunition’s archives shows that during the 1940s, the company was selling roughly twice as many 16-gauge shells as 20s. The tide changed when 3-inch 20-gauge shells arrived which could match or eclipse 16-gauge performance in a lighter gun, but that doesn’t mean the 16-gauge is a slouch. Most 16-gauge loads carry 1 or 1 1/8 ounces of lead shot, which is perfect for everything from quail to pheasants. The biggest advantage, though, is that a 16-gauge shotgun on a 20-gauge frame really is a fantastic compromise for upland hunting.

Cons: 16-gauge fans love to say their guns “carry like a 20 and hit like a 12.” That’s true, but only if you find a 16-gauge on a 12-gauge frame. Many manufacturers simply put 16-gauge barrels on receivers sized for 12-gauge guns, and those guns oftentimes weigh more than their 12-gauge counterparts. The other knock on the 16, of course, is limited availability of ammo and guns. 16-gauge ammo isn’t available everywhere and it’s not always available in bulk, though there’s a modest selection of available 16-gauge loads available from major manufacturers including some non-toxic options. Gun options are limited, especially if you want a camo-clad duck gun, and chamber length is usually limited to 2 ¾-inches.


Browning A5 Sweet Sixteen shotgun

My Favorite 16-Gauge Shotgun: Browning A5 Sweet Sixteen. The current model blends classic styling with modern design and in doing so has created a sub six-pound 16-gauge semi-automatic shotgun that handles like a dream.  

20-Gauge

Pros: The 20-gauge can accomplish most any task you’d ask of the 12, especially with the advent of TSS, and most shotgun manufacturers offer 20-gauge guns in their lines. Depending upon the model, 20-gauge guns often weigh about a pound less than a 12, and if you think a pound doesn’t matter, you’ve never hunted chukar and Huns in steep country. A 20-gauge with a 24-inch barrel is light enough and maneuverable enough for chasing grouse in thick woods and offers plenty of knockdown power for these hard-flying birds, too. Most 20-gauge target loads run about 7/8 ounce, and they are mild and pleasant to shoot. However, a 3-inch 20-gauge chamber can handle magnum shells with a payload of up to 1 ¼ ounces which makes the 20 suitable for just about any upland and waterfowl hunting situation.

Cons: The 20-gauge doesn’t always recoil less than a 12. There’s a whole generation of hunters who were handed a single-shot 20-gauge with slugs when they started deer hunting and learned to fear the recoil of those guns. While hunting in Argentina, I actually found the 5 ½ pound 20-gauge guns produced more felt recoil than 6 ½ pound 12-gauge guns and switched up. The 20-gauge was once trendy, but now is flanked by the hippest shotshells on the market today, the 16- and 28-gauge.

<a href='https://weatherby.com/?utm_source=gundogmag&utm_medium=in-page-link&utm_term=Weatherby&utm_content=453040' alt='Weatherby' title='Weatherby' target='_blank'>Weatherby</a> Orion shotgun

My Favorite 20-Gauge Shotgun: Weatherby’s forthcoming Orion 20-gauge over/under balances beautifully, is loaded with features and extras, and weighs just six pounds. Not too shabby for a gun costing around a grand.

28-Gauge

Pros: A light, nimble 28-gauge shotgun is easy to carry and produces mild recoil, yet these guns hit with authority on quail, doves, grouse, and even pheasant. Many long-time 12-gauge shooters make the move to the 28 and very few go back because they find that under the right conditions the 28-gauge is suitable for a wide range of upland hunting situations. In really steep, treacherous western chukar country, I think the 28-gauge is a solid option because it allows you to keep gun weight to an absolute minimum yet still packs enough punch to knock down birds. A petite 28-gauge side-by-side is something to behold and is far more nimble than a broad-shoulder 12-gauge double. If you have a recoil sensitive shooter who would like to try upland hunting, the 28-gauge is a superb option.

Cons: The 20-gauge will do most of what a 12-gauge will do, but the 28 will not. Sure, you can find one-ounce loads, but that won’t be easy, and you’ll pay a premium. The 20-gauge covers much more ground in terms of payload availability than the 28 and you can still have a lightweight gun that won’t abuse the shooter too badly, and if you own a 12-gauge you can always step down to very light 1-ounce loads if you’re sick of picking pellets out of birds. There are limited 28-gauge options and ammo can be a bear to locate in remote areas.

Ceesar Guerini Revenant 28-gauge shotgun

My Favorite 28-Gauge Shotgun: The Caesar Guerini Revenant 28-gauge. It’s a masterpiece.  

.410 

Pros: I received a .410 on my eighth birthday, and a few years later stepped up to a 20-gauge. The .410 was relegated to the gun safe for many years, but I find myself using that gun more each passing year. Obviously, .410 guns are light and produce light recoil. 2 ½-inch loads generate more of a massage than a shove, and every upland hunter should have a .410 for dog training purposes. Beyond that, these guns are great for close-range work on birds like quail, dove, and even grouse. TSS and other new non-toxic loads have changed our view of the .410, and with a full load of #9 TSS shot, a .410 will cleanly and consistently drop pheasants and mallards at 30 yards.  

Cons: It always seems you’re pushing the .410’s limits while it is pushing yours as a shooter. With heavy loads, the .410 can be effective if everything goes right in the field, but that’s not always the case. For example, if birds are flushing farther out than normal in the field you can switch to a more powerful load in a 12- or 20-gauge and still kill birds. The .410’s top end is more limited. I’d say the primary reason people switch to the .410, and then back to one of the bigger gauges, is that they have grown weary of spending more money on ammo and killing fewer birds.

CZ-USA Sharptail .410 shotgun

My Favorite .410 Shotgun: The trim, stylish CZ Sharptail weighs under six pounds and makes a great upland .410.

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