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A Little Less Bore’ing

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Photos by AZPhotoMan

If a man’s home is his castle, the 12-gauge shotgun has long been considered the knight supreme for defense of the kingdom. There was a time when just about everybody had a pump gun under the bed, in the closet, or propped behind the bedroom door. But much like good wine or bad fashion trends, time brings change. Nowadays a wide variety of firearms are being used smartly and effectively for home defense. We’ve heard of pistol-caliber carbines, suppressed SBRs, and all manner of decked-out pistols sleeping next to their owners in the event that something goes bump in the night. It seems that, for the most part, shotguns as a breed have sunken quickly into obscurity among the mainstream. But does this fall from favor make them suddenly ineffective as an option for personal protection inside the home?

We examined this question through a somewhat specific lens. It’s almost taken for granted that the quintessential home-defense shotgun is, and should always be, a 12-gauge, but what if we break from this long-established paradigm and look hard at the 12’s smaller sibling, the 20-gauge?


Does it pay to have the biggest, baddest shotshell on the block, or can less be more? Many shooters may be off-put with the felt recoil of a 12-gauge, particularly in a pump gun that has no gas or inertia system to offset some of the rearward push. We’ve come across plenty of folks who say they fired a shotgun once and never would again, or that they shoot it as infrequently as possible. By comparison, the 20 gauge offers noticeably less recoil, which can translate into faster shot-to-shot recovery and thus, more lead on target in less time. A gun that’s more comfortable to shoot will likely be shot more often. And we’re big fans of shooting more often.

One of the most commonly voiced concerns of committing to 20 over 12 is the loss of shot capacity per shell. While both rounds can be had in 2¾- or 3-inch lengths, the bore diameter is what sets them apart — 18.5mm for the 12-gauge versus 15.6mm for the 20. While this does limit the number of pellets per shell, particularly with larger shot pellets, is it significant enough to be a deal breaker?

Purpose-built self-defense loads in a 20-gauge typically use smaller pellets, but more of them. For example, Federal’s Personal Defense 12-gauge load uses nine pellets of 00 buck (each pellet being 8.38mm) at 1,145 feet per second. The Personal Defense 20-gauge load is stuffed with 24 pellets of #4 buck (each pellet being 6.10mm) traveling at 1,100 feet per second.

Left: The Mesa Tactical buffer system eliminated any of the punishment normally associated with firing pump guns. The only limit on rapid follow-up shots was our ability to run the gun.

Left: The Mesa Tactical buffer system eliminated any of the punishment normally associated with firing pump guns. The only limit on rapid follow-up shots was our ability to run the gun.

For an example that’s a little more apples-to-apples, consider a load put out by Rio ammunition: nine pellets of #1 buck (each pellet being 7.62mm in diameter) with a muzzle velocity of 1,330 feet per second. Same number of pellets. Less than a full millimeter of size difference between individual pellets. Less than 200 feet per second difference in muzzle velocities. Quibbling over size and velocity differences so miniscule is enough to give anybody heartburn and bad dreams about 9mm versus .45ACP screaming matches on internet forums.

While the common wisdom of defensive pistol selection has (finally) seemed to accept that accurate shot placement trumps any perceived ballistic advantage between calibers, the lore of defensive scatterguns still seems to place the 12-gauge on a pedestal. This mindset seems so pervasive that it has strongly influenced the 20-gauge aftermarket — or, more accurately, the lack thereof. While the ballistics gap between 12- and 20-gauge can be argued as marginal at best, operators of 20-gauge scattergats will find themselves at a definite disadvantage when it comes to available configurations.

How do you best figure out what selection of gadgets and gizmos are available? Two words: project gun. Our test bed started life as a Remington 870 20-gauge Youth model. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with it in the stock configuration, it leaves something to be desired when pressed into the home-defense role.

Our first change was a simple furniture swap. The buttstock assembly came from Mesa Tactical, one of the few shotgun accessory companies making dedicated 20-gauge accessories. We started with its LEO stock adapter system with hydraulic recoil buffer. The adapter itself allows the use of standard AR pistol grips and buttstocks on your shotgun. The faux receiver extension is available in two different heights, one for rail-mounted optics and one for standard bead sights, with or without the hydraulic recoil buffer. We rolled the dice on the hydraulic buffer and, so far, haven’t been disappointed. (More on that in a minute.)

The LEO stock adapter comes with an AR pistol grip already attached — the soft rubber finger groove model from Hogue. The author didn’t care for this grip and swapped out a G10 pistol grip from VZ Grips. The stock is a Magpul MOE. The LEO adapter comes with QD sockets on both sides for sling mounting, which we appreciate. While the LEO stock system is sized for 12-gauge receivers, Mesa Tactical sells an ingenious device called the “Lucy” adapter. The Lucy is essentially a step-up end plate that will allow any 20-gauge 870 to accept any 12-gauge stock. This $30 accessory opens up a world of possibilities for reconfiguring the shoulder end of your 20-gauge 870.


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