12 or 20 gauge for clay shooting: Let’s explore shotgun calibers

12 or 20 gauge for clay shooting

When starting out with your passion for a sport, it’s easy to find yourself tangled up in a lot of myths and beliefs along the way. This goes for shooting as well.

Look, guns, like other products, come in all kinds of shapes and sizes from different types made from a variety of materials. As such, the reason why some shooters prefer 12 gauge shotguns over 20 gauge shotguns is a matter of longstanding controversy.

This discussion may seem academic until it’s time to pick one.

To settle the debate and showcase how the ostensible less popular 12-gauge shotguns actually stand out against their 20-gauge counterparts during sporting clay shooting, we decided to develop this article focusing on the reasons behind switching from one gauge to the other.

This way, you’ll get to know which gauge is best for each kind of target practice with regard to sporting clay shooting, skeet shooting, and trap shooting.

Hint: 12 gauge shotguns are mostly considered great for trap shooting mainly because they present precise accuracy as well as the much-needed density of pattern to strike flying targets.

A 20 gauge, on the other hand, is considered ideal for skeet, mainly because it has a wider spread that makes it perfect for hitting multiple targets simultaneously.

Shotgun Gauges Explained

Shotgun Gauges Explained

In the world of shooting, the word gauge most commonly refers to the caliber of a shotgun, though these two terms are not interchangeable. Gauge is actually defined as the number of lead balls that weigh one pound jointly that fit inside a shotgun’s barrel and have the same diameter.

While one could theoretically make a shotgun in any gauge, manufacturers seem to have settled on several, with 12 gauges and 20 gauges being the most popular.

In addition to the 12 and 20 gauges, there’re other types of shotguns available but beginners and experienced shooters alike rely mostly on these two when it comes to clay shooting probably because they produce tighter and closer patterns which makes them easier to headshot moving targets.

Why Are 12 and 20 Gauges so Popular?

Well, the historical background behind why these two options are arguably the most popular shotgun gauges is well beyond the scope of this post.

Even so, it’s easy to understand why they’re hugely recognized; both are very similar in size and shape to gauge shot shells – which means that they can be used for many of the same applications.

For example, shotgun hunters frequently use .410-bore shotguns to hunt game birds that might otherwise be considered too small or fast for other types of guns. Some people even use it to have a quick and easy time plinking away at a target.

While those ​looking for guns for self-defense/home defense often opt for shot shells, keep in mind there’re other alternatives available as well like .410 revolvers and .410-gauge stun guns.

Both options are also available from many different manufacturers and can be found chambered in shotguns from any major gun company.

12 Gauge vs 20 Gauge: Size and Structure

While 12 is actually a smaller number compared to 20, the opposite is the truth when it comes to shotgun gauges. The reason for this stems from the differences between each gun’s barrel.

The dimensions of a 12 gauge gun barrel are approximately 0.73 inches across, which is significantly bigger than those found on 20-gauge guns at around .615 inches. That means twelve gauge shells cannot be used for a 20 gauge gun: the shell will not conform to the barrel.

You can however load a 20 gauge shell into a 12 gauge shotgun but you shouldn’t do it as it could be extremely dangerous and is not something experts recommend.

The size of the shells is often marked on the side. You will notice that 20 gauge rounds are normally smaller with a yellow color while 12 gauges are typically larger in size.

It’s important to know the basic differences between them, both in size and color, so you don’t end up harming yourself or anyone around you during the practice.

Aside from the barrel size, there’re many other discrepancies in the efficiency, functionality, and shootability between 12 and 20-gauge shotguns.

So, keep reading to find your ultimate trim and lively upland gun.

12 Gauge Shotguns Overview

12 Gauge Shotguns Overview

The standard caliber size for a 12 gauge shotgun shell is .73 inches and the length of a standard shell ranges from 2 ¾ up to 3.5 inches. Although it doesn’t always apply, the larger 12 gauge shell offers more room for shots and powder by giving the user more ammunition to use.

These guns also have a relatively larger bore diameter. That means the shell of a 12 gauge shotgun has more room to load a greater pellet count. In turn, a shot fired by a 12 gauge shotgun will have a powerful hit on the target in comparison to other gauges available.

It’s good to state that putting more pellets into a given diameter will easily cause taller stacks of shots. The efficiency of the shot column will definitely decrease as the length increases.

This is because the compression at the bottom of longer stacks will push the highest pellets down and crush them together with other pellets being compressed from above causing them to roll inside the stack thereby limiting the pellet exposure.

Moreover, there can be too many pellets that don’t fit quite well inside the protective shot cup. That means they will rub against the barrel wall and end up flying out of the pattern. Excessive speed can also blow more shot patterns and affect the result.

Overall, the 12 gauge shotguns are considered the most versatile and effective one-gun hack for carrying out various tasks but that doesn’t mean it’s great for all shotgunning.

If you’re looking for something that matches your hunting needs or personal preference, you may do better with a smaller gauge (for instance 20 or 28) as opposed to a 12 gauge.

Let’s see what the 20 gauge shotgun has to offer!

20 Gauge Shotguns Overview

20 Gauge Shotguns Overview

As the name suggests, a 20 gauge shotgun is a shooting/hunting weapon that requires 20 lead balls and has a small barrel. The function and performance of this shotgun depend on various factors such as the type of shell being used, the size of the pellets and their quantity, etc.

And it boats some distinct traits that make it ideal for clay shooting.

While 12 and 20-gauge shotguns are versatile and make for excellent hunting weapons, the 20 gauge’s versatility doesn’t quite match the 12’s rather hefty shot payloads.

Well, it is slimmer and lighter than the 12 gauge, with calibers of either 28 or .714 calibers, which may be appealing to a female or younger shooter, but it doesn’t kick as hard.

Depending on which model you choose, 20 gauges can come in either 2 ¾- or 3-inch chambers, both having their pros and cons. The shell itself can weigh between 16 and 25 grams depending on load. This smaller projectile makes the whole thing lighter than the 12 gauge and therefore easier to handle.

All of the shortcomings in the 12 gauge about deformation, shot stacking, and stringing apply to the 20 gauge based on size. Simply put, the smaller number of your gauge the more cramped and densely packed your shotgun ammunition will be when packed into the magazine.

A trim, lightweight 20 gauge shotgun might get you on target faster and more accurately. These dimensions mean that the 20 gauge is slimmer and features light loads compared to 12s. They also don’t have such a harsh kick, which may be a slight advantage for younger shooters.

12 vs 20 Gauge: Side-to-Side Comparison

12 vs 20 Gauge Side-to-Side Comparison

Both 12 and 20-gauge shotguns may vary on different accounts such as recoils, accuracy, weight, and efficiency. That means either gauge may match your needs, depending on exactly what you’re looking for in a shotgun. Here’s how both options compare for various purposes:


When it comes to recoil tendency, the smaller 20 gauge has softer or light recoil that is easier to handle in comparison to a 12 gauge shotgun.

This makes it ideal for children and some smaller individuals who are unfamiliar with shooting or feel intimidated by the harder 12 gauge experience.

Of course, the lesser recoil basically means the gun lacks power, but on the bright side, your accuracy will be better if you find the gun easier to handle. Not forgetting you’ll be more confident while shooting, which can lead to a more enjoyable time spent handling guns.

12 gauge shotguns have a higher-than-average recoiling force, which can be challenging to manage for beginners. The barrel may even push back towards you – especially if you aren’t wearing protective gear when firing. This is why it’s always recommended to wear protective gear when firing shotguns.


Accuracy is highly influenced by the density of the shot patterns. Although accuracy is also affected by the choke installed in the shotgun, denser patterns will generally help you make more accurate shots.

Shot pattern density in a 12 gauge shotgun is often denser and therefore exhibits minimal divergence. When you make a shot with this gauge, more pellets are likely to reach the target. A 12 gauge shotgun can be a great option when you don’t need extreme dispersion of shots.

The shot patterns delivered by 20 gauge shotguns mean that the pellets will spread as soon as they leave the muzzle, which can lead to a wimpy accuracy and might miss targets that require precise shots.

Nonetheless, on a short range, a 20 gauge shotgun can easily reach the target accurately. Otherwise, if you’re certain about the target’s finite movement, then your best bet would be a 12 gauge shotgun.


As earlier mentioned, 12 gauge shotguns are built with a larger magazine tube and a larger diameter barrel, hence the reason why they are often referred to as “bird bangers” due to their heavy effect on the target.

Due to the larger shells that contribute to the general weight, the fired shots will have higher velocity and energy, but be moderately accurate and capable of hitting a target from a long range.

These heavier shells are usually carried in a larger-sized magazine tube, which increases both the recoil and the overall weight of the gun.

A 20 gauge shotgun, on the other hand, will be generally lighter because it features a trim barrel and small shells. For this reason, the gun will kick back with little force/recoil, making it easy to manage.

Moreover, given its lightweight structure, it creates less energy for every fired shot, making it more effective and safer for starters to work with.

Trap Shooting

Trap Shooting

When it comes to trap shooting, the targets are launched by one machine in any spontaneous direction. In this case, velocity and accuracy are the most crucial factors that dictate the success of the shot.

The speed and accuracy of 12 gauge shotguns perfectly check the essentials of trap shooting. So if you’re looking up to trap shooting, a 12 gauge gun would be an easy recommendation to up your game.

Great range and velocity will help you hit your targets, even when they’re far from the station.

Note that when shooting traps, the target is intended to move once it’s launched. Hence, accurate shotguns would be a better option in such a case.

The fact that 20 gauge shots will spread widely makes them quite not the best for this practice. Their speed and energy do not meet the requirements of trap shooting.

Simply put, 20 gauge shotguns aren’t really ideal for this shooting activity.

Sporting Clays

Sporting clays shooting is where multiple targets are being released from different positions. In this case, you’d be wise to choose a gun with more speed since you’re unable to tell which direction the next target will be coming from.

This’s will help to achieve more leeway between your first shot and the subsequent ones.

On that note, while 12 gauge shotguns perform with accuracy and deliver high shot pattern density, they’re certainly not suitable for sporting clays. This is because sporting clays involve the continuous launching of targets, so you don’t really need to focus on accuracy.

Besides, shooters don’t always aim for close range but instead prefer to fire at wider ranges, which means they’re likely to miss several times before actually hitting their next target.

Spread shots, meanwhile, can do a great job in hitting consecutively launched targets. That leaves us with the 20 gauge shotguns as the best option for sporting clays.

For Skeet Shooting

In skeet shooting, the basic idea is to strike two targets released from varied stations and angles. The key to a successful skeet shooting is to keep your shot pattern sufficiently spread out.

Since 20 gauge shots spread over a wider effective range, you may have a better chance of hitting the moving targets, even if they’re moving fast at a difficult angle.

The dispersed pellets can also hit the subsequent target if it is launched in the same velocity as the first one. Therefore, 20 gauge shotguns are considered best for skeet shooting.


As many avid shotgun enthusiasts know, the 20-bore offers a unique shooting experience.

Forest game hunters who typically take aim at pheasants and other upland birds on the wing often find that if they choose a 20, their gun balances much better for this type of shooting as compared to a 12 and helps to reduce fatigue during longer stands.

Waterfowl hunters also sometimes find that 20 gauge reigns supreme, too – particularly when it comes to working in thick cover where less weight is helpful. While a 12 gauge can hit up to 50-plus yards with a lead shot, they do so at the price of tremendous recoil.

Generally speaking though, medium to large ducks and geese still demand shot charge sizes in excess of those which can be efficiently pushed through a 20 gauge.

Although there’re some exceptions depending on how your particular model is designed, the smaller pellets effectively lose energy down range while the larger ones don’t always flow quite as freely.

The Bottom Line

The Bottom Line

Choosing the right gun for clay shooting or rather target shooting can be tricky – especially if you don’t know the differences between 12-gauge, 20-gauge, and other types of guns available. Fortunately, this knowledge is an arm that you’ve got right here!

Take note: a 12-gauge gun will pack more punch but recoil more than a 20-gauge one. But if the distance is your main concern when shooting clays, then it’s best to go with a 20-gauge one. Also worth noting: the right length of barrel depends on whether you shoot trap or sporting clays.

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Picture of Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.
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