Dove Hunting: 12 Gauge vs. 20 Gauge

Updated on July 29, 2022

20 gauge or 12 gauge? This has been a long-standing debate amongst bird hunters across the country and each camp has strong opinions. There are pros and cons to each but it’s more complex than it may seem on the surface. If you’re looking to get into dove hunting then you have some decisions to make regarding gear and the gun you might want to use.

Man Shooting a shotgun

The Difference Between 12 and 20 Gauge

The gauge of a shotgun refers to the bore size of the gun, the smaller the gauge, the larger the bore size. Shotgun gauge is determined by the number of lead balls it would take to weigh one pound if all the balls had the same diameter as the bore. For example, it would take 12 lead balls with a diameter equal to that of the diameter of the bore on a 12 gauge barrel to weigh one pound. Similarly, for a 20 gauge shotgun it would take 20 balls with the bore diameter to make up one pound. A larger bore means a larger shell which, in turn, would mean more knockdown power. A 12 gauge shell can fire more pellets than a 20 gauge shell because it has a larger bore and a larger powder charge. This is also to say that a 12 gauge is more effective at a longer range than a 20 gauge because the shot has more energy.

Efficiency

The question of efficiency refers to your arsenal as an individual hunter. Many would argue that you will only need one shotgun to serve all your hunting needs. If you choose to hunt with a 12 gauge you can hunt big game such as turkey or deer as well as smaller game such as dove. So does this mean that buying a 20 gauge shotgun is inefficient? I would argue that it’s not, depending on what type of hunter you are. A 20 gauge shotgun can be just as diverse as a 12 if you’re doing certain types of hunting. For example, 20 gauge is a great gun to have in your toolbox if you hunt small game birds such as dove and quail often. I would even go as far as to say that if you hunt dove and quail for the most part and occasionally hunt larger game such as duck and turkey then 20 gauge will still serve you well and buying a 12 gauge would be inefficient. But if you hunt a lot of duck, turkey, or geese with your shotgun and require the extra knockdown power for the majority of your hunting then buying a 20 gauge specifically for dove hunting might be inefficient.

Open shotgun with smoke

Shot Distance

If you’re the type of hunter who hunts diverse enough game to warrant owning both 12 and 20 gauge shotguns, then your decision on what to bring to your next dove hunt can be harder to make. The most prevalent issue in my opinion is the condition of your birds. Everyone who has been on a good dove hunt knows that shot range depends on your skill and judgment. The closer shots are typically what a hunter is looking for and this is where I think 12 gauge falls short. If you’ve hunted dove with a 12 gauge or been hunting with someone who shoots one you may have experienced what I’m talking about. From about 15 yards and in an accurate shot from a 12 gauge can ruin your birds. I’ve seen birds get breast shot to pieces under these circumstances and it’s unfortunate. You could bag a full limit but only come home with 11 or 12 birds because you were shooting 12. On the flip side of that argument, 12 gauge can be helpful for those long range shots. A well-placed shot with a 20 gauge can get the job done especially if you hunt with a full choke but with that full choke in you make the closer range shots more difficult. If you don’t want to sacrifice close-range spread for an increase in range, then hunting with a 12 gauge equipped with a modified or improved cylinder may be preferable.

Stewardship

Growing up I heard the argument that a 12 gauge has too much power for dove hunting from the older, more traditional South Texas hunters. I believe this argument has its roots in the ideas of sportsmanship between experienced dove hunters. If you’ve been hunting birds long enough and are sufficiently accurate with a shotgun I can see the argument for how it would be the sportsmanlike decision to hunt dove with a 20 gauge. But is this aspect of dove hunting culture valid? This can be a difficult question to answer. There is an element of respect to hunting that can sometimes be an unspoken rule but does this mean that once you become a proficient hunter you are inherently disrespectful? I would say no, but it is your responsibility to know how to be respectful. A parallel can be drawn to deer hunting. Many hunters start out hunting with a rifle but when that becomes easy they go in search of a new challenge and find bow hunting. While it’s not the same it is a comparison that can help you understand why some people think about it this way but you can’t always make everyone happy. If you enjoy hunting with a 12 gauge then you should keep doing so.

Man aiming a shotgun

My Recommendations

If you're looking for a semi automatic 12 gauge there are many great options, my favorite of which is the Benelli Super Black Eagle 3. They run beautifully and they double as a great duck hunting shotgun if you’re looking for something with a little more diversity of use. Another great semi automatic shotgun is the Beretta A400. Beretta makes high quality shotguns for many different purposes and the A400 is just one of their great options for bird and trap shooters alike. They have different variations of the A400 so you can find the gun you need for your purposes. The Stoeger M3000 is a reliable option for a portion of the price. They run great and stand up to the rugged conditions of the field. The Stoeger makes a great gun for someone who is just getting into hunting and doesn’t want to break the bank on their first shotgun. For pump action shotguns I recommend the Remington 870 Wingmaster or the Mossberg 500. Both of these guns can come chambered in 12 gauge or 20 gauge and many different stock materials and designs. When deciding on any shotgun I recommend going to a gun store and holding the gun in your hand, feeling the action, and checking out the stock material. In my opinion all the research in the world can’t tell you how a gun feels in your hand and everybody is different. I personally love a beautiful woodstock gun and prefer break action shotguns so I like to hunt with a Beretta 686 White Onyx. They’re not cheap but they are beautiful guns and in my opinion you just can't beat the feel of them. It is a gun that will last you a lifetime if you take care of it and for the avid hunter is a wonder gun to have in your arsenal.

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