20 March 2012

For your first firearm, consider a 20-gauge, pump-action shotgun

Original image courtesy rem870.com
(yes, I realize that's a 12-gauge)
Suppose you're relatively new to self-reliance and preparedness, and you don't have any firearms. You recognize the need for home defense, yet you'd also like to have something that would allow you to learn how to hunt in order to acquire food if necessary.

You're looking to acquire this first firearm frugally, yet you want something practical, which can pull double duty. What should you buy? A handgun? Rifle? Shotgun?

I submit that the latter is preferable. More specifically, I think a 20-gauge pump-action shotgun is an excellent candidate, for the reasons outlined below:

Good Stopping Power, Less Recoil
Regular readers of Self-Reliant Info know that I'm a fan of well-known firearms expert, Massad Ayoob. He's stated many times that a 20-gauge shotgun firing #3 buckshot has essentially the same effect as using #4 buckshot in a 12-gauge. You can see him demonstrate this in the video below.

As he notes in the video, the recoil of the 20 gauge is just 55 percent of the 12 gauge. That reduced recoil makes for easier handling of the firearm and increased accuracy, as well as allowing comparable effectivity. Here's Ayoob's explanation from one of his article entitled Consider the 20-gauge shotgun:
The 20-gauge will always "kick" less than the 12, and it will handle better and faster on quick-moving upland birds. With a buckshot load, the standard 20-gauge shell will fire 20 pellets of #3 buckshot (approximately .25 caliber), which will penetrate to about the same depth at about the same pattern width as the standard 12-gauge "urban load" of #4 buckshot, which comprises 27 pellets (about .23 caliber). The wound paths will be about the same depth and width, and the only difference will be how finely the macerated tissue has been chopped by the projectile paths. "Only the Medical Examiner will know for sure," and then only when he counts the little lead balls recovered from the body, or the white dots on the X-ray of the corpse.
Versatility for Hunting
In the same article, Ayoob also points out that a 20-gauge will do an effective job for most hunting needs, except for waterfowl or bear:
The 20-gauge shotgun ... seems to be one of the best-kept secrets in the firearms world. About the only thing it's not very good for anymore, since heavy lead shot was legally forbidden for waterfowl hunting, is the harvesting of high-flying ducks and geese. In big bear country, I might also prefer the bigger slugs of a 12-gauge.
Pump Action or Semiautomatic?
About the only place a differ from Ayoob is that I think a pump-action shotgun is a more cost-effective solution.

He points out that a gas-operated semiautomatic 20 gauge reduces the recoil even further, and that they're also easier to use. At the same time, he acknowledging that semiautos require more cleaning and maintenance.

I feel the this is an unnecessary tradeoff. By going with a 20-gauge shotgun in the first place, the recoil will already be less, so I prefer the lower maintenance of the pump-action version.

As for a pump action being harder to use, the solution for that is practice. While it's true that you'd want to practice with whatever type of shotgun you purchase, the initial cost of the pump action makes it easier to practice for those without deep pockets. Compare the manufacturer's suggested prices of these comparably equipped pump-action and semiauto versions of two popular shotgun brands:
(Note that Remington does offer the slightly less expensive model 11-87 semiautomatic at $859, but their site didn't show a "tactical" version of that model to compare to the others listed.)

While the difference is less pronounced for the Mossberg shotguns, you'll still pay considerably less for the pump action version. In theory, that means that you'll have more money left over to practice getting good with the pump mechanism.

Other Shotgun Resources
I suggest you read up on the above to see if a shotgun is right for you, especially a 20-gauge version. Here are a few other related resources to help you in your shotgun education:
  • Firearms handling refresher, Part II: Shotguns by Massad Ayoob: This is a great article, where Ayoob discusses the types of shotguns (single-shot, double-barrel, pump action, and semiautomatic), ammunition selection, and shotgun handling/shooting tips.
  • Remington's Brochure Downloads page: This is an excellent page, with a fair amount of free information in PDF format. Of particular interest is The Remington Guide to Shotguns and Shotshell Ammunition. This handy booklet provides a basic education on shotguns and their ammunition, and it also gives advice on selecting the right types of each for hunting.
  • Mossberg's Firearm Safety and Education page: This page is a little anemic compared to Remington's page (below), but it does offer basic information on firearm safety, the anatomy of a shotgun, and a few brief "marketing" paragraphs on selecting the right shotgun. 
  • Shot Size Table, courtesy of ShotgunWorld.com: This page describes the various shotgun loads and offers advice on which to use against various types of game in hunting (which makes it somewhat repetitive of the Remington guide linked above).


  1. Great video! Thanks for sharing. A shotgun is next in line for my firearm purchases and this is great to know especially if other family members need to use something with less kick.

    1. Thanks for commenting! Yes, I think that the 20-gauge is more versatile for that reason.

  2. I think it is best to have a 12G. Ammo can be found anywhere and more people have a 12G

    1. That is the one weakness to 20 gauge, in my opinion. Still, it's a more common gauge than 410 or 16 gauge, which makes it more likely to find ammo down the road.

      Plus, stocking up on "extra" 20 gauge yourself means that 1) you'll have more if/when you need it, and 2) you may have a more valuable item to barter in an emergency (because scarcity increases value).