Is the 20 Gauge Really the Best Low Recoil Defensive Option?

I’m a big guy, and as such, I’ve always been partial to the 12 gauge. A low-recoil shotgun has never been necessary, and I realized there was a giant 20-gauge gap in my knowledge of defensive shotguns. So I did what any self-respecting gun writer would do, and I wrote Mossberg to try out their new Mossberg 590 in 20 gauge. The 590 is a legendary fighting shotgun that traditionally chambers the 12 gauge cartridge.

This modern tactical 20 gauge is a rare bird, so seeing Mossberg embrace the smaller gauge was interesting. This isn’t a review of the gun, but I will say it’s a very nice shotgun. It’s fun to shoot, lightweight, and compared to the 12 gauge 590, it’s light recoiling. Mossberg built the 20 gauge model on a 12 gauge frame, so it’s big and plenty heavy. It does provide a lower recoil option than the 12 gauge variant and is soft and easy to shoot.

The But Behind the 20 Gauge

But…is it really the softest shooting defensive shotgun option outside of .410? As I shot the 20 gauge more and more, I had a realization. I was shooting some cheap Monarch buckshot, 2.75-inch shells loaded with nine pellets of No. 1 buck. It’s not a bad defensive load. My realization was that this pump action 20 gauge was light recoiling, but was it better than a gas-operated 12 gauge with reduced recoil tactical loads?

I grabbed my Mossberg 940 Pro Tactical with some Federal Flitecontrol and Winchester Defender and shot the guns side by side. I could hardly tell the difference in recoil. The 12 gauge with the right ammo and a gas-operated action was fairly tame, as tame as the pump action 20 gauge.

That realization and experiment led me to believe that the famed low recoil 20 gauge option isn’t as big of a deal as I had always been told. If you absolutely have to have a pump action shotgun for defensive purposes, then yes, the 20 gauge is lighter recoiling. However, if you asked me for a low-recoil defensive shotgun, I’d point you to a gas-operated semi-auto with the right ammo.


Great question. Always ask why. First, let’s talk logistics. The 12 gauge dominates the tactical shotgun market. As such, it has the most affordable defensive ammo options and is the most widely available. Most importantly, it has Federal Flitecontrol. These purpose-built defensive buckshot loads pattern tighter and often feature reduced recoil. Training ammo, like birdshot, is cheaper and more common.

I’ve found a couple of defensive buckshot loads, but they are nothing to brag about. The Barnes option is No.3 Buckshot, which doesn’t always penetrate that well. I’m sure it would stop a threat, but I’d prefer a projectile I know will penetrate deep enough to stop a threat reliably with a single pellet. The Barnes buckshot is also $4.50 cents per round and doesn’t perform all that great. Winchester also produces a 20 gauge tactical buckshot, but it’s just a low recoil Super X load.

The lack of good, solid, and easy-to-find defensive 20 gauge loads makes it tougher to suggest. Sure, that cheap Monarch load will work, but I can have Flitecontrol with the 12 gauge variant. Also, don’t forget the fact it is a semi-auto, which means it is easier to use, faster to fire, and has less human mechanical reliance.

What About a Semi-Auto 20 Gauge

That’d be the real money for a low-recoil shotgun. The problem is that it is tough to find a semi-auto-defensive 20 gauge. Benelli doesn’t make the M2 series in a defensive configuration. Beretta doesn’t seem to make any semi-auto tactical 20 gauges. There are a slew of Turkish imports, and there might be some defensive 20 gauges in there, but man are Turkish shotguns really tricky…

Some work, but most don’t. The only tactical shotgun in the 20 gauge variety I know of is the Mossberg SA-20. That’s also a Turkish import, but one that meets Mossberg’s quality, so I tend to trust it more. Sadly, they are often tough to find and are not super well supported, making it tough or even impossible to find shorter-length stocks, magazine extensions, and more.

The 12 gauge semi-auto shotgun market has never been better. Beretta has the 1301, the A300 Ultima Patrol, Benelli has the M4 and M2 series in tactical varieties, Mossberg has the 930 and 940, and not to mention the Renegauge Security, the Stoeger series, and many more. A semi-auto 12 gauge with the right ammo is the better low-recoil shotgun.

That being said, if you wanted a pump action tactical 20 gauge, the 590 is pretty damn good.

Travis Pike
Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.