Is There A Perfect Shotgun Gauge For Upland Birds And Waterfowl?

When it comes to bird hunting, people are always looking for perfection: The perfect hunting dog, the perfect place to go, the perfect boots.

They're always looking for the perfect shotgun, too. Does it exist? Depending on what you hunt, yes...and no.

The Greatest Gauge

Here's how to start an argument with a bunch of serious hunters: Say "A twelve gauge is the best gauge. Everything else is a waste of money and lead." Regardless of what these people hunt, they'll have a favorite gauge. Chances are, it will not be the twelve gauge.

A hundred years ago, that wouldn't have been the case. Twenty eights and .410s were rare then. Sixteens were around, but not popular. And 20 gauges were novelties or thought of as shotguns for kids and small adults. From the plains of America's west to the duck blinds on the Eastern Shore, 12 gauge shotguns were what most hunters carried into the field.

There was a good reason for this: Twelve-gauge shotguns were, and are, versatile. By switching from heavy to light loads, you can use a 12 to hunt ducks in the AM and quail after lunch. But this versatility has a price: Weight. Most twelve gauge shotguns used by our forefathers, from Browning A-5s to Parker side-by-sides, weighed 7 1/2lbs or more.

This is a reason 20 gauges caught on in ‘40s and ‘50s. They were lighter and easier to carry. And as shell designs improved, twenties grew more effective at taking game and breaking clays, too. Of course, twelves never went away. For target shooters and waterfowl hunters, they were still the gauge of choice. And for upland hunters, a certain type of 12 gauge remained popular.

The Best Of Both Worlds

Bird hunting in Great Britain used to be reserved for the wealthy, especially in the 19th and early 20th century. These shooters could afford to buy different shotguns for different types of game: Say a matched pair of Purdeys for grouse and pheasant and a single Holland & Holland for ducks and geese.

Brits have always preferred 12 gauges, and over time the ones they used for grouse and pheasants evolved into expensive side-by-side and over-under "game guns" firing up to 1 ? ounces of shot and weighing 6 ½ to 6 ¾ lbs. If the perfect, all-around shotgun existed, these double twelves were them.

Well-off Americans who could afford these British game guns found them light enough to carry all day and versatile enough to hunt everything from woodcock to pheasants. These twelves could even be used to jump shoot smaller waterfowl or hunt ducks over decoys.

Game Guns For Today

Today, many different types of British-style, double barrel 12-gauge game guns are available. If you're looking for one gun to handle almost all your shooting, they're a great choice.

Vintage models: British and European makers started building hammerless 12-gauge game guns in the 1880s, and in the decades after they turned out thousands of them. Many are still around. With a little Googling, you can find plenty of them. But before you buy one, here are some things to consider:

  • They're expensive: While you can find decent, vintage game guns for under $2000, most cost more. For one in good condition, expect to pay $3000+.
  • They're old: Chances are, any shotgun that has been around fifty years or more has seen a lot use. Some of these guns have been properly maintained. Others have not.
  • They require special ammo: Most 12-gauge British game guns were made with 2 ½" chambers and for low-velocity, 1 ? ounce loads. While this ammo is easy to order online, you won't come across it in most gunshops or low price mega stores.
  • They have fixed chokes: If 12-gauge game guns have a weakness, this is it. And while a qualified gunsmith can always open the chokes on a double barrel, adding choke back is difficult—if it can be done at all.
  • They can't handle steel shot: So, if you want to use a vintage 12-gauge game gun on waterfowl, you'll have to use non-toxic options like Bismuth.

New models: If vintage isn't your thing, British makers like Westley Richards, James Purdey & Sons and Holland & Holland can build you a new 12-gauge game gun. Unfortunately, these doubles are expensive ($75,000+). At a lower price range, Spanish makers offers options (all side by sides). But brand new, these guns still cost $7,500 or more.

For most of us, the best way to get a new, 12-gauge game gun is to go with a lightweight over-under by Browning or an Italian maker. Basic models can be bought for under $2000, and they offer three benefits:

  • Interchangeable, screw-in chokes
  • The ability to shoot modern, 2 3/4" ammo
  • Almost all can handle steel shot (with the appropriate choke tubes installed)

Finally, if double barrels aren't your thing, lightweight 12 gauge pumps and semi-automatic shotguns are also great, all-around options. Even though they're missing a barrel, they still offer the versatility of the classic game gun.

What About 20 Gauges

Now that we've raved about twelves, let's talk about America's other favorite gauge: The twenty. If you're looking for one shotgun to do it all, can a twenty-gauge do it? That depends on what "all" means to you.

Due to factors like their lightweight, twenty gauges are best suited for loads filled with up to ? ounces of lead. For grouse, chukars, quail, doves, woodcock and pen-raised pheasants, that's plenty. It's also fine for clay-pigeon shooting. But when it comes to tougher upland birds like wild pheasants and large waterfowl, you'll need to shoot more lead—especially later in the season.

While you can shoot 2 ¾", 1 ounce loads through modern twenties and many will take 3", 1 1/4" "magnums", these shells generate more recoil (a lot more with the magnums). This makes shooting them uncomfortable. One way around this is to shoot a 20-gauge semi auto. Because of the way it's designed, it will soak up some of this extra recoil.

Of course, another way around the limitations of the twenty is to go with the more versatile (and more perfect?) twelve gauge. While they have their minuses (a bit more weight), they'll comfortably shoot loads up to 1 ? ounces. That extra lead is what you need to bring down bigger, tougher birds, making it a big plus.

See Shotguns In The Orvis Gun Room