Kids ask the wisest questions: "Why are shotgun names and numbers so weird,"
a nephew wondered.
"Because 'old fashioned' people invented them," I said. But he needed more
explanation than that. We all do.
Like the nephew said, weird. So if one pound of lead yields 12 balls that
fit the bore diameter, it's a 12 gauge. Twenty balls means it's a 20 gauge and
so on except (there's always an exception, eh?) the .410, which really is a
bore diameter of .41-inch. If you were to melt a pound of lead into .41-inch
balls, you'd get 68 of them -- a 68 gauge.
Back when guns were made one-by-one, barrels often came out with odd bore
sizes, so folks hunted with 17 gauges, 24 gauges, even 8-, 5- and 4- gauges. Those
last two would knock you on your butt, believe me.
Today things have settled into just a few common shotgun sizes. Starting
with the largest, there's the 10-, 12-, 16-, 20-, 28-, plus the tiny .410 bore.
Another way to understand this is to match the gauge to actual bore
diameter, like this:
10 ga. = .775-inch
12 ga. = .729-inch
16 ga. = .663-inch
20 ga. = .615-inch
28 ga. = .550-inch
.410 = .410-inch
So, the lower the gauge number, the bigger the gun. But that's hardly the
end of the numbers.
There's barrel length, too. For hunting these generally run from 24-inches
long to 30 inches. Most hunters favor a 26- to 28-inch barrel. Longer barrel shotguns do not shoot farther or hit harder, but they maintain momentum, which helps
shooters maintain a critical "follow through," which prevents stopping the
swing and shooting behind a moving target. Some turkey hunters like shorter
barrels because they're easier to carry through thick woods. Most turkeys are
shot in the head as standing targets, so "swing" has no bearing on success.
Which gauge is best? Depends on your needs. The
larger bore sizes can fire more shot (pellets) and handle larger pellet sizes
more efficiently, so the 12- and 10 gauges are better for throwing big pellets
at big birds such as geese. Smaller bore sizes make for lighter, faster
handling guns, so they're better when you need to shoot quickly at grouse or
quail. They perform best with smaller pellet sizes.
It's important to know that large gauges do not necessarily shoot faster or
farther than small gauges. The total weight of the payload (shot charge) is
driven to relatively standard velocities in all gauges, and pellet size
determines how much energy each pellet will retain downrange. But, because large
gauges start out with more pellets in a charge, they can hit harder by
delivering more pellets to the target. But that doesn't always happen. Why not?
When hundreds of pellets in a charge of shot fly downrange, they spread out.
The farther from the muzzle, the wider the spread of the
pattern. It's possible for a 20 gauge to put more of a given shot size
on target than a 12 gauge, depending on factors such as choke, pellet hardness,
wad configuration, and more.
As a general rule, the most versatile shotgun these days is a 12 gauge
chambered to handle 3-inch shells. That means you can also shoot 2-3/4-inch
shells through it. By selecting different charge weights from 1-ounce to 2
ounces, and shot sizes from 9-shot (small) to BB (large,), you're set for just
about any bird that flies or bunny that bounces.
Shop The Sportsman's Guide for a great selection of Shotgun Ammunition!
Ron Spomer has been photographing and writing
about the outdoors for nearly four decades. He's written seven books, hunted on
six continents and been published in more than 120 magazines. He's currently rifles'
editor at "Sporting Classics," Travel columnist at "Sports Afield," Field
Editor at "American Hunter" and "Guns & Ammo" -- Optics Columnist at "North American
Hunter," Contributing Editor at "Successful Hunter," Senior Writer at "Gun
Hunter," and TV host of "Winchester World of Whitetail." He will write on Shooting Tips weekly for sportsmansguide.com. You can read his
blogs and catch some of his YouTube videos at www.Ronspomeroutdoors.com.