The Box O’ Truth #22 – 20 Gauge Shotgun

I have had several friends write me to ask, “My wife doesn’t like the recoil of a 12 gauge. How about a 20 Gauge for home defense?”

Well, let’s see what we can determine.

We will use the Waterbox O’ Truth to measure penetration.

According to a recognized expert, DocGKR, “Be aware that water generally reveals the maximum upset which can occur to a projectile in soft tissue -your actual result in living tissue may be somewhat less. You can also use the water testing to get a rough estimate of bullet penetration depth in soft tissue–bullets penetrate approximately 1.6 to 2 times as much in water as in soft tissue.”

We have a layer of denim over a layer of terrycloth to simulate semi-heavy clothing.

The water jugs are touching the back of the cloth.

This is the set-up.

This is the set-up.

We will use my old double barreled 20 Gauge shotgun and my Mossberg Maverick 12 Gauge to do the tests.

We will shoot from an across-the-room distance of about 15 feet.


First, a round of 20 Gauge #8 birdshot.


It tore a nasty hole in the cloth.


But it only penetrated one jug of water…


…and barely made a hole in the second.

This means that it only penetrated about 6 inches of water, or the equivalent of about 3 inches of flesh.

Not enough to be an effective Stopper.

22-6 How about the 12 Gauge with #8 birdshot?


Having a short barrel and no choke, it made a much bigger pattern, but also only penetrated one jug.

Not good enough for dependable Stopping.

22-8Let’s try Buckshot.

I was able to find some 20 Gauge Buckshot, some Winchester #3 Buck, with 20 pellets.


I was very surprised that it penetrated into the forth jug!

Continued below...

That’s equivalent to over 12 inches of penetration into flesh.

More than enough, according to experts.

Who’d a thunk it?

22-10Let’s try the 12 Gauge with Remington 00 Buckshot.

Sure tore up the jugs!

22-11 It penetrated 4 jugs.

This is a picture of the 00 Buck compared to the #3 Buck.

22-12Okay, how about a Rifled Slug in the 20 Gauge?

I got some Remington Slugger, 20 Gauge, 5/8 Ounce, Hollow Point Rifled Slugs.

My first shot was a little low and the hydrostatic shock blew the bottom out of the Waterbox.

What a mess!

22-13We tried again and centered the Slug in the jugs better.

It only penetrated a couple of jugs and the Slug came all to pieces.

Not very satisfactory performance.

22-14Let’s try the 12 Gauge Rifled Slug, a Federal Power-Shok 1 Ounce HPRS.

How’s that for blowing up some jugs?

22-15It penetrated 5 jugs and blew them to pieces.


This is the Slug and it's wad, recovered from the fifth jug.

This is the Slug and it’s wad, recovered from the fifth jug.

Lessons learned:
  1. As we have shown time and time again, birdshot is for little birds, not for bad guys. It makes a nasty, shallow wound, but is not a good “Stopper”.
  2. I was surprised by the penetration of the #3 Buckshot in the 20 gauge. It performed much better than I would have expected. I would not be too quick to discount Buckshot in a 20 Gauge for home defense.
  3. 00 Buck in the 12 Gauge was excellent.
  4. The Slug in the 20 did not perform very well. For some reason, it broke up into small pieces.
  5. Once again, the 12 Gauge Slug amazes us. It was devastating! Penetration was 5 jugs or almost 30 inches. That is equivalent to almost 15 inches of penetration of flesh.

Lots of dead water jugs left. A fine day of shooting.

And, shooting stuff is fun!

(Thanks to Tman for the photo help)


I received a note from a police officer that asked me not to mention names or locations about this true event.

A police officer was involved in some shotgun training, where they used #6 birdshot in the training due to lower cost. After the training session, he forgot to remove the birdshot and replace it with 00 Buckshot, the normal carry load.

That night, while on patrol, he confronted a couple of burglars and was in a shootout with them. He shot both of them with his shotgun, but forgot that he had it loaded with birdshot.

They killed the officer and escaped.

Never use birdshot against goblins. Use plated 00 Buckshot.

4 Comments on The Box O’ Truth #22 – 20 Gauge Shotgun

  1. Your basic premise (number of jugs penetrated) is totally flawed. All you are measuring is overpenetration, not tissue damage. Total deposition of all energy in the first jug ONLY is exactly what you want to happen, and is the whole premise for “frangible” handgun rounds.

    Here is a story I read (probably forty years ago) in a hunting mag. The author (a “white hunter” safari guide) was elaborating on “stopping power” (which in his case was stopping a lion in full charge from killing his very expensive client after said client missed his shot). His choice?? A shotgun loaded with Number 1 buckshot. That delivered the most tissue damage, fastest drop in blood pressure, and the MAXIMUM STOPPING POWER.

  2. Water jugs measure penetration. According to every reputable source (IE: FBI), penetration is the determining factor in stopping a threat. The projectile has to penetrate deep tissue and organs to maximize blood loss.

    Ironically, the story you reference does not back up your position. #1 buck is well regarded as being a reliable stopper offering good penetration without the over-penetration concerns of 00 buck. Normally that is a concern in the urban environment but it is possible the hunting guide wanted the additional wound tracks at the expense of a little more penetration.

    Frangible pistol rounds are about useless unless you’re training in a shoot house.

  3. tito bravo // May 3, 2016 at 2:41 pm // Reply

    Bird shot will kill a person

  4. I say that anyone that stands 15 feet in front of the black holes of a double barreled 20 gauge and lets anyone else unload both loaded with #6 birdshot will be dead. Your point is moot, you are either silly, have way to much time on your hands or are just plain ignorant when it comes to what lead traveling at very high speed does to the human body especially at “across the room” ranges. I’ve seen it, its deadly, ugly and not worth debating. Any kid that grew up when and where I did was taught from a very early age that a .22 slug, birdshot or a high powered rifle round would all 3 kill you just as dead. My kids were taught the same. Dead is dead – there are no variable degrees. As a grown man you should know that. Find something to do that is more worthwhile.

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