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!

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.

21 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.

  5. In view of all your genuinely interesting & worthwhile The-Box-o’-Truth posts (including this one), I’m more than a little surprised at the negative feedback!

    As for me, I don’t have the ready access to a range that you evidently have, and I don’t own or have access to all the different weapons that you do, so I’m sincerely grateful when someone with your expertise & the ability to perform tests (in or out of the “laboratory environment”) does what you do & publishes the results.

    Thanks for the information & for letting us know how you got it. And for those guys out there who know so much more about it, why don’t you just start start your own blog?

  6. Any chance of doing a video of a contact shot to a watermelon using 20 gauge birdshot?

  7. I like your articles! They are fun to read and I like your style or writing!
    Don’t listen to the haters, keep on doing what your doing you are having fun and the observations you share are interesting! Shooting stuff is indeed fun.

  8. I have cervical stenosis so a 12 gauge is out. I chose a 20 gauge and use 9 pellet loads of #1 buckshot. I feel safe enough with it.

  9. Enjoyed your article . Well done and great pictures . I liked seeing some of the differences between 12ga & 20ga. Good job !

  10. Harlod Nevin // October 29, 2016 at 10:49 am // Reply

    Hello Friends, 10/29

    1) I still have the 20 gauge double barrel coach my Dad gave me as a gift when I was a boy at 11 or 12. I have wonderful memories of us hunting white tail together. We mostly used shotguns and bow hunted.
    2) First and most important is always safety as I hear clearly in the comments above. I was taught that a death-ray extends from all guns and even includes toy guns. And, never point anything at anybody. I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of children reading these posts but who knows? And yes, 22 bird shot or even a firecracker is deadly.
    3) I have brought home a few dozen white tail deer during shotgun season. All eaten with no waste. Each was taken with my old 20 gauge with a rifled slug at a range of 10 to 50 yards. And, they all dropped like a rock with no worry about stopping power of the shell or gauge.
    4) My MAIN POINT, if I may, is not about size but accuracy. I would have a tendency to be excited as a boy and overshoot. I was a deadly accurate without the excitement but missed some beautiful chances when excited. I had to learn to take that extra breath and pull down, aim and align in the kill zone. I expect very high anxiety, fear, and anger would be the tendency if confronted by an ass hole, in my home, that wanted to hurt me or my kids. So I would suggest using something that doesn’t hurt your ears and take the time to aim at the heart. Don’t talk except to say GET OUT, and let the gun talk for you.
    5) And, my old double 20 gauge coach is silent and gets dusty, but ready.

    Thanks Dad!,
    Your Son

  11. In the 1890’s the British Army was fighting in Sudan and cavalry officers armed with .455 revolvers found them unreliable stoppers. The officers asked English gunmakers for a better option and they received 20 gauge double barreled “pistols”, the forerunner of the Ithaca Auto-Burglar. Loaded with buckshot they were found to be totally reliable stoppers. Here’s a link to a story about them

  12. I once put a load of 12 GA #6 bird shot to an inch and a half hard cover book at about 10 feet. What else are you supposed to do with math books the Student Book Exchange won’t buy back? The result was a ragged inch plus hole clean through. At close range it doesn’t matter what you put in the scatter gun, any living thing is in a world of hurt.

  13. With other people in the house, or nearby neighbors, over penetration would be a consideration. I don’t believe FBI penetration standards care about that. I would think a body full of birdshot from a 20GA would be sufficient to cause enough damage to stop someone, without the chance of killing someone in another room by passing through and continuing on. Has anyone ever talked to a person who survived a 20GA #6 birdshot to the core area at 15 feet? I’d like to know what they think about the experience. I don’t think I’d care for a gut full of birdshot, even if it was only 3 inches into me, with a second one on it’s way, probably in my bent over head position.

  14. About 50 plus years ago, I was taught that #4 to #7 1/2 bird shot across an average room aimed at the crotch is the best deterrent of the need for a follow up shot unless there is a second intruder! Think about it! There are two hips, two femur arteries and most intruders being male have a set of hangy down parts that are very tender and most are quite attached to, thus they are down for the count and will in all probability bleed out in seconds! Plus with small shot, there is less of a chance of injuring a family member in another room or having heavier projectiles leave the house/building you are in. I agree that at a range of over 20 meters, bird shot is not the answer, but when the alarm goes off and the dogs start barking, we wait for the intruders with an O/U 12 and a SxS 20. Yes we feel quite well protected! I have photographed scenes where bird shot loaded shotguns have been used and the damage caused. It is NOT a pretty sight with no survivors!

  15. If a bird kicks my door in I’ll use bird shot, otherwise I’ll use 12 ga 00 buckshot. Yes, bird shot can kill, no I would not want to be shot with it. 12 ga 00 buck will not only penetrate but it will hit with much more force, a hit that will stop a man in his tracks. Can I be 100% sure of a one shot stop? No, that’s what the other 5 shells are for, insurance. And, yes, you do have to aim a shotgun. Multiple home invaders? Best have practiced shoot and reload before the shotgun goes dry. If you stay in a corner, everybody is gonna be shooting at that corner, if they hang around after their buddy goes down. 2 3/4 inch standard load 00, to me, has very little felt recoil. A 20 ga with #3 buck should be even less, maybe even allow for faster follow up shots, if needed. Try it before you need it, and may you never need it.

  16. Impressed with the penetration you got with a 20-gauge with #3 buck.

    Methinks the 20-gauge is incredibly underrated for home defense use. You have enough power to drop an intruder in their tracks, yet less recoil than a 12G and a lighter gun that swings/tracks faster. You’re back on target for follow-up shots faster, while being just as lethal as a bigger gun.

    Nice combination of attributes. Too bad there aren’t many 20G tactical shotguns out there, the Mossy 500 is one of the few that comes in 20G.

    • Look at the Stoeger Coach Gun SxS 20ga. 20″ barrel 36″ overall 6.8 lbs and has a tac model with upper and lower rails.

  17. gary moore // March 24, 2017 at 4:28 pm // Reply

    How far will a 30-06 penetrate with enough force to wound in water ?? Less than a foot so whats your point ? Lt USN Team 1 med ret.

  18. Agree on birdshot in ANYTHING of any caliber for self defense. Shooting must be a justifiable event, meaning you need the BG terminally down with preferably ONE shot.

    Penetration is arguable insofar as needing your bullet to penetrate a BARRIER between you and BG, doing it’s job terminally on BG AFTER it goes through a Barrier. i.e. your tests in shooting different calibers through windshields, then being terminal on BG sitting in car. ** personal observation, the ANGLE from shooter to BG relating to ANGLE the bullet in actually striking the windshield is HUGE fact in whether the bullet penetrates the windshield, much less strike GB in car seat. Bullet hitting directly perpendicular to glass of windshield, (especially a 9mm)can go through depending on bullet / velocity; HOWEVER, when shooting at a ANGLE like 50′ away against sloping windshield, most 9mm and other common ‘police’ loads strike and fail to penetrate and glance off….. even an angled door (officer needing protection in traffic stop) can deflect 9mm and 40’s.

    GLASER Safety slugs, don’t penetrate,, blowing into pieces on glass, drywall or whatever, shooting a water JUG (paint BACK half, shooting front, jug of water BLOWN APART, but usually you’ll find NO holes in back half of the jug. All the energy , all of the lead shot, fragments of brass jacket material are expended in that gallon of water or 3″ of more substantial mater. The 9mm will blow 8# block plumber’s clay into dollar size chunks of clay, or smaller, having pieces of lead shot or shredded pieces brass jacket, NOT survivable. IF heavy clothing is wrapped or covering the jug in direct contact, the GLASER goes thru clothing with no provable difference in Blowing up the water jug.

    Refer to remarks by this reviewer in another email, referring to Coroner assistant with Deputy Sheriff as witness shot John Doe being cremated the following morning, firing 9mm Glaser into stomach, getting MAX of 4″ penetration covering about 12″ in area surrounding point of impact. Coroner opinion, with Glaser NOT survivable regardless as they could not get enough blood into person shot in enough time to overcome blood loss and shock trauma. Fact, happening as described.

  19. Experienced cop and trainer Massad Ayoob tells it like it is:
    20 gauge is lethal!
    I favour the Mossberg 500 Bantam with a recoil pad for greater reach (and the wife can use it, too, without the pad).

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