By: T.J. Rademacher
The venerable 12 gauge can do it all. It can be loaded in a 3 1/2-inch configuration and pack enough payload to knock down just about any small to medium sized game animal that walks or flies on this continent. Most 12-gauge auto loaders will reliably cycle all common light 2 ¾ trap and skeet loads available. Most folks feel this is enough. Is there really a good argument for sub gauges in 2022? I’ll admit when the sub gauge craze resurfaced recently in the waterfowl community I may have pictured a person behind a pair of horn rimmed glasses with a man bun, especially when I heard someone express their passion for shooting ducks over decoys with their 28 gauge. A 12 gauge makes things more dead and does a better job right? I mean what in the skinny jeans and mustache wax are these guys talking about? Well, turns out there actually are quite a few arguments for their use. I’m not a complete convert to the smallest of fowling pieces, but I do have to admit some of the merits make sense. I also use a 20 gauge quite regularly now. To be completely honest there really isn’t much that a twenty gauge gives up with the modern loads that a 12 gauge is going to offer a distinct advantage in for general purposes. Obviously pay loads are lighter but it’s to the point of splitting hairs for most applications one would likely encounter in the field.
In a previous article I touched on shot shell technology. How we have gotten back to lead-like performance in some offerings for waterfowl loads. Most older traditional loads weren’t screaming fast before the introduction of steel. So with the options available now you have plenty of kinetic energy transfer to reliably kill birds at reasonable ranges. Also as I have previously stated in another article if your gun is patterned right it really may not matter what gauge you shoot. If you are being responsible with your shooting opportunities. Your choke and load selection matter just as much here as they do with your 12 gauge. I’ll also add that many serious hunters have found that the patterns from sub gauges are often more consistent than those of traditional 12 gauge loads. Many turkey hunters swear by the 20 gauge and its ability to maintain super tight patterns for those spring gobblers.
12 gauges weigh more and if you are out slogging through the marsh with a gun that isn’t as heavy as a more traditional gas operated model it makes a difference. A lot of upland guys use these lighter offerings for just this reason. There is an old saying that goes “ounces add up to pounds and pounds equal pain”. This is true. Hold about a 7 lb. weight in front of you and then a 6 lb. weight, notice the time difference you are able to keep it elevated. Fatigue is cumulative and after a long day in the field the lighter gun is going to be way easier on you. The lighter weights on well balanced sub gauges allow for very fast pointing for instinctive shooting. This makes them great for times when you are in thick cover and need to squeeze that quick snap shot off at a wood duck spiraling down through the trees.
The recoil on a sub gauge is also lighter. This will allow for faster follow up shots when you weren’t quite on the mark the first time. Also for high volume shooting they will treat your shoulder much better. Guys with shoulder problems often find these firearms to be much more comfortable to shoot and less likely to aggravate injuries as badly due to the reduced recoil impulse. Smaller framed shooters such as women and kids are prime candidates for sub gauge shotguns. This is especially true when being introduced to shooting sports and hunting. It is important to ensure that the first experience is not intimidating and picking a tamer cartridge such as a .410 may be an easy way to start building confidence around firearms.
Availability of ammo is really not much of a factor for all but the smallest bores. You can reliably find 20 and 28-gauge ammunition on shelves with good regularity. Obviously, this can vary due to the supply chain situations that have been encountered recently but, it is safe to say you can find it even if it’s not exactly cheap at the moment.
Sub gauges are a great way to expand your experience in both realms of shooting sports and hunting. You can do it all and with less recoil. Components have come a long way and the gap on performance has closed up enough to where you really should consider sub gauges as an option for your next adventure. They fill niches in your hunting styles you really never knew you needed until you take one for a walk. This is coming from someone who first thought you needed a 3.5 inch 12-gauge load to shoot wood ducks and mallards when I was first starting out as a young water fowler.
As I gained more knowledge I went to 3 inch 12 gauge loads and finally after some encouragement from friends and proof in the industry I firmly believe there isn’t a reason not to own a couple of sub gauge guns. You don’t have to but you should if you can afford to do so. It just makes it that much more pleasant.
Be kind and encouraging to new hunters and shooters. Take kids and inexperienced people. This pastime can be very intimidating to people who are interested. Be open. Be accommodating. We need new blood to keep our awesome traditions as sportsmen and women alive