Shotgun Recoil Table: 12-gauge vs 20-gauge vs .410

Shotgun shell gauges

It is difficult to estimate the recoil of a shotgun because it depends on the action of the shotgun and the particular load used. So in this post, I hope to show a sufficient number of examples so you can make an intelligent estimation of how much recoil you’re willing to tolerate.

For comparison, a 12-gauge shotgun with a target load recoils similarly to a .270 Winchester rifle. The recoil of a 20-gauge shotgun with a target load is similar to the recoil of a 6.5 Creedmoor rifle, and a .410 shotgun compares to the recoil of a .223 Remington.

While that comparison is helpful for rifle shooters, if you are new to shotgun, you should understand what “gauge” means. “Gauge” is a measurement of the size of the bore of a shotgun barrel. The gauge is determined by forming lead balls the diameter of the bore of the barrel. However many balls it takes to equal one pound of lead, is the gauge measurement of the shotgun.

Shotgun Recoil with Common Target Loads for Clays

GaugeRecoil EnergyRecoil VelocityVelocityLoad Weight (Oz)
10 Gauge18.313.012001.125
12 Gauge18.012.912001.125
16 Gauge17.712.812001.125
20 Gauge11.010.112000.875
28 Gauge10.19.713300.75
.410 Bore4.66.513300.5
This chart assumes a 7-pound shotgun for each of the calculations.

All of the loads in this table are approximating a common load for shooting clay pigeons with each load. Notice that this chart makes it seem as if there is virtually no difference between 10, 12, and 16 gauge shotguns, but there certainly is.

In the chart above, the only real difference is the load weight of the projectile. All of the shotguns shoot at a similar velocity, so if the gun weight is the same, about the only other factor is the load weight of the lead projectile. If the same load weight is used, the result will be nearly identical.

That’s an important lesson for those purchasing a shotgun to reduce recoil. If you shoot a 12-gauge shotgun and want to drop down to a 20-gauge to reduce the recoil, but you purchase loads with the same projectile weight–you’ll end up in about the same place.

Another oddity in the chart above is the gun weight. This assumes a 7-pound shotgun for all the guns, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a .410 shotgun that weighs that much. Also, it’s extremely uncommon to find a 10-gauge load intended for shooting clays since that gauge is almost exclusively used for hunting larger birds or even big game with buckshot.

Shotgun Recoil with Federal Speed-Shok Waterfowl Loads

GaugeRecoil EnergyRecoil VelocityVelocityLoad Weight (Oz)
10 Gauge47.120.814501.5
12 Gauge32.817.414501.25
16 Gauge16.512.313500.938
20 Gauge18.813.115500.875
28 Gauge7.78.413500.625
.410 Bore3.25.414000.375
If we assume a 7-pound gun for all of these shotguns and put the same Federal Speed-Shok Waterfowl loads for duck and goose in them, these are the recoil numbers.

As you can see from the chart above, there is a dramatic difference between a typical waterfowl load, and a load intended for clays. In fact, the recoil is, on average, 40% more with a waterfowl load.

With this load, you can also see a much more stark difference between the shotgun gauges. Where target loads are typically capped with how much shot and powder is put in, a waterfowl load is created to send as much shot downrange as possible.

My son, Ruger, shooting a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun for the first time. He is an average-sized 12-year-old. For him, the recoil was a little surprising on the first one or two shots, but he loved it and ended up shooting about 40 shots that day.

What Is the Recoil on a 12-gauge Shotgun Like?

A 12-gauge shotgun generates 18 ft-lbs of recoil with a target load, and 32.8 ft-lbs of recoil with a typical waterfowl load. For comparison, a 12-gauge shotgun’s recoil is similar to a .270 Win or a .30-06 depending on the load. Most adults can easily handle a 12-gauge’s recoil with a little practice.

For most adults, a 12-gauge shotgun feels like a lot of recoil if they are new to shooting and can start to flinch, but more experienced shooters can handle a 12-gauge without any trouble at all. Usually, when I take out a new shooter, even larger adults, I let them warm up on a 20-gauge or else I train them a bit to not fear the recoil. After a few minutes of getting used to it, most adults can hit clays consistently even their first time out.

When I was a firearms instructor years ago, I often taught youth how to shoot shotgun for the first time. In general, I found most 12-year-olds to be too small-framed to shoot a 12-gauge shotgun well if they are new to shooting. At 14-years-old, most youth could shoot at 12-gauge shotgun. However, there are many exceptions, like my own son, who absolutely loves shooting 12-gauge even at just 12-years-old.

What Is the Recoil on a 20-gauge Shotgun Like?

A 20-gauge shotgun produces between 11 and 19 ft-lbs of recoil energy depending on the load that is used. Most people find the recoil of a 20-gauge shotgun to be similar to that of a 6.5 Creedmoor rifle. The recoil is mild for any adult and most youth shooters.

If at all possible, I start new shooters out on a 20-gauge no matter who they are. Even adults flinch because of the recoil and sound of a gun. Training shooters to get rid of that flinch is a time-consuming job, so if I can help to prevent it from developing, it makes my job much easier.

How Does the Recoil of a 12-Gauge Compare to that of a 20-Gauge Shotgun?

An average 12-gauge shotgun load produces 40-60% more recoil than a 20-gauge shotgun if all else is equal. The recoil difference between a 12-gauge and a 20-gauge shotgun is minimal in target loads, but more pronounced in waterfowl loads.

The Right 12-Gauge Can Kick Less Than a 20-Gauge Shotgun

Many shooters are concerned with the recoil of a 12-gauge shotgun. They shouldn’t be. Most adult shooters can handle a 12-gauge without any issue. If you don’t shoot at all, and then go out for the first time, you’ll feel a little soreness in the shoulder the next day, but it likely won’t keep you from shooting.

However, if you are more recoil sensitive, concerned about developing poor shooting habits, or the shotgun is for a smaller-framed or youth shooter, it’s smart to look at recoil.

But what if your 12-gauge just has too much recoil? Before dropping down to a 20-gauge, let’s make a few changes.

First, choose a semi-auto shotgun if it fits your application and price. If you’ll casually shoot clays and waterfowl, a semi-auto is a great choice. This will reduce the recoil about 40% and change the recoil from a jab to a push.

Second, change your load. Remember, if you take a 12-gauge and a 20-gauge shotgun shell, but they are loaded with the same 7/8 oz of lead and shoot at the same velocity, you’ll experience nearly identical recoil. Just going from 12-gauge to 20-gauge doesn’t change anything if the loads are similar. When shopping for shotgun shells, pick one with the lightest load weight (under one ounce), and a moderate velocity.

Third, consider swapping out your recoil pad. I’m continuously amazed at how terrible the recoil pads on most shotguns are. Most of them are too stiff to be effective at all. A softer recoil pad can make a tremendous difference. This is the recoil pad I recommend on Amazon. It just slips on the stock of your shotgun and immediately makes an impact. You can also buy a version that replaces your current recoil pad.

I always shake my head when I see companies coming up with complicated devices that go inside the stock to try and reduce recoil, without first really taking a hard look at their recoil pad and working to create something effective.

Fourth, don’t buy a lightweight gun with a short barrel. A compact, lightweight gun may feel nice in the store, or to carry around the woods, but if your aim is to reduce recoil, you’re going in the wrong direction. Most people can shoot a gun with a little longer barrel better anyway.

A Shotgun’s Action Type Dramatically Changes Recoil

Many beginning shotgunners purchase a pump shotgun as their first. That’s not a bad choice. I love pump shotguns for their simplicity, reliability, and that oh-so-satisfying sound. However, many people don’t realize that the recoil of a pump shotgun is about 40% more than that of a semi-auto shotgun.

When a semi-automatic shotgun is fired, much of the force of the shot is recycled into the action to push out the spent hull, and to load another one. Some shotguns do this by using gas, while others use inertia. Either way, the heavy bolt is forced back with this energy, which soaks up a lot of the recoil impulse.

If you are concerned with the recoil of a 12-gauge shotgun, first look at a semi-auto before you jump down to a 20-gauge.

The recoil of a semi-auto shotgun feels like a longer push rather than a sharp jab.