When looking for a home-defense firearm, buyers tend to run into salesmen and friends with a one-size-fits-all mentality. The boiler plate answer for a home-defense shotgun will usually be an 18- to 20-inch barreled 12-gauge pump. This particular type of defensive shotgun has several strengths to support its regular recommendation, such as a variety of makes and models readily available, they’re inexpensive to buy, mechanically reliable and ammunition is plentiful and diverse. Not to mention, the 12-gauge has a long history of effectively neutralizing threats.
However, the 12-gauge pump is not a practical solution for every shooter. These shotguns tend to feel heavy, overly long and awkward to small-framed shooters, and successfully operating the sliding forearm under stressful circumstances requires a good deal of practice. Many less-experienced shooters often tend to short-stroke the slide (not bringing the slide fully to the rear). This human-factor malfunction will quickly knock a perfectly reliable shotgun out of commission until it's cleared.
Finally, the 12-gauge pump produces what can be considered to be a stout level of recoil. This is not just an issue of comfort, but of control. It's difficult to make successful follow-up shots if the shotgun is driving the shooter around the room, instead of the other way around. Most importantly, if the gun feels uncomfortable or painful to operate, then home defenders are not going to practice enough to become proficient.
A practical solution to the potential short comings of the 12-gauge pump with certain shooters is the 20-gauge semi-auto. The human factor problems inherent in the pump-action are eliminated by the semi-auto design, and since some energy produced by the fired shell is used to cycle the action, felt recoil is effectively reduced. And, best of all, semi-autos are usually faster when firing follow-up shots, especially for beginners.
The 20-gauge shell offers a significant reduction in recoil while still delivering a significant level of stopping power. In his book “StressFire II,” Massad Ayoob, a self-defense expert who supports the use of 20-gauge shotguns for personal protection, wrote: "Delivering roughly the ballistic force of two .44 Magnum revolver rounds at once, the twenty is described by most shooters as having about half or little more than half the recoil of a 12-gauge with the same type of projectiles. Throwing its lead at about the same velocity as the twelve, the twenty merely has less lead to throw."
Although the 12-gauge offers more ammunition choices, excellent defensive options are available for the 20-gauge. Federal, Remington and Winchester all provide a variety of loads appropriate for personal protection. The rifled slugs weigh in at between 5/8 to ¾ ounces, and launch at between 1,500 to 1,600 fps. If we quantify 20-gauge slugs using handgun cartridge nomenclature, the shells are launching .62 caliber bullets weighing between 273 to 328 grains at 400 to 500 fps faster than most defensive handgun rounds.
Common 20-gauge buckshot loads are filled with 20 pellets of No. 3 buckshot. Each shot pellet is a .25-caliber ball weighing 23.4 grains. This gives the shell a total payload of 468 grains with a velocity of around 1,200 fps. The 20 gauge is not the wimpy gun and ammunition combination some folks make it out to be. However, the defensive and tactical 20-gauge market has been left unattended, that is, until Mossberg stepped in to fill it.
The SA-20 Tactical Based on the company’s successful and reliable series of hunting shotguns, Mossberg's SA-20 Tactical offers a variety of features ideal for defensive applications. First, the bore is chambered to accept both2 3/4 and 3-inch shells. The matte-blue receiver is also topped with a Picatinny rail for mounting optics, and it comes with an adjustable ghost ring rear sight. The front sight is a steel AR-style sight fitted with a red fiber optic.
The checkered forearm and shoulder stock are both made of lightweight black polymer. The shoulder stock is fitted with a vented rubber recoil pad and is available with or without a soft, textured rubber pistol grip. Other features include a 14-inch length-of-pull, a generously sized operating handle, a trigger guard cross-bolt safety, sling swivels and an unloaded weight of just 6 pounds.
The SA-20 is a light and handy shotgun to work with. The native sighting system is well designed. The bright fiber-optic front sight makes it easy to get solid shots on target quickly. The combination of the rubberized pistol grip and recoil pad worked well to tame recoil and prepare for follow-up shots.
Semi-autos, whether handguns, rifles or shotguns, can be ammo-sensitive. This is a polite way of saying these guns can jam when loaded with certain kinds of ammunition. With this in mind, I ran the SA-20 Tactical with a wide variety of shells in defensive situations. From inexpensive lightweight birdshot loads all the way up to 3-inch slug loads, the SA-20 consumed them all without any jams or problems.
Formal testing consisted of firing slugs, birdshot and buckshot loads at 7 and 25 yards. Using Birchwood-Casey Shoot•N•C Silhouette Target Kits made the tests easy to conduct. The stiff cardboard silhouettes were much more useful than a moving box, and the adhesive targets made results easy to read and measure. Slugs proved to have excellent defensive accuracy in the SA-20. Winchester's 3/4-ounce slugs produced 2- to 2.5-inch groups when fired from a standing position at 25 yards.
Some folks feel the need to load their defensive shotguns with birdshot. With this in mind, Federal Premium Wing-Shok 3-inch 1 1/4-ounce No. 4 loads and the Winchester Super X Upland & Small Game 2 3/4-inch, 1-ounce No. 4 birdshot loads were fired into targets set at 7 yards. Both loads produced consistent overall patterns of 12 to 14 inches, with 70 percent of the shot forming dense central groups of 7 to 8 inches.
Of course, for some, the best choice for self-defense is buckshot. The load used for this test was the Federal Premium 2 3/4-inch 20-pellet No. 3 Buckshot round. The pellets consistently formed 9- to 10-inch groups at 7 yards. Since it produces tighter patterns, deeper penetration and a similar level of felt recoil as the heavy birdshot loads, the No. 3 buckshot loads are one way to go.
Final Thoughts The Mossberg SA-20 Tactical shotgun fills an important niche. The 20-gauge chambering will likely reduce its appeal to military and law enforcement organizations but the tactical enhancements make it an attractive option for home defense. Too often people get caught up in the mindset of thinking they need the most powerful firearm instead of the most practical. The SA-20 offers a feature set and recoil level that almost anyone could use to successfully protect their home and loved ones.