The 20 Round Mag vs. 30 Rounds — When Less Is More

Few people have ever complained that they’ve had too much ammo during a firefight—it’s normally not a bad thing to have lots of rounds on tap. But as far as magazines are concerned, is it always paramount that we have the largest magazine possible in our weapon? Conversely, are there times when a smaller magazine might be an advantage? I believe there are, and we’re going to explore the concept of the 30 round vs. the 20 round mag here more in-depth.

Most Popular Platforms

For our purposes, we’ll concern ourselves mainly with the AR-15 and AK-47 type weapons platforms, both for standardization (since most people are familiar with them) and for relevance (because they are the most commonly encountered weapons in the world). These principles will also apply to other weapons systems though, too.

AK and AR with 20-rounder magazines.
AK-47 (AK-63D) Underfolder on the left, AR-15 pistol on the right. Both have a 20 round mag in place.

There are instances in which the 20-round magazine is superior to its larger brother, the 30-round magazine.

Magazine Types: 30 Round vs. 20 Round

For decades, I’ve always thought that the AK simply handled better with the 20 round mag option. The 7.62x39mm cartridge being heavier than the 5.56mm, the AK just gained extra weight with the 30-round mags compared to the AR-15/M-16. And the AK’s 30-round magazine is a good bit longer, too, making it even more ungainly. The first time I ever tried a 20 round mag in the AK, it seemed to change the handling characteristics in a huge, positive way. These days, there are various metal “Tanker Mags” with 20-round capacity that are made for the AK series.

AR and AK 20 and 30-round magazines.
(Left to Right) AR-15 20-round and 30-round, AK-47 20-round and 30-round magazines. The difference in length is readily apparent. PMags are ultra-reliable and very durable.

Aside from those, there is another wonderful invention: Magpul AK mags! I think they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread! Light, durable, and reliable, they’re everything an AK mag should be.

For the AR/M-16 series, we have the classic military aluminum GI magazines, which have been an old standby for decades. For years, there were just 20-rounders, and then the 30s came along.

The next big jump was when MagPul entered the fray with their Polymer magazines. As with the AK, they are durable, light, and reliable. At the time of writing, all MagPul magazines are relatively cheap (which means you should pick some up NOW because sooner or later, the politicians will screw everything up).

Handling of the 20 Round Mag

The 20-round magazine seems to make rifles’ handling characteristics less “bottom heavy” and more agile, which is an excellent thing. Nowadays, we see all manner of add-ons bolted to rifles in the form of lights, lasers, scopes, and sights. Rail systems seem to scream out to be filled, and verily, people fill them! Guys seem to love to turn what was once a handy, 8-pound carbine into something crew-served, resembling one of those Russian Heavy Machine Guns from WWII that had the shield and wheels on it.

AK and AR with 30-round magazines.
AK and AR Pistol with 30-round magazines.
AK and AR with 20-rounder magazines.
Here we see the same two with 20-rounders. Even with a 20 round mag in place, the AK magazine is still longer than the AR. At least we’ve reduced some of that length.

I’ve always enjoyed the lesser weight of the 20 round mag, whether on the AK or the AR weapons system. It seems to improve things and make the carbine track faster onto the target.

In and Around Vehicles

One area where shorter magazines really shine is when we are operating in and around vehicles. Trying to exit a vehicle in a hurry with a long, curved magazine jutting from the bottom of your favorite blaster rifle can plain suck. The damn thing will find every solitary fixture to hang up on that it can—seat belts, web gear, window frames, dashboards, the console, other weapons—you name it, it’ll stick to those pieces like a magnet. It sounds funny, doing a Keystone Cops routine while trying to pile out of a vehicle, but if there’s an incoming fire, it will spoil the picnic.

AK in a car with a 20 round mag
The AK platform has a lot of sharp edges and is easy to hang up when operating in vehicles. Sure, the stock could be folded up, but it’s nowhere near as effective when employed like that. Using a 20 round mag cuts down on the hang-ups.
AR pistol in car with a 20 round mag
With the shorter 20-round magazine in place, the already compact AR pistol becomes even friendlier to operate from a vehicle.

Firing out the vehicle’s window with a shorter magazine will be far easier than a long one.

AR firing between door and car frame.
Here the author demonstrates firing between the door and frame of the vehicle with the AR pistol.
AK aimed between door and car frame.
Here the AK has a bit more room with the door open, firing between the door and car frame.

Now consider that not only do you have the long 30-rounder hanging out the bottom, but there’s also an optic on top. That makes the height of the weapon that much more. The lights and lasers that also might be bolted onto the blaster will only add to the frustration.

Exiting vehicle with AK underfolder and a 20 round mag
Un-assing the vehicle with the AK and a 20 round mag.
Exiting vehicle with AR and 20-rounder.
When leaving the vehicle, maintain control of the door so that it does not rebound and smack you in the face. Again, the AR pistol is superior for this type of work.

After you’ve unassed the vehicle, you may also be firing around your or other vehicles. I.e., engaging bad guys around cars. It’s good to be able to drop to the ground and take out the bad guys before they tag you. Having a 20 round mag in place may allow that to happen much faster because you may be able, depending on circumstances, to go into the standard prone underneath the car and take out their legs.

Feet may be your only target around vehicles.
Feet. This may be the only target of opportunity when fighting around vehicles. Don’t pass it up.

With a 30-rounder in place, you’ll likely have to assume Rollover Prone, which is not very fast and certainly slower than standard prone. So that 20 round mag may save you time, which amounts to saving your life. Personally, I like standard prone much better than Rollover Prone. It’s faster, and I get better hits more quickly.

Prone, with rifle canted to the side.
Prone with the pistol slightly canted, working the angles to engage bad guys under vehicles.
Prone with rifle straight.
Prone, engaging bad guys. The 20 round mag is far and away superior for this sort of work compared to the 30-round magazine. You can get much lower with the 20-rounders.

Also, consider that you’ll almost certainly have several 30-round magazines in your vest that you’ll fall back on if the fertilizer really hits the fan.

AR pistol inside car, very compact.
The AR pistol truly shines in a vehicular role. Trimming it down with a shorter mag only adds to the attraction.

Low Profile

Though we don’t usually carry an AR or AK for “Low Profile” work, consider that the 20 round mags do allow this far easier than the 30-rounders. No, you won’t be slipping that semi-auto under your tuxedo like James Bond’s Walther PPK, but there may be circumstances where you want a long arm nearly and undercover. Deploying it quickly with a 20 round mag in place will be a lot easier.

High Speed Gear taco mag carrier.
Some shooters like to keep a spare rifle magazine on their belts. Military, Law Enforcement, Citizens…they all have instances where this is a good thing. A 30-rounder does not carry as well. Here we see a 20-round PMag in an HSG Tactical Taco. This is a handy way to have a spare reload available fast.

As an aside, if you’re going to keep a spare rifle magazine directly on your shooting belt. A 20 round mag carries much easier than a 30-rounder, given the shorter length. Let’s face it, if something is a pain to carry, we will likely soon find a reason to ditch it, so the added convenience will, in the end, mean that 20 rounds on the belt is a lot better than 30 rounds left back in the police cruiser or on the plate carrier that we do not have with us.

Prone Shooting with the 20 Round Mag

Competition shooters will almost always use shorter magazines, i.e., 20-rounds (sometimes even less than 20 rounds), because it allows them to get lower to the ground and use whatever support they use. Be it a bipod, backpack, shooting bag, rest, or what have you; the shorter magazine makes it far easier. Being lower to the ground makes us more stable and accurate. Using the 30-rounder will force you to stick your head up higher, making it a better target for the bad people. Because maybe we’re not shooting competition for points; we may be doing it for our lives.

Moreover, the 20-round magazines are easier to maneuver and load from the prone position.

Ease of Reloading

When inserting a magazine into the mag well of a rifle, the shorter magazines tend to be easier to insert because of their shorter stature. Many shooters like to grip the magazines at the bottom (sometimes called the “beer can” grip); the 30-rounders have more length sticking out the top of our grip. The shorter 20-rounders are simply easier to handle and insert into the magazine well. Try it; you’ll see what I mean.

The Cons Of The 20-rounders

The vast majority of ammunition pouches for plate carriers and chest rigs these days are geared toward magazines of the 30-round persuasion. For this reason, the 20-rounders will not fit well into these magazine pouches because they’ll be difficult to grab in an emergency, given their short length.

20-round mag in Blackhawk Plate Carrier.
Placing a 20 round mag in a pouch (far left) designed for a 30-rounder has apparent problems. Try digging that sucker out of there! It took me several seconds, and I wasn’t even wearing the rig at the time!

A way around this is mounting individual mag pouches such as the Taco pouches that are all the rage. Having an extra 20 round mag or two on our gear might be a convenient thing to have.

HSG Taco on Blackhawk Plate Carrier
Here’s a solution: mounting an HSG Taco on your gear for a fast 20 round mag reload that is readily accessible. The nice thing is that you can put it anywhere with PALS. So mount it high, front & center if you want—mount several. Flexibility is the beauty of this one.

The other noticeable thing is that 20 rounds are less than 30 rounds, so our capacity is less. Therefore, each operator must determine if ten fewer rounds (or eight for those who load their 30-round mags with 28 rounds) will be a deal-breaker.

Personally, for me, as a home defender, I won’t worry about having a couple fewer rounds. I have plenty of spare magazines in my house should they be required. For police, it likely won’t be a big deal either. However, it could be a factor for military units that might need maximum firepower immediately, depending on their mission.

Slicing the pie with AR pistol.
Slicing the pie is easier with a 20 round mag. The rifle (or, in this case, pistol) is lighter and more maneuverable. The less you fight your gear, the more speed you gain.

I’ve picked up several MagPul 20-round magazines for my ARs and AK, and they are my favorites overall. Of course, I do have several 30-rounders as well for my magazine carriers. But the 20-round mags have, and always have had, a special place in my heart.

Should you run right out and buy some 20-rounders? Well, that’s a silly question! Get moving!

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

Tags

Sign Up for Newsletter

Let us know what topics you would be interested:
© 2022 GunMag Warehouse. All Rights Reserved.
Copy link