Gun Digest

What Happened to the 16-Gauge Shotgun?

A 16-gauge pump gun is a thing of ergonomic beauty. This one is a Winchester Model 12, from the 1930s.
A 16-gauge pump gun is a thing of ergonomic beauty. This one is a Winchester Model 12, from the 1930s.

The 16 is the most logical of all the gauges. Its bore diameter is .662-inch, almost exactly two-thirds of an inch. A 16-gauge lead ball weighs exactly an ounce. An ounce of shot in a true 16-gauge bore creates a shot column of perfect dimensions for a good pattern.

In the United States, in the early years of the twentieth century, the 16 was known as the “gentleman’s gauge.” This differentiated it from the down-market 12, which was used by market gunners, farmers, and deer hunters. The romantic ideal of a 16 was a sleek double—a Parker, perhaps, or an Ansley Fox—intended for hunting upland birds like bobwhite quail and ruffed grouse.

The 16 comes by this patrician image honestly. Its antecedents go back centuries. In the era of blackpowder cartridge shotguns and rifles, 16-bores were made for hunting big game with solid ball, as well as for fowling. As we have already noted, on paper, the 16 is the perfect shotgun, the right size load creating the optimum shot column for delivering the perfect pattern from a gun weighing exactly six pounds.

So What Went Wrong?

In Europe, nothing. There, the 16 is still very popular and was widely used in making combination guns like drillings. In England, the 16 was never as popular as the 12, but there were always a few around, and there still are. In fact, the last year or two has seen a fad for 16s; during a visit to Holland & Holland’s Bruton Street shop, in late 2012, I saw a rack with a half-dozen 16-bore doubles just waiting for new homes.

In the United States, the 16’s loss of popularity is generally blamed on the originators of skeet. When the rules for skeet were drawn up, in 1926, it was decreed that the game would be officially shot with four gauges—12, 20, 28, and .410—and that left the 16 an orphan. You might think this would have had a minimal effect, but the course of events went roughly as follows.

With a widespread decline in game bird numbers and strict bag limits, shooters were left with trap and skeet, if they wanted to do much shooting. Trap, of course, is a 12-gauge game. Skeet spread rapidly, and soon manufacturers were making guns and ammunition tailored to its requirements.

The 16-gauge (center) compared to the 12- (left) and the 20-gauge.

Competition shooting eats up huge amounts of ammunition, and there was intense rivalry among Federal, Winchester, and Remington, and several other companies no longer with us, to produce winning loads. Research money was poured into improving 12, 20, 28, and .410 ammunition, while the 16, which was no longer selling in anywhere near the volumes of the 12 or 20, was left to languish. Even the hulls were not as good; where a 12-gauge man could shoot Federal Gold Medal, Winchester AA, or Remington Premier STS and reload his own, 16-gauge shotshells used old technology and could not be reloaded nearly as well. When it comes to volume shooting, you need to be either independently wealthy or load your own, and successful reloading is dependent on components. Not only were good 16-gauge hulls hard to find, shooters were limited in their choices of plastic wads and shot cups. As well, lacking the volume-production savings of the 12 or 20, 16-gauge components were relatively expensive.

As for factory ammunition, manufacturers seemed determined to make the 16 the ballistic equivalent of the 12, presumably believing no one would shoot a 16 otherwise. Sixteen-gauge “heavy field” loads were hot and threw 11/8 or 1¼ ounces of lead. In a standard-weight 16, they kicked badly, never patterned particularly well, and were expensive. Is it any wonder the 16 went into a steady, sad decline?

Finding 16-Gauge Shells

RST, the boutique ammunition company that supplies lovely, light loads in all different gauges and case lengths to keep old guns shooting and provide comfortable shooting even for new guns, makes 16-gauge ammunition to suit any gun ever made. More components are available today from reloading supply firms like Ballistic Products, and there is an increasing amount of reloading data for everything from low-pressure loads for vintage guns to hefty waterfowl loads using non-lead shot.

Ballistically, the 16 lies between the 20 and 12. It is at its best with shot charges of 7/8-ounce to 11/8 ounces. A 16-gauge double weighing 6¼ pounds, with 30-inch barrels, is the kind of upland gun that grouse and woodcock hunters rhapsodize about (or bobwhite quail and dove hunters, for that matter). You can carry it all day and hardly feel it, then shoot a hundred rounds and be ready for more. Unfortunately, in this era of non-lead shot for migratory birds, the standard 16 really doesn’t have the case capacity to accommodate the bulkier steel-shot charges required, so it is best relegated to upland status.

The aura of the “gentleman’s gauge” has crept into the limelight once again. America’s classic doubles in 16-gauge, such as the Parker, Ithaca, Fox, and L.C. Smith, are in great demand on the used gun market and their prices are high. Still, if there is a bargain to be had in guns, it is in the 16-gauge pumps from years past—the Winchester Model 12, the Remington Model 31, and the Ithaca Model 37. In 16-gauge, these guns are a pleasure to carry and shoot, and they generally sell for considerably less than a 20 or 28 in comparable condition. And, if you can find a Belgian-made Browning in 16, whether it is a Superposed or an Auto-5, grab it. Those don’t sell for peanuts by any means, but think of it as a lifetime investment in pleasant shooting.

Generally speaking, German and Austrian 16s from days past range from technically very fine to rather crude. What most have in common, alas, is that they are really not made for wingshooting as we know it. They are either combined with a rifle barrel or have excessive drop in a rifle-style stock.

I have strayed somewhat from discussion of the gauge itself into the guns that use it, but conversations about the 16 tend to do that. The reason? The 16 can be built into the ideal upland game gun, whether it in a double, pump, or semi-auto. The big ammunition makers are starting—tentatively, hesitantly, seemingly reluctantly—to offer some 16-gauge loads that are civilized in punch and recoil and still suitable for dove shooting or for an informal round of skeet. Magazine articles proclaiming the rebirth of the 16 are almost as numerous as those mourning its death. Here, in this book, we are doing nothing except announcing improving signs of life in a lovely old gauge that deserves to be embraced by all.

This excerpt is from the Gun Digest Shooter's Guide to Shotguns.

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