By Chris Batha
Great Britain’s Gun Barrel Proof Act of 1868 established the standard for shotgun bores using one pound of lead divided into equal-weight balls—the diameter of one of the balls becoming the gauge. For example, the 12-gauge standard was determined by dividing a pound of lead into 12 equal balls, each measuring .729″ in diameter. The 16 gauge was determined by dividing a pound of lead into 16 balls, each measuring .663″. And so on.
This standard resulted in the gauges we know today: 10, 12, 16, 20, 28 and .410. (The .410 is actually the bore diameter and is the equivalent of a 67.62 gauge.) During the Victorian period there were several other gauges, including the 14, 24 and 32. (The 24 and 32 gauges remain popular in Europe for shooting small birds, and guns in these gauges are still made in Italy, Belgium and Germany.)
Lately there has been a resurgence in the popularity of small gauges among fine-gun enthusiasts and collectors, and now several bespoke makers are being commissioned to build these for discerning clients.
Most everyone can appreciate the weight and handling of small-gauge guns—guns that, on a true scaled frame, weigh from 6 pounds 2 ounces to 6 pounds 10 ounces in a side by side and 6 pounds 8 ounces to 7 pounds in an over/under. These lighter guns combined with smaller cartridges and lighter loads are well suited to upland hunters who “walk a lot and shoot a little.”
Many shooters I have spoken with have described their introductions to the sport being with a small gauge—typically a .410, 28 or 20. Those first shooting days often make an impression that matures into a lingering fondness for small-gauge guns.
That said, the .410 has developed a reputation for being the perfect gun for introducing a youngster to shooting; but nothing could be further from the truth. Its light weight combined with the wrong choice of cartridge can create excessive recoil, and the marginal patterns it produces can result in discouraging misses. Far better to start a beginner with a 28- or 20-gauge with light loads.
Smallbores are lighter and offer swifter handling.
During my work instructing, organizing hunts and doing gunfittings, I have found several fathers, sons and daughters who still have the family “starter shotgun” that has been passed down through several generations. My “starter shotgun” was a bolt-action 9mm “Garden Gun.” In the UK these guns were sold for shooting small pests on large country estates and in gardens. Not having been “to the manor born,” I used mine to stalk a variety of vermin; but I rarely took a wing shot, as cartridges were too scarce and expensive to risk wasting on a miss.
As we grow up, we tend to leave behind the small gauges and graduate to “big boy” guns like the 12. This is true especially for those who get into skeet, trap and sporting clays. When it comes to hunting, however, the 12 can be too much for anything other than waterfowl and pheasants. The weight of a 12-gauge plus a pocketful of 1¼-oz loads can seem to increase incrementally throughout the day. That is why many upland hunters either choose European-style side-by-side game guns, which average a pound or so lighter than standard over/unders, or opt for sub-gauges, which I define as anything smaller than a 12.
I will admit to being biased in my preference for the 16 gauge. Firing a 1-oz load in a 16-bore, the shot seems to pattern better and hit harder than it has the right to. Furthermore, the 16 sits perfectly between the 12 and 20—and, for me, it earns its place in the small gauges because its weight, balance and lively handling match the 20 while delivering the knockdown power of the 12. Which is why it has long been said that the 16 “carries like a 20 and hits like a 12.”
The Continentals have always embraced the small gauges, and the current resurgence in interest has many gunmakers making small-gauge guns again. It also is becoming easier to find cartridges for rarer gauges like the .32. Ammo maker RST produces smallbore cartridges in 24, 28 and 32 gauge, as does Fiocchi and Trust.
I have several clients who now use their 12-gauge guns with heavy loads only for really tall pheasants—birds in excess of 40 yards—and are opting for 20- and 28-bore guns for driven grouse and partridge in the UK and smaller upland birds in the US. Most say their decision to go with smaller gauges is based on weight, handling and the fact that lighter loads control recoil (some use only ¾ oz for pheasants up to 40 yards). Furthermore, smallbores are lighter and offer swifter handling.
Simple ballistics confirms that, regardless of gauge, the load used must have enough pellets of the correct size and number to create the pattern density to kill the quarry cleanly at the distance it is being shot. The good news for small-gauge enthusiasts is that, with the upsurge in popularity of sub-gauges, cartridge companies are offering greater choices in loads. Hull Cartridge Company, for example, is making a 11⁄16-oz 16-gauge load. This cartridge combines the rare qualities of not knocking out your fillings while knocking the stuffing out of birds.
My favorite upland gun is a Connecticut Shotgun A-10 28-gauge with 32″ barrels. I have been using it for several years, and there is something special about putting a ¾-oz cartridge not much bigger than a cigarette into the chamber of a 6-pound 28-gauge and folding a flushing bird from the sky. It just seems to reinforce the old saying that small gauges are for gentlemen.