By Chris Batha
Photos courtesy of Kirby Hoyt/www.vintagedoubles.com
For any shotgun gauge to gain and sustain popularity, it needs to provide good ballistic performance, be offered in affordable guns and be readily available in cartridges. By these standards, the 16 gauge has had a long and somewhat checkered history.
It is often said that a 16-gauge carries like a 20 and hits like a 12. This balance of lighter-weight guns and solid hitting power is often credited to the fact that the 16 is a “square load”—a term developed by muzzleloaders for a load in which the shot, powder and wad are the same length as the nominal boring.
The modern 16-gauge cartridge does not conform to the muzzleloading axiom in overall length, but the depth of the shot column of a 1-ounce load does still closely match the nominal boring of .662". (As a quick review: It takes 16 lead balls of .662" to make one pound, and there are 16 ounces in one pound.) The logic holds that a square load maximizes the shot charge with the least pellet deformation from shot-column depth, thus resulting in an optimally powerful and even pattern for the gauge.
I’m no ballistic expert and cannot explain why the 16 gauge patterns so well, but I find myself in the excellent company of the three Bs of ballistic experts—(Bob) Brister, (Maj. Sir Gerald) Burrard and (John) Brindle—who all agreed on its excellent patterns but could not explain it fully either. The best explanation I can offer is: Because the pressure inside the barrel at detonation causes the most shot damage, the longer the shot column, the more pellets are deformed. The longer from square the shot column, the more pellets are damaged, resulting in more flyers and poorer patterns.
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A Brief History of the 16
In Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the 16-gauge was a popular choice among wingshooters—in fact, it was the preferred gauge in France and Germany. Because of the type of hunting on the Continent, which usually included both fur and feather, Europeans preferred combination (shotgun-rifle) guns. The most common variation evolved into a break-action, double-barreled, side-by-side shotgun with a rifle barrel underneath. These versatile combination guns are commonly known as Drillings, the German word for triplets. Weight was an issue because of the distances hunters traveled, so the 16 gauge became a popular wingshooting choice—and the lighter barrels made for better-balanced guns.
In Britain the 16 gauge enjoyed a strong following up to World War II. Judging from the record books of the gunmakers for whom I have worked and the companies that I own, it is clear that the 16 was a very popular choice, second only to the 12. The 20 and 28 gauges actually were considered ladies’ guns.
In the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the most popular gauges were the 20, 16 and 12. The 20, because of its lighter weight, was a favorite for close-in upland shooting. But the light, dynamic-handling 16 could be considered the Swiss Army knife of upland hunting and a perfect gun for the entire range of upland birds, from woodcock to pheasants.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this also was the golden age of American shotgun manufacturing. Makers such as L.C. Smith, Parker, Ithaca and A.H. Fox were crafting beautiful 16-gauge side-by-sides. Sleek, balanced and weighing little more than 6 pounds, these guns were well suited for extended carry and the snap shooting required for grouse, woodcock and quail.
Pump-action guns also came into fashion around this time—most notably the Remington Model 31, the Winchester Model 12 and the bottom-ejection Ithaca Model 37. With the introduction of multi-shot pumps and semi-autos, the 12 gauge was used by market hunters to shoot larger numbers of ducks.
Still, the 16 gauge was considered more sporting. In the South the 16 was the gauge of choice for those hunting “the gentleman’s quarry”: bobwhite quail. A guest arriving to hunt quail with a 12 gauge often was treated politely but with subtle disdain.
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The Fall and Return of the 16
So what changed? The 16’s initial fall from grace began with the introduction of skeet. In 1926 the official rules of skeet included only the .410, 28 gauge, 20 gauge and 12 gauge for competition. The 16 was considered to be so close to the 12 that the 20-gauge was included instead. As skeet grew in popularity along with trap (a 12-gauge-only affair), the 16 took a backseat in manufacturers’ research and development. Accordingly, 16-gauge shells saw less innovation, and hulls and reloading components likewise lagged behind.
Simply put: The 16 fell victim to the small gap left between lightweight 12-gauge guns and high-performance 20s. And with the gauge considered “sweet” no more, ammo makers quietly stopped developing 16-gauge loads.
Perhaps the real nail in the coffin came in 1954, when Winchester introduced a Model 21 side-by-side chambered for its new 3", 20-gauge Western Super-X Magnum shotshells. Now the 20-gauge was capable of 1¼-oz payloads, which consumers—rightly or wrongly—perceived to be an advantage over 2¾", 1-oz 16-gauge shells. So the 16 gauge essentially was dethroned as the lightweight alternative to the 12.
As a result, cartridge manufacturers focused on the 20 gauge, which evolved into today’s full range of 3", 20-gauge cartridges. (I consider this a “bastard” load, because it produces the most deformed pellets and flyers of all 20-gauge loads due to the long shot column.) The cartridge choices and availability for 16s tailed off rapidly, offering fewer and fewer options to 16-gauge owners. So except among a small group of loyal followers, the 16 became a little-considered gauge for several decades.
History, however, has a habit of repeating itself. Today the 16 gauge is experiencing a renaissance of sorts among shooters and gunmakers alike. Remington, Ithaca and Browning all have brought back the 16. The Continentals always have loved the gauge, and now Italian, Spanish, Belgian, German and French gunmakers offer 16-bores. In Great Britain all of the “best” makers are taking orders for 16s.
This resurgence is being seen in the auction houses and by gun dealers alike. There is a demand and even a scarcity of good 16-gauges. This has had a “chicken and egg” effect: As the older 16s have been rediscovered, more orders for bespoke 16-gauge guns are being placed and new, modern 16s are entering the market.
This rise in popularity has created a demand for cartridges, and ammunition manufacturers have begun supplying a greater variety, further fueling interest and the growth in popularity of the gauge. Though you may need to order them to get full advantage of the variety available, you can buy 16-gauge shells in lead, steel, HEVI-Shot, bismuth and copper and in 2½" and 2¾". Domestically, the Big Three—Winchester, Remington and Federal—each have a few 16-gauge loads, while RST and Polywad offer specialty shells for older guns. Most other shotshell companies offer some 16-gauge loads, including B&P, Ely, Environ-Metal, Estate, Fiocchi, Gamebore, Hull, Kent and Rio.
The 16 Gauge Society offers advice and insight and is an excellent source of information on the 16 gauge.
I have made several 16-gauge guns—both side-by-sides and over/unders—under the Charles Boswell name and have had the opportunity to shoot them at several species of birds in different countries. I fully understand where the name “Sweet Sixteen” got its inspiration. Despite the ups and downs, the 16 gauge is simply ballistically better than the 20 gauge and handles better than the 12. It patterns beautifully and can be useful for any upland bird—from woodcock to quail to chukar and pheasant.
Chris Batha’s most recent book, The Instinctive Shot, can be ordered by visiting chrisbatha.com, which also includes schedules of shoots and clinics with the author.