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.

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.

Gun Digest Shooter's Guide to Shotguns.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is from the new book Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Shotguns by Terry Wieland. In it, the author covers much more on 16 gauge shotguns, as well as other popular and not-so-popular gauges. Click here to get your copy.

12 thoughts on “What Happened to the 16 Gauge Shotgun?

  1. billylee

    I have two 16 ga., both bolt guns. A Mossberg 195 with a 18.5″ barrel for deer hunting and a six shot JC Higgins with extra full and modified choke tubes for turkey and small game. Had both forcing cones reamed, real sweet shooters.

  2. Wiscotta

    Thanks for the article. I was not aware of the impact of the skeet rules on the popularity of the 16 gauge. I purchased a side by side 16 in1957 for $35 and shot it for some time until it no longer seemed to pattern well with plastic shells. I set the 16 aside until, a few years ago, I ran across an article on chamber reamers. I bought a reamer for the chamber and forcing cone from Brownells and, with a few minutes of work, have my old partner shooting well again. By the way, my sweet sixteen, although old, did not need reaming.

  3. kkmet

    My dad has a 16 gauge Ithaca feather light pump… I never had a 12 gauge and thought they were too common place I like the 16 and my Win 20… I also hunt deer with the Ruger 44 Mag Carbine…. I guess I am not one to follow the herd.

    1. Clifford T

      Great to finally hear of someone else that owns and hunts with a Ruger 44 Mag carbine. I have owned mine since 1973 and have killed many white tails with it. I have never ran into another owner of this gun and wonder how rare it is. Do you load for it? I load my own 240 grn HP with HP 110 which works great

  4. dickdintx

    My family were avid pheasant hunters from Iowa in 50s and60s. I killed more pheasant with my old JC Penny 16 gauge lever action than my dad with Remington 12 gauge automatic and brother with his Remington 12 gauge pump combined.
    Dickdintx

  5. grampaben

    My father carried a 16 ga Wingmaster. I never saw him carry any other shotgun. We hunted together from the time I turned 10(ish) till the late 70′s when I moved away for a job. He carried that gun so much he had worn his hand print into the finish on the pistol grip part of the stock.
    When Dad got too old to hunt, he passed the gun to me. After a few days of teeth knashing and fretting over it, I gave it to my oldest son. Years later, my son mentioned he was going to refinish the stock wood on it. First, last and only time my son ever heard me offer to break both his arms for him if he tried. He’s still shooting pheasants today with that old gun. He’s wearing those hand prints a little deeper.

  6. wfluit

    The article makes a lot sense. I was not aware of the skeet issue effecting the 16. As a young teen I started out with a Win M12 12 gage and felt a bit superior to my cousins with their 16 ga single shots. Unfortunately I didn’t truly discover the 16 gage until a couple years ago when I got an early Win M12. The 16ga M12 is really a delight to handle and carry compared the 12ga.
    Wish I’d started out with one, then my arm and shoulder muscles wouldn’t have gotten so big. LOL
    Thanks for the informative writeup.

  7. bhp0

    I too have many fond memories of the .16 gauge. As a young boy in the early 1960′s the pheasant, rabbit and quail populations were at there zenith, I started out with a second hand Savage model 220 hammerless single shot my dad bought me for $15.00, and then my Dad’s Savage 16 ga. pump gun and finally my own Savage Fox model B double barrel in 16 ga.

    Fast forward 48 years and I purchased a very rare and expensive Browning light weight Auto-5 in 16 ga. with screw in factory chokes. The only place left in Ohio where I could find pheasants was a pay per bird preserve and I downed 10 birds out of 12 flushed. Not bad for an old man and I only wished I would have bought an auto 5 Browning as a boy, it turned out to be a very well balanced gun, as good as the double guns I have hunted with. It is now my favorite hunting shotgun.

    For me 1 1/8 ounces of shot in the 16 ga. was plenty powerful enough to kill all upland game, even a few big Canadian goose that came my way. To me the 16 ga. always has been the perfect upland gauge.

  8. AllenG

    I also have a 16 Ga that I inherited from my father. It is an old break action single shot. I would love to have a Browning Sweet Sixteen and I still have hope that I can find one that someone just wants to sell because it was in their family and they don’t want it. Usually get a better price that way. Who knows one may just land in my lap sometime down the road.
    I don’t mind the 12 Ga like some people do and I have trained my children to shoot them, but if the 16 Ga had been more available I would have started them on it. The 20 Ga always seemed like a gun trying to be more than it should be. I suppose that’s just my opinion, but with the 16 Ga out of the picture a hole was waiting to be filled in the shotgunning ladder.
    Great article. I look forward to more like it.

    1. nmgene

      My step father fed the family with a Stevens 16 gauge single for years. He left it to me and I still have it. He paid 415 for it in 1955. It still shoots well.

  9. frym

    Good, informative article. I was wondering why 16 ga. ammo was a touch hard to find. We got a Remington Sportsman 58 auto in 16 ga. from my father-in-law. Stock has a crack in it that I had to glue up, but it’s fine otherwise.

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