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The Return of the 16-Gauge Shotgun

After teetering on the edge of obsolescence, the 16-gauge is making something of a comeback, and that's good news for upland hunters.

The Return of the 16-Gauge

Of all the hunting stories I’ve heard in my life, a few stand out clearly in my memory, and one of those involves a 16-gauge shotgun. My friend Chad McKibben’s father, Bobby, recounted the story of coming home to his Ohio farm after work one day, grabbing his Winchester Model 12 16-gauge, and walking a fencerow behind his house. Shortly into the walk, Bobby jumped a covey of quail, and with the speed and precision of a master pump-gun shooter, took down a limit of birds in a matter of seconds. Perhaps it was Bobby’s vivid storytelling ability that made the tale so memorable—you could practically feel the earth shudder as the covey burst into flight when he recounted it—but at that moment, I knew I had to own a 16-gauge.

Perhaps that story also stuck in my mind because it was a recollection of time passed. Bobwhite quail numbers have seriously declined in our corner of Ohio, and so have the number of upland hunters carrying 16-gauge shotguns. Why, I wondered, had the 16-gauge faded in popularity? Surely other hunters had stories like Bobby’s, and surely there were still some well-oiled and well-worn 16-gauges with memories yet to be made.

Slow Fade

The 16-gauge enjoyed its peak popularity in the early to mid-20th century. It’s not at all surprising that the gauge was so popular since the 16 is, at least on paper, a near-perfect bird gun. Its bore diameter—.662"—is the same diameter as a lead ball weighing 1 oz. (16 of those lead balls would weigh a pound, and now you understand how shotgun gauges are determined). The 16-gauge was practically made to shoot 1-oz. upland loads and can go heavier, and that allowed it to compete with the 12-gauge in a lighter, easier-to-carry package. A true 16-gauge gun on a scaled action weighing 6 lbs. is a deadly upland gun indeed. It’s got enough wallop to knock down late-season roosters, yet it’s light enough to carry all day long. A 16 isn’t too much gun for dove and quail, but with standard upland ammo, it will outperform a 20-gauge without much added recoil or gun weight. Why, then, aren’t we all carrying 16-gauges?

Good question, and there’s a clear answer. In 1926, the rules of skeet were being officially cobbled together, and the 16-gauge wasn’t listed in the rulebooks. The 12-gauge was, and so were the 20 and 28-gauge, and the .410 bore. That regulatory cold shoulder shouldn’t have been a big problem, except for the fact that lots of shooters wanted to shoot skeet. And because skeet shooters shoot a lot more shells than the average upland hunter, ammo companies were compelled to appeal to the high-volume skeet shooter. That meant the 12 became the standard competition load, and the 20 was viewed as the lighter option for less recoil. Shotgun ammunition profits thrive on volume, and 16-gauge shells weren’t selling by the case. There were still upland hunters clinging to the 16, but there was another major setback: Wild bird populations were declining.

With the 16-gauge already a little punch-drunk, a few additional shots landed. First, 3" shells (and later 3½" shells) came into vogue. There weren’t any 3" 16-gauge guns or loads immediately, and regulations that required nontoxic shot had the potential to finish off the 16-gauge once and for all, rendering it a footnote in shotgun history. A few shotgun manufacturers offered up 16-gauge guns for the diehard fans, but many of those guns were built on 12-gauge frames. The 16’s marketing cry had always been that it carried like a 20 and hit like a 12. Those 16’s built on larger frames carried like a 12 but hit more like a 20, and that’s not a good marketing shtick.

The 16-gauge is an ideal upland gun. It carries like a 20-gauge, but hits like a 12.

The 16-gauge might have died if it weren’t such an excellent upland load. While perfectly suited for 1-oz. loads, it can also be loaded up to 11⁄8 oz. and even 1¼ oz. In guns weighing around 6 lbs., these loads offer stiff but manageable recoil. That truly does strike a superb balance point between the 12 and 20-gauge, and upland gun par excellence. It’s suitable for every type of wild bird from quail, doves, and preserve pheasants up through sharptails, prairie chickens, pheasants, and sage grouse. The 16 is a gun that hits hard enough to knock down chukars and Huns, yet is light enough to carry into the country where they live.

What About Waterfowl?

You won’t see many camo 16-gauges in a duck blind, but the mild-mannered 16 is a functional waterfowl gun, nonetheless. Federal, Hevi-Shot, Kent, Browning, Remington, and other companies offer nontoxic 16-gauge ammo, and if you have a modern gun that’s capable of handling it, Hevi-Shot actually offers a 1¼-oz. 16-gauge load that exits the barrel around 1,300 feet per second and hammers ducks and geese. All modern 16-gauge shells are 2¾", and that limits the versatility of this load. However, with lots of 15/16-oz. nontoxic loads like Browning’s new BXD Waterfowl and the heavier (or should I say Hevi-er) magnum nontoxic ammo for large birds at extended ranges, you’ve got a wide selection of modern waterfowl loads that will handle anything from teal to geese. Would I make a 16-gauge my dedicated honker, swan, or crane gun? Nope. The 12-gauge is far more versatile for waterfowl, and a 20-gauge with 3" loads can essentially match the 16’s best-performing nontoxic ammo options. But the 16-gauge is a sound—if not quite so versatile—waterfowl gun.

Target Shooting

One rub against the 16-gauge has always been that it’s just not a suitable target gun, and that clay game rules handicap 16-gauge shooters by forcing them to compete against folks with 12-gauges. I wouldn’t want to buy a case of 16-gauge target ammo every week, but quite honestly, there are very few competitive 12-gauge shooters who are snapping that many caps in a seven-day period. Shells for the 16 are more expensive than 12 and 20-gauge shells, but the difference in cost is not that great. A box of 25 16-gauge target loads can be had for around $10 to $12 if you shop around, and while that’s a couple dollars more than you’ll pay for 12-gauge ammo, it’s still within the budget for the casual trap, skeet, and sporting-clays shooter. If you’re competing to win clay target games, stick with your 12-gauge. If you break a few targets on Wednesday nights with your friends to tune up for the hunting season, then the 16-gauge will work just fine.

It’s a chore to find 16-gauge target ammo on stores shelves in some areas, but if you order ammo online, your options open up quite a bit. Browning offers a 16-gauge 11⁄8-oz. load in the BPT line, and there are affordable 1-oz. field and target loads available from Fiocchi, Remington, and Aguila that’ll cost about $10 a box.

Firearms Options

A few years ago, Browning rereleased a modern version of the A5 Sweet Sixteen, and it’s a sweet gun indeed. With its reliable Kinematic Drive recoil system, glossy walnut stock, and classic humpback profile, the new Sweet 16 is beautiful and reliable. And at just under 6 lbs., it is easy to carry. Browning got the balance just right with this gun, and the A5 16-gauge is among the liveliest upland guns on the market and sells for $1,739.

The 16-gauge is versatile and perfectly capable of taking down upland game ranging from quail to roosters.

Browning isn’t the only manufacturer in the market, Franchi unveiled their 16-gauge Instinct SL over/under a few years ago—a lightweight field gun with an aluminum-alloy receiver, A-grade walnut stock with Prince of Wales grip, red fiber-optic front sight, and screw-in chokes. I chose to carry the Instinct SL 16-gauge on an Idaho mixed-bag hunt last year (read about it on page 46) in some rugged country, and I never once regretted my choice. The Franchi weighs 5 lbs., 12 oz., and yet it offers a magnum punch on par with a 12-gauge. While standing atop a ridge of lava rock, I flushed a covey of chukar that winged their way into the canyon below. All but one, that is, because I managed to swing ahead of the last bird in the covey and the 16-gauge dropped him mid-wingbeat. The Instinct SL over/under is comparable in price to the A5 at $1,729.

Stevens offers their 555 shotguns in 16-gauge now as well, and the upscale Enhanced version comes with an engraved alloy receiver, interchangeable chokes, and very good wood for its price of $829. CZ also sells a 16-gauge version of their Redhead Premier over/under for just under $1,000, and Tristar’s new Trinity stackbarrel is a Turkish-made 16-gauge over/under that’s available for $685. Of course, there are plenty of used 16-gauges on the market as well, and some of these can be had for a very modest price. In its prime, Winchester’s Model 12 was a popular choice for 16-gauge enthusiasts like Bobby McKibben, and as a result there are a handful of Model 12 16-gauges available in used gun stores from time to time. I picked up a Winchester 120 16-gauge pump for a song, and it’s a functional field gun that’s fun to shoot—and one I’m not afraid to get dirty in a duck blind. Browning released a couple 16-gauge SHOT Show Citori guns last year, too, including the Citori Feather Superlight 16-gauge, which weighs just over 6 lbs., and the throwback 525 Field 16-gauge. If you see any of these guns on the store shelf, you’d better act quickly, though. There are more 16-gauge fans than you might imagine and the 16’s exclusivity makes it appealing to collectors.

Why the 16?

I won’t tell you that the 16-gauge is a dramatically better gun than either the 12 or 20-gauge. If that were the case, the 16-gauge would have long supplanted the other two. But the truth is, the 16-gauge is a functional firearm that balances weight, recoil, and shot payload effectively. It’s good for a lot of things, but it’s great for upland hunting. Would I have remembered Bobby McKibben’s quail-hunting story so vividly if he’d told me he was carrying a 12-gauge? That’s hard to say. But what I do know is if you’re an avid upland hunter, the 16-bore is a superb choice.

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