Re-evaluating The 16 Gauge
September 23, 2010
Will It Live To Hunt Another Day?
There was a time when the 16 gauge was second in popularity to the 12 gauge. The popularity of a gun that "shot like a 12 and carried like a 20" peaked sometime during the late 1940s or early 1950s when just about every briar patch in my small part of America contained at least one cottontail rabbit, and 20-covey days on bobwhites were not exactly uncommon.
Remington occasionally offers the Model 870 pump gun in 16 gauge and this one worked just fine on Florida bobwhites.
According to annual reports filed by Remington, Winchester, Browning, Savage and others around 1953, about 52 percent of the shotguns sold in the United States during that year were in 12 gauge, while 16 gauge guns accounted for 24 percent of sales. In other words, 24 out of every 100 guns sold were sixteens.
Due to the popularity of 16 gauge guns, every hardware store and farm supply store in rural America stocked a plentiful supply of 16 gauge shells. In case you are wondering, the remaining 24 percent of guns sold consisted of 20s, 10s, 28s and .410s. Back then, the .410 was more popular than the 28 and 10 and almost as popular as the 20 gauge.
During the tail end of Sweet Sixteen's final glory days of the 1950s, every gun built by every company who was somebody (and a few who were not) was chambered for it. For those who preferred a gun that fired with each tug on its trigger until the bird was down or the magazine was empty, there were the Browning Auto-5, Remington Model 11-48 and Savage Model 775. Pump gun fans could choose among the Ithaca Model 37, Winchester Model 12, Remington Model 870, Stevens Model 77 and Noble Model 40.
Fox, Stevens, Winchester and J.C. Higgins side-by-side doubles were available in 16 gauge and Winchester even offered it in its skeet version of the Model 21. But for every repeater sold in those days, about two dozen single-shots were bought by hunters and plenty of those were peddled by Harrington & Richardson, Iver Johnson, J.C. Higgins, Savage, Stevens and Winchester, with most selling for around $25.
Nowadays it is rare to see a bolt-action shotgun being carried in the field but they were quite popular during those innocent days of yesteryear and among the best sellers were the Marlin Model 55, H&R Model 349, Mossberg Model 185, Stevens Model 58 and J.C. Higgins Model 10.
In my opinion, the jewels among 16 gauge guns of yesteryear are side-by-side doubles built by Fox and L.C. Smith, with the Winchester Model 12 pump gun in a very close second place. I love all three but for different reasons.
I am fond of the Fox because 16 gauge guns were built on 20 gauge frames and they truly do live up to the old adage about shooting as hard as a 12 and carrying as light as a 20. The same holds true for the 16 gauge Model 12 since it is on the same frame size as that gun in 20 and 28 gauge. Due to a thinner wall at the chamber section of its barrel, a 16 gauge Model 12 is actually a bit lighter than one in 20 or 28 gauge.
A good 16 gauge shotgun is capable of covering a lot of wingshooting territory.
But my all-time favorite 16 is the L.C. Smith double, not because I think it is a better gun than the Fox or Model 12, but because the one I now own was purchased by my father in 1948 and used hard in his hands for many hunting seasons thereafter. I have carried it while chasing everything from Carolina bobwhites to Montana sharptails and while I am proud to say that I shoot it as well as any shotgun I have ever owned, I don't mind admitting that it missed less often in my father's hands.
In the old days hunters could choose from a great variety of 16 gauge ammunition with Remington alone offering over 30 different loads. Shot size options started at No. 9 for clay targets to double-ought buck and a â…ž ounce rifled slug for deer.
One of the more interesting options offered to hunters who owned tight-choked guns was the Scatter Load, in which the shot charge was separated into three sections by thin cardboard wads. When fired in a gun choked full, that load delivered patterns of about the same diameter as those fired by regular loads in a gun choked Improved Cylinder. The 16 gauge was never a big player in the clay target games but it was popular enough for Remington to offer loads with an ounce of No. 8 shot for trap and No. 9s for skeet.
My, how times have changed. During 2001 the 16 gauge represented less than three percent of shotshell sales at Remington and the story was about the same at Winchester and Federal. Ammunition is not as plentiful as it once was but look long and hard enough and a supply can be located.
Remington, Winchester and Federal still offer enough different loads with lead and steel shot to handle about any shotgunning chore and just in time for the 2009 hunting seasons, Federal is adding the 16 gauge to its Wing-Shok lineup of Pheasants Forever loads. The 1â…› ounce. charge of copper-plated shot exits the muzzle at a speedy 1495 feet per second with size options including Nos. 4, 5 and 6.
Some 16-gauge guns, and this includes those built in the past and today, are light in weight and while many loads now available are extremely effective on game, their relatively high velocities make them a bit uncomfortable to shoot in anything but a heavy gun. There are two exceptions.
The new Classic Doubles family of ammunition from Hevi-Shot includes a 16 gauge load with an ounce of No. 4 or 6 shot at a velocity of 1100 fps. The shot is nontoxic but since it is as soft as lead it can be fired through vintage barrels without damaging them. My L.C. Smith shoots excellent patterns with Classics Doubles ammo and is quite comfortable to shoot.
The L.C. Smith Double was one of many great guns available in 16 gauge.
The softest-kicking 16-gauge commercial load I have tried is available from Polywad. Available only in a 212 inch shell, it works equally well in longer chambers and is loaded with â…ž ounces of shot at a velocity of 1175 fps. That particular load works fine in doubles, pumps and single shots but may not generate enough pressure to operate some autoloaders.
reload all the gauges for clay target shooting but the .410 and 16 gauge are the only two I often load for hunting. One of my favorite recipes for a lightweight 16 gauge gun consists of the Remington Express plastic hull, Winchester 209 primer and â…ž ounces of shot in a Remington SP16 wad seated atop 17.0 grains of Hodgdon's Universal Clays powder.
When such a light shot charge is used in the Remington wad its capacity has to be reduced by inserting a .125 inch, 28 gauge felt wad before the shot is dropped in and the case crimped. Its rather low velocity of 1050 fps makes that load easy on the shoulder and yet I find it to be quite effective not only on doves and quail but at skeet and the closer shots of sporting clays as well.
New 16 gauge guns might be even less difficult to find nowadays than the ammo. A couple of years ago Remington brought back the 16 gauge in the Model 870 pump gun and while it is once again out of production a search among gun shops and the internet should turn up a few.
You might have better luck if you are in the market for a new double. Last time I looked Bill Hanus still had the 16 gauge Browning Citori in stock and then there is the Rizzini over-under imported by William Larkin Moore & Co. The Traditions stack-barrel gun, which is made by the Italian firm of Fausti, is offered in 16 gauge and I believe the Weatherby Athena is available on special order.
There are plenty of 16 gauge side-by-side doubles, including those from Stoeger, Connecticut Shotgun, AyA, CZ USA, Rizzini, Dakota, Connecticut Shotgun, Garbi, Lebeau-Courally, Piotti, Tristar, Arrieta and probably a few more I have overlooked. Prices range from comfortably affordable to painfully unaffordable.
Unlike the old gray mare the 16 gauge is just like it used to be, a reliable performer capable of pulling about any load. And as it was in the past, the old classic is available in a variety of desirable guns.