The 16 Gauge Option
When I’m asked which gauge should be chosen for a shotgun, I’ve learned to first ask what shotgun(s) the person already has. Many times I’ve found that my questioner had a perfectly functional shotgun that was assumed to be useless because it wasn’t a new sleek field model or “tactical”. I have no doubt that such an assumption is a huge mistake.First, I’ll describe the difference between the different shotgun gauges. Generally, shotguns’ gauge designation is determined by the number of round lead pellets the size of the shotgun’s bore that would comprise a pound of pellets. 12 gauge shotguns’ round balls would be roughly twelve to the pound; 16 gauges’ would be sixteen to the pound; 20 gauges’ are twenty pellets to the pound. In short, although “20 gauge” sounds bigger than “10 gauge”, it isn’t. The only shotgun that is designated by its actual bore diameter, to my knowledge, is the small .410 shotgun.
The sixteen gauge is just about half-way between the 12 gauge and 20 gauge in size, and has declined in popularity in recent years. There are still countless guns in decent condition available, however, and I don’t believe its use should be automatically discounted.
My Dad, who was the best wing-shot I’ve ever seen, preferred the 16 gauge. His brother also favored it over other choices. I had always found their sixteen’s to be miserable guns to shoot, but was assured I’d “grow into it”.
My uncle bought a northern Michigan farm upon being mustered out of the Army after WWII, and had a horrible problem with feral dogs ravaging his lambs and calves. He drove to the nearest hardware store and bought the only two model 12 Winchester pump shotguns there. One was in sixteen gauge, the other in twelve gauge. He carried one inside each of his car’s front doors, and was careful to keep each of the guns and their respective ammunition separate from the other. He was adamant that the sixteen was the better gun for everything but long-range shots with single-pellet slugs.
Although both my Dad and uncle admitted the sixteen’s felt recoil was more fierce than even the larger 12 gauge, they were adamant that their sixteen’s were quicker in their hands than were the twelve’s. As I grew older I came to understand why that was.
With American-made shotguns, the more expensive models of 16 gauge shotguns tended to be built on the smaller twenty gauge frames. Less expensive sixteen’s tended to be built on the larger twelve gauge platforms. As a consequence, the higher-end working-class American sixteen’s (and nobody in my family has ever been able to afford fancy trap/skeet luxury shotguns) were as agile as the more diminutive twenties, with more powder and pellets per cartridge– and more of a kick.
The less expensive sixteen gauge shotguns that were built on twelve gauge frames had less felt recoil than did the twelve gauge, but also threw fewer pellets downrange than did the twelve.
This heavier recoil/fewer pellets quandary is what turned many young shooters from the sixteen gauge. As I get older I am beginning to realize what my wiser forebears knew all along– the sixteen gauge shotgun is an excellent choice as long as you’re aware of its quirks and can use them to your advantage. I’m not as sharp as either my Dad or uncle were, but I’m starting to see the advantages of a sixteen that is intended to be carried a lot and shot a little.
If a person is starting from scratch, either of the more popular twenty or twelve gauges might be a better choice than the sixteen if you are buying new. However, I regularly see great deals on sixteen gauge shotguns simply because of their “odd” chambering. If money is tight and you can buy or make reasonably-priced ammunition, you might want to consider the sixteen.
I recently came across two identical side-by-side Stevens shotguns, both in excellent condition. The twelve gauge model was priced over $150.00 higher than the sixteen, simply because of the chambering. You can buy a lot of ammo for a hundred and fifty dollars, folks. Most people will never go through that much shotgun ammunition in their lifetime. I live in a “no cartridge-firing rifle for deer” area, where ‘scoped handguns and slug- and buckshot-throwing shotguns reign. I know locals who keep their freezers full of wild game who don’t shoot a box of ammunition all year. They fire shotguns for food, not for recreation. The sixteen gauge is often chosen for that task.
A few words of caution about the sixteen gauge are in order, however. If you have both sixteen and twelve gauge shotguns, keep them separate from one another. Especially keep their ammo separate. A sixteen gauge round can slide into the barrel of a twelve, and if a twelve gauge round is chambered behind it and fired the results are catastrophic, as the sixteen gauge round in the barrel will burst the barrel. Seriously– keep them separate.
A lot of families have an old single or double barrel shotgun they inherited leaning in a corner or tucked into a closet. Just because it isn’t equipped to hook flashlights, bayonets, or lasers onto doesn’t mean it’s outmoded. If you have an old family sixteen gauge, consider running it into a local gunsmith to have it checked. If your ‘smith deems it safe to use, put it to work.
I prefer my working shotguns’ barrels to be in the neighborhood of 20 inches and have the barrel shortened by a gun smith if I buy one that I feel is too long. I find it handier then a 28 inch or longer barrel, but you might be perfectly happy with yours as it is.
In all honesty, I have a few of the longer-barreled originals around the place, and they work just fine without me paying to have their barrels lopped off, and they look much more elegant than my short-snouted models.
Do yourself and your wallet a favor, and don’t ignore the sixteen gauge. Who knows? It may become your favorite.
Mike Stamm is a retired Michigan State Trooper. He is a published author, and the owner and chief instructor at DTOM Inc a Michigan based firearm training company. If you would like to contact Mike you may do so by email: Dtominc@aol.com