The 16 Gauge Option

March 10, 2010 by  
Filed under Trail Boss Articles

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 IM001228apellets 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.

32461.gifAlthough 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:



6 Comments on "The 16 Gauge Option"

  1. Billy on Wed, 10th Mar 2010 2:04 PM 

    I guess I am just ignorant, I have always liked the 16 and never thought of replacing it, ammo has always been available at Wally world and everywhere I seem to go, good article people need to do their homework and see that it is plenty of gun for everything

  2. Mr. BB on Wed, 10th Mar 2010 2:18 PM 

    The minimum you should have for everything is a 12 with 00 buck

  3. Joe E on Wed, 10th Mar 2010 5:18 PM 

    Yea right, I am sure you need that for rabbits and such, you must be hunting the Monty python kind I will bet they make the same exact loads for the 16 gauge as they do the 12 and 20, if you are a hunter at all you know it does not take that much to make a clean kill on most stuff, and the 16 although I do not have one is probably as good as any

  4. Steve on Thu, 11th Mar 2010 7:46 AM 

    As I was off yesterday, I did my once a week trip to WalMart, the local gun shop, and three pawn shops. I had not noticed before (hadn’t actually looked), but my WalMart also carries (a limited selection of) 16, albeit at $12 a box. The gun shop had one box of WW #8 at $13. But one of the pawn shops surprised me with 9 assorted boxes and the shopkeeper offered me the lot at $55. I don’t have a 16, and have no plans to go in that direction, but it was interesting to note that it is (kinda, sorta anyway) out there.

  5. Mike Stamm on Thu, 11th Mar 2010 10:20 AM 

    Billy, there’s nothing wrong with your reasoning. If you have a plain vanilla shotgun in 16 gauge and can hit with it, you’re set. Along the lines of what Joe E. is saying, your target isn’t going to be any less dead because you’re using a 16.
    Mr. BB’s preference with 12 gauge is fine. I don’t advocate tossing your 12s out and replacing them with 16s, but if you encounter a solid one for a good price (keep checking those pawn shops, Steve) or have an old 16 laying around, put it to work!

  6. Ed Harris on Tue, 16th Mar 2010 6:38 AM 

    Agree with all points, a 16 is usually handier than a 12-ga. and works as well most of the time and carried more like a 20. However, many places the ammo is less common and more expensive. If you stockpile a modest supply of ammo or reload your own, ammo availability may not be an issue. Be aware that if you have specialized needs, such as hunting Federal migratory waterfowl, which require use of steel shot, 16-ga. ammo non-toxic ammo is less available and steel shoot loads are hard on older mild steel barrels.

    The 16-ga. IS very popular in Europe and South America, and is common in much of the heartland of America. If you come across a 16 for a good price, take advantage of the bargain, but go right out and buy a case of ammo. BTW, the Wal-mart in Martinsburg, WV doesn’t carry 16-ga. shells. Darn….

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