By Kevin Michalowski
Carries like a 20, shoots like a 12 - granddad’s bird gun was much too efficient to go away.
Over the years, the 16-gauge shotgun has had its share of ups and downs. It has been embraced and discarded any number of times over the history of modern shotgunning.
About a decade ago, one hunter told me he shoots a 16 because, “That 12 gauge ain’t nothin’ but a poacher’s gun.” At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve heard the 16 gauge described as “...the perfect solution for a problem we’ve not yet identified.”
The reason for this duality could simply be the fickle nature of shotgunners, or the fact that people just don’t know what kind of performance to expect from their smoothbores.
Regardless of the arguments this round tends to provoke, there’s no denying that the popularity of the 16 gauge is again on the upswing. More of them are showing up in the field. And even during tough economic times gunmakers not only continue to produce them, but see them as an opportunity for growth in a tight market.
When Ithaca offered an online promotion a few years back to revive the 16 gauge, the New York gunmaker sold some 4,000 of their Model 37 pumps in just a few days. Remington now offers the Model 1100 Classic Field in 16 gauge. There are even a few imported double guns arriving on American shores in 16 gauge. And check out the used guns at any sports shop. You’ll find very few 16s. That’s because the few that arrive get snapped up in short order.
Success in the field is one of the many reasons hunters keep coming back to the 16 gauge. Here, M.D. Johnson shows off a fine rooster that fell to his father’s Model 24 side-by-side. Nostalgia, low recoil and dense, effective patterns are more than enough reasons to carry a 16 gauge.
Part of what the 16 gauge has to offer has become a cliche. “Carries like a 20; shoots like a 12.” That was the mantra for many years. It even may have shown up in an advertising campaign back before my time. The interesting thing about cliches is that they usually have a basis in truth. Many 16-gauge shotguns are indeed slimmed-down versions of their 12-gauge big brothers. The Browning A-5 is an example. Yet, ballistically speaking, the 16 gauge gives away very little to the 12. And it has some advantages over the 20.
One of those advantages is that the 16 handles larger shot better than the 20. Tighter bores produce more even shotgun patterns with smaller shot. For example, you can load a 2 3/4-inch 16-gauge shell and a 3-inch 20-gauge shell to launch 1 1/8 ounces of No. 5 shot at 1,220 feet per second. That load is strong medicine for any pheasant. But the 16 gauge will produce a more uniform pattern simply because its bore diameter works better with the No. 5 shot than does the 20 gauge. Putting 1 1/8 ounces of No. 5 shot through a 20 gauge tends to leave holes in the pattern. To get a similarly dense pattern with a 20 gauge, you might need to drop down to No. 7 1/2 shot, meaning you lose some downrange energy.
According to Kurt Flacker and M.L. McPherson, co-authors of “Reloading for Shotgunners,” the 16 gauge, with its 0.662-inch bore diameter, is tailor-made for upland loads of No. 5 or No. 6 shot, providing dense, even patterns, especially when high-quality plated shot is used. Maybe that’s why so many people feel like the 16 gauge is nearly perfect in the field.
On the other side of the equation, the 16 gauge can carry up to 1 1/4 ounces of shot. Most upland hunters don’t use payloads any larger than that in their 12-gauge guns. With No. 6 shot coming in at about 225 pellets per ounce, and No. 4 carrying only 135 pellets per ounce, the reality is that a densely packed pattern made up of 1 ounce of No. 6 shot is better than a ragged pattern produced by 1 1/4 ounces of No. 4. To see for yourself, spend some time at the range with several different loads and plenty of patterning paper. When serious hunters start averaging the number of pellets that appear in the 30-inch circle and seeing the great hit potential of the 16 gauge, it’s not difficult to see why that gun gets carried on the next trip.
Top that data with a bit of nostalgia, and you’ve got the recipe for revival of a gun that at first blush might not seem to have a place in the world of modern shotgunning. But then again, there it is.
“I started shooting a 16-gauge double because it was my dad’s gun,” says M.D. Johnson, an avid upland bird hunter from Iowa. “He took a lot of game with that old Model 24, and I started carrying it thinking about it more as a family heirloom than a hunting gun. But man, does it drop pheasants. It doesn’t have as much recoil as a 12 or even a 3-inch 20. Plus, it swings real nice, and I can carry it all day.”
Johnson also hunts with a Remington 11-87, especially for waterfowl, but finds himself reaching for the 16-gauge side-by-side more and more often, especially with the new non-toxic shot available.
“Oh, it will kill ducks,” he adds. “Pop took plenty of ducks with that gun in the days before steel shot. Lately I’ve been using the tungsten matrix shot from Kent, and it has plenty of power to bring down ducks. Having that new shot is like opening another hunting season for that old gun.”
But it isn’t just the old guns that are getting attention. When Wisconsin hunter Regan Pourchot went looking for a new repeater, he first thought about the kind of hunting he did, then let the birds help him make his decision.
“I mainly hunt ruffed grouse, woodcock, pheasants and occasionally doves,” says Pourchot. “For years, I toted around a big old 12-gauge pump; a 3 1/2-incher. I guess I thought it was a gun that could handle everything.”
But after talking to a few fellow hunters and taking a close look at the load data, Pourchot opted for the Remington Model 1100 Classic Field in 16 gauge.
“I could have gotten something with a composite stock all decked out in camo, but the 1100 just felt right,” he adds. “In the field, even in tight quarters like standing corn or alder thickets, I hardly notice I’m carrying the gun. And the 16-gauge load fired through the autoloader really changed my idea of what recoil is all about.”
Pourchot says he hasn’t noticed any drop off in performance since switching from a 12 gauge to a 16.
“It could be that this gun just fits me really well, or maybe I just have more confidence with it. Either way, I fully intend to keep shooting a 16 gauge. I can’t see any downside to it.”
-- Reprinted from the April 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine