Sixteen Gauge Banter

By Randy Wakeman

I’m a sixteen gauge fan, for a lot of reasons, one being viva la difference. Beyond the allure of something a bit different, there are reasons that the sixteen gauge holds appeal both aesthetically and from a performance standpoint. There are also several things a sixteen gauge cannot be.

Larger in diameter than twenty gauge shells, I’ve found 16 gauge hulls easier to handle and load with frozen, gloved hands than 20 gauge shells. At the same time, they are less bulky and don’t consume the real estate in your pockets during those long days afield that 12 ga. shells do. Aesthetically, the 16 ga. does beautiful things to double gun actions. A slimmed up 16 gauge side by side is far more elegant than the comparatively ponderous 12 ga. pipe set.

Though the 16 was the second most popular gauge for decades, the 20 gauge three inch shells effectively put a stop to that. You’ve likely heard the "power of a 12, the handling of a 20" nonsense. "Power" is a generally silly term applied to shotshells: number of pellets on target at a specific range determines lethality, regardless of gauge.

A 20 gauge 1-1/4 oz. load (assuming quality and shell and choke) betters the 1-1/8 oz. 16 gauge every time at the patterning board and in the field. No one who has spent any time at all patterning shotguns can say differently.

However, the concept of "adequacy" prevails. There is nothing in the world of upland game that a 16 gauge cannot take quickly and cleanly. Technically, the 16 gauge is as superior to a 20 as it is inferior to a 12 gauge. But in reality, the differences are far more subtle. "Back-boring" (actually not boring at all, just using larger pipe) erases a bit of the theoretical 16 gauge edge. Browning calls out a 16 gauge bore as .667, and a standard 20 gauge as .050 in smaller. Barrels touted as backbored from various manufacturers in 20 gauge may be .010, .015, or .020 in. larger, turning the 20 gauge into something approximating an "18 gauge." You might want to refer to the ANSI standards listed at .

Surprised? According to ANSI, a 20 gauge can be a .635 in. bore, and a sixteen gauge can be a .665 bore. With no trendy "back-bored" sixteen gauge barrels out there, thirty thousands of an inch is closer to the common difference these days.

SAAMI MAP pressure allowances give the sixteen gauge no break either: . Sixteen gauge max loads must operate at a marginally lower pressure than twenty gauge loads.

There are some well-documented differences, but not "wake the President" fodder. As a 1-1/8 oz. 16 gauge load is closer to the "squared load" in a twenty gauge, a small pattern percentage increase can be expected. Larger pipes funnel larger shot pellets better, so where a twenty gauge may show pattern problems with #4 or larger shot, the sixteen gauge is more forgiving in that department. The differences are subtle, to be sure, but they are there.

When Remington reintroduced their 870 in 16 gauge, I immediately bought one with a 28 inch barrel. It was a weighty old pig, so much so that I had Mike Orlen cut and rebead the barrel, losing the nasty Remchokes in the process, to balance it a bit better. It still weighs 8 lbs., 6 oz. on my Lyman electronic scale. Mike Orlen does excellent work, that I’m quite happy to mention.

Recently, I picked up a 1970 vintage (‘T-Prefix’) 870 Wingmaster 12 gauge, VR, 28 inch fixed modified barrel, 2-3/4 in. chamber. It weighs 7 lbs, 6 oz. in factory configuration. This is a vivid example of how a poor rendition of the 16 gauge may offer nothing to the upland hunter.

It can be done better, and it has. My Sweet Sixteen and A-5 20 Mag are indistinguishable in weight, both being a joy to carry over my beloved but heavy A-5 "Light Twelves," which never were. Unless a major manufacturer applies modern metallurgy and manufacturing techniques to a repeating 16 gauge, we are left with a handful of older models such as Browning’s S-16 that offer steak and not just sizzle.

For now, the double gun market remains the last arena where the 16 gauge still shines. The 16 gauge has the advantage of shell availability that (largely thanks to Fiocchi and Federal) are no more costly than 12 or 20 gauge fodder, a bargain compared to the 28 gauge and .410 caliber rounds. It takes very special pleading to suggest that either the 28 gauge or the .410 is much more than an overpriced toy for serious hunters. Tiny shot charges are just that. No matter how hard you work to achieve pattern percentage, it remains a percentage of relatively low pellet count.

I’ve long hoped for a 16 gauge revival. Maybe one day there will be? Unfortunately, the renditions of Remington 870 and 1100 in 16 gauge are nothing short of disastrous. It is merely the inelegant approach of taking a 12 gauge, and making the hole in the barrel smaller. All that does is add weight. My "new" 870 16 gauge is a pig compared to my older 870 12 gauge. Adding a full pound in weight vs. the 12 is a severe penalty for the novelty of owning a 16 gauge. It is variation for variation’s sake; a tremendous failure to exploit the good balance, crisp handling, and lighter carry weight that can (and should) define a 16 gauge. My 870 16 gauge has a "Light Contour" barrel, according to Remington. Yet, it is the most ponderous pipe they’ve ever stuck onto an 870. Go figure!

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Copyright 2006 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.