The 16 Gauge: Could it be the Best Compromise?

By Randy Wakeman

The best does not exist, of course, but that won't stop us from saying that something is. The 16 gauge could be the best all around gauge, and it has long been a personal favorite of mine.

It is a bit puzzling that manufacturers have not been more innovative of late. After all, in "rifleland" it has been when "all else fails, invent a caliber." A silly notion, because most cartridges in the same general area (.270, .280, 7mm WSM, .308, .30-06, etc., etc.) all do pretty much the same thing, the way they are normally used.

It was a couple of things that sealed the fate of the 16 gauge. The lack of a 16 gauge skeet class certainly hurt (that has helped keep the 28 gauge going), the 3" 20 gauge shells (coupled with the lack of a 3" 16 gauge shell), and the no-tox shot trend as a pricey bonus.

But, the 16 gauge offers as much as it ever did, and it deserves a lot more attention than it has been given in the last 50 years. I'm really surprised that, by now, no one has done the obvious by chambering the 16 gauge for a 3 inch shell and offering a selection of loads to go with the 16 gauge 3 inch magnum. That would quickly obsolete the 20 gauge 3 inch scatterguns for most applications, and take a bite out of the 12 gauge gun market as well.

The benefits of the 16 gauge in the field are many, and have been overlooked. At one time It was touted as combining "the power of a 12 gauge with the handling of a 20." That isn't too far off the mark, and with 3" shells it would be right on target.

The 16 gauge, from a geometry standpoint, can do wonderful things to the aesthetics and handling of double-barreled guns. It can slenderize bulbous side-by-sides, and speed up heavy over/unders and repeaters as well. It certainly offers all the upland performance you'd ever need, without the size and weight of a 12 gauge.

Now that Hevi-Shot and Olin (among others) have shot for waterfowl hunting that flies and kills as well as lead, the necessity for a 12 gauge for shooting ducks over decoys exists no more today than it did in the lead shot days of yesteryear, when 16s and 20s were common in duck blinds. The 16 gauge can pattern heavier payloads better than a 20 gauge. It can handle larger shot sizes with excellent performance where the 20 gauge is stuffed way beyond bore capacity. Most any 16 gauge can handle 1-1/8 oz. loads well, but not all 20 gauges can. Most any 16 gauge can handle #5 or #4 shot well, but the pattern board shows that not all 20 gauges do. For all the hyperbole about back-boring (over boring) a twenty gauge, the 16 gauge has offered more all along.

There are subtle things I appreciate about the 16 gauge. With frozen gloved hands it can be a bit cozy to load a 20 gauge shell, while a 16 gauge shell is easier to manage. 16 gauge shells take up less bulk in your coat than 12 gauge shells, leaving more room for that sandwich your girl made you for lunch. There is a lot to like about the sixteen gauge. Side-by-side hunters already recognize it, as do fans of the A-5 "Sweet Sixteen," of which I certainly am one.

When a "reintroduction" of the 16 gauge is made, I usually bite. When the in-and-out of business Ithaca Company made their Model 37 available again, I bought one. Suffering from poor workmanship and assembly, it shucked more fresh shells to the ground than it did to the chamber.

When Remington made their lackluster 16 gauge 870 Wingmaster and 1100 efforts, I bit again. Rather than build these guns on a smaller 16 gauge frame, they took the cheesy way into the 16 gauge. My 16 gauge Wingmaster is nothing more than a 12 gauge 870 with a smaller hole in the barrel. A pity, it actually weighs more than a 12 gauge 870. I still have it, but for no good reason.

As supplied, it was a nose-heavy pig. I had the Rem-Choke area cut-off, the barrel re-threaded for TruChokes, and the rib re-beaded. Better, but still way more pipe in front than is needed. It is just a shame.

A 16 gauge gun should be built on a 16 gauge size frame, not crammed into a 12 gauge frame, as is so often the case. Fine 16 gauge doubles (like Purdy, Lefever, Parker, and the Winchester 21) have always been built on special 16 gauge frames. But most 16 gauge repeaters are just barrels with 16 gauge chambers fitted to a 12 gauge frame. Such guns have no advantage over a similar 12 gauge, and give shooters the impression that 16 gauge guns are pointless.

A fine example of a proper 16 gauge gun is the Browning A-5. As those who have carried an A-5 "Light Twelve" all day know, it is a wonderful gun, but far from light. The Browning Sweet Sixteen uses a true 16 gauge barrel, and its buttstock interchanges with an A-5 Light Twenty. Whether I'm swinging a Sweet Sixteen or one of my 20 gauge Mags, there is no practical difference. That's the way it could, and should be.

I've never owned a truly competent semi-auto 16 gauge other than the A-5, must less a gas-operated 16 gauge that has much to offer. A Browning Gold "Sweet Sixteen" or a Beretta A390 built on a true 16 gauge frame with three inch chambers would be wonderful.

The 16 gauge is neither gone nor forgotten in my book. Here's hoping that one day a Browning Gold Sweet Sixteen will appear. Browning sure did it right with the A-5, they did it right with the recent Citori 16 gauge, and there is no reason they can't do it again.

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Copyright 2006, 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.