Sweet Sixteen Revisited

The perils of Pauline have nothing on the old 16.

[by Terry Wieland]

Shooting is a world of fad, fashion, and—often—fantasy. It’s a world in which today’s breathless discovery will be touted as the Answer, guaranteeing a future without a single miss. Live long enough, and you will see something come into fashion, fall into obscurity, and then languish for years until—Eureka!—someone discovers it again and presents it as the Newest New Thing.

One of the unsung advantages of advancing age is that, having seen all this before, and usually more than once, one develops a certain sangfroid about it, preferring to stick with things that have proved themselves in your own hands. Barrel lengths may shorten, then lengthen, then lengthen into ungainliness; I’ll stick with 28 or 30 inches, thanks.

Shotgun gauge is also subject to fashion, within certain limits. There has not been a new gauge introduced in a century; in fact, the range of gauges has shrunk. In 1910, you could buy 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 20, 24, 28, 32, .410, and even 9 mm shotguns and shells, in one form or another. Eights are gone, but 10 gauge, having fallen completely out of favor, is staging a modest comeback because its voluminous case accommodates bulky steel shot. At the other end of the scale, it is hard to make a case for the 9 mm, unless your house is overrun with mice or you’re a museum collector of hummingbirds.

The big four are 12, 20, 28, and .410, largely because they were the gauges chosen for skeet shooting when it was formalized in the 1920s. Were it not for skeet, the 28 would probably have fallen by the wayside. But it hung on long enough to experience a “rediscovery” in the last decade, with older hunters preferring lighter guns.

“The 16 was neglected by gunmakers and ammunition companies alike, both of whom wished it would go away and allow them to get on with making money on ever-heavier magnums. But that did not come to pass.”

The 16 gauge was not invited to the skeet party in 1926, and has suffered ever since. Although it has long been the favorite gauge in Europe, where it is often paired with rifle barrels in drillings and other combination guns, it was strictly an also-ran in England for driven shooting, and English preferences dribbled over into America. In the United States, where the emphasis was traditionally waterfowl, the 16 (even before steel shot) did not have the shot-charge capacity demanded by duck hunters.

Many older books on upland shooting refer to the 16 as the “gentleman’s gauge,” as opposed to the 10s and 12s preferred by market gunners of old. But in a society where ignorance is prized and boorishness admired, anything deemed gentlemanly is at an immediate disadvantage. One might as well suggest wearing a tie to shoot. The wonder of it is that the 16 hung on as it did for a century, always with a small and devoted band of admirers, some of whom may not have been gentlemen.

The 16 was neglected by gunmakers and ammunition companies alike, both of whom wished it would go away and allow them to get on with making money on ever-heavier magnums. But that did not come to pass. Devotees of the 16 hoarded ammunition, loaded their own, and even paid a premium for good imported stuff.

For those not familiar with 16-gauge guns— probably including the majority of younger shooters—it is, on paper, the perfect shotgun gauge. Gauge is determined by dividing one pound of lead into a number of equal-sized spheres—12 for 12 gauge, 20 for a 20 gauge, and so on. The 16 balls for a 16 gauge are exactly one ounce each. One ounce of shot, in a bore .662-inch in diameter, makes a shot column that is as wide as it is tall. In theory, this should deliver the best possible shot pattern. Using the “96-times” rule of English gunmakers, that a gun should weigh 96 times the shot charge, a one-ounce load would allow a six-pound gun. This is hefty enough to give a solid swing and dampen any recoil, while being delightfully light to carry.

This is all in theory. In fact, with modern plastic shot cups, one ounce of shot gives the perfect shot column in a 12, not a 16, but that’s quibbling. You won’t find many six-pound 12s kicking around, and if you did, it would be an awful thing to handle with anything except light one-ounce loads. But back to the 16-gauge: Is one ounce of shot enough? Frankly, if you can’t do it with one ounce, you probably won’t do it with one and a half, or even two ounces, whether it’s breaking clays or dropping pheasants. Unless you are limited by tragic circumstance to owning just one gun, it’s a good idea to keep a 12 around anyway, to do all the things (steel shot, buckshot, slugs, and so on) to which you’d rather not subject a light 16.