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The History and Revival of the 16-Gauge Shotgun

The History and Revival of the 16-Gauge Shotgun

Two 16 gauge shotgun side bi side on a bird hunt.

Take a look at the history, culture, and availability of the 16-gauge shotgun

My shoulder rocked back so much that the other folks at my local skeet range let out an audible gasp. As light as the Stevens 555E 16 gauge was, along with 1300fps loads and my 5-foot-5-inch, 150 pound frame, it was clear that we were a poor combination. Nevertheless, I shot a decent round of skeet with it and happily retired it along with every 12 gauge that already had been sold off, stored away, or forgotten about, and pulled out my 28 gauge. To be fair, this intro is only meant to bring light to the sub-gauges which have increased in popularity over the past years, a revival of sorts and rightfully so. Maybe I am a biased source having already cast the 16 gauge to the depths, but I hope less biased than those I know who are members of the 16 gauge shotgun cult.

If you’d mentioned the 16 gauge about a decade ago, older folks would remember it almost starry eyed, the “Sweet 16” as old revival shotguns were called. Most folks my age would act as if it were a mythical creature. Sure there were 16 gauges on the used gun shelves across the country but the ammo? Good luck.

But things did change, and the 16 gauge found its way back into the hearts of younger upland hunters looking to drop some weight from the 12 gauge frames and not sacrifice pellet counts (for the most part). Or maybe it was just more about the nostalgia of an old American-made side-by-side that brought it forward. Doing some research, it’s hard to make a solid case for what came first — the chicken or the egg. Was it shotgun ammo manufacturers that made the availability of 16 gauges hit the shelves of Walmart? Or was it the cult following of Browning A5 that resurrected the “Sweet 16” at the right time? Who knows, but it happened.

A look back on the 16 Gauge

It is without question that I assumed the 16 gauge was very popular at some point in its history. Truth be told, digging back as far as the London Gun Trials of 1879, it never surpassed the 12 gauge. Sure, it enjoyed times of greater popularity but never a moment that would set it well ahead of the 12 gauge. Interestingly enough, in those very trials the final “figure of merit” on the best shotgun made was in fact a 16 gauge at a score of 266.52. This score was calculated using a combination of patterns, pattern deviation, recoil, and velocity. The 20 gauge beat out the 12 gauge by only 1.68.

Record of the 1879 Gun Trial in the book The Gun and its Development.

In W.W. Greener’s book The Gun and its Development in 1897, he specifically writes, “The 16-BORE GUN was at one time a favorite with Continental sportsmen, who now for the most part prefer the 12-bore; for use in England probably not one gun in five hundred is made 16-bore.” It’s also important to note the lack of popularity of the 20-gauge at that time as he writes. “The 20-BORE has been strenuously advocated by writers in the sporting papers, but there are very few sold — the proportion is perhaps one 20-bore to twenty of 16-bore.”

It’s clear that the 12 gauge has been the standard of both target and game shooting for as long as shotguns have been around. On a trip to the Beretta factory in Italy this past year, engineers explained why all prototypes were produced in 12 gauge (and often the only gauge first offered in new shotgun models) as it’s easier to scale design down, rather than up.

The peak of 16 gauges in American culture were the 1940s and 1950s when almost a quarter of the shotguns sold were 16 gauge. The 12 gauge accounted for just over 50 percent of shotguns sold at that time according to author Layne Simpson of Shotguns & Shotgunning.

A 16 gauge fox sterlingworth side by side shotgun

The popularity of the 16 gauge in the 21st Century

As you probably could have guessed, Project Upland was curious enough to dig into the popularity of gauges in a survey. The question posed in our 2018 National Upland Bird Hunting Survey read, “What shotgun gauge do you prefer most?” Of the 1610 people that responded, the 20 gauge took the number one spot at 46.26 percent, followed by the 12 gauge at 31.57 percent and the 16 gauge at 13.28 percent.

We even went so far as to crowd source the idea of 16 gauges on the Project Upland Community Facebook Group page. The biggest point taken was the design of the 16 gauge; those built on true 16 gauge frames were lighter than their 12 gauge cousins. In the case of many old American gunmakers, 16 gauges were even built on 20 gauge frames. However, gunmakers more recently in large production have been known to shortcut this process and build it on 12 gauge frames. Some argue why shoot a gun that weighs the same as 12 gauge with no added benefits and questionable loss in velocity and pellet count.

To put it plain and simple, people certainly stressed a level of nostalgia combined with personal wants and needs. This may be the best time to point out that one should use whatever shotgun works for you — no matter the gauge, brand, or action type.

16 gauge ammunition

Walking into your local sporting goods store and finding a box of 16-gauge shells was a rarity not five years ago; now, Walmart sells them along with most places. On Cabela’s they offer 12 different types of 16 gauge ammo (not including shot size). In contrast, they offer 126 options for 12 gauge and 85 options for 20 gauges.

Using Federal Upland Loads as a baseline of lead ammunition, a case of No. 5, 16 gauge shells is $15 more expensive than both 12 gauge and 20 gauge in the same size. That’s a $1.50 difference per box of 16 gauge shells. They pack a 1-1/8 ounce load at a velocity of 1423fps. Comparatively, the 12 gauge is a 1-1/4 ounce load at a velocity of 1500fps.

For those of you in the non-toxic world, things look both good and bad. Bismuth No. 5 is about $4 per box cheaper than 12 gauge with a 1 ounce load packing 1300fps. Steel on the other hand has very limited options. Where one can buy steel for as little as $10 box in popular gauges, the 16 gauge is more in the $20 plus category as popular cheaper loads like Federal Top Gun and Steel Game and Target are not available.

One of the largest glaring issues people point out when speaking to 16 gauge ammunition compared to other gauges is the lack of 3 inch shells. This gap becomes most glaring when one considers waterfowl hunting opportunities and turkey hunting. Although many modern option of metal like bismuth and tungsten has closed the gap with this issue over recent years. Many would argue a 2 3/4″ shell in bismuth is more effective than a 3″ steel load.

Newly made models of the 16 gauge

The A5 Sweet Sixteen by Browning is the first that comes to mind and weighs in at 5 pounds 13 ounces At an MSRP of $1739.99 these guns have certainly jumped in price over the years. Franchi makes a 16 gauge Instinct SL Over and Under Shotgun that weighs in at 5.8 pounds with an MSRP of $1729. Our friends over at CZ USA have the CZ Sharp-tail side by side that weighs 7.3 pounds with an MSRP of $1072. Last but not least is the Stevens 555E over-and-under which ate my shoulder for breakfast on the skeet range. Starting at an MSRP of $705 and weighing in at 6.2 pounds it is the cheapest option available. We probably missed a couple in the mix and encourage people to comment below with other new models being produced as we will update this over time.

The future of the 16 gauge

It goes without saying that just six years ago people were writing articles about the decline of the 16 gauge no different than W.W. Greener had in 1897. But it proves time and time again, whether it’s truly a performance thing or just nostalgia, that particular question will never be laid to rest. It has some handicaps like not being recognized in any skeet classes, or the cost of ammunition (in some cases) but it still carries on.   

Although I do not see any 16 gauges staying in my gun safe past my great grandfather’s Belgium guild hammer gun, that does not mean it’s a bad gauge. My small frame is better suited to 20 and 28 gauges. What doesn’t work for one might work for another. If you can shoot it straight and find shot shells, enjoy it. I’m sure this is not the last we will hear of the 16 gauge shotgun.    

View Comments (27)
  • The 16 may “carry like a 20 and hit like a 12” it also kicks like a 10. I recently purchased a Merkel 1620. Great gun I really like the gun with the 20 bbls. the 16 bbls. are brutal to shoot even with mild loads.

    • Recoil depends upon the weight of the gun, the dimensions, the type of gun, and the load of the shells you are shooting. I have a 16 gauge Fox SXS with a leather pad which only weighs 6 lbs. I shoot 1 oz or 1 1/8 oz shells and it shoots like a dream. On the other hand, I have a 20 gauge Savage single shot which kicks like a mule using only 7/8 oz loads. All things considered, gas operated guns have less recoil than double. barrels, and heavy guns absorb the energy of the recoil better than lighter guns of similar dimensions. The amount of powder in the shell makes a difference, as does the type of butt plate. A shock-eye type pad makes an incredible difference over a hard plastic butt plate.

  • I bought a Dickenson side by side 16 about 5 years ago. I can’t tell you what it ways. This at the time was a Cabela’s brand and I bought it out of their library for just under $2,000. It’s a beautiful gun. I was leary about buying a relatively new brand at the time but seriously could not be happier with this gun. I use it for quail, chukar, blue grouse and huns, plan on using it for duck this year. I have had it up at the local skeet range and I am impressed with its capability and it’s range. This gun did not come with a buttpad but I have never needed it either. The only draw back I find with it, is that the double trigger configuration tends to be a bit of a knuckle buster. nothing a little rubber can’t fix, and really never a problem in the field. Tell you the truth, after a summer of weekly skeet shooting. my fingers hardly notice. In any case, I love the gun. I should probably start reloading to cut the cost a bit. But thanks for this article.

  • Markell 40e … 6lbs even SxS … with options … order from Merkel USA in Bessmer(?), Alabama. They do not advertise them in the USA. Yes $$$ ($4000+) but not as costly as the 1620 mentioned. That 1620 mentioned is REALLY nice … low pressure light loads tame it. 16’s are for 1oz loads or less. 1200 FPS is enough, then the kick is no problem. The 1 1/8 loads and higher velocity loads are not necessary for most upland. Those are optimal 12 ga loads. Get some of the 16 ga. 2 1/2 in. or 2 3/4 in. loads with low pressure and sixteens are indeed “sweet”. 1 1/8 oz at 1423 FPS is a load for heavier gun, a 12 ga load for a 7lb. plus gun. Or perhaps to cycle a semi-auto.

  • For decades I’ve carried an Arrieta SLE in 16-gauge, and a Merkel 1620. Both guns weigh in just a bit over 6-pounds and are a joy to carry. Shooting one-ounce loads of 7 1/2 shot at around 1200fps or a bit less these guns are also a joy to shoot. Nostalia combined with effectiveness. Win-win,

  • I’ve been shooting a Beretta lightning feather for 10+ years. Love hunting with it but I can’t make it through a box of shells at the range without starting to flinch… Even tried 2 1/2 ” shells. Just too light of a gun. Have the same issue with my Upland Ultralight 12 ga CZ and 3″ shells.

  • Have any of you tried the RST. Lites? I shoot the 2 1/2″ – 1 oz. loads in #7 shot for pheasants &# 8’s for grouse & woodcock, they are very efficient and light kicking. Oh, by the way, I shoot them out of a J.P. Sauer hammer gun made in 1885 with fluid steel barrels that tips the scales at 6 lbs.(gunsmith approved). Most of my other (13) doubles are now in semi-retirement.

    • I love the sixteen. I butchered far too many rabbits with the twelve in my youth. I have several prewar old German examples, all in 2 1/2 inch chambers. I too bought RST shells. I also reload and here there is no difference in price or difficulties. I too have a hammer Sauer & Sohn made in 1896. Talk about light! I use the Falcon Light load.

  • Browning also makes limited runs of the Citori O/U in 16ga almost every year. This is on a true scaled 16 frame. Rizzini has scaled 16ga offerings in numerous offerings, including the BR110 and Aurum. The idea that a 16 somehow kicks worse than any other gauge is just downright ignorant. Just like any other gauge, the gun fit, weight, and load dramatically affect recoil.

    • I completely agree. I shoot 2 model 21’s, 2 Belgian made A 5’s , 2 citori’s, a model 12, and a Remington 870. All work well on early season wild birds. For late season wild birds I use 12 gauges. For those who dislike the perceived recoil of commercial shot shells, they can load their own ammunition. Ballistic Products sells all necessary components as well as a 16 gauge reloading manual.

    • I have the Tristar 16 gauge. Love it. Just left Maine where I shot a bunch of grouse, woodcock and a few Hares with it.

      I also own the Ithaca Featherlite in 16 Gauge which I also love. I have no problems with the kick of either gun. Not to sure what everyone is talking about.

      • Could be that they bought a cheap gun. That’s what it sounds like to me. What they bought wasn’t well made. Now that I have a brand new Browning sweet 16, my “nice” tristar g2 viper 20ga feels like crap. I looked at that Savage 555E and though it’s priced right, I’m thinking there’s a quality issue there (ie it’ll be the same as my Tristar). Which is why I’m not buying it. I’m lookin at a Franchi Instinct SLX 16ga . The action on that Tristar doesn’t feel nearly as good as that Browning, and I want somethin SWEET!!! My Ithaca 37 featherlight, that’s sweet. That Franchi is lookin dang sweet too. I prefer 16’s because they’re more versitle than a 12. I can use my 16s for everything.

  • I have owned various 16 gauge shotguns and found my favorite in the Remington 1100. It is balanced well in my hands and is soft shooting even with heavier loads. I like the Remington 1148 16 gauge as my back up gun when pheasant hunting. These are not pricey guns. Look around a bit and you can find some dandies. The Marlin Model 90 is an over/under that had 16 gauges. I had one that was light enough to carry all day. I did not get used to the double triggers. I am a semi-auto kind of guy.

    • I have Remingtons; Model 1100, Sportsman 48, 11-48 and Model 11, all in 16 ga. Also have a Marlin-made O/U for Sears in 16 ga. Love them all…

  • I hunt with two Citori’s. One weighs 7 lbs, 2 oz, and I use it for ducks, doves and clays. The other weighs 6 lbs, 6 oz and is perfect for pheasants, grouse and quail. B & P sells excellent hunting ammunition in 16 gauge on line. Ballistic Products, Corcoran, Mn. sells 16 gauge reloading components, including primed hulls.

  • I’ve carried my field grade LC Smith 16 for years now. It has the best swing of any gun I own. It won’t win me any skeet competitions, but neither will it quit when it’s important. Side by guns feel “right “ hanging over your shoulder.

    • I found a 16 ga. l.c. smith field grade made in 1941,,, i belive it was unfired or less than a box thru it! I own about 5 different 16,s love them! side x sides pumps. they are great!

  • Beware that older guns may be chambered for 2-1/2″ shells. Some have been bored to 2-3/4″. Good to have a gunsmith check them out. My old German 16 ga SxS is 2-1/2″. RST carries 2-1/2″ loads, but I also reload. These do fine on grouse and woodcock.

    I just found an old Model 12 i16 ga in very nice shape at an even nicer price so couldn’t pass it up. Nice to have that extra round in the early season, plus can use store-bought 2-5/4″ shells.

    By the way, when you mention “Sweet Sixteen” to a shotgunner, that was similar to saying “thirty-thirty” (“turdy-turdy” up north) to a rifleman. They each bring up visions of only one respective gun … the Browning A5 16ga and the Winchester Model 94 .30-.30.

  • My FUN Gun is the Browning Citori Feather. Even though it’s light at 5 lb. 15 oz. and has a forward balance bias (16 gauge barrels fitted to a 20 gauge alloy frame) with pedestrian grade gloss finish wood, it has earned its bona fide’s as a reliable and versatile shotgun during the past 10 years hunting:
    Turkey – (B&P F2 Classic #5)
    Pheasent – (Kent Fast Lead #6)
    Mallards – decoyed in beaver pond- (Kent Tungsten Matrix #5)
    Hungarian Partridge – (Kent Fast Lead #6)
    Ruffed Grouse – (RST Lite #6)
    Bobwhite Quail – (RST Lite #7)
    Woodcock – (RST Lite #7)
    I like that my Citori Feather has no-recoil pad (smooth snag-free mount) due to manageable recoil from the non-magnum 2 ¾” /1 oz./ ~1200 fps shot shell. Shot sizes #5, #6 and #7 covers 95% of the upland game I hunt making purchasing these common shot size shells online no more difficult than any other online transaction for other products. For me the FUN of hunting with my 16 gauge and my GSP bird dog makes is making more life long memories.
    Memories that carry me through to the next season…. for 51 years and (Lord willing) counting!

  • Also very fond of my Browning Lighting Feather which Bill Hanus Bird Guns praised. 6-1/4 lbs w/ Pachmar’s thickest recoil pad on the uncut stock = LOP ideal for my lanky 6’4″. Acquired a Philadelphia Fox Sterlingworth a few years ago. 90% gun, original case color, built 1928 with short chambers, so it gets 2-1/2″ RST ammunition. Fits me fine with slip on leather pad. I use both for dove and quail here in CA. Considering a South Dakota pheasant expedition w/ GSP Arlo now.

  • Love my vintage Ithaca Model 37 and Remington Model 31 in 16 gauge. Also have a nice little Kettner German guild side by side that sure is sweet.

  • I sell a number of FAIR 16ga sxs its an Italian maker very nice.Also Rizzini o/u and sxs deserve a look.Browning has an o/u too.I love 16ga I have 4 🙂 Thanks Dave

  • I have a Parker VHE circa WWI in 16ga. w/3 inch chambers. Interesting because nobody will admit to ever having manufactured that shell. It was choked EF in the right barrel and F in the left, probably set up for pass shooting waterfowl with 32 inch pipes. I love this gun as much as any I’ve ever shot, and have taken a truckload of birds with it on Montana’s prairies.

  • I have model 1897 winchester pumps in 16 guage as well as 12. Both work quite well on pheasant and quail. 16 is a little lighter in weight and recoils less.

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