The phrase “16-gauge shotgun” often sparks memories of yesteryear: the dusty old single shot from the 50s you inherited from your grandfather, or the quirky old pump you once eyed in the gun store.
The 16-gauge shotgun is a strange gun, especially in the Western U.S. I understand it has a bit more popularity in the Northeast, and of course our European cousins seem overly fond of it. But just what good is a semi-obsolete shotgun that seems to stay alive out of sheer force of habit?
Here are four good answers you should consider one:
1. They can be cheap. Odds are that a comparable 16-gauge will be cheaper on the used gun rack than a similar 12- or 20-gauge. The market just isn’t there, and these things can languish on the shelves. They still go “boom,” though, and still are perfectly good for whatever use you might have for a shotgun. If you are into saving money, you can assemble a nice battery of quality shotguns at an incredible saving by going with a 16-gauge.
2. They fill a sweet spot between 12- and-20 gauge. The shot patterns fall nicely in the middle of the two, and often 16s are lighter to carry than a 12. The right-in-the-middle performance of a 16-gauge means better success in the field and better performance in the kind of circumstances where you might want to haul a light 20-gauge around. The 16-gauge really shines in thick brush, where hunters might normally choose a 12-gauge to bust through the cover. However, you wind up with small game riddled with more pellets than might be desirable, but often a 20-gauge just won’t cut it. The 16 is “just right” for those circumstances.
3. The 16-gauge is a handloader’s dream come true. Admittedly, this is because at some point you have to load for it, due to inconsistent availability of ammo, but once you are freed from the traditional market and cultural expectations of what the “ideal” load is, you are wide open to do your own thing. I have always maintained that if I must load my ammo, I’d rather do it for a niche gun than one where I can get whatever I want off the shelf in the gunstore. This is why I carry a .41 magnum revolver, shoot a Krag, and have a 16-gauge single shot for birds. Beyond that, you can make a 16-gauge do the work of a 20 or 12 with little effort, depending on how you load for it. What’s not to love?
4. The ammo really isn’t that hard to find. If you live near a population center or a large sporting goods store, odds are there are basic 16-gauge loads available to you: birdshot, buckshot, slugs and the like. It’s easy to overlook, but once you start shopping for it, 16-gauge ammo seems to pop up everywhere. Really, a good 16-gauge is a darn fine gun. What I like most about them, though, is that you can walk into almost any country gun shop, or old pawnshop, and find at least one or two neat old 16-gauges. There is something classy about picking up an old break-action shotgun, cleaning it up and bringing it back to life.
So many 16-gauge shotguns fed families, or were prized possessions and are now relegated to the dustbin of history because they aren’t the “latest” and “greatest” scattergun. When shopping for a used 16-gauge, you often will find they are well-preserved, often because at some point the owner decided it was too oddball a cartridge to keep using regularly.
I have seen fine semi-auto 16s at crazy low prices. I can’t begin to count the number of nearly mint 1950s department store branded pumps I’ve run across, either. And, of course, there are a great many old single-shot 16s out there. Well-used, well-loved, but still with plenty of life left in them. The 16-gauge is a direct link back to a different time in American history, when things moved a little slower and were at times a bit simpler.
Hardly an obsolete cartridge, with just a little bit of care, you’ll find a good 16-gauge shotgun is one heck of an off-the-grid companion or even just spare shotgun. Pick one up. You’ll be glad you did.
Do you own a 16-gauge? Have you ever shot one? What do you think? Share your thoughts in the section below: