She is enchanting. Sweet 16 and never been kissed, as the old saying goes. There is something about her that doesn’t let go, some image of virginal purity perhaps, or maybe a notion of the edge between dewiness and maturity. I don’t know, only that she is alluring to the point of distraction.
Time was, the 16 gauge was a sub-bore. In the days when the 10 gauge was the standard, even the 12 was thought of as a smallbore. The 20 and 28 were considered little more than toys, fit only for ladies and children. The .410 bore, which in my opinion still is a toy, scarcely existed at all. American writer William Humphrey describes a boy’s development as a hunter as a progress through his 20- and 16-gauge years, leading of course to his ultimate goal of using a 12-bore and then a 10. Good analogy.
In her debutante years, Sweet 16 was slender and sleek, just what you’d hope to find in one so young. She was typically lightweight by the standards of the time and showed a racy profile that was captivating. She packed sufficient wallop to satisfy all but the most wild-eyed shooters besotted by the notion that bigger must inevitably be better, and she did so with a charming level of grace.
Her salad days lasted many years. Though never especially popular in England, she was the darling of Europe and the eastern United States. But ultimately she fell upon hard times.
They started just after World War II, when the 16 became an orphan child. Confronted by spiraling manufacturing costs, American gunmakers decided to abandon the traditional approach of scaling each gauge’s frame to the size of the barrels and settled upon two: the 12 and 20. The 16 unfortunately got tied to the 12-bore frame, which meant a smaller-bore gun that weighed as much as a 12. With her lissome grace taken away, a lot of shooters rightly opted for a 12-gauge instead.
It didn’t help that there never has been a 16-gauge-specific event in skeet. You may shoot a 16, of course, but it has to be in the 12-bore class. This is no real handicap, but target shooters, like so many others, want the largest shot charge they can use, presumably operating on the hope that a few extra pellets will somehow better their scores.
One ounce of shot is ideal for the 16. The balance between shot-column diameter and height creates an optimally short shotstring that delivers the swarm with maximum potential for applying kinetic energy to the target, be it clay or gamebird. Those who argued the 16’s virtues used to say that it could be “loaded up like a 12 or down like a 20.” This is true, especially on the loading-down side. Most 16s can handle 1J oz of shot quite well, just as most 20s can pattern well with an ounce of pellets. The question, in my mind anyway, is: “Why do it?” If you want larger-gauge performance, use a larger gauge. Seems a no-brainer to me.
In the 1960s a couple of dunderhead gun writers often lamented the fact that there was no 3" 16-gauge cartridge. It would have been as great a ballistic disaster as the 3" 20. Mercifully, the ammunition industry didn’t bite.
The best 16-bore loads I ever used were produced in England by Lyalvale: 7/8 oz of shot, soft and sweet as a maiden’s kiss, and utterly deadly out where it really counts. Loading down is not such a bad idea. It allows the 16 to perform at the best of her ability without undue recoil.
I’ve shot a lot of 16s, though I no longer own one. I’ve since become much enamored with 20s and 28s. But two 16s that I did own stick in my mind for different reasons. One was a VH-Grade Parker that I expected to be the be-all and end-all of guns. It was built in the mid-1920s, fully up to Parker’s excellent standard of quality. It was a disaster. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shoot it worth a damn. For one thing, it was too short at both ends—26-inch barrels that didn’t put enough weight into my leading hand to make it swing smoothly, and a 14-inch stock made with all of the bend typical of American factory guns of the time. It had a single trigger, which made it feel even shorter, so that my trigger-hand thumb was practically up my nose.
There was nothing wrong with the gun; it just wasn’t the gun for me. I struggled with it for a few years before finally having to admit that the honeymoon existed only in my mind. I sold it and wasn’t unhappy to see it go.
The 16 I liked best was a No. 2 L.C. Smith built some time before 1914. It had longer barrels, a longer stock and a feel about it that I could actually handle without having to consciously steer it through every move. When you have to think more about the gun than about the target, you’re not going to like the results much. I shot that gun for a long time and enjoyed it thoroughly. Eventually, someone came along who felt he just couldn’t live without it and offered me more money than I could resist. Call me fickle, but in those days I never was burdened by too much cash.
It will take a lot more loot than I got for the Smith, but you can have a beautifully proportioned 16 made to order here in the US by Connecticut Shotgun and in England, Spain, Austria, Germany or Italy. Ammunition is still going to be a problem, but how much you need depends upon how much you shoot.
One thing is for sure: Sweet 16 has lost none of her charm. She’s been through good times and bad and come out of it with her elegant grace intact. Her suitors may no longer be legion, but their ardor shows no sign of fading. New generations of shooters line up to take her hand and discover just how sweet the 16 can be.
Editor’s Note: For more information on the 16 gauge, including a list of ammunition makers that produce 16-gauge shells, contact the 16 Gauge Society, email@example.com; www.16ga.com.
Michael McIntosh is the author of such books as A.H. Fox, Wild Things, Best Guns, Shotguns and Shooting and More Shotguns and Shooting. His latest book, Shotguns and Shooting Three, is available for $25 (plus shipping) from 800-685-7962; www.shootingsportsman.com.
- By: Michael McIntosh