The 16-Gauge Revival
There's more to the "Sweet 16" than warm, fuzzy feelings.
Caught in a shrinking niche between light 12-gauges and 3-inch 20s, the 16-gauge has been dying a slow death for almost 50 years. Thus, Remington’s unveiling of not one, but three, models of the 16-gauge 870 (Wingmaster, Express, and Youth) at the 2002 SHOT Show in Las Vegas proved a very pleasant surprise. At the same time, Ithaca debuted a new Ultra Featherlight Model 37 in 16-gauge, and Merkel introduced its 1620 side-by-side. That’s more 16s than a single SHOT Show has seen in many years. Meanwhile, demand for 16-gauge reloading components and specialty ammo is on the upswing. It would appear we have a small 16-gauge revival on our hands. Why A16?
What’s fueling the 16’s popularity? Nostalgia. A generation of hunters fondly remembers the 16 as their first gun, or as their father’s gun. Now they’ve reached the stage of life where they can afford to buy a 16 for old time’s sake.
Those of you without a jot of romance in your souls are saying, “Yeah, okay, but what can a 16 do for me?” Fair question. A few of the folks buying 16s are serious upland hunters who believe there’s more to a 16-gauge than warm fuzzy feelings.
They used to say of the 16 that it “hit like a 12, carried like a 20.” Exactly. A 16 can weigh up to a pound less than a 12, yet it will shoot 11/8 ounces of lead shot much better than a 20-gauge can. Consider, for instance, Fiocchi’s new 16-gauge Golden Pheasant loads containing 11/8 ounces of hard, nickel-plated 5 shot with a muzzle velocity of 1310 fps. If you want an even heavier shot load, try Federal’s fine Premium magnums in 11/4 ounces of 4 or 6 shot. Now imagine either load in a gun that’s lighter and trimmer than many 12-gauges, and you’ve got the essence of the 16’s appeal.
Unfortunately, the switch to nontoxic shot for waterfowling hasn’t been kind to the 16-gauge. On my first trip to Arkansas back in the mid-80s, my hosts shot mallards with 11/8-ounce lead loads and 16-gauge autoloaders. When I hunted with them again in the ’90s, they’d all retired their 16s for 12-gauges and 3-inch steel 2s.
As now loaded, the 16’s 23/4-inch hull accommodates a maximum of 15/16 ounce of steel shot, leaving it a shade behind the 1-ounce payload of the 3-inch 20. Perhaps the introduction of new guns will inspire manufacturers to refine 16-gauge steel loads, although I’m not sure there’s tremendous room for improvement. If you want to shoot a 16 in the marsh, your best bet is to grit your teeth and pay premium prices for Kent’s 11/4-ounce tungsten-matrix loads, which do offer true leadlike performance.
There are two ways to make a 16. You can put a 16-gauge barrel on a 12-gauge receiver and call it a 16, although what you’ve really got is a 12 chambered for wimpier loads. Or you can scale the frame down to 16-gauge or even 20-gauge dimensions and make a trim, light smallbore.
Remington’s revived 870 (gone from the line since 1981) is an example of the 12-gauge school of 16-gauge design; just like the original 16-gauge 870s, it’s built on a 12-gauge frame. As such, it’s almost identical in feel to a 12-gauge Wingmaster. Some would say that defeats the purpose of a 16-gauge. Rather than picking nits, however, I’d prefer to congratulate Remington for bringing the gun back and stirring up interest in the 16 again.
Ithaca’s newest Model 37 pump, the 16-gauge Ultra Featherlight, has a slim, lightweight aluminum 16-gauge receiver. As such, it weighs well under 6 pounds and still packs near-12-gauge punch.
The German Merkel 1620 actually consists of 16-gauge barrels wedded to a 20-gauge receiver. Starting at $3,695 for the basic case-colored, lightly engraved model, the 1620 isn’t cheap. It is, however, lightweight (under 6 pounds) and classy. The Merkel’s action is extremely strong, and the metal is precisely fitted to snug tolerances in a most satisfyingly Teutoonic way.
Browning carried a 16-gauge Citori in its catalog briefly in the late ’80s, then dropped it. Over the last two years, however, they’ve made a couple of thousand Citori 16s on special order for Cabela’s, Bill Hicks, Gander Mountain, and Scheel’s. These are slim, trim, true 16s, weighing a pound less than the 12-gauge Citoris.
Let none of these intriguing new guns blind you to the presence of roughly a zillion 16s on the used market. Winchester’s Model 12, Browning’s Sweet 16 Auto 5 and Remington’s Model 31 pump were all built on 16-gauge frames. The American doubles-the Foxes, the L.C. Smiths, the Parkers-are often overweight in 12-gauge, but near perfect in 16. If you buy an older 16, have the chambers measured. Many were made with 65mm (29/16-inch) chambers, rendering them unsafe with 23/4-inch ammunition. Having chambers on most 16s measured and lengthened, however, is not a major chore for a gunsmith.
If you have trouble finding 16-gauge ammo locally, order it directly from a mail-order house like Gamaliel Shooting Supply (270-457-2825; www.gamaliel.com).
Do you really need a 16? Honestly, no, not if filling a gamebag is your only concern. Nostalgia doesn’t kill birds. Sometimes, however, hunting isn’t about what you bring home, it’s about the things you carry with you. In that case, a 16-gauge may be exactly what you need.