The Comeback of the 16 Gauge

Despite a death knell, the 16 gauge is enjoying newfound popularity.

The Comeback of the 16 Gauge
Photo Credit: Tess Rousey

Not so many years ago, one of the other major sporting publications declared the death of the 16 gauge, citing the lack of available choices in both new guns and affordable ammunition as the twin executioners of the sub-gauge shotgun. Then something interesting happened. Browning introduced a newly designed A5 and followed it up with a modern take on the original Sweet 16. Nostalgia is a powerful motivator when it comes to purchasing decisions, and a subtle pulse in the otherwise flat line showed a bit of life still beat in the 16 gauge.

Along with a new offering came a renewed interest in sub-gauge shotguns, with both the 28 gauge and .410 taking off in terms of popularity. Advancements in shot technology made those little guns more lethal than ever, and naturally, the hunting public looked around for other ways to stand out from the crowded field carrying versatile, but heavy, 12-gauge shotguns. The increased demand resulted in a new supply of ammunition choices to feed the growing hunger to fill the many 16 gauges getting pulled out of the back of the closet.

A year or two ago, hunters would be lucky to find a box of 16-gauge upland loads on store shelves. Forget any kind of steel or non-toxic load for waterfowling. Online searches would dredge up limited offerings from a few manufacturers, including Federal, Remington, Kent, and Fiocchi, but good luck finding anywhere that actually had stock to send. I managed to get a case of Remington Nitro-Steel No. 2s that are deadly on late-season ducks, and I covet them like gold ingots.

Today, an online search for 16-gauge shotgun shells delivers an abundance of offerings from all the major shotshell manufacturers as well as a plethora of smaller companies getting into the game. Because many of the 16-gauge shotguns carried afield are considered classics, bismuth has been the go-to load for a lot of hunters wanting a non-lead option. The problem is its price, particularly for reliably deadly Hevi-Shot. Kent has helped ease that with its new Bismuth Upland load, and a few other upstarts have followed suit. Even Boss, the hot, new kid on the block, is rumored to have a copper-plated bismuth load coming for 16-gauge fans.

So what it is about the 16 gauge that has kept it alive all these years? The standard saw is that the 16 carries like a 20, but hits like a 12, making it beloved among upland hunters putting in long, hard miles every day. There’s much to be said for this, even though it sports only a 2¾-inch chamber. Kent Bismuth Upland sends a 1-ounce charge of No. 5 shot with a muzzle velocity of 1,350 fps. Fiocchi High Velocity moves its 11/8-ounce load of No. 5 lead shot at 1,300 fps, more than enough oomph to knock down a wary, end-of-season rooster.

Like most hunters, however, I cling to my 16 for nostalgia. I was introduced to the sub-gauge when my grandfather passed away. As the only grandkid who was an avid hunter, I ended up with his small gun collection, which included a beaten and battered Ithaca Long-Range Gun side-by-side in 16 gauge. I also acquired a few boxes of Kent’s then-revolutionary Tungsten Matrix. Though the gun’s double-triggers confounded me, I carried it often and even managed to kill a few pheasants with Shorty Richard’s old double.

Later, with a bit of cash and some Cabela’s points, I picked up a used Italian stacked-barrel 16 gauge from I. Rizzini. This became my go-to gun for everything from late-season roosters to green-headed mallards. It was light to carry and swung easy, and the way it absolutely hammered the ducks solidified my love for the sweet 16 gauge. Last season, I swapped in a 16-gauge Franchi Instinct SL and ate my fair share of fat, corn-fed mallards, along with a few big Canada geese that fell to the steel No. 2s. With the availability of some new tungsten turkey loads from Apex and others, I’m already planning a 16-gauge grand slam. I might even use the ol’ Ithaca.

A Selection of 16s

While the other sub-gauges are getting a lot of the love from gun and ammo companies, there are a few manufacturers who keep 16-gauge shotguns in their lines for those of us who just have to be different. A few of these have been around for a while, while others are new offerings this year. Let’s hope some of the other gunmakers get on board with 16-gauge shotguns built on a true sub-gauge frame (rather than a 16-gauge chamber on a 12-gauge gun, which defeats the purpose altogether).

Franchi Instinct SL

Franchi Instinct SL

It was tough for me to trade off the I. Rizzini, but I reached for the Franchi Instinct more often last season. It comes in on the scale at 5.8 pounds, which Franchi achieved via a lightweight aluminum alloy receiver, with twin ejectors, and a trimmer forend. This makes for a shotgun that’s easy to carry in the upland fields and quick to the shoulder. The balance is nice, swinging easily on crossing mallards in the duck blind. The receiver may sacrifice some durability to a heavier steel version, but for me, the light weight is worth it. The Grade AA walnut stock is satin finished. $1,729;

Browning Citori Feather Superlight

Browning Citori Feather Superlight

Introduced at this year’s SHOT Show, the 16-gauge version of Browning’s popular Citori quickly rose to the top of my must-have list of firearms. The Grade II/III walnut stock sports classic lines, including a straight grip and Schnabel forend, and is finished in a gloss oil finish. Trim on the scale thanks to an aluminum alloy receiver, it gets added marks for the durable reliability of a steel breech face. This is one gun you’ll carry for a lifetime, and so will your children and grandchildren. It’s also the only off-the-shelf 16 gauge that I know of offered in the hunter’s choice of 26- or 28-inch barrel lengths. $2,470;

CZ Sharptail

CZ Sharptail

Every season I see more and more CZ double guns in the field, a fact I attribute to their price-to-performance ratio. For a street price that likely comes in under a grand, hunters get a serviceable double-barrel with durable coil springs and a selectable mechanical trigger set in an engraved receiver. I love the stylish lines, including a slight beavertail forend. The CNC-machined receiver helps reduce the overall weight by eliminating excess metal, though the Sharptail is still a bit heavy at 7.3 pounds. That’s likely attributable to the Turkish walnut stock and larger frame. Those of you who hate chasing down ejected empties will appreciate the Sharptail’s single extractor. $1,072;

TriStar Hunter EX

TriStar Hunter EX

Tristar leads the way when it comes to budget firearms, and the Hunter EX is the epitome of Turkish-made price and performance. While it’s not the prettiest gun on the market, it performs as advertised, at a price that allows entry into an otherwise pricey world of double-barrel shotguns. A steel monoblock receiver and a Turkish walnut stock add a bit of heft, but the true 16 gauge frame trims overall weight to just 6 pounds. Extractors, chrome-lined barrel, and acid-etched sideplates round out this affordable offering. $655;

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