The Forgotten Gauge: What Made The Sixteen Truly Sweet

I have an ongoing love affair with the 16 gauge shotgun, and I think its demise is largely unjustified. I realize that the 16 was never as popular elsewhere in the country as it was here in the south, but a good many wingshooters still regard the 16 as the perfect upland game gun.

Not as heavy or bulky as the 12, less whippy than the 20, the 16 was the perfect marriage of form and function. Few shotguns swing or point as well as a nice 16 gauge double.

I’ve had a few 16 gauges pass through the family collection, but sadly, the operative word is “passed.”

Granddad had a Browning Sweet Sixteen. The Sweet Sixteen was the lightweight version of the 16 gauge Browning A5, so identified by their gold-plated triggers. Never mind that the only difference between the lightweight and the standard-weight A5 was the weight of three loaded shells – an empty standard weight weighs the same as a loaded lightweight – most wingshooters would insist that the Sweet Sixteen simply shot better… somehow. Hit harder. Tighter patterns. Swung better.

Facts be damned, perception is reality when it comes to the Zen of a wingshooter. To paraphrase that great philosopher Crash Davis, if a shotgunner thinks he shoots better because of a gold-plated trigger and shaving a few ounces off the barrel guide ring, then he does shoot better. Likewise for the difference between the Belgium Brownings and those A5 models made elsewhere.

There was… something… about that rounded, “Prince of Wales” grip that just made the gun handle better. Everybody knows that.


The only thing marring the perfect lines of Granddad’s Sweet Sixteen was the abomination known as the Poly Choke. The Poly Choke was a fully adjustable choke allowing the shooter to change the choke on his shotgun with a simple twist of the knurled adjustment ring. They’re still around today, but their popularity has waned with the advent of modern, screw-in choke tubes.

In the early 1970’s, my brother got a first-generation Winchester AA wad jammed in the Poly Choke, and bulged the barrel on the next shot. Rather than shop for a new barrel, he sold it at a pawnshop and bought a 12 gauge 870.

Dad was livid.

Dad’s other 16 gauge was a JC Higgins, the Sears & Roebuck version of the Stevens 311. Choked modified/full, with twin triggers and a hard plastic buttplate, it kicked like a mule. Lack of a recoil pad and a steep drop at heel tend to focus recoil impulses into a very small area, and I earned many a bruise with that JC Higgins until I learned to mount and shoulder a shotgun properly.


But it pointed great and swung even better, and for a spindly-armed twelve-year-old kid, it was much easier to manage than Dad’s standard-weight Browning A5. I learned to wingshoot with that old JC Higgins, and I scratched many a feathered denizen of the skies down with it over the years.

Our barn cats could hear a shotgun shell drop into a flannel shirt pocket at 100 paces, and they knew that the sold “thunk” of me closing the breech of that old 16 gauge meant that an easy meal was soon to come.

Dad eventually gave that old 16 to my twin sister, and it was the only gun of his I never recovered when he died. Pawned for drug money long before he passed, most likely. I miss it terribly.

The decline of the 16 started with the omission of the 16 gauge from the list of approved gauges in the official skeet shooting rulebook. With the 16 declared unworthy, shooters and ammunition manufacturers alike shifted their time and attention to the other gauges, most notably the 12 and 20.

More than anything else, what spelled the end of the 16 gauge was the introduction of the 3″ magnum 20 gauge. With the ability of the magnum 20 to shoot 1 1/4 ounce loads – same as a 2 3/4″ 12 gauge field load – many shooters abandoned the 16 altogether.

Something about the holy grail of an ounce-and-a-quarter load convinced shooters that the 16 left something to be desired compared to the 12, and with the advent of the magnum 20, the 16 became irrelevant.

Never mind that it just looked better and handled better than either, it just didn’t shoot an ounce-and-a-quarter load, and everyone knew that you needed that amount of shot to effectively kill game birds.

Remember when I said perception is reality, and that facts have little to do with the Zen of the wingshooter? People were perfectly content to ignore the fact that better handling characteristics helped you shoot better, and that the effectiveness of a shotgun load had less to do with weight and length (or shortness) of shot string than with putting the shot charge in the same patch of sky as the bird.

In other words, like just about every other shooting discipline, it’s about the shooter, not the tool.

That said, a shorter shot column – like, say, a 1 ounce or 1 1/8 ounce load in a 16 – is more likely to produce even, dense patterns than a longer one, like a 1 1/4 ounce load in a 3″ 20 gauge. There’s less shot deformation, therefore better aerodynamics and more even patterns.

What really grinds my gears is that, if the R&D dollars and effort devoted to making better 3″ 20 gauge shells over the years had been devoted to the 16, the 20 would be the obscure, niche chambering relegated to gamers and new shooters, and the 16 would likely be the all-around shotgun gauge king. I think it’s an inherently better platform.

You shotgun makers and ammo manufacturers ought to get right on developing a 3″ 16 gauge, toute suite.

While perusing the Internet for info on 16 gauges, I found this gorgeous little thing:cz-usa-ringneck-201a-single-case-hardened

That’s a CZ Ringneck in 16 gauge. 28″ barrels, fixed IC/MOD chokes, but with extractors, not ejectors. I’m willing to overlook that minor annoyance, just because she’s so damned gorgeous.

I want one.

Just. Friggin’. Because.

If you guys are wondering what to get me for a Blogiversary present, you can all hit up my PayPal until I get enough to buy myself a 16 gauge CZ Ringneck. The first thing I’d do to it is chop the barrels to 26″and have Remchokes installed, and then I’d shoot the living shit out of it.

And giggle like a fiend the entire time.

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