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The Sweetest Sixteen

The Sweetest Sixteen

The 16 gauge appeals to upland hunters because it shoots pretty patterns with a minimum of recoil.

The author shooting a Browning Citori Gran Lightning 16 gauge.

It seems like almost every year some sage gun scribe heralds the imminent return of the 16 gauge. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, they enthusiastically proclaim, the 16 gauge is back! Well, I'm sad to report that the sixteen isn't coming back. Ever. Well, at least not as a mainstream offering. And that's too bad because the delightful sixteen is, without a doubt, the perfect gauge for upland game.

The 16 gauge appeals to upland hunters because it shoots pretty patterns with a minimum of recoil. And when chambered in appropriately sized guns (more on that later), it is an absolute joy to carry over hill and dale. When at long last your intended quarry takes to wing, those delightful patterns flat-out hammer hard-flying chukars and wary, late-season pheasants. Savvy hunters use the sweet sixteen on ducks, too.

The sixteen is exactly halfway between the 12 and the 20 gauge. It carries a bigger payload than standard 2¾-inch 20-gauge shells and is about as lethal as the 12 gauge but with less recoil. The advent of the 3-inch 20-gauge and steel shot legislation pretty much killed it. That's too bad because the sweet-shooting 16 is just as wonderful today as it's always been.

Standard 16-gauge pheasant loads send a 11/8-ounce payload of No. 4, 5, or 6 shot out the muzzle at about 1,295 fps--a combination that is wonderfully effective on pheasant and chukar. Low-brass loads with 1-ounce payloads of No. 7½ or 8 shot at around 1,165 to 1,200 fps are ideal for dove and quail. With loads like that, it's difficult to see why the 16 gauge floundered. But steel shot is a big reason the sixteen lost so much of its luster.

Because lead is so much denser than steel, 2¾-inch 16-gauge hulls can only hold 15/16 ounce of steel shot. When forced to switch to steel, waterfowlers were none too pleased with the smaller payloads. Those 15/16-ounce loads of No. 2 or 4 steel shot at 1,300 to 1,350 fps can still get the job done on decoyed ducks, but waterfowlers are much better off with the more versatile 12 gauge. Some of the newer nontoxic loads could revitalize the 16, but the ones I've seen hit the market disappeared just as quickly, and there just aren't enough die-hard 16-gauge fans out there for one of the major ammunition companies to justify the expense of developing a nontoxic waterfowl load for it.

The introduction of the 3-inch 20 gauge was another nail in the sixteen's coffin. Magnum 20-gauge loads allow it to carry the same payload as the 16 gauge, which makes the sixteen a nonfactor for shooters who don't make it past the ballistics tables. The twenty has a longer shot column than the sixteen, but long columns are inefficient. The sixteen's shorter shot column means it has denser, more uniform patterns.


The 16 gauge (center) is exactly halfway between the 12 gauge (left) and the 20 gauge (right). It throws much prettier patterns than the 20 gauge and has significantly less recoil than the 12 gauge, and in an appropriately sized gun.

The gravest insult to the sixteen is that there is no category for it in skeet. It does not qualify for subgauge events in sporting clays, either. The 20 gauge has its own category in skeet and is legal for subgauge events, which cemented its place among mainstream shotgun shooters and killed the 16 gauge as a viable gun for clay target sports.

With no place on the skeet range, sporting clays field, or waterfowl blind, the 16 gauge was forced to rely on upland bird hunters for its survival. With upland bird populations in decline in many areas, decreased access to public hunting lands, and the ever-increasing popularity of the 12 and 20 gauges among upland hunters, the sixteen had an awful tough row to hoe. Fortunately, its many merits have kept it kicking.

Though few new guns were available, there are enough used guns on the market and just enough interest in the 16 gauge to keep manufacturers cranking out a small selection of 16-gauge guns. Occasional limited-edition offerings from makers like Remington, Browning, and Ithaca and a nice selection of high-end double guns keep the fire burning, but the only affordable factory gun chambered for the 16 gauge I'm aware of is the Browning BPS pump gun.

The BPS was a SHOT Show special in 2007 and did well enough that it made it into the catalog in 2008. I was looking at the BPS on the Browning website last year when I noticed that another limited run of 16-gauge Citoris had been made for 2010. I ordered the Gran Lightning variant on the spot.

One of the reason's I've always liked Browning's 16-gauge BPS and Citori is that they are built on 20-gauge actions. Some makers simply stick 16-gauge barrels on a 12-gauge frame, but the result is a gun that is too heavy and bulky for the kind of hunting for which the sixteen is so darn perfect. A few high-end makers offer best-grade guns on true 16-gauge frames, but modern steels and a great design make the 20-gauge Citori action more than strong enough for the sixteen.

The Gran Lightning I ordered is one of five limited-edition guns that vary in wood, engraving, and stock design. The Gran Lightning has gorgeous Grade V or VI wood; Browning's Lightning-style forearm; a blued receiver; and tasteful, high-relief engraving. It was offered with 26- or 28-inch barrels with old-style Invector choke tubes. I chose the 28-inch variant because the slightly longer tubes just feel better to me.

I fell in love with my new gun the minute it showed up at Fountain Firearms in Houston. The Citori's trim 20-gauge frame feels perfect in my hands, and the easy-handling smoothbore comes to my shoulder quickly and easily. Cosmetically, my new gun is perfect. The wood is dark and nicely figured and has a beautiful satin finish. The steel is finished in a deep, lustrous blue.

On the range, the new Citori likewise impressed. Though it is a bit long for me (a problem I plan to have my local gunsmith remedy shortly), the gun swings beautifully and feels great in my hands. I was a few birds shy of my normal score with it, but I attribute that solely to the fact that the gun doesn't fit me.

I haven't gotten to hunt with my Gran Lightning yet, but its great looks and handling qualities have me looking for the perfect inaugural hunt for the gun that is, in my opinion, the sweetest of all of Browning's sweet sixteens. In fact, I like my new gun so much I am planning a tr

ip to South Dakota for next season as I write this. The 16 gauge's popularity may have waned, but I can't imagine a more perfect place to take the perfect pheasant gun than those endless South Dakota fields and fencerows.

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