To use a Southernism, “twixt and tween” aptly describes the 16-gauge shotgun loading, which is between the 20 gauge and 12 gauge in power. The 16 has dropped in popularity in recent decades because it was never upgraded to a 3-inch shell length. Why not? With 3-inch 20 and 12 gauges already existing, it was not economical to produce new 16-gauge guns for the longer hull. Such a gun should be as heavy as a 12 gauge to shoot comfortably, so why bother when an enormous variety of 12-gauge guns are already available?
Where the 16 gauge always excelled is as a versatile shotgun gauge where the game being taken was no larger than pheasants, ducks and rabbits. For uses on these, and smaller, game the 16 remains unexcelled. When you add geese and big-game hunting to the mix, the 12 gauge is unquestionably the better gauge.
The 16-gauge’s popularity peaked during the early years of the 20th Century in the U.S. It is interesting that one of the most popular guns ever, the Model 12 Winchester pump, was first chambered for the 16 gauge as was a very popular version of the hump-backed Browning Auto 5. In Europe the 16 gauge was the favored gauge (because of the generally small size of common game animals) and was particularly popular for chambering in combination guns which often had 16-gauge shotgun tubes and one or more rifle barrels.
Ammunition is not quite as widely available in 16 gauge as the 12 gauge, but non-toxic shot loads are sold for use on waterfowl as well as a range of standard and high-velocity lead shot loads. Rifled slugs are also loaded in 16 gauge as well a buckshot which top out in size with the No. 1 buck. I was surprised on a recent trip to Alabama where in a sporting goods store in Huntsville, there were almost as many 16-gauge duck loads being displayed as boxes of 12-gauge shells.
As a matter of esthetics, the 16 gauge makes the best looking double-barreled shotguns of all the gauges. This 16 is substantial enough to look like a “man’s gun,” while being sufficiently heavy of barrel to feel lively and responsive. The English with their 2 1/2-inch chambered 12-gauge guns were able to match the light weight of the 16 gauge, but the slimmer 16-gauge tubes look better.
One thing to look out for is that older U.S. guns may be chambered for the 2 5/8ths inch 16 gauge and not the present standard of 2 3/4-inches. The longer shells may be forced into the shorter-chambered guns, but should not be used. These chambers can be lengthened and the forcing cones modified for the longer hulls by a gunsmith who specializes in shotgun barrels. Never assume that a gun’s chambers have been lengthened unless the gun has been re-stamped. In England and Europe such chamber alterations would require a re-proof of the barrels, but barrel proofing is not required in the U.S.
My first deer was killed with a 16-gauge L.C. Smith double and a load of no. 1 buckshot. Although this load proved to be fatal, I cannot say that I recommend using buckshot loads in the 16 gauge on deer, except for killing already-wounded animals in thick cover. Across the nation, I have killed a large variety of fowl and small game with various 16s including western quail, dove, ducks, western grouse and ptarmigan.
If you own a 16 gauge in shootable condition there is no reason that this gun could not perform as well on small game and smallish fowl as it always has, so long as it has 2 3/4-inch chambers. In fact, there have been modest revivals of the 16-over the years with new guns with specially designed receivers being manufactured. Among these was a 16 gauge Model 37 Ithaca pump, which I field tested about 8-years ago. This was a fine-shooting shotgun that had interchangeable screw-in barrel chokes – something lacking on older guns.
If you have a 16-gauge shotgun, use it. If you don’t, you would probably be better off purchasing a 12-gauge gun unless you have a hanker to use some of the best handling scatterguns ever made.