The debate over the relative merits of the 12-gauge versus the 16-gauge shotgun is largely over in favor of the larger gauge.
The king of shotguns these days is the 12-gauge, with some competition from the 20-gauge.
The 16-gauge, residing between these two popular designs doesn’t get the respect it should. The remaining gauges, the .410 and the 28-gauge are useful for youngsters, small women, and others needing a softer recoil.
What is gauge?
In rifles and handguns as the number gets larger, so does the size of the bullet. A .44 magnum is more powerful than a .357 magnum for example, but the reverse is true with shotguns.
A 10-gauge is much more powerful than a 20-gauge, and the reason is the metric used to measure gauge in a shotgun.
Gauge is the number of lead balls, equal to the diameter of the shotgun barrel it takes to weigh a pound. A 12-gauge takes a dozen lead balls the size of the barrel. A 16-gauge requires 16, and 28-gauge takes 28 of course.
The larger diameter shells of the 12-gauge can hold more powder than the 16-gauge, offering more power down the business end of the shotgun.
16 gauge vs 12 gauge Comparison
In a purely consumer, market driven comparison, there isn’t much of one. The 12-gauge dominates the market.
There are more 12-gauge manufacturers, more available single-shot, over-and-under, semi-automatic and pump 12-gauge shotguns than 16-gauge by an almost exponential amount.
The military uses the 12-gauge for all shotgun applications, and the Mossberg 12-gauge pump has been the front seat and trunk accessory for law enforcement since the 1950s. The 16-gauge doesn’t fall into any of these categories.
As a result, there are hundreds of different 12-gauge shotgun shell varieties at your local sporting goods store. You’ll be lucky to find four or five different boxes of 16-gauge on a nearby shelf.
Why did this disparity happen? The 16-gauge is a fabulous size for upland birds, goose, and duck hunting.
I have a Stoeger 16-gauge over-and-under that I prefer to my Remington 870 pump when hunting pheasants or jump shooting mallards, green winged teal, and buffleheads.
Part of that is the elegance of an over-and-under versus the utility of a pump shotgun. Part of it is the balance of the 16-gauge, and part of it is the ability to drop a bird without ripping it apart.
The 12-gauge won out partially because of its versatility as an all-around solid shooting platform. Most deer taken with slugs are taken with a 12-gauge, Canada geese and turkeys are also almost always the exclusive market for the venerable 12.
Americans always go for bigger and better in almost everything, the 10-gauge kicks a bit too hard for many people, but the 12-gauge while having a substantial recoil is much more manageable.
Since marketing, television, and movies control the consumer market, you’ll only see 12-gauge shotguns depicted so the lion’s share goes to the 12.
Many geese and turkeys have been taken with a 16-gauge shotgun, though some would question why you weren’t hunting with a 12-gauge, or even with a 10-gauge for these large birds.
Before the 12-gauge dominated the market, many eastern and southern hunters successfully hunted whitetail deer with a 16-gauge. Many still trek into the woods with a 20-gauge shotgun for deer in the eastern half of the United States today.
Personal choice in how a shotgun feels when you bring it to your shoulder for a shot. The balance the gun has when you’re tracking a fast moving, flying target, and how much it kicks when the recoil strikes you are all factors that have some hunters and trap shooters preferring the 16-gauge.
The biggest problem with 16-gauge shotguns is getting the variety of shells you plan to use when hunting or sports shooting.
While the latest ammunition shortages affect the 12-gauge to varying degrees, the market for lesser used gauges shrivels to a standstill in many areas.
You can’t find many boxes of the relatively popular 20-gauge on sporting goods store shelves. Finding 16-gauge is difficult, and .410 and 28-gauge ammunition becomes more of a quest than a question of supply.
Range in a shotgun is a deceptive term. The range is determined more by the choke of the barrel than the size of the shell. A 16-gauge delivers similar range to a 12-gauge in pheasant, duck, or quail hunting, the difference comes in the number of pellets on target at 50 yards or beyond.
With a 12-gauge you’ve got more pellets since the shell is larger. A 12-gauge shell has a diameter of .729 inches compared to .662 for a 16-gauge. Without reviewing your high school geometry class, the difference of only .067 of an inch is magnified when you convert the diameter to area.
More lead on target means more range. Even in comparison at 60-yards, the 12-gauge gets more pellets in a 30-inch circle than a 16.
The same is true of slugs. The wide variety of shotgun slugs used for deer and hog hunting, and in bear defense are almost exclusively for 12-gauge shotguns. Bigger slugs, deliver greater energy even if the powder charge were equal, which they are not.
Velocity is another term with many nuances in a shotgun. Depending on the length of the shell, starting at 2 ¾ inches with a 12-gauge and extending to 3 ½ inches, the velocity can vary from the standard 1300 feet per second of most upland bird and waterfowl loads to 2000 feet per second in specialty deer hunting slugs. The velocity can reduce to only 1150 feet per second in low brass target loads.
The variability in velocity in a 16-gauge isn’t as great. You can purchase high velocity 16-gauge shells that fly at 1300 feet per second, but good luck finding them.
A standard 16-gauge fires bird loads at 1165 feet per second. You can purchase slugs from Winchester that travel much faster than bird loads with velocities of 1760 feet per second.
Here is one area where the 16-gauge excels in comparison with the larger 12. The recoil on a 16-gauge will always be lighter than a comparative model 12-gauge shotgun. Recoil is a metric derived from the power of the shell being fired with the weight of the shotgun it’s fired from.
A heavier gun with a lighter shell produces less recoil. A lighter gun with a larger shell and you’re likely to get a bruised shoulder.
A 16-gauge tends to be slightly lighter since the metal is reduced in comparison with a 12. That’s not always the case since walnut or other wood stocks can add a lot of weight versus the generally lighter weight of synthetics.
A question to ask yourself is how many recoil pads have you seen on a 16-gauge? And the obvious follow up question, how many have you seen on a 12-gauge?
Price comparisons are difficult to make since there are so many styles of 12-gauge shotguns available, and so few of 16-gauge.
A shotgun can be one of the least expensive firearms you can purchase in simple single-shot varieties. Even pump shotguns are reasonably priced, usually costing much less than a handgun or rifle.
The price rises significantly in both 12 and 16-gauge when you move to over-under models.
These classic designs, often with elaborate detailing on both the wood and metal components are often deadly pieces of art.
The 16-gauge has a better hold on the market in the over-under category than it does in side-by-side, single-shot, pump, or semi-automatic versions.
You can spend thousands of dollars on a shotgun, and even more to have it milled to perfect specifications for you by a gunsmith.
You can also still find models for around $100 on the used gun rack, or at pawn shops.
Price, like personal choice, are things that can be difficult to determine.
Choose what’s best for you.