Americans have no qualms with purchasing an assortment of specialized firearms. In terms of rifles, what gun safe is complete without a rimfire, a bolt-action and a semiauto carbine? And who could do without a compact handgun for summer carry or a full-size model for plinking?
Yet, when it comes to shotguns, so many consumers opt for one, do-it-all firearm — generally a pump or semiauto 12-gauge shotgun chambered for 3- or 3-½-inch shells.
This market trend has resulted in declines among other bore diameters, most especially 16- and 10-gauge shotguns. Ammunition has become harder to find and tracking down new shotguns are an even greater challenge. What a pity, given there are certain tasks for which the 12-gauge is no match for the 16 or 10. Nonetheless, here’s why they are struggling for survival.
When the 16-Gauge was King
The 16-gauge enjoyed popularity into the early 20th century, perhaps not coincidentally in conjunction with the golden age of American shotgun manufacture.
Manufacturers such as L.C. Smith, Parker, Ithaca, A.H. Fox and others crafted beautiful 16-gauge side-by-sides. They were sleek, balanced and — at little more than six pounds — they were well-suited for lengthy carry and the snap-style shooting required of grouse, woodcock and quail. Magazine-operated pump-actions also came into fashion, most notably the Remington Model 31, Winchester Model 12 and bottom-ejection Ithaca Model 37. The 16-gauge was long considered more sporting than the 12-gauge, a tool at that time of market gunning and deer hunting.
So, what changed? The decline may be traced to 1926, when the official rules of skeet declared that only the .410, 28-gauge, 20-gauge and 12-gauge were permissible. As skeet shooting grew in popularity — along with trap, a 12-gauge-only affair — the 16-gauge took a backseat in manufacturers’ research and development. The 16-gauge shell saw less innovation, and hulls and reloading components likewise grew inferior.
Perhaps the real nail in the 16-gauge’s coffin came in 1954, when Winchester introduced a Model 21 side-by-side chambered for its new 3-inch, 20-gauge Western Super-X Magnum shotshells. The 20-gauge was now capable of 1-¼-ounce payloads, which consumers — rightly or wrongly — perceived as an advantage over 2-¾-inch, 1-ounce, 16-gauge shells. So, the 16-gauge was essentially dethroned as the lightweight alternative to the 12-gauge.
“We saw the 16-gauge lose popularity in the ’70s,” said Tom Taylor, senior vice president of sales and marketing for O.F. Mossberg and Sons. “Consumers seemed to settle on the 12, 20 and .410. Compared to the 12-gauge and 20-gauge, the 16 has virtually zero market share in terms of new products.”
In presumably a desperation sales effort, ammo makers tried to push 16-gauge shells to rival 12-gauge ballistics. Payloads up to 1¼-ounces of shot were loaded at scorching velocities, resulting in heavy recoil, poor patterns and continued sales declines.
The 10-Gauge Gets Typecast
For much of the 19th century, the 10-gauge side-by-side was considered a fine all-around shotgun. Typical loads consisted of 1¼-ounces of shot — a far cry from today’s 2-ounce payloads — and shells were 2-7/8 inches, not 3-½-inch magnums. Period 10-gauges also weighed 8 to 9-½ pounds, much lighter than today’s 10-pound guns. They were suitable for carry by upland hunters, deer hunters and even security guards defending Wells Fargo stage coaches. However, by 1900, the lighter 12-gauge had cemented its role as the every-purpose shotgun, and the 10-gauge was typecast as a niche, waterfowler’s gun.
Thus ensued a decades-long dip in popularity. The 1959 invention of screw-in choke tubes likely exacerbated the decline, as it furthered the 12-gauge’s versatility.
“We feel that’s a primary reason consumers moved away from the 10-gauge,” said Taylor. “You could do almost anything you needed to do [with a 12-gauge] by adjusting your ammo or chokes.”
By the 1970’s, it appeared the 10-gauge was headed the way of the previously extinct 8-gauge. However, an unlikely combination of factors kept it alive: In 1975, Ithaca Gun Company unveiled the Mag-10, a gas-operated semi-auto that tamed the stout recoil of 3-½-inch shells; then, from 1987-1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service phased in a ban on lead ammunition for waterfowl hunting.
Due to the horrid ballistics of early steel loads, hunters desired a shotgun that could sling as much steel downrange as possible, and the Ithaca Mag-10 fit the bill. Aided by its large bore diameter (.775 inch), it additionally surpassed the 12-gauge in its ability to produce ideal shot columns and uniform patterns with large shot sizes (BB, BBB and even T shot). Therefore, for the first time in decades, the 10-gauge regained a modicum of market share. In 1989, Remington Arms bought the Mag-10’s patent and essentially replicated it for the Remington SP-10—a gun that sold well but was recently discontinued.
The 10-gauge’s gains, however, were short lived. In 1988, Mossberg introduced the Model 835 pump-action. It was the first 12-gauge with a 3-½-inch chamber, and Federal Premium provided the first 3½-inch shells. Soon reliable, 3-½-inch auto-loaders, including the Benelli Super Black Eagle and Winchester Super X2, hit the market. If a 12-gauge could shoot an equally long shell, consumers reasoned, why bother with the heavier, less versatile 10-gauge?
“There are still some solid 10-gauge fans out there and we’re happy to provide something for them,” said Rafe Nielsen, a product manager for Browning, which continues to manufacture the excellent semiauto Gold 10 and BPS pump-action 10-gauges. “Yet our percentage of sales of 10-gauges versus 12-gauges is in the single digits. I would’ve thought the growth in turkey hunting would have had more impact, but I think all the ammo options for the 12-gauge are driving turkey guns away from the 10-gauge.”
Lingering Advantages of 16- and 10-Gauges
While a few 16- and 10-gauge shotguns are still manufactured (see photo gallery, below), new product development has essentially ceased. The shame of it is, even with the greater ammo innovation for the 20- and 12-gauges, the 16- and 10-gauges retain certain advantages.
“The 16 is a far superior gauge [over the 20] in terms of patterning and ballistics,” said Nielsen. “Its fans remain pretty die-hard.”
On paper, the performance of a 3-inch, 1-¼-ounce 20-gauge shell ought to approach or exceed that of a 2-¾-inch, 1-1/8 -ounce 16-gauge shell. Yet a 16-gauge lead ball weighs exactly an ounce, which helps explain why a 16-gauge shotgun just seems to hit harder than it ought to. Its bore diameter of .662 inch is rather perfectly suited to patterning 1-ounce loads. A 3-inch 20-gauge shell, on the other hand, has a very long length in relation to its bore diameter of .615 inch. Thus, the 3-inch 20-gauge shell is highly prone to shot stringing—the pellets hit in lengthy succession, rather than all at once, as is ideal.
Stringing also affects the 3-½-inch 12-gauge shell, arguably to the point it offers little ballistic advantage over its 3-inch cousin. So, those who feel the need to shoot 3-½-inch shells should strongly consider a 10-gauge. A gun with a bore diameter better equipped for them, particularly when loaded with large shot. For pass-shooting geese, especially, there’s no better choice.
Many also falsely assume the 10-gauge kicks like a mule. On the contrary, at a weight of 10 pounds, it’s actually more manageable than many of today’s 7-pound, 12-gauges when firing 3½-inch shells.
What does the future hold for 16- and 10-gauges? I don’t foresee them ever approaching their former popularity. The 20-gauge and, especially, the 12-gauge just offer too much range of use. However, don’t expect them to fade away entirely, but rather to cling to life just as they have for decades. Their followers are few, but loyal, and they’re aware that a 16- or 10-gauge shotgun remains a savvy purchase.