The Half-way House of Game Guns.
Victorian and Edwardian game guns were not like the game guns of today. At least, the demarkation of gauges and their characteristics have changed so significantly that comparisons require a mental adjustment.
One cannot usefully consider a 19th century 20-bore hammer gun with a modern Beretta 20-bore over & under. Nor should one expect a 12-bore MX8 to feel much like a Purdey 12-bore side by side. The guns we use today have changed, the loads we consider appropriate for gauge have changed and the way we view them should change as well. Many people overlook this fact when considering a classic shotgun as an interesting addition to their gun room.
Take, for example, your modern game shooter. Perhaps he is one of the hundreds you will see on a Saturday, at shoots all over England, carrying a nice Guerini 20-bore over & under with 30” barrels, weighing 6lbs 4oz and costing around £4,300. Being a 20-bore user, he will likely start looking for an English 20-bore, expecting it to have number of similarities. It will actually have very few.
A 20-bore Victorian hammer gun will weigh around 5lbs 8oz. It will be slim, light and fast to move, equally quick to stop and the handling characteristics will be utterly alien to the habitual user of a heavy, modern over/under of this gauge. It will have 2 1/2” chambers and will be comfortable to use only with lighter charges than our shooter expects to use. 30” barrels will be a rarity, but for our purposes, let us suppose he finds one. He will discover that, as shooting companion, it is a very different animal to his Guerini.
6lbs 4oz, translated from Italian o/u to English SxS, in gun terms, means a light 12-bore, but more properly, a full-weight 16-bore. The 28g load our Guerini-toting friend pushes through his overweight 20-bore exceeds the traditional English load of 23g for that gauge. 28g is an ounce, traditionally the ‘gentleman’s load’ for pheasant shooting with a 12-bore. It is also the perfect ‘square load’ in a 16-bore case and patterns beautifully.
A picture is beginning to emerge: the picture of the equivalent English game gun to our Guerini 20-bore is starting to look a lot like a 16-bore. Not only does the 6 1/12lb 16-bore allow a stronger frame and longer, thicker barrels than does the very light 12-bore, it is comfortable in the hands, reactive and pleasant to shoot with loads the modern 20-bore shooter enjoys and has confidence in.
The 16-bore is an uncommon sight today, despite a small rise in appreciation over that last decade. Not many were made, by comparison with the 12-bore, which became the norm fro adult game guns in the 1850s, when breech-loaders started to become widespread and standardised bore sizes became desirable in order to make ammunition easier to distribute and source. Belgian and German makers produced more 16-bores that British makers, as a proportion of output, but there was always a small, steady demand for the sixteen, generally among women and smaller men.
W.W Greener estimated ‘not one gun in a hundred is made in 16-bore’. He recommended it be built to weigh 6 1/2lbs, with 30-inch barrels and regulated to shoot 2 3/4 drams of powder with 1oz of shot. Shorter barrelled guns weigh less.
I have aways liked 16-bores and have owned several, notably hammer guns by Boswell and Holland & Holland. They offer everything a 12-bore does in terms of performance but are more robust weight-for-weight. They are neat and easy to carry and their slim lines are attractive. They do not have the ultra-lightness of a 20-bore but they absorb recoil better with normal game loads, they swing more predictably and are easier to shoot well, in my experience.
From a buying/selling viewpoint, supply and demand can work for or against you. If you have a sixteen to sell, you may struggle to find someone who wants one. Conversely, if you want to buy one, you may not have many from which to choose. If you are fortunate enough to be offered a nice sixteen at a sensible price, do not lament the fact that it is not the more popular 20-bore, rejoice in the fact that it is, in practical terms, much better than that; and then pretend not to, as you try to do the deal!
My thanks to reader Gordon Anderson, who wrote to tell me about his favourite W.J Jeffery 16-bore with damascus barrels. He reflected on the fun of his 19th century gun, in the hands of a 20th century shooter, killing 21st century birds. A good effort all ‘round!