Over the course of the past hundred years the sixteen rose to the height of its popularity and then quickly disappeared. I seldom see a hunter with a 16-gauge double gun, and if I do I can be almost certain that it was manufactured decades ago…
Bringing out the Big Gun
THE LATE WEEKS OF THE pheasant season demand that I bring out the Big Gun. Abbey and I have had a good year thus far, hunting with the Browning BSS 20-gauge, but the roosters are educated now, the shots are longer, and it is time to switch to the Lefever Nitro Special 16-gauge.
For as long as I can remember, December has been the month of the Big Gun for ring-neck pheasants. We begin the year shooting tight-sitting and slow-flushing pheasants with 20-gauge loads of 7/8-ounce No. 7 1/2 shot, switch to 1-ounce loads of No. 6 shot about a week into the season, and increase shot size to No. 5 in late November. When I flip the calendar it’s a reminder to clean and oil the BSS and put it away in the gun safe until next year.
December is the month of the Big Gun.
For 20-some years, Big Gun meant the 12-gauge double, but the past seven or eight pheasant seasons the Big Gun has been the Lefever 16. Good thing: I’m not getting any younger, and the old 12-gauge side-by-side weighs seven and three-quarters pounds – a full pound heavier than the Lefever.
The handloads for the sixteen are not much heavier that those I shoot through the 20-gauge: 1 1/16 ounce of copper-plated No, 5 shot, pushed by 21.7 grains of Universal powder to about 1,220 fps muzzle velocity. But the Lefever gun, ninety years old, has a few other advantages over the 20-gauge.
The sixteen’s chokes are tighter, modified in the right barrel and improved-modified in the left, and both pattern better than the 20-gauge gun’s more open chokes beyond thirty-five yards. The barrels are 28-inch length, two inches longer than the 20-gauge, so they swing-through more smoothly on longer shots, or so it seems to me. The Lefever also has two triggers, so I can instantly choose the tighter barrel if the bird flushes way out there, or the more open barrel if we are fortunate enough to pin one down and it flushes close.
I am giving up some advantages when I switch to the Big Gun. Although the 20-gauge is only three ounces lighter than the sixteen, it is noticeably quicker-handling – more balanced to carry and faster on target. But experience has proved that, in December, the slower-but-smoother mount-and-swing of the old Lefever is more important than quickness. And I like it when the tighter, fuller shot patterns bring the birds down stone dead. Although Abbey is an excellent tracker, finding and catching hard-running crippled birds in thick, snow-packed switch grass or cattails can be very frustrating.
“Big Gun” is a relative term, of course, that means different things to different bird hunters. I have gone afield in December with a friend whose Big Gun is a 12-gauge semi-automatic with a 30-inch barrel, loaded with three-inch shotshells with 1 5/8 ounces of No. 4 shot. I could not carry an artillery piece that heavy for more than an hour, and could not shoot it worth a damn.
Other hunting companions put three-inch shotshells in their 20-gauge guns, loaded with 1 1/4 ounces of No. 5 shot, and they kill a lot of late season pheasants with that combination. I find the recoil of those heavy loads makes it difficult to get back on the bird when a second shot is needed, and pattern testing them in my 20-gauge BSS reveals that I’d be better off shooting 1-ounce of No. 5.
Besides, I have a lot of affection for the Lefever Nitro Special 16-gauge and enjoy spending my December days afield with the graceful old lady. William Harnden Foster, the Massachusetts writer and artist with a passion for hunting ruffed grouse and training grouse dogs, immortalized his boyhood 16-gauge double gun in the hunting tale of The Little Gun. It was the centerpiece of the first story in Foster’s classic book New England Grouse Shooting. A Damascus-barreled Parker with exposed hammers.
The market hunters who were his idols called Foster’s 16-gauge The Little Gun. But that was in the early 20th century, an era when almost all wing shooters on the marshes – and many in the upland coverts – shot with 10-gauge doubles. The 12-gauge was the standard, and anyone toting a 20-gauge was considered on odd fellow who should probably not be trusted with your bird dogs or your wife.
We are at the dawn of a new century, and the favored shotguns of the upland shooting sports are now The Little Guns. Many of us hunt quail, grouse and woodcock with a 28-gauge, moving up to the 20 when we go after prairie grouse and early season pheasants. But the sixteen? Over the course of the past hundred years the sixteen rose to the height of its popularity and then quickly disappeared. I seldom see a hunter with a 16-gauge double gun, and if I do I can be almost certain that it was manufactured decades ago – and that he handloads his ammunition.
He almost certainly knows the history and the mystique of The Little Gun, too.
In my sunset years, and the sunset years of the sixteen, my late-pheasant-season Lefever is The Little Gun no longer. It is my cherished Big Gun this December. And for a good number of Decembers to come, I hope.
More stories about life in the North Country are published in four collections of essays and two novels, all available through Amazon.com Jerry Johnson Author Page