16 Gauge vs. 12 Gauge for Pheasants

16 Gauge vs. 12 Gauge for Pheasants

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Besides a bird dog, the most crucial piece for upland bird hunting is the shotgun. It needs to be accurate, durable, and enjoyable yet easy to carry. So, what outstanding features do you look out for when choosing between 16-gauge vs. 12 gauge for pheasants?

The 12-gauge shotgun is considered the best-all round pheasant gun. That’s due to its undeniable power and the availability of ammunition options as well as price. While it handles different loads to bring down late-season long tails, some hunters prefer the 16 gauge. Known as the ‘sweet sixteen,’ it’s placed second in popularity for upland birds to its bigger brother, the twelve.

Pheasant roosters can take a good hit yet keep moving. There’s a determination to survive that lies in the ringneck’s favor, continuing to fly elsewhere other than in your sights. Here’s a comparison of 12- and 16-gauge shotgun weights, actions, and barrel lengths to slow down these upland birds.

What’s the Difference between the 16 Gauge And the 12 Gauge in Bore Size?

Every hunter has a personal favorite shotgun, especially when you’re seeking upland birds. It could be you shot lots of clay, so you’ve gone with a 12 gauge, or one of your hunting enthusiast ancestors left you a 16 gauge. It could be you’ve never given your shotgun’s gauge or bore diameter size much thought, and you’re wondering if it matters at all.

Before getting into a 16 gauge vs. 12-gauge comparison, you must understand what shotgun gauges are. Unlike rifle calibers, the smaller the gauge number, the wider your gun’s barrel. Gauge gets determined by the number of equal diameter balls that you’d get from one pound of lead or steel.

For instance, a 16-gauge barrel measures .662 inches, and it would take 16 balls. A 12’s barrel has a diameter of .729 inches, taking 12 balls equal to that bore to form one pound. The small number equal’s larger bore shotgun sizing often confuses beginners. Besides the gauge, the gun you use to chase down wiry pheasant roosters comes down to comfort, a factor that doesn’t have to be costly.

A good upland bird shooter should mount quickly, swing smoothly, and carry easily. But what’s right for you may not work for another hunter, especially since pheasants occur in varied habitats and terrain.

16-Gauge vs.12-Gauge: Which One Is Better for Pheasant Hunting?

The 12-gauge shotgun is a common pheasant hunter’s companion, but some hunters swear by the 16-gauge. That’s true if they’re young, small-framed, or female. It shoots like a twelve, carries light, and offers comparable ballistic advantages. But while this gauge isn’t as popular among ammo makers and shotgunners as the twenty, it has its followers and loyalists.

Once upon a time, the 16 gauge outdid the 20 gauge, at least according to Federal Ammunitions archives for the 1940s. The ammo maker was selling twice the number of shells for the smaller bore, but the tide changed with the arrival of 3-inch shells. These loads eclipsed the sixteen’s performance, but that doesn’t mean it’s a slouch where upland quail and pheasant are concerned.

16-gauge loads often carry a 1 ounce or 1- and ⅛-ounces lead shot, perfect for pheasants and other small moving targets. When combined with a 20-gauge frame, or receivers sized for a larger bore, this shotgun creates a benevolent compromise against upland birds. The only knock is these guns’ limited unavailability and ammunition, which isn’t available in bulk. While some manufacturers offer a modest selection, including non-toxic options, chamber lengths usually stop at 2 ¾ inches.

How Do 16 Gauge Guns and Ammo Compare To 12-Gauges for Pheasant?

The 12-gauge shotgun is possibly the most common firearm you’ll find out there during gun season. That’s because it fills in for a deer, duck, high-volume clay, and upland bird shooter. There are also many actions and ammo available on the market. On the other hand, the 16 gauge is a rarity, and for the more than 140 actions offered by a reputable retailer in 12, only five are sixteen.

The same goes for ammunition, where manufactures offer at least 300 different options for 12-gauge guns. That includes shells in various package sizes, but only about 11 for 16-gauge. It has nothing to do with performance, seeing as this bore hits pheasant well, but consumer acceptance drives industry delivery.

Let’s compare both loads to see where the 16-gauge fades in the hunter’s eyes. Factors to consider include;


For birdshot, energy is difficult to gauge as you’ll have to rely on the information on the ammo. The 12-gauge delivers more energy than a 16 and maintains it at a longer range. A twelve offers muzzle velocity of 2,521 foot-pounds, holding that to 1,262 foot-pounds at 100 yards. The 16-gauge has a muzzle energy of 1,989 foot-pounds which drops to 772 foot-pounds by the time it reaches the same yardage.


Different ammo for the 16 gauge and the 12 gauge will deliver various velocities, but the twelve come ahead. For instance, Winchester loads for both shotguns are similarly loaded, but the twelve lists muzzle velocity at 1,290 feet per second against the sixteen’s 1,165 fps.


The more powerful 12-gauge shell kicks harder than a 16 gauge’s lighter recoil, which makes it easier to shoulder, especially when you’re shooting pheasant. That’s because felt recoil increases the more shots you fire, for which upland birds often require dozens.


Assuming you’re shooting the same size loads, you can expect 12-gauge shells to deliver better range while maintaining knockdown power. While twelve-gauge down-range accuracy is guaranteed, the difference is minimal. For instance, the 16 gauge with a 350-grain slug drops 4.4 inches at 100 yards against a 12’s 3.5 inches with a 438-grain slug at the same distance.


Depending on where you’re buying your ammo and the bulk you go for, 12-gauge shells or slugs are more affordable than 16 gauge for similar products. The cheapest twelve-gauge shell costs around $0.30, while those for sixteens will set you back nearly $0.50 per round. Winchester’s Super-X ammunition with an ounce of number 6 shot is priced at $0.54 for 16-gauge and $0.27 for 12-gauge per round.


It’s hard to compare 16-gauge vs. 12-gauge for pheasants because the former shotgun is such a rarity. Many shooters consider them a novelty item, but this gun has its place among upland bird hunters. Loading this bore size with slugs becomes a formidable foe against roosters at medium range, but the 12 gauge remains king of the industry.

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