Odd Gauges and Bores, by Dave McCracken
Back before breechloading arms were invented, shotgun bores were as varied as the folks shooting them. Since the ammunition was assembled in the bore, no need for standardization. Most fowling pieces were made in small shops, and if a 17 gauge SxS tickled your fancy, go for it. Many of these fowlers came with punches that would make the right size of wad as part of the tool kit and a dowel that was the correct size to make up combustible paper cartridges like those used in muskets of the time.
When Parker brought out their first breechloading shotgun shortly after The Civil War in the late 1860s, it was a 14 gauge. The next year other gauges were introduced by Parker, including the 12 gauge, 11 guage and 10 gauge. Other companies followed suit, but by the 1870's and 80's things settled down to more or less what we still have available plus the big 8 and 6 gauges. Companies did have differing ideas on what comprised a certain gauge, but by 1900 just about any given shell worked in any given shotgun of that specifed gauge and length.
The 12 gauge proved to be where the lines on the graph crossed between portability and effect and has become the most popular gauge by far.
Other gauges took their time disappearing, and some have reappeared.
The 16 gauge was the darling of upland gunners but offered too little compared to the 20 gauge after new improvements in ammo raised the bar. Still, Remington, Browning and Beretta have brought out new 16's recently, and some old ones have been dusted off and pressed back into service. A 16 gauge works well with an ounce of shot, and an ounce of shot works well with lots of small to medium sized critters.
The tiny but amazingly effective 28 gauge has also seen a lot of ink in the shooting press lately and with good reason. Us Baby Boomers are appreciating a light but useful scattergun for stuff that doesn't need a teacup full of 2 shot to fold as we approach Geezer status. Ruger's Red Label and Remington's 1100 Sporting 28s are affordable, durable and are making many hearts glad. Even NEF's little single in 28 makes the grade, it may be very close to the ideal take along for those of us who spend much time in the woods. A 5 lb 28 gauge doesn't kick hard and the ammo is quite portable.
There's other gauges out there, and some have recently crawled out into the light.
On a recent TV show, writer and Beretta employee Chris Dorsey used a 24 gauge O/U as part of a bird hunt. Never heard of a 24?
Not common now, but at one time fairly common in Europe for youngsters and those shooting songbirds. "Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" is not just a nursery rhyme. European diet has included smaller birds for centuries. The standard load for the 24 was 13/16 ounce and does nicely inside 30 yards or so for smallish game birds including dove and quail.
The late Don Zutz had a Neumann 24 gauge SxS for a while, and held it in high regard as a grouse gun. Both loaded Fiocchi ammo and components can be obtained from mail order places like Ballistic Products now, and some WWII bringbacks have surfaced. Domestically, both "Good" doubles like LC Smiths and cheapies like Iver Johnson single shots can be found on occasion in 24 gauge. Prices oft are low due to not being able to get ammo at Walmart.
The 24 has its following, partly because of its novelty and the fact that few are around,so a 24 gauge owner has some status by owning it. To some folks, that's important. It's a viable choice for a reloader, thought I doubt Spolar or PW will ever offer a progressive press for it.
MEC doesn't catalog it, but I understand they will take special orders for the 24 for all their presses.
Even more obscure and unknown is the 32 gauge. This Lillyputian load falls between adequate and not enough. It's a starling destroyer, developed for garden guns to take pests off the count without endangering or alarming the neighbors. A surprising number of decent quality doubles have been made for it, as well as cheap singles. In effect it's a stronger 410, and while a step in the right direction, it's not enough stronger to merit much attention. A fun toy perhaps, but I'd hate to have to feed my family with it.
Finally, myth has it that a member, now deceased, of England's Royal family had his bespoke Purdey's made in 14 gauge. Purdey furnished the ammo also. Supposedly, this was to keep others from bumming shells. Dunno about that, but occasionally the gun lists at places like Lewis Drake will list a 14 from a famed maker, so one has to wonder......
Dave McCracken has been shotgunning longer than many shooters have been alive. He regularly posts on TheHighRoad.org and TheFiringLine.com. This article is reprinted here with his permission; reprinting or redistributing this article without his permission is expressly prohibited.