The Big Little 28 Gauge

The Big Little 28 Gauge

This miniature gun packs a punch.

Pellet count for Winchester's Super-X ammo with an ounce of shot is about 34 percent higher than for the standard 3⁄4 ounce loads.

Years ago one of the top product development engineers at a major ammunition company announced to the world that the 28 gauge is the best-balanced shotshell ever designed. His conclusion was based not on rumor, conjecture or the fact that his Uncle Moe shot three rabbits back in 1932 with a 28 gauge Iver Johnson, but on many long hours spent shooting hundreds of patterns.


The 28 gauge will never become as popular among American hunters as the 12 gauge but it does have its share of fans. One fellow I know explains its ability to perform tasks that appear to be far beyond the performance capabilities of its relatively light shot charge as pure magic. Other hunters I know don't try to explain why they shoot the 28 so well; instead, they just go about the business of doing what they do best.

I have been hunting with the 28 gauge long enough to know that while its performance in the field does seem magical at times, there really is no magic involved. It does what it does because it is so easy to shoot. My wife Phyllis is an excellent shotgunner, but she is not at all bashful about admitting to her sensitivity to recoil.


Give her a gun that pounds her shoulder beyond her tolerance level and she starts missing before firing very many rounds and comes up with a dozen other things she would rather be doing. But give her a light-recoiling gun in 28 gauge and she hits far more often than she misses and can burn up ammo faster than I can produce it with my progressive reloader. This is not at all unusual since most hunters are more accurate more often with a gun they love to shoot than with one they dread shooting.


Another reason the 28 gauge works so well is due to the fact that most upland gamebirds across this great country of ours are taken inside 35 yards and inside that distance the 28 is as effective as the larger gauges. Some hunters like to boast about reaching into the next county and bumping off a pheasant with their favorite scattergun, and while they may occasionally luck out and do just that, the majority of the shots they make are no more than 35 long paces from the toes of their boots'¦with a very large percentage inside 20 yards.

If none of this convinces you that the 28 gauge shotshell is as effective as the 12 gauge at close to medium ranges, perhaps a look at the scores fired by skeet shooters will change your mind. In that game, most targets are broken inside 30 yards and according to reports published by the National Skeet Shooting Association, most shooters break just as many targets when shooting the 28 as when shooting the 12. A very large percentage break even more with the smaller gauge.

It all has to do with recoil; the less a gun kicks the more we enjoy shooting it and the more we enjoy shooting a gun the better we hit with it. No doubt about it, the 12 gauge with its heavier shot charge enjoys a performance advantage beyond 30 yards but inside that distance the 28 gauge will hold its own with anything you'd want to shoot from your shoulder.

An over-under in 28 gauge, like the author's Weatherby Athena shown here, is an excellent quail gun.

There are two types of 28 gauge guns, those built on the 20-gauge receiver and those built on the smaller 28-gauge receiver. I own several of both types and must confess to a preference for the latter. My two favorite 28s are side-by-side doubles, a Parker with a Miller trigger and a No 1 grade AyA. Both have 26-inch barrels and weigh precisely 51⁄2 pounds.

The Parker has very little choke in either barrel and that along with a few other things makes it the very best ruffed grouse gun I have ever owned. I enjoy early-season pheasant hunting with the 28 gauge and the Improved Cylinder and Modified chokes of the AyA make it a better choice for that. Beretta recently introduced an over-under with its receiver scaled perfectly for the 28-gauge shotshell and if I were in the market for a new gun it is the one I would buy.

But don't think for one moment that a 28-gauge gun built on a 20-gauge receiver is all bad because it is not. Earlier I mentioned my wife's fondness for light-kicking guns but I did not mention how she came about obtaining one of her favorites. When she informed me several years ago that her 16-gauge double was no longer fun to shoot, I suggested that before shopping for a new gun she shoot sporting clays with several of mine in order to get some idea of what she was looking for.

Phyllis eventually settled on a Remington Model 1100 in 28 gauge for two reasons--she shot it extremely well and of all the guns she tried, it was the most comfortable to shoot. Built on the 20 gauge receiver, that gun weighs 71⁄4 pounds and when its weight along with its gas-operated action are combined with the light recoil of the 28-gauge shotshell is it easy to see why she enjoys shooting "her" Model 1100. (Of course, the fact that its gorgeous wood came from Remington's custom shop had no influence on her choice.)

Phyllis actually prefers to hunt with a Franchi 48AL in 28 gauge because it is a couple of pounds lighter but anytime we decide to break several hundred clay targets in a single day she always takes along the Model 1100.

Under certain circumstances I too am inclined to ignore tradition and pick 28- gauge guns that are heavier than my Parker and AyA doubles. I can think of no guns I like better for hot-barrel dove shooting than a Weatherby Athena over-under and a Winchester Model 12 pump gun. Those two guns weigh 63⁄4 and 71⁄2 pounds, respectively.

Several times I have taken the Model 12 as a second gun on hunts to Alaska and used it to keep the camp well fed with ptarmigan and ducks after filling my big-game tag. Every year I try to get to Argentina for some incredible dove shooting and the very best combination I have come up with for that is a 12 gauge Krieghoff Model 32 over-under with Briley 28 gauge tubes.

When it comes to factory ammunition, plenty of excellent 28-gauge loads are available. At the top of the heap in pattern quality are Federal Gold Medal, Remington STS and Winchester AA. All were developed for clay target shooting but due to the extremely hard No. 8 shot they are loaded with, they are also excellent choices for use on the smaller birds such as quail and dove.

Bismuth Cartridge offers a nontoxic option for the 28 gauge and several companies offer excellent loads with lead shot.

In some guns, less expensive field loads such as Winchester Super-X, Federal Classic and Remington Express pattern about as well as the target loads or if there is a difference it is not enough to matter. Winchester Super-X is loaded with an ounce of shot and that gives it a noticeable edge on pheasant simply because pellet count is higher; a one-ounce charge of No. 6 shot contains approximately 225 pellets versus 165 for a 3⁄4-ounce charge. I've shot lots of ducks over decoys with the 28 and find ammunition from Bismuth Cartridge Co. loaded with 3⁄4-ounce of No. 6 bismuth shot to be just the ticket for that.

The maximum effective range of the 28-gauge shotshell has long been debated and I don't expect to end the argument here and now. But I will say that engineers and technicians who test ammunition for the major shotshell manufacturers learned long ago that all else being equal, the effective range of any shotshell load is increased by five yards for each 1⁄8-ounce its shot charge is increased. This applies to lead shot as well as nontoxic shot with about the same density as lead.

If we apply this rule to the 28 gauge it is easy to see that the Winchester Super-X loading with its ounce of shot can do at 30 yards what the 20, 16 and 12 loaded with 11⁄4 ounces of shot are capable of at 40 yards. Unlike some things that look better on paper than in the field, I find this to be quite true.

The 28 gauge is not for everyone. It is not for the hunter who blazes away at gamebirds regardless of how far away they are, but then no shotshell is. It is for those of us who are willing to accept its limitations and who consider what is being hunted with more important then how full the game bag is at day's end.

As much as I love the 28 gauge I will have to admit to a couple of strikes against it; the ammunition usually costs more than the larger gauges and not every corner hardware store stocks it. But other than those two things, the sweet little Twenty-Eight is about as perfect a recipe for hunting a big chunk of the uplands as we will ever have.

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