Like many other shotgunners, my first encounter with the 28 gauge came on the skeet range, when, after chasing skeet targets with a 12 gauge for a number of years, I finally decided to see what small bore skeet had to offer. Hoarding my extra cash for what seemed like forever, I eventually scrimped and saved enough to be able buy a used Remington 3200 four barrel skeet set. Not long after it arrived, I picked up a few boxes of 12, 20, 28 and .410 skeet loads and headed out to the range.
After shooting an obligatory round with the 12 gauge, I started to try out the small gauge barrels. The 20 gauge didn't really seem to offer anything new. However, when I attached the 28 gauge barrels to the 3200, stepped up to Station 1 and shot the high house target, it became immediately apparent that, for me anyway, this gauge was something special. I didn't break every target that round, but I quickly sensed that there seemed to be something unique about the 28. The gun was just a delight to shoot. The slender 28 gauge shotshells resembled those of the diminutive and demanding .410, but powdered skeet targets with an authority that rivaled that of the more forgiving 20 gauge. Yet, at the same time, the recoil level felt more like that of the .410. The 28 clearly seemed to be a gauge for me and it soon began to dominate my skeet shooting. However, it wasn't long before I began to wonder how the little gun would do in the uplands. Since I didn't fancy the thought of pursuing upland birds with an eight plus pound over/under skeet gun, I began to read up on the 28 bore with the idea of acquiring a 28 gauge for field use.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you're probably aware that the 28 gauge has received a lot of press in recent years. Not all of it has been favorable, however. In reading everything I could find in print about the 28 gauge, it seemed that for every author who had nothing but praise for the 28 as an upland gun, there was another who suggested that it be used with caution and then only under a very limited set of conditions. Most of the writers in the use with caution group, tended to place the 28 in the same class as the .410 bore. They were of the opinion that it, like the .410, is a short range gun for experts only. At the same time, some of the more avid 28 gauge supporters elevated it to near 12 gauge status. Their comments were generally of the, "If you do your part, the gun will do its part," variety. I began to wonder if I wasn't reading about two different guns. Suspecting that the actual truth was somewhere in between these two extremes, I broke down, bought my first 28 gauge for the uplands, and set out to investigate the upland 28 on my own.
Since then I've owned more than my share of 28 gauge guns in a variety of configurations and have been able to hunt and shoot them enough to form my own opinions. For the benefit of those who might similarly be considering a 28 gauge for the uplands, I'd like, in the remainder of this article, to relate a few of my experiences with and opinions about 28 gauge shotguns and their use in upland game hunting.
First, let me debunk a couple of myths about the 28 that have appeared in print. For one, I think you can forget the old line about 28 gauge shells being nearly impossible to find. While its true that you're not likely to find 28 gauge shells in every back country general store, I've found that most well stocked gun and ammunition specialty stores have an ample variety of 28 gauge shells available. Those who do live further off the beaten path still have a couple of options. Even if they do not stock them regularly, you can usually talk your local arms and ammunition dealer into ordering 28 gauge shells by the case lot, or you can order them yourself. Another option is to get into handloading. This second option may in fact, be the best way to go in that it allows you to custom load 28 gauge shells to ideally match your game and hunting conditions. There are a lot of handloading options for the 28. Ballistic Products, Inc. of Long Lake, Minnesota, for example, has several reloading manuals that contain recipes for some excellent 28 gauge custom handloads.
In any case, I doubt that many serious upland bird hunters today are going to set out on an extended out-of-town hunting trip without taking along an ample supply of ammunition. If you buy or reload your 28 gauge shells ahead of time and don't count on picking any up while "on the road," I don't feel that the availability problem of 28 gauge shells is all that serious.
A related myth about the 28 that shows up frequently, is that if and when you do find 28 gauge shells, they are limited in variety and over priced. Again, I just haven't found this to be the case. In addition to the standard 3/4 oz. skeet load of #9 shot, several manufacturers offer 3/4 oz. 28 gauge loads in #6, #7 ½, and #8 size shot. There are also some 1 oz. loads available from Winchester, again in sizes #6, #7 ½ and #8. On the issue of price, the question is, "Twenty-eight gauge shot shells are over priced with respect to what?" Certainly, if you compare the price of a box of most 28 gauge shells with the price of a box of 12 or 20 gauge discount or so-called "promotional" loads, there is a considerable difference. However, these loads usually contain relatively soft lead shot and have fiber wads rather than plastic shot cups. They are also generally recognized as poor performers in the field. On the other hand, most 28 gauge shells are loaded with hard lead shot and have a plastic shot cup. These loads closely resemble the more expensive high quality 12 and 20 gauge shells that contain hard lead shot and perhaps have a granulated buffer in the shot column. If you compare the cost of 28 gauge shells with that of the premium quality 12 and 20 gauge shells, you find that the cost difference is not nearly as great.
Obviously, there are other factors beside shotshells that come into play when one begins to consider the 28. I feel that one of the most important of these is the issue of gun weight. Having owned 28 gauge guns that ranged in weight from slightly more that five to nearly seven pounds, I have become firmly convinced that 28 gauge guns should be light. Noted gun writer Steve Smith in his book, Hunting Upland Gamebirds, makes the statement, "...I see no reason to carry a 28 that weighs more than five-and-a-half pounds. To shoot a six-and-a-half pound 28 gauge seems to be going the opposite way we should--a small gauge with the weight of a larger gauge." I couldn't agree more. To me, one of the main advantage of a small gauge shotgun is its light weight. If we want a heavy gun we may as well go back to the larger gauges.
Of course, what is light weight to one gunner may be too light for another, so the whole factor of gun weight is somewhat subjective. One can also find light weight guns that are so out of balance that they are nearly impossible to control when swinging, and some heavier, though well balanced, guns that handle very nicely. Thus, the elusive issue of gun balance must be taken into account when considering gun weight. However, it still seems to me that we should expect our 28 bore gun to weight less than its bigger bore counterparts, while handling just as well, or there is no reason for using the little gun.
Trying to find a truly lightweight 28 gauge gun, however, can be challenging today. Not having the widespread popularity of the larger bores, most gun manufacturers cut corners and make their 28 gauge guns on 20 gauge frames. This generally results in a 28 gauge gun that is heavier than its 20 gauge counterpart and we appear to be going in the wrong direction again.
However, once you have had the opportunity to handle a 28 gauge that is made on a true 28 gauge frame I suspect that, like me, you'll never want to go back to anything else. The problem is finding such a gun. For an excellent summary of what's available in 28 gauge guns, see Michael McIntosh's article in the April 1997 issue of Field & Stream.
I will add a brief comment to those who prefer double guns. Without getting into the side-by-side versus over/under debate, I would suggest that even the most devout over/under fans at least check out the side-by-side before selecting a 28 gauge double gun. As Bob Brister points out in his book, Shotgunning: the Art and Science, the often praised single sighting plane of the over/under tends to be almost too narrow in the 28 gauge, while the broader sighting plane of the 28 gauge side-by-side tends to be of a more moderate width. Those who regularly shoot large bore over/unders may find that the narrow 28 gauge over/under sighting plane is somewhat difficult to pick up when shooting against a dark or brushy background. They may, in fact, find that the wider sighting plane of the 28 side-by-side is actually easier to pick up in this situation and, due to the narrow bores of the 28, may be closer to the sighting plane of a larger bore over/under that they are more familiar with. Having owned 28 gauge doubles in both side-by-side and over/under configurations, I've found that the sighting plane of the 28 gauge side-by-side is indeed easier for me to pick up against a dark background, as might be encountered in a hunting situation, although I still tend to prefer the over/under on clay targets, which are usually shot against a more open background. A few 28 gauge over/unders have a wide top rib which, in my opinion, may somewhat offset the sighting plane advantage of the side-by-side.
Another factor to think about when considering a 28 gauge gun is barrel length. My 28 gauge guns have had barrels ranging in length from 23 to almost 30 inches. While short barrels are normally associated with upland shotguns, I would suggest that any prospective 28 gauge buyer try guns with a variety of barrel lengths. The illusive issue of gun balance comes into play again here. Lightweight guns with short barrels may be so whippy" that they are difficult to control. On the other hand, small frame 28 gauge guns can actually accommodate considerable barrel length and still be well balanced. Again, my suggestion is try guns with barrels of several different lengths before you finalize your decision.
Once you have found the 28 gauge gun of your choice, don't assume that you are quite out of the woods and into the upland coverts yet. I have found that for some reason many of the imported 28 gauge doubles have chokes that are much too tight for most of the upland gunning that would be done with a 28. It is not uncommon to find fixed choke 28 gauge doubles equipped a tight modified/full choke combination. While these chokes can be opened by a competent gunsmith, you may have the same difficulty here that I did. Your, or my, local gunsmith may be world class, but unless they cater to a lot of 28 gauge skeet shooters they may have so little call to do 28 gauge barrel or choke work that they don't own much in the way of tools for 28 gauge work. This generally means that you'll have to ship you gun elsewhere for this work, which may not be a problem unless you have been counting on same day service from you local gunsmith and its two days before the season opener. If you do opt for choke work, I suggest that you go all the way and get choke tubes installed. In my opinion, choke tubes greatly increase the flexibility of your 28 gauge upland gunning.
Now that you've finally got your long sought after 28 gauge gun and avoided all the pitfalls along the way, let's get down to the real issue. What can you actually expect of a 28 gauge in the uplands? I don't have any scientific data or statistics to back up my claims, but I'll give you my opinions based on several years of upland hunting with the 28.
For the smaller upland birds like quail, dove, and woodcock I have found that I do about as well with the 28 as I do with the larger bores. In fact, it seems to me that the 28 gauge hits game harder than some of the bigger gauges. This may be due to the reportedly shorter shot string of the 28. On these small birds, I generally use the same shot size (#7 ½ or #8) and chokes (skeet and improved cylinder) as I would in the bigger bore guns. Some writers have suggested that we need to tighten up our chokes when we go to the 28 bore to make up for the smaller shot payload. I have found that I don't shoot as well with a tighter choked 28. In fact, close shots with a tightly choked 28 are nearly impossible for me.
I do most of my dove hunting around ponds and the rest of my upland gunning over pointing dogs. As such, I suspect that my average shot is closer than that of those who pass shoot their doves and those who hunt with flushing dogs or go dogless. Over pointing dogs, a long shot for me is probably 30 yards and many are in the 10 to 20 yard range. If, for whatever reason, your average shot tends to be on the longer side then you may do better with a tighter choked 28.
While I have had excellent success with the 28 and #6 shot on larger birds, such a chukar and pheasant, when hunting on preserves, I am a bit uncomfortable recommending the 28 as an all around pheasant gun. I have no doubt that the 28 will kill pheasants at short to intermediate ranges, particularly when the bird is incoming, crossing, or angling away from the shooter in such a way that at least a portion of the head and neck area are exposed. However, I seriously have doubts about the performance of the 28 on pheasants in situations where the bird is flushing straight away from the shooter and is some distance out. In this situation the shot must penetrate all the way through the back of the bird to get to the vital areas. I personally feel that for this type of shot, 3/4 oz. of lead is not sufficient. While there are 1 oz. 28 gauge loads, the velocity of these loads is significantly reduced from that of the 3/4 oz. load and I suspect that this has an impact on penetration at the longer ranges.
If we avoid the long shots the 28 gauge might make do as a pheasant gun, but I don't think that's very realistic. Sure there may be some days when the birds all get up right under your nose and offer relatively close and easy shots, but the next time they all may flush almost 50 yards out. When I'm after pheasants I certainly don't like to pass up shots, even those that are on the longer side. This whole issue is, of course, subjective and some may disagree with me, but I personally just don't have much confidence in the ability of the 28 to handle long range pheasants. If we're talking about bigger upland birds at longer ranges I think that we need to leave the 28 at home.
On the other hand, I have had excellent success on using the 28 on crows, which are also large birds. However, in this case the birds were in pass shooting or decoying situations where they were flying directly overhead with their undersides fully exposed. In this type of shot, I feel that the 28 will do quite well even at considerable distances. Based on this experience I would suspect that the 28 would hold its own on driven pheasants, but I haven't had the opportunity to try this.
To sum it all up, I think that a lightweight, properly choked and balanced 28 gauge small frame smoothbore is a wonderful little gun which can truly be a delight in the uplands when used on the smaller birds that it was designed for. But, as is the case with most of the smaller gauges, if we stretch it and try to make it do more than its capable of, we're asking for trouble. I hope you find the small frame 28 gauge gun of your dreams and that you get to use it often.