To my way of thinking, shooting upland birds is very much like instinctive shooting with a handgun. Once a target is identified your eyes focus clearly on that target while your gun is brought into play. It’s a matter of hand-to-eye coordination and a lot of practice that are blended together to deliver the shot.
Some folks will tell you that if a bird is a certain number of yards away then we have to lead him a certain number of feet in order for the shot charge to intersect with his flight pattern. While that is quite true, the successful upland shooter doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about his shot or visually measuring distances. He swings on his bird, and when his hand-to-eye memory says “this sure feels right” he triggers his shot. Too much thinking has messed up more shots at upland birds than any other cause. Of course, it sure helps when the shooter is using a light, responsive shotgun that fits his build, shooting style, and, as the old-timers used to say, points where he looks.
For these reasons, I’ve always favored a snappy 20 gauge for my upland bird ventures, usually in side-by-side or over-under configuration. However, my fondness for the 20 gauge was severely challenged when I visited the magnificent Highland Hills Ranch. In the beautiful rolling hills of Oregon, I spent several days enjoying some of the best hunting for pheasant, chukar, valley quail, and Hungarian Partridges. My hosts thoughtfully provided me with a Ruger Red Label shotgun in 28 gauge. This was my first chance to really wring out this delightful little cartridge.
In the late 1880s, small-bore shotguns began to gain popularity in England. And before long that popularity crossed the Atlantic to this country. As far as anyone can tell, Parker Brothers chambered the first American 28 gauge in 1905. However, this was soon followed by 28-gauge offerings from Ithaca, Fox, Winchester, and others.
The original 28-gauge shell was a 2 1/2-inch proposition, loaded with a 1 3/4-dram charge of blackpowder, or its smokeless equivalent, and shooting a 5/8-ounce charge of shot. About the time of World War I, the 28-gauge load had progressed to a 2 7/8-inch case with more powder and 3/4 ounce of shot. Finally, in the 1930s, ammunition companies settled on a 2 3/4-inch case and the 3/4-ounce shot load. This last load was developed especially for skeet competition.
In fact, skeet shooters have kept the 28 gauge alive. Competition shooters just shoot up more ammunition than hunters do, and in this sales-driven economy their voice speaks the loudest.
Today, most of our ammunition manufacturers offer 28-gauge shotgun shells. This includes Winchester, Remington, Federal, and Estate Cartridges. They build a 3/4-ounce load rated at about 1300 fps, and some offer a 1-ounce loading at a little over 1200 fps. Shot sizes run the gamut of those suitable for competition shooting and upland hunting–No. 9 shot on up to No. 5 shot.
In addition, numerous firearms manufacturers have shotguns chambered for 28 gauge. CZ-USA, Remington, Browning, Beretta, Winchester, BSA, Franchi, Charles Daly, SKB, Weatherby, and Ruger are just some of the companies that chamber this round.
My 28-Gauge Shotguns
So let me tell you about a trio of 28-gauge shotguns that currently reside at my place.
The first is the Ruger Red Label over-under. Ruger builds this 28 gauge with 26- or 28-inch barrels and your choice of a straight English stock or one with a pistol grip.
My particular Red Label has 28-inch barrels and the straight English style stock of American walnut. The ribbed barrels are back-bored and fitted with screw-in choke tubes in Full, Modified, Improved Cylinder, and Skeet. The barrel selector is incorporated into the sliding tang safety. This shotgun measures 45 1/4 inches in overall length and weighs right at 6 pounds. It has a 14 1/4-inch length of pull, a 1 1/2-inch drop at the comb, and a 2 1/2-inch drop at the heel. All in all, this is quite a lot of shotgun to have a suggested retail price of only $1702.
Browning’s Citori Lightning Feather Combo is a 28 gauge that I’ve been doing some skeet shooting with. It’s called “The Combo” because this particular Citori over-under comes with two sets of barrels in 20 and 28 gauge. Built on a 20-gauge frame, the Citori weighs in at 6 pounds, 3 ounces. The frame is a polished alloy with a steel recoil plate and hinge pin. The vent rib barrels are 27 inches in length and have screw-in chokes in Full, Modified, and Improved Cylinder. Overall length is 44 inches with a 141/4-inch length of pull, a 1 1/2-inch drop at comb, and a 2 3/8-inch drop at heel. As has become customary, the barrel selector is incorporated in the sliding tang safety.
I’ve got to tell you, this Browning Lightning Feather Citori is one classy looking shotgun. The stock and forend are made of walnut and have a high-gloss finish. The gun comes in a fitted luggage case with a suggested retail price of $3098.
The final gun in my 28-gauge battery is the Ringneck side-by-side from CZ-USA. The Ringneck has 28-inch barrels with screw-in chokes and a concave, solid rib. Overall length is 45 1/2 inches with a 141/2-inch length of pull, 11/2-inch drop at comb, and a 2 1/2-inch drop at the heel. The shotgun weighs right at 6 pounds. This CZ double uses a single trigger with the selector located on the tang safety.
Stocks on the CZ Ringneck are dark, straight-grained Turkish walnut with tasteful checkering. The buttstock features a round-knobbed pistol grip that is generally referred to as a Prince of Wales grip while the forend is of semibeavertail design with a small schnabel. Unlike the other two shotguns in my battery, which have automatic safeties, the Ringneck has a manual safety. CZ-USA also offers the Bobwhite side-by-side, which is essentially the same shotgun with double triggers and the English-style straight buttstock. Suggested retail for the CZ Ringneck is $912.
Several shotshell companies offer 1-ounce 28-gauge loads, but I think the 3/4-ounce load is the way to go. There’s just something about the combinati
on of the .550 bore diameter of the 28 gauge and the 3/4-ounce payload that strikes the proper balance. The shot column doesn’t string much, and there are enough pellets (440 No. 9s and 260 No. 71/2s) to deliver excellent patterns out to 35 yards. As we’ve seen with other shotgun gauges, longer shells and more shot don’t always make for more targets hit–or shooter comfort.
On the Highland Hill upland hunt, I checked my Ruger Red Label and found that someone had installed the Modified and Improved Cylinder chokes. I removed them and substituted the two Skeet chokes, then loaded the gun with 3/4-ounce loads of No. 71/2 shot. This is the combination that I used to take the mixed bag of birds that are offered at this great hunting ranch.
However, I’ll admit that I was a bit worried about how this combination would work on pheasants. Pheasants can be tough birds to put in your bag and can haul off their fair share of lead shot. But I’ve also noticed something about hunting pheasants. When you step past your bird dog, the pheasant will shoot straight up in the air quite a ways before leveling off and leaving the immediate vicinity.
My experience has also shown me that they are much easier to kill cleanly while they are climbing straight up than if you wait until they have leveled off and cut in their afterburners. My goal was to focus sharply on the bird and clearly see its head as I swung up through the target. You should be doing that anyway, in order to make sure that you don’t shoot a pheasant hen. I often repeated to myself the old adage “butt-belly-beak-bang” as I swung on one of these great game birds. It helps me focus and see the bird clearly instead of just viewing it as a fast-flying blur that is about to get out of range.
Whether you choose a semiautomatic, pump, over-under, or side-by-side is entirely up to you. The fact is, on the better guns, the weight can be trimmed down to pretty close to 6 pounds, and this makes for a fast, lively shotgun that is still plenty comfortable to shoot.
Another factor in favor of the 28-gauge shotgun is that upland birds, with the possible exception of pheasants, just don’t need a whole lot of pellets to bring them down. The upland hunter who goes to a longer shell with more pellets in order to try to reduce his misses is just kidding himself. Instead of dropping more birds, he’s probably going to learn more about flinching and missing than he ever wanted to know.
The field performance of the 28 gauge and its light recoil make it an excellent choice for children and adults of small stature. It’s also a good choice for a lot of us older geezers who like the idea of taking to the woods with a light, responsive double gun.
One thing about it, there are quite a number of good quality 28-gauge shotguns available, along with a good assortment of game and target loads. We probably ought to thank the skeet shooters for not letting this good shotshell die out. In fact, I’ll remember to do that very thing the next time I’m sitting over a waterhole waiting for the evening’s flight of doves to drop in because, under those circumstances, there will probably be a 28-gauge shotgun in my hands.