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Best 28 Gauge Shotguns: Are They Still A Great Option?

At distances within its reach, the 28-gauge shell is as effective as the larger bores, but most of the mystique is in the guns. Here are a few that Layne absolutely cherishes.

Best 28 Gauge Shotguns: Are They Still A Great Option?
Layne’s AYA double has taken more different game birds than any other 28-gauge gun he has hunted with. It has hand-detachable locks, double triggers, and rose and scroll engraving.

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Like many other grand and glorious developments in the world of shotguns, the 28-gauge shell was born in Britain. Precisely when is open to some debate, but we do know that by the late 1800s, British proof houses had standardized their system of bore sizes, and 28 gauge was among them. Strong evidence indicates Eley Brothers being the first to manufacture 28-gauge ammunition, with the latest in pinfire ignition utilized. The original 2.5-inch brass case was loaded with 2 drams of blackpowder and 5/8 ounce of shot. Soon developed was a 27⁄8-inch case loaded with 3/4 ounce of shot, and just prior to the turn of the century, paper-cased ammunition loaded with smokeless powder began to flow from the Kynoch factory.

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The 28 gauge officially arrived in America in 1905, when Parker began offering it in the company’s fairly new side-by-side double of hammerless design. To accommodate shotshells of various sizes, frames were built in several sizes, with .410 guns having the smallest and 28-gauge guns a bit larger. The only .410 Parker I have hunted with belongs to longtime friend Art Wheaton, who was an executive at Remington during the company’s golden years. Closely following the lead of Parker, Remington offered the 28 gauge in the single-shot No. 9 shotgun, and Winchester added it to the slide-action Model 12 in 1934. A number of other manufacturers joined the chase, and the standard length of the 28-gauge shotshell eventually became 2¾ inches.

While the 28 gauge was a bit slow to catch on among hunters, its fan base increased exponentially when the National Skeet Shooting Association (NSSA) approved it for small-bore competition. Skeet loads with 3/4 ounce of No. 8, No. 8½, and No. 9 shot have long been available, and when used on bobwhite quail, mourning doves, and other game birds similar in size, the load with No. 8 shot can be equally useful in the field. Federal introduced a field load with an ounce of No. 5, No. 6, No. 7½, and No. 9 shot at 1,220 fps during the 1950s, and Winchester soon followed. Federal dropped it for a while but recently brought it back in the company’s Heavy Field lineup. While the standard 3/4-ounce load does just about everything I want to do with a 28-gauge gun, I prefer No. 6 shot for hunting pheasants, and I switch to the 1-ounce load because it contains about 30 percent more pellets of that size. Pattern quality and density from my guns equals that of 3/4-ounce loads. Fiocchi has a 3.0-inch version of the 28-gauge shell with an ounce of shot at 1,300 fps and 11⁄16 ounces at 1,200 fps. Benelli and Franchi chamber guns for it, but I have never seen one, nor have I seen one of the shells. Needless to say, it should not be used in guns with 2¾-inch chambers.

Favorite Guns

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Many ammo companies currently offer a wide variety of 28-gauge shot- shells, which is a testament to how popular the little shell is.

Through the years I had occasionally hunted with 28-gauge shotguns belonging to friends, but I did not begin to appreciate it until joining the NSSA and participating in registered tournaments. Not having a gun entirely suitable for the sport, I sought the advice of good friend and colleague Nick Sisley, who had been shooting skeet and writing about the sport for many years. He was a big fan of the Krieghoff over-under in 12 gauge, and upon his recommendation, I bought one. The gun came with three pairs of full-length insert tubes in .410, 28 gauge, and 20 gauge, so all four skeet events were covered. They were built by Clarence Purbaugh, who is often credited with popularizing sub-gauge tubes for double-barrel shotguns. I have shot a few pheasants in Kansas and more than a few waterfowl and picazuro pigeons in Uruguay with the gun but have mostly used it for breaking targets of clay.

I have several 28-gauge field guns, and each has a story to be told. A Baptist preacher who had been an avid skeet shooter during his younger years left four slide-action shotguns at a nearby gunshop to be sold on consignment. One was a Winchester Model 42 in .410, the others were Winchester Model 12s in 28, 20, and 12 gauges. All had ventilated ribs. The guns had been his babies for many years, and he really did not need the money, so prices were steep. I managed to buy the .410 and made what I considered to be a serious offer on the 28, but it was not serious enough because someone else became its new owner. Bitten by the 28-gauge pump-gun bug, I bought a Grade V reproduction of the Winchester Model 12 sold by Browning in those days. It’s shown in the introductory photograph, and its 26-inch barrel was sent to Briley for the fitting of screw-in chokes with various constrictions, which made the gun more versatile. It has traveled to Alaska more times than any other shotgun I own. When game tags are filled, some hunters spend any remaining days reading or fishing, but I would much rather hunt ptarmigan, which are as good to eat as they are fun to shoot. For decoyed ducks, I also take along a few shells with 3/4 ounce of No. 5 bismuth shot.

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Layne’s favorite 28-gauge gun for hunting ruffed grouse is this Parker double, which weighs 5.5 pounds, has 26-inch barrels, and is nicely engraved.

There have been other guns and other birds. Our home is about 40 miles away from the southern tip of the eastern range for ruffed grouse, and while I have hunted there on a number of occasions over the years, enjoying just a single flush in a day is more than one can usually expect. Going there often makes me feel guilty, not because I did not bag a grouse, but because my dog worked its heart out to no avail, so each time grouse fever strikes, we head to one of several other states, with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan a strong favorite. The perfect grouse gun is light enough to hold at port arms with one hand while parting brush with the other. Quick to point, it seems to have a mind of its own when a bird flushes. A grouse gun must fit its owner quite well. Most birds are taken inside 25 yards, so very little choke is needed. Balance is important, and a gun that exceeds 7.0 pounds in weight is heavier than I enjoy carrying in grouse country. My 28-gauge Parker comes closer to being the ideal gun for the task than anything else I have shot. It weighs 5.5 pounds, and its 26-inch barrels have 0.002 inch and 0.007 inch of choke constriction. While I prefer two triggers on a side-by-side double, the Parker has a single trigger that was installed by the Miller Brothers of Millersburg, Pennsylvania, who opened a shop during the 1920s and eventually became famous for their excellent work.

Then we have my all-around favorite. While in Spain about 25 years ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Basque city of Eibar, where fine double-barrel shotguns are built by Aguirre y Aranzabal (AYA) and several other shops. Of the many guns I closely examined, a sleek little 28-gauge sidelock with nice engraving, knockout wood, and flawless workmanship caught my eye. After days of factory tours, we returned to Madrid and visited the famous Club de Tiro de Madrid Somontes, where a live pigeon shoot called the King’s Cup has long been held each year. Then a long drive south got us to a grand estate where each of us was issued a pair of 12-gauge doubles for two days of shooting driven red-legged partridge. It was an unforgettable experience, but through it all, I could not get my mind off that that sleek little 28-gauge gun. AYA shotguns are hand-built, so by mass-production standards, not many are made each year. Mine is one of 642 built during 1996. Choke constrictions are 0.006 inch and 0.015 inch, or about Skeet and Modified. Among its more noticeable features are a splinter forearm, a straight wrist, a leather-covered recoil pad, an articulated front trigger, a concave rib, and rose and scroll engraving on all steel parts, including the hand-detachable locks. It is best described as a very nice copy of guns built by Holland & Holland but at a more affordable price. Not long after receiving the gun, I had Briley make a pair of lightweight .410 insert tubes for it, and they came with six screw-in chokes in Cylinder Bore, Skeet, Improved-Skeet, Modified, Full, and Extra-Full. Mourning doves, whitewing doves, four species of quail, Hungarian partridge, sharptail grouse, pheasants, perdiz, and prairie chickens all have been taken with the sweet little gun. Its most challenging hunts have been for chukar among cliffs and rockslides rugged enough to make a mountain goat nervous.

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Layne’s wife’s favorite 28-gauge gun is the Franchi 48 AL autoloader. It weighs a mere 5.5 pounds.

The only person I have hunted with who loves the 28-gauge shell as much as I do is Ron Reiber, longtime ballistician (now retired) at Hodgdon Powder Co. While I never saw him use anything else, I occasionally alternated between guns in 28 gauge and .410 Bore. Ron’s favorite for hunting birds up to pheasant size is a very nice Beretta over-under. The great numbers of 28-gauge guns of various types and prices available today are proof of how popular the cartridge has become. For example, while writing this article, I checked the website of Sportsman’s Warehouse, and there were 98 options in autoloading, side-by-side, and over-under guns. As autoloaders go, I have owned a Remington Model 1100 for many years and highly recommend it. Mine is the LW Skeet Grade, but any good 1100 is worth having. Equally nice is the earlier Remington Model 11-48. One of my wife’s favorite bird guns has long been a 5.5-pound Franchi 48 AL autoloader, and while that model is no longer made, you can sometimes find one on the used-gun market.

Last but not least in importance, when I am in a reminiscent mood and dream of younger days, I hunt quail with a Pardner single-shot ejector gun made by New England Firearms. Its 25.5-inch barrel has a Light Modified choke, and my shells-fired-to-birds-killed ratio with it is as good as with any other 28-gauge gun I own. Moving to 28-gauge pump guns, the Remington 870 is never a mistake. Same goes for the Browning BPS. Browning Model 12s in grades I and V are also quite common. Like most of the repeaters, many over-under guns are built on 20-gauge frames, and while they can be quite nice, they are not as trim as a true 28-gauge gun can be. The Browning Citori White Lightning is such a gun, and the one I used to bag a bird or two weighed 7.0 pounds. If you happen to see a Winchester 101 over-under in 28 gauge, don’t even think, just buy it. It was also available in a two-barrel set, with the other barrel in 20 gauge. A jewel among over-under guns, the Ruger Red Label is perfectly scaled in size for the 28-gauge shell, and it weighs only 6.25 pounds. Beretta Models 686 and 687 with superposed barrels built prior to 2004 were on 20-gauge frames, but beginning in 2005, the frame size was reduced. If in doubt, measure the height just in front of the top lever and behind the breechface, and if it is 2.0 inches, it is a dedicated 28-gauge frame. As I recall, the receiver of the Franchi Instinct L over-under is sized for the 28-gauge. As side-by-side guns go, prices range from suspiciously inexpensive to break-the-bank high, so my advice is to pay as much as you can and live happily ever after.

Choice Loads

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Most of the appeal and mystique of the 28-gauge shotshell is with the guns, and types ranging from single shots through pump guns and double barrels (over-unders and side-by-sides) to autoloaders abound. Hunting with any of them is pure joy.

Companies that load the 28-gauge shell offer a variety of lead shot sizes. Federal, Kent, Remington, HEVI-Shot, and Winchester also offer loads with various types of nontoxic shot, and while they don’t magically make a 28-gauge gun perform like a 12-gauge gun, they can be quite effective. I recall shooting ducks in Alaska with my guide after a successful hunt for caribou. Whereas most of the birds that flew within 35 yards of my Browning Model 12 and a handload with 3/4 ounce of No. 5 Bismuth shot dropped like rocks, several shot by my guide with a 12-gauge gun and blue light special steel shot ammo were only crippled and had to be water-sluiced. When he mentioned that I was the better shot, I replied that the difference was likely in the ammo we were using and not the shooters. He tried my gun and immediately began dropping ducks stone dead. Not long thereafter, Federal introduced a 28-gauge load with an ounce of tungsten-polymer shot. The maiden hunt was in Old Mexico, and I used my Remington 1100. We were mostly pass-shooting teal inside 40 yards, and most that were hit instantly gave up the ghost. At distances within its reach, the 28-gauge shell is as effective as the larger bores. The appeal and mystique of the 28 gauge is actually more about the gun than the shell. A shotgun scaled in size and weight for it is an absolute joy to carry for many long miles in the field—and to cherish for a lifetime.




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