28 Gauge: Why a Few Still Believe in Its ‘Magic’

Video 28 gauge shotgun review

Within the limitations of its light payload, the 28 gauge shotshell drops small game birds and crushes clay targets with authority and a soft kick.

You can shoot the 28 gauge out of lightweight, scaled-down guns that are easy to carry anywhere. Grouse, woodcock, quail, doves, and targets on the Skeet field comprise the 28 gauge’s natural prey. Out to about 30 or 35 yards, it will do just about anything you need a shotgun to do for most of these applications.

It’s one of the four gauges shot in American Skeet competition, and there are often events for it in Sporting Clays tournaments. But, the 28 wasn’t much of a waterfowl gun, even in the days of lead shot. Today, in the non-toxic era, it sure isn’t any better.

Why Choose a 28 Gauge?

There’s a healthy mystique surrounding the 28 gauge among shotgunners. Supposedly, through the ballistic magic of its “square” load, it patterns and kills better than it should. (A square load means the payload height in the hull equals the bore diameter.)

Uh, no.

But the cult of the 28 gauge believers and its members are everywhere. I once got a call out of the blue from a sitting U.S. Representative who spent a good chunk of taxpayer-funded time imploring me to write a column on the pressing issue of the “magic” of the 28 gauge.

The truth of the 28’s magic is this: like most magic, it’s inside you. If you like your 28 gauge gun and enjoy carrying it, and you like the way it pops at one end and puffs feathers at the other without much recoil, then you’ll probably shoot it well, and therefore you’ll like hunting with it.

If you don’t stretch it past its modest capabilities, the 28 is a joy in the field or on the range.

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Under the Hood

The 28 gauge got its name the same arcane way all shotgun gauges were named: for the number of lead balls with the same diameter as the bore that it takes to equal one pound. In other words, if one were to keep putting .55-inch diameter lead balls onto a scale, 28 of them should weigh about 1 pound.

If it were sensibly named, the 28 gauge would be a “.55 caliber shell.” Compared to the 28’s .55-inch bore diameter, the 20-gauge has a .615-inch bore diameter, and the 12-gauge has a bore diameter of .729 inches.

The standard 2 3/4-inch, 28 gauge load consists of 3/4-ounces of lead shot fired at 1200-1300 fps. There are also 7/8- and 1-ounce lead loads and 5/8-ounce steel loads. The skinny 28 gauge hull limits pellet size, so it’s primarily a gun for upland birds and targets. The fact is that 12, 16, and 20-gauges are all more versatile than the 28. They can shoot 3/4 ounce loads like the 28 can but can also handle payloads in excess of what you can fit into a 28 gauge hull.

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But, the resulting light recoil somewhat balances the 28’s light payloads and modest velocities. That means a 28 gauge gun can be lightweight and slender with a very manageable kick, or you can shoot it in a heavier target gun or gas semiauto, and it will be easy to manage and very soft-shooting.

One word of caution about that premise: lighter guns are not easier to shoot, nor are they faster to the target than heavy guns. They are pleasant to carry and fun to handle but also easy to over-control, and they lack enough weight to keep going once you start them moving to a target. So, part of the 28’s limitations is the shotguns themselves, not the ammo.

While the 28 doesn’t quite measure up to bigger bores, it smokes the smaller .410. That is not because the 28 is magic but because the .410 sucks. The heaviest .410 load contains less shot than the standard 28 and won’t pattern as well. The 28 gauge makes a much better choice for a small-gauge hunting or target gun, and similarly, it’s a much better first gun than a .410; it has moderate recoil and is much easier to hit with.

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Origin Story and History

The first accounts of the 28 gauge appear in British sporting literature of the 1880s. Gunmaker W.W. Greener made 28 gauge guns in the late black powder era; there may have been others. Over here, the first 28s were made by Parker in the first years of the 20th century. A few other US makers offered 28 gauges, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, when the new game of skeet turned into a fad, that the 28 went mainstream.

The first 28 gauge shells had 2 1/2-inch hulls loaded with black powder. Some time in the late teens or early 20s, a 2 7/8-inch 28 containing the now-standard 3/4 ounces of shot appeared, and the familiar 2 3/4-inch, 3/4 ounce 28 gauge load appeared in the early 1930s.

Inclusion as one of the four gauges in registered skeet competition saved the 28, which might otherwise have faded away. Many skeet competitors shot very good scores with the 28 due to its combination of low recoil and the fact that it had enough pellets to break fairly close-range targets, which may explain part of the “28 is magic” belief. The 28 retained a modest following among hunters, although its fans were ardent. Field & Stream’s Gene Hill was one, calling it “the thinking man’s 20-gauge.”

“As the baby boomers who make up so much of the hunting population aged, they took an interest in lighter, softer-kicking guns.”

In 2006, the 28 gauge finally had its 15 minutes of true fame. Vice President Dick Cheney was carrying a Perazzi 28 gauge O/U the day he accidentally shot a member of his hunting party on a quail hunt in Texas. While the man survived, his injuries were serious, and he survived partly because vice presidents travel with good medical technicians. If nothing else, the incident suggests that the 28 could be a home defense gun in a pinch, I guess.

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People didn’t run out to buy 28s as a result, but the 28 did begin trending upward. It’s most likely because, as the baby boomers who make up so much of the hunting population aged, they took an interest in lighter, softer-kicking guns, and the 28 made for an appealing choice.

A Second Non-Toxic Life?

Surprisingly, the general switch to non-toxic shot for hunting may give the 28 new life. Several years ago, before Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) went mainstream, I started hearing stories of hunters using 28 gauge turkey guns and handloading loads with super-dense pellets to kill turkeys at 12-gauge ranges.

Steel shot wasn’t a great match for the 28 (although I have had good luck on doves at close-to-medium range with Federal Speed-Shok steel 7s), but the smaller, denser pellets like TSS and HEVI-Shot absolutely were — if you could afford them.

And, where you can still shoot lead at upland birds and small game, you can choose a load like Fiocchi’s Golden Pheasant if you want to up-gun your 28 for big birds. Containing 7/8 ounces of hard, nickel-plated 5, 6, or 7 1/2 shot moving at 1300 fps, these loads let you shoot your 28 at tough wild roosters at reasonable ranges without fear.

If you’re going to shoot a lot of targets with a 28, you’ll want to take up reloading because 28 gauge ammo is pricey. But until that time comes, Federal Premium Top Gun target loads will deliver good scores at a good price.

On the shotgun side, the big news in 28 gauges came recently when Benelli announced a 3-inch magnum, 28 gauge Super Black Eagle 3 (see below). Plus, Boss, Fiocchi, and HEVI Shot announced 3-inch, 28 gauge non-toxic ammunition for it. The new loads beef the 28 up to 20-gauge levels and should make the 28 into an effective choice for ducks over decoys.

Why anyone would want to make a 28 into a 20 when there are already 20-gauges escapes me, but I guarantee a lot of people will do it.

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Top 28 Gauge Shotguns

If you’re interested in trying a 28, there are quite a few guns available. Here are some hunting models that won’t disappoint:

Beretta Silver Pigeon I

Beretta Silver Pigeon I

The Beretta 680 series, which includes the Silver Pigeon I, are among the world’s most popular O/Us, as well they should be. Trim, strong, and bulletproof, they are natural pointers, a delight to shoot and built to last. The petite 28 is made on a scaled-down frame and weighs less than 6 pounds. There’s also a sporting clays model with a beefier stock, wider rib, and 30-inch barrels, which is just the thing for target or dove hunting. MSRP: $2350

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Benelli Super Black Eagle 3

Benelli Super Black Eagle 3

Benelli scaled down its flagship semiauto to a 3-inch 28 gauge this year. If you insist on shooting ducks with a 28, this is absolutely the gun to do it with. Weighing a little more than 5 1/2 pounds, it has all the features of the larger SBEs, including a recoil-reducing stock and a super-reliable inertia operating system. MSRP: $1799

Rizzini USA BR 110

Rizzini USA BR 110

Unlike many 28 gauge O/Us that are built with 28 gauge barrels on a 20-gauge frame, the handsome and well-made Italian BR 110 is perfectly proportioned and lightweight at 5 3/4 pounds. You can also get it with 30-inch barrels, as I did, and the extra length and weight out front help the very light gun swing like a heavier gun. MSRP: $2150

Mossberg SA-28

Mossberg SA-28 28 gauge

A trim Turkish-made, gas-operated semiauto, the SA-28 won’t break the bank, but it won’t weigh you down either. It also won’t do anything except run reliably and be fun to shoot and hunt with. It comes with a walnut stock, a set of five chokes, and a blued, 26-inch barrel. It’s also available as a youth model with a 24-inch barrel. MSRP: $760

Savage 555

Savage 555 28 gauge

Another featherweight 28 (5.5 pounds), the Savage 555 has a light, alloy frame and, with its understated oil-finished walnut stock, is as good looking an O/U as you’ll find at this low price point. It features 26-inch barrels with a semi-gloss finish and a single, selective manual trigger. It also comes with a set of five choke tubes. MSRP: $768

CZ-USA Sharp-Tail

CZ-USA Sharp-Tail 28 gauge

CZ guns are great values, and the Sharp-Tail delivers a lot for your money. It’s a single-trigger, side-by-side shotgun with a pistol grip and wide beavertail forend that make it suited for both hunting and target shooting. The 28-inch barrels come with five choke tubes to cover almost any type of shotgunning you want to do. Because it’s important to look good, the gun has case-colored sideplates on the frame, which add some classic flare and let it stand out from the crowd a bit. MSRP: $1399

The Future of the 28 Gauge

As long as there is registered skeet and small-bore sporting clays competition, the 28 will never go away. It’s going to become more popular now that there are 3-inch loads for it. I’d predict you’ll read a lot about how capable the new 3-inch 28 is, and I’d say to take that all with a big grain of salt. Even a 3-inch 28 won’t supplant the 20-gauge.

Twenty-gauge shotguns are common and versatile, and the ammunition costs less, and they shoot heavier payloads. But Americans have always liked small-bore guns, and the 28 gauge will never go away.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>