Is the 28-gauge the best shotgun gauge for upland hunters?
Uncertainty is one of the great allures of hunting. In my first book, I wrote that whitetail deer do exactly what they are supposed to except when they don’t. Since then, I have learned with conviction that ruffed grouse are even more mysterious than whitetail. That, along with my personal experiences, have made me quite partial to the 28, a wonderful sub-gauge with ever-growing popularity.
People smarter than me have pointed out that all shotgun ballistics apply except when talking the 28-gauge.
Grassroots conversations regarding the 28-gauge feel more like the passing on of old fantasy stories rather than true, hard facts of ballistics. People smarter than me have pointed out that all shotgun ballistics apply except when talking the 28-gauge. There are myths of its origins, a collective misunderstanding of the “square load,” and a devout following by some of the greatest shotgun experts and writers.
At 150 pounds soaking wet, I have found a love for the 28-gauge shotgun. On a recent hunting trip, three of us toted 28s of various makes and models. The previous days featured limits of ruffed grouse and woodcock under leaf-covered trees in cover I call “Mars.” We used a mix of shells by various makers ranging from #6 and #7 bismuth to #8 lead. All proved effective.
On many occasions, I have witnessed shooters of all experience levels shoot 28-gauges for the first time and push their limits on sharptails and huns. My first time taking a 28-gauge into the prairie resulted not just in limits of birds, but a double on Hungarian partridge. Simply put, others and I have found the 28-gauge to not just be a delightful gauge, but superior to other gauges in unexpected ways.
A lot of that technical shooting success is due to a properly fitting stock, the weight of the shotgun, and effectiveness of the load. Put simply, I’ve never shot another gauge better. I have come to find that it’s not just a pattern test that makes the greater case for the 28-gauge; it’s many smaller parts that make up this firearm.
Does the 28-gauge shotgun pattern better than any other gauge? Is it superior to its bigger cousins, the 20, 16, and 12-gauge? How far does it leave the .410 in its dust? Is it better at killing game? And how has it changed over the last 100+ years of shotgunning science? Here I shed light on these topics by diving into the work of shotgun experts.
The History of the 28-Gauge
Rewind your clocks to the late 19th century and dive into the shotgun era. There, we will find a much different spread of gauges than one would today. Both the
8-gauge and 10-gauge were common and popular. The 12-gauge already showed an edge in overall popularity as the “pigeon gun.” The 16-gauge overtook the 20 gauge in any serious circle. The 2-bore, 4-bore, 14-bore, 24-bore, and the .360 (smaller than the .410) also existed in the mix. Not all antiquated gauges were lost to history; finding something like a 32-gauge is not completely impossible. But good luck finding ammunition.
Many would like to crown Parker Bros, an American gunmaker, for the invention of the 28-gauge in 1903. However, that myth is busted. While that introduction was absolutely the catalyst for the popularization of the gauge stateside, it has a much older history. Ammunition companies in England were creating 28-gauge shotshells as far back as 1857 according to the writings of W.W. Greener. And as far as taking gauges seriously, the 28-gauge appeared in a lot of writing of the time. It was a common player in that regard.
But the true popularity of the 28-gauge came later. Once believed to be an inferior killer of wild game, advancements in gunpowder, the shotcup, and even the introduction of new metals would catapult this gauge forward in the modern era. The 28-gauge now represents an often-coveted selection in vintage-built shotguns that can drive prices to nauseating levels. The rarity, demand, and modern manufacturing of the 28-gauge is making this rising star even more accessible.
A 2022 survey revealed a lot of evidence about the 28-gauge’s popularity. The 28-gauge is favored by older demographics with good taste; baby boomers come in at 12.12 percent listing it as their preferred gauge. Almost 10 percent of upland hunters preferred the 28-gauge to other gauges, making it the fourth most popular gauge overall. The .410 lagged behind by a large gap at 0.37 percent and the 16-gauge just ahead at 14.57 percent. The 20-gauge comfortably continues to hold the number one spot.
When it comes to upland game species, the 28-gauge is most popular among bobwhite quail hunters, followed by ruffed grouse and woodcock hunters. Side-by-side shotgun shooters made up for 49.35 percent of the 28-gauge crowd, followed by 44.16 percent in over/under. Twenty-six percent of those respondents said they shoot a vintage shotgun that was not proofed for steel. This all builds a story that the 28-gauge is slowly, steadily gaining popularity as a gauge of choice for upland hunting.
The Myth of the 28-Gauge Square Load
A square load is defined by the bore diameter and shot column being a perfect 1 to 1 ratio. Historically, it has been found more than once that the closer a ratio is to square, the greater the effective pattern is. We will talk about string theory later. But the idea that a 28-gauge is “square” is nothing but a myth.
A 2014 study conducted by Moser and his team showed a direct correlation between the efficiency of a load and this “square load” ratio. The test was a measure of pattern efficiency at 40 yards in a 30” circle. Efficiency was calculated by the number of pellets on target divided by the total shell pellet count. In short, both the 20-gauge and 16-gauge outperformed the 28-gauge. The 12-gauge was not part of the study.
Although many people refer to a ¾ oz 28 ga load as ‘square,’ by definition it is not. At a bore diameter of 0.55”, a ¾ oz lead payload column height is about an inch (1”/.55” = 1.8); not very square.Adam Moser, Director of Product Engineering at Federal Ammunition
“Although many people refer to a ¾ oz 28 ga load as ‘square,’ by definition it is not. At a bore diameter of 0.55”, a ¾ oz lead payload column height is about an inch (1”/.55” = 1.8); not very square,” said Adam Moser, Director of Product Engineering at Federal Ammunition. “A square load for 28-gauge would be around 7/16 oz for small lead shot like #7.5. Shot size and material will make a difference, as bigger shot and less dense material will affect the ‘packing’ density,” or how well the shot stacks in the wad. No such load is available on the market.
|Bore Size (Cylinder)||.550″|
|Improved Cylinder (IC)||.545″|
|Light Modified (LM) or Skeet II||.543″|
|Improved Modified (IM)||.534″|
Does the 28-Gauge Pattern Better than Other Gauges?
The short answer? It’s complicated. We have already shown that the theories of square loads become more effective for much larger gauges. But modern shotshell construction adds in the factor of shotcups. The idea behind the square load has to do with pellet deformity. Shotcups can create less deformity when coming out of the barrel. The more shot you shoot out of a smaller hole, the more deformed, and therefore erratic, shot pattern happens. Shotcups can eliminate some of that deformity, taking the edge off the standard theories of pellet deformity and square loads.
But perhaps where the 28-gauge performs best is shot string. Shot string is how many pellets arrive at a target simultaneously. It’s measured by shooting at a large, fast-moving paper target. Imagine someone driving a station wagon pulling a boat trailer rigged up with a 16’x4’ target for you to shoot at. This method is why no greater introduction could be made of the late Bob Brister, a man of many accomplishments.
Most of his writings, tests, and musings maintained a general rule: the 28-gauge always did better than it should have.
His book, Shotgunning: The Art and Science, stands as testament to pushing the understanding of shotgun ballistics to a new level. He was devoted when it came to the 28-gauge. Most of his writings, tests, and musings maintained a general rule: the 28-gauge always did better than it should have. It was shot string that was the final evidence Brister needed to make a case for the 28-gauge. “The 28-gauge hit the pattern board so hard it jarred out one of the thumbtacks holding the paper,” Brister noticed.
Brister points out that the first person to study shot string was H. A. Ivatt in 1890. He used a train traveling 11 mph. The speed proved to be too slow to show any real difference in pattern; upland birds can fly much faster. Brister tried the method at adequate speeds:
I fired several 35-yard 40-mile-an-hour tests with the tight left barrel of my Webley & Scott 28-gauge and carefully measured the spread. Maximum between flyer pellets was 54 inches, but almost all the pattern was concentrated within a basic spread of three feet. There was virtually no stringing of shot evident; the pattern was almost as perfectly round as if it had been fired with the target sitting still. In other words, that 28-gauge with that load had a shot string, with most of its pellets arriving at the target nearly the same time. Which perhaps helps explain why 28-gauges in general have developed such a reputation for hitting game harder and smoking targets better than they are supposed to.
“The most significant findings would seem to be the addition of a new dimension to consideration of the shot string and what it means to clean-killing effectiveness with modern loads,” Brister concluded.
Other Reasons the 28-Gauge is an Ideal Gauge
Wild bird hunting is a cornerstone of the Project Upland brand. The practicality of hunting gear in environments where wild birds live is another one. William Harnden Foster defined the grouse gun as “the one that a certain hunter will find most pleasant to carry to the spot where a grouse is to be shot at, and there prove most efficient when the shot is made.”
Weight is a key factor in that basic definition. According to the 1888 book Modern Shot Guns, “A 28-gauge double gun with 26-inch barrels should weigh under 4½ lbs.” That is much lighter than its more popular cousins. As Brister would say, it’s “the exception of the 28-gauge, which simply kills better than it’s supposed to.”
Before modern shotshells were invented, it was said that the 28-gauge’s effective killing range was 35 yards and under. The lion’s share of wild upland bird hunting happens at this distance. Tighter chokes account for birds beyond that range with ease. Brister, using data from the National Skeet Shooting Association, speculated “the 28-gauge shooter would be giving up only three to four percent between his little gun and the 12-gauge.”
A collection of factors make up the 28-gauge’s uniqueness and attractiveness. The advent of newer technology has only helped its case. While I will not say on paper that 28s are superior to all other gauges, pound-for-pound, it may be the most well-rounded hunting gauge. For two seasons now I’ve made it my primary gauge, leaving the 20-gauge behind after almost 30 years with no regrets. More game in the bag was just a bonus considering all the other factors that make this such a wonderful gauge.
“There are shooters who definitely can put more birds into the sack with a lightweight 20 or 28 gauge than they can with a heavier 12,” wrote Brister, “But this is not due to gauge but to balance, weight, gun fit, recoil, speed of swing—or maybe how well a man likes his gun.”
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 35 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He has a passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.