The Great 28

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Arguably one of the finest upland shotgun gauges, the 28 gauge is enjoying newfound popularity

Last autumn, I was talking to another hunter in the field and he asked me about the shotgun I was carrying, saying, “Twenty gauge isn’t it?” I replied that no, in fact it was a 28. “A 28? I thought those were a thing of the past!” he exclaimed.

I am still surprised at the hunters today who say that sort of thing. The 28 gauge is one of those mysterious things that everyone has heard of, but most have never seen. Sort of like Sasquatch or a UFO. Always a bit of an aristocrat like the Queen of the Uplands, the 16 gauge, the 28 is Princess of the Uplands and a prettier gun for an autumn hunt there never was, in my humble opinion.

The 28 we know today began back at the dawn of the 20th century. The Parker Co. was among the first to offer a 28 gauge shotgun in North America, in 1904, although 28 gauge pin fire shells can be found in European records back to the 1880s.

The 28 quickly developed fans on this side of the pond, who recognized the gauge’s fine qualities. Early guns had 2.5 shells that lengthened to 2 7/8 inches and finally settled to the 2.75-inch shell of today. Several times the gauge waned in popularity and had it not been for the clay target crowd, we might have lost the 28 for good.

Growing up in New Brunswick, the woods fairly bristled with 28s and even today the 28 is quite common. The 28 has always been a family favourite and my Great Grandmother purchased a single barrel around 1915 in the then-new 28 gauge. It was perfect for grouse, rabbits or even the occasional duck. But perhaps most surprising of all was the number of deer the 28 killed with a slug! My Dad recalls how, when my Grandfather couldn’t find shells, he would disassemble 20-gauge paper shells, dump the contents into the 28 gauge hulls and close the paper crimp by hand. Not a manual correct load, but Depression times made you work with what you had. Sadly, that fine little 28 single was lost in a fire.

My experience with the 28 gauge began when I decided to purchase my first fowling piece. While most shooters went through the natural progression of .410 to 20 to 12 gauge, I was determined to go a different route. Wisely heeding the sage advice of my mentors, I purchased a new 28 single shot. Grouse were my quarry – big feathered northern birds who skulked like thieves, flew like feathered fighter jets and always put a tree between them and me. Oh the hours I walked among ancient apple orchards where the grouse gorged themselves fat! I became convinced the 28 was the choice for upland hunting and that first 28 still finds its way out to the alders each autumn at least once.

Many folks ask, “Doesn’t the 12 or 20 provide all the upland hunter’s needs?” Both are fine gauges, I admit, but a 28 has that extra something that transcends words. When you handle a 28, the gun’s qualities are loud and clear. A 28, in a properly made frame, is a wonderful shooting experience. Unlike a small gauge clothed in a big gun, the correctly stocked 28 handles, points and fits. It leaps to your shoulder with a springiness lacking in a larger gauge, but without the barrel whip that the smaller .410s can have. In a 26 inch barrel, the gauge is smooth, slick and all business.

A gun is only as good as the ammunition and here the 28 gauge has it in spades. The two most common loads are three-quarter ounce and one ounce. Kent Cartridge makes a 28 load in three-quarter ounce that doubles as a sporting clays load. Winchester’s Super X one ounce or three-quarter ounce AA SuperSport loads provide solid upland performance and Challenger Ammunition here in Canada produces shells that leave the barrel at a reported 1,330 feet per second. Dynamite in heavy cover!

Most hunters know the three-quarter ounce load best and it is the one most often slipped into pockets across Canada. The three-quarter ounce is pure business for woodcock to pheasant. Part of the 28’s ability lies in the speed at which its loads leave the barrel. As we all know, speed kills, and a 28 gauge, three-quarter ounce load leaves the barrel at around 1,300 feet per second. Add in the short shot column that enables a maximum number of pellets to arrive on target at the same time, and you’re looking at a real stick of TNT! A three-quarter ounce load of seven-and-a-half contains 260 pellets more than sufficient for harvesting game. Both Remington and Federal list fine three-quarter ounce ammunition. A payload very well matched to the gauge. Magic? Maybe!

A gauge like the 28 deserves fine guns to compliment it and today’s enthusiast has a far greater selection than ever before. Whether you prefer an auto like the Franchi 48 AL or Benelli Legacy, a pump from Remington or Browning, there’s a 28 repeater with your name on it. Fine doubles can be purchased from European or North American manufacturers, and many who will build a custom job. In fact, Ithaca Company makes a 28 pump that can be made to order and the Ithaca Model 37-28 has a wide variety of options. All this boils down to one thing: you are probably going to have to own several.

Back in the last century, I bought a Remington 870, which has answered all my 28 needs. I wanted a light walking gun for grouse and I have not been disappointed. My 870 has digested countless shells and seen heavy use with more than a few scars of honour. The gun has a vent rib and silver bead on its 25-inch barrel. The slim frame suits my arm length and height, pointing exactly where I am looking without any conscious effort. But perhaps best of all, the Remington throws a very open pattern with three-quarters of an ounce of Federal Premium No. 6. Why not seven and a half? In this particular gun, No. 6 patterns better and is a real brush buster for grouse. My 28 weighs just a hair over six pounds and is just right for wading into the tightest patch of alders.

The future of the 28 has never looked brighter. Dan Banting, vice president over at Kent Cartridge Canada, says 28 ammunition sales are up, probably due in part to sporting clays. Mike Farrell, of Ithaca, told me interest in their 28 gauge custom Model 37 increases every year. Over in the UK, Brian Jackson, of Lyavale Express Ammunition, says game shooters are more keen on the 28 than ever. Ralph Wilhelm, of Brenneke Munitions, says on the continent the 28 continues to have a following as well.

With a greater number of quality guns and excellent ammunition, perhaps it’s time you looked more closely at the Princess of the Uplands, the great 28!

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