North American correspondent Thomas Tabor
There are some advantages inherent in shooting a larger bore shotgun. The larger gauge shotshells frequently contain a heavier shot charge, which allows the shooter to use bigger size shot and still be able to achieve acceptable shot pattern densities. Frequently, the velocities are also increased as the bore diameters become larger and that can sometimes result in adding a couple of metres to the effective killing range of the shotgun.
However, no-one should assume that a larger bore is always the best choice in all hunting situations. As the barrel diameter increases, typically the shotguns become heavier and clumsier to handle. Frequently, they become slower swinging and the felt recoil to the shoulder of the shooter increases.
On the other hand, if you choose, for example, to shoot a good-quality 20- or 28-gauge, you will likely find these shotguns swing more easily and smoother. This allows you to get on the target quicker and the milder recoil makes shooting much more pleasurable.
For many years, I have used a 2¾" 20-gauge shotgun for a significant portion of my upland bird hunting and have always been impressed and happy with the results. When the 3" version started to become more popular in the mid to late1960s, I was temporarily caught up in the movement, like so many other shooters. The promoters of the 3” 20-gauge sold the concept on the basis that these guns were equivalent to the 12-gauge but offered in a lighter weight package. In reality however, the 3" 20-gauge generally falls short of that level of performance and is really more closely aligned with the performance of the 16-gauge.
Depending upon the shooter’s viewpoint, the longer shot column of the 3" could be viewed as either a blessing or a curse. When it comes to fast-moving angling targets, a longer shot string could result in less shot impacts on the target, but in theory, under those identical conditions, that same longer shot string could actually make it a bit easier for the shot to intersect with the target.
The cold, hard facts about the 3" 20-gauge are that only marginal increases in both shot charge weight and muzzle velocities are usually achieved over those of the shorter 2¾" 20-gauge. And if you shoot factory-loaded ammunition, you will very likely find the 3" shotshells to be considerably more expensive than the 2¾".
For me personally, I seldom shoot 3^ shotshells even in my shotguns that possess 3" chambers. In fact, my all-time favourite hunting load is a handloaded 2¾^ shotshell that contains a charge of 1 1/8oz of either lead or copper-plated lead shot. This load leaves the muzzle at about 1200fps and consistently produces excellent results on many species of partridges, grouse and other similar-sized game birds. But I have also found that many of the 1oz loads, both factory-loaded and handloads, produce excellent results as well.
The 20- versus 28-gauge
I’m quite sure I am on the verge of ruffling the ire of some keen 20-gauge enthusiasts when I say that I believe the 28-gauge can, in many hunting situations, be a better choice. But that isn’t necessarily a put-down to the fine attributes of its slightly larger cousin, the 2¾" 20-gauge. As mentioned, I have used 20s for much of my bird hunting over the years and have always achieved excellent results. However, I do feel that many of the same attributes which favour the 20-gauge over the 12 are essentially the same things that favour the 28-gauge over the 20.
When a 28-gauge has been properly sized to take full advantage of its overall trimmer and more petite characteristics, in my opinion it has the ability to bring to the table a look and feel that no other shotgun gauge is capable of. While I would not encourage any hunter to attempt using a 28-gauge for the larger species of waterfowl or even for the tough and sometimes hard-to-anchor pheasants, when it comes to the various species of partridges, grouse, quail, pigeons and doves, I believe there is no better choice. And of course, if you choose to use a shotgun for hunting rabbits and hares, the 28 would be equally well suited for those encounters.
Skeet shooters are often credited for the survival of the 28-gauge, having continued to keep it a part of their four-gun competition. If those shooters had not recognised the benefits and continued to support the 28, it could have easily followed the 24- and 32-gauge into oblivion. However, for a brief time, the 28 was held back to a degree because some firearm manufacturers didn’t use proper judgment in their shotgun construction. In order to take quick financial advantage of the growing interest in the 28, some manufacturers simply tried sticking a 28-gauge barrel on a 20-gauge frame and called it good. Granted, this is a bit of an oversimplification, but what transpired early on were some 28-gauge shotguns that essentially showed little or no advantages over the 20-gauge.
Strictly looking at it from a manufacturing cost standpoint, this probably made a certain amount of sense, but for shooters seeking to take full advantage of the inherent benefits of the 28’s overall smaller lines, it made absolutely no sense. The obvious question here is why a shooter would want to shoot 28-gauge shells if there would be no benefit associated with doing so. Thankfully today, there are many fine examples of properly proportioned 28s to select from and that has helped to ensure that this fine gauge will be with us for future generations.
If we draw an actual performance comparison between the 2¾" 20-gauge and the 28-gauge, we find the most common lead shot loadings in the 20 to be ¾ or 1oz of shot pushed out the barrel anywhere from about 1165 to 1245fps. Of course, there are exceptions both in the area of shot charge weights and muzzle velocities, like my own favourite 1 1/8oz loading. But, in most cases, I would consider these loadings to be the norm for the 20.
When it comes to the 28-gauge, we find that a ¾oz charge of lead travelling out the muzzle at about 1200fps to be pretty much the standard. There are few loads available that contain 1oz of shot and like the 20-gauge, there are others of varying make-up. In fact, on the extreme side of performance, I see that Fiocchi is offering a 28-gauge shotshell that contains ¾oz of nickel-plated lead, which is said to produce a phenomenal muzzle velocity of 1300fps. Even in larger gauge shotguns, a muzzle velocity like that would often be considered impressive.
I haven’t personally tried any of these super-speed Fiocchi loads, but before using them in an actual hunting situation, I would want to pattern them to be assured that the pattern density is acceptable. Sometimes, when velocities are pushed to such extremes, some shotguns do not pattern the shot well. Using an actual patterning board or even simply hanging a piece of butcher paper on a fence and taking aim at a given yardage will allow you to see how this or any other shotshell groups its shot.
So, if we boil down the differences between the 20- and 28-gauge, it is quite likely that a shooter could find some 2¾" 20-gauge shotshells that contain a little more shot and possess a little more speed than the typical 28-gauge shotshell. And certainly, if shooting 3" 20-gauge shotshells, the same would be possible. Those increases would likely translate into adding a metre or two to the 20-gauge’s effective killing range over that of the 28.
If the decision as to which gauge was better was solely based on the aforementioned criteria, I could understand if a shooter might be swayed in favour of the 20. But these factors are only a fraction of what needs to be considered. First, it is important to recognise that most game birds are killed from about 25 to 30m from the hunter. On that basis, I don’t believe that the slight increases in either the shot volume or muzzle velocities of the 20-gauge would be recognisable at that range.
The real advantage favouring the 28-gauge can be found it its size and overall feel. If you have ever picked up a 20-gauge after handling a 12-gauge, it is likely that you noticed quite a favourable difference in overall handling abilities of the smaller gauge. In this case, the smaller 20-gauge probably gave you the impression that it would be quicker to point and faster handling. And if you repeated this same exercise but substituted a 20 for the 12, and a 28 for the 20, you would likely find a similar difference in the overall feel. In both of these instances, it is hard to deny that the smaller gauge will likely move faster, swing freer and allow you to get on your target quicker.
Now, if we relate that faster handling abilities of the 28 to the precise increase of the 20-gauge killing range, any advantage in the 20 will likely evaporate like the smoke leaving the muzzle of our shotguns.
The downside of the 28-gauge
There seems to always be a downside to every situation and in the case of the 28-gauge, it comes primarily in the form of ammo availability. A decade or two ago, it certainly would have been difficult to find ammunition for this lesser popular gauge and if you were able to locate any it would likely be shotshells intended for skeet shooting. However, in recent years, that trend has been lessened to a degree largely due to the 28’s increase in popularity as a viable option for hunting. Nevertheless, no-one should expect to find 28-gauge ammo as easily as or in as large of a selection as the 12- or even the 20-gauge.
While not necessarily as large of a problem as in the past, you could still experience some difficulty getting precisely the type of shotshell you are looking for. Near the top of my own bucket-list, I have an Argentina dove hunt planned and would dearly love to take a couple of 28-gauge shotguns with me to use. In my estimation, the 28 would be the absolute perfect shotgun for this type of shooting, but finding shotshells in Argentina could pose such an insurmountable challenge and for that reason, I have simply given up on that idea. In this case, I will probably be accompanied by a brace of 20-gauges.
An alternative if you feel the availability of 28-gauge ammunition could pose a problem for you would be to consider handloading your own shotshells. In this case, as long as you are able to stock up on an ample supply of wads, handloading opens up great new opportunities. By crafting your own loads, you can substantially increase the potential of this fine gauge, allowing you to load whatever size shot you prefer, in the volume that you would like, and load as potent of shotshells as you can find reloading data for.
I am personally very fond of my little 28-gauge shotguns, but if you remain a bit sceptical as to the benefits, I would suggest you do one thing; find yourself a gunshop that carries a selection of shotguns and do the comparison check I spoke of. Pick up a 12-gauge, then a comparable 20 and see for yourself the differences in the feel. Then repeat that exercise comparing a 20 with a 28.
If that doesn’t convince you as to the benefits of the lighter and faster handling smaller gauges, make friends at the shotgun range with someone who owns a 28-gauge and ask to shoot a few clay targets with it. I’m fairly confident you will quickly recognise why the 28 is so quickly gaining in popularity and why I enjoy shooting mine so much.