The 28 gauge, with it’s bore diameter of .550″, was introduced at approximately the same time as the smaller .410, in the mid-to-late 1870’s. Eley Bros. may have been the first to manufacture ammunition for the gauge in pinfire form with one source suggesting that this occurred in 1874: one assumes that the shotguns to fire it were likewise offered in catalogues of the time.
The .550″ bore size is similar in size to the .58 calibre musket and examples of muzzle-loaded, black powder guns of 28-gauge dimensions dating from much earlier than 1874 are undoubtedly still in existence. Whether these early smooth-bore firearms, capable of firing ball or shot, can truly be called “28-gauge” is a matter of opinion. In the author’s mind, the bore diameter of such arms is essentially irrelevant, given their mode of operation, and it is the presence of a chamber, cut to specified dimensions to accommodate a similarly specified cartridge, which must date the introduction of the gauge.
The first 28 gauge cartridges contained somewhere in the region of 5/8oz (17-18g) of shot, atop a charge of 1¾ or 2 drams of black powder, loaded into a 2½” case. To these were quickly added the ½oz (14g) and ¾oz (21g) loadings, the latter often in a 2 7/8″ case to accommodate the larger powder charge required to accelerate the heavier weight of shot. The modern 2¾” case did not become standardized until after the Second World War. Smokeless cartridges equivalent to these early loadings remain available today and are loaded by all of the major UK manufacturers.
The development of the 28 gauge cartridge followed the same pattern common to all of the cartridges we recognize today. Center-fire ammunition and guns for the gauge became available during the 1880s, with Kynoch a major advocate of these. By 1900 gun makers were constructing shotguns suitable for the new paper-cased smokeless loadings which were starting to appear on dealers’ shelves and in the ten years that followed, mass production of 28 gauge guns began in the United States. Parker Bros. were the probably first to introduce the gauge commercially in 1903 with a mass-conversion of existing 20-gauge stock and Remington began to manufacture their Model 1893 in 28 gauge around this time.
Other notable makers of the period soon followed: Stevens, Ithaca, Harrington & Richardson and Winchester all quickly brought 28 gauge guns to market leaning heavily on the popular (often necessary) pursuit of quail and dove hunting for their sales pitch. The 5/8oz. loads of rather small shot – #8, #9 and #10 were all commonly available – in a 2½” case were effortless to manage and provided many a bird for the pot. Early examples of production guns include the Winchester Model 12 (1912), the Harrington & Richardson “Pardner” (c. 1909) and the Ithaca “Flues” Model (1912).
Back in the UK, the tradition remained for the construction of fine double guns, often intended for the wives, sons and daughters of the aristocracy who were (seen as) unable or unwilling to handle the more traditional 12 gauge. In the absence of a “pot hunting” tradition to justify their regular use on small game and vermin (ownership of land was still concentrated in the hands of the few in the early 20th century), guns of this gauge most likely found their employment in driven and grouse shooting but would have been rarities compared with the larger gauges. Outside of game shooting circles, the gauge likely remained obscure, attracting a few devotees but little general interest.
The recent introduction of mid-range, well-built double guns by manufacturers like Yildiz has prompted something of a renewed interest in the smaller gauges in the UK and Europe. No longer is it necessary to spend thousands of pounds on a small gauge gun suitable for general use, with some apparently-reliable, competitively-priced models appearing in recent years. Although not all of these new (often Turkish) guns are built to the same high quality and although ammunition typically remains expensive, a good, attractive 28-gauge gun can now be had for a little over £500, making them much more accessible than they have ever been. An improving supply of reloading components also helps to make possible the regular use of a small gauge gun.
Small Bore Skeet
Relative interest in a particular gauge between different geographical areas is hard to estimate and has probably never been rigorously measured. However, it might be reasonable to assert that the 28 gauge has always had its strongest and most consistent following in North America.
The National Skeet Shooting Association (NSSA) of the United States, who administer registered skeet shooting in the USA (much like the CPSA in the UK) cater for the use of a 28-gauge (or smaller) gun in their “small bore skeet” category. The CPSA, so far as the author is aware, allow for gauges smaller than 12 to be used, but make no special provision for them.
Undoubtedly, the greater shot capacity of the 28 gauge over the .410 proves an advantage for competitive shooting of this type and the gauge supports a dedicated band of enthusiasts whom we at SmallBoreShotguns.com can only hope to emulate.
In the UK, the 28 gauge has waxed and waned in popularity over the years. Always more popular in the field than at the clay ground, the range of commercially-available cartridges demonstrates this clearly: only one – a 14g/#9 offering from Lyalvale – could be said to be specifically intended for sporting targets, with the remainder a selection of moderate-to-heavy weight cartridges loaded in sizes #5-#7. Only with the 16 gauge is this division more acute.
The 21st Century 28 Gauge
Perhaps more than any other gauge, the “twenty-eight” suffers from the affliction commonly known amongst shooters as “Magnumitis”. A mistaken belief pervades (particularly amongst UK hunters) that the standard ¾oz load is simply insufficient for the hunting of live game and that heavier loads of 7/8oz, 1oz or more(!) are required if birds are not to be shot and wounded on a regular basis. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Apart from the risk of punishing recoil where heavy-for-gauge loads are employed in light guns, the best evidence for the usefulness of the gauge comes from the current strong trend in the UK for accomplished (and sometimes less-accomplished) driven game shooters to move down the gauges in search of a “challenge”.
Although, as we have acknowledged, some of the folk brave enough to actually pick up a 28-gauge gun might continue to use their usual ounce of #6 in a smaller tube, a good number who transfer to the gauge on a regular basis will employ what this author would call a more “sensible” cartridge: still capable, but more in keeping with the historical trend.
At SmallBoreShotguns.com, we would argue that the latter approach is the right approach and the former, no real challenge at all. Whereas the .410 could be argued to impose some restrictions on shooting at reasonable range (though we seek, on this website, to demonstrate otherwise), the 28 gauge, even with quite light-for-gauge loads, imposes no such limitations.
A balanced ¾oz load doubtless provides the energy and pattern density required for a 40-yard pheasant, putting the 90% of sporting birds that are shot within the 15-35 yard “window” well within its reach. Patterns are no smaller, pellets are no less effective: if the gauge provides any challenge at all, it is in the requirement for carefully controlled shooting of guns which tend to be lighter and more easily point-able than the average eight-pound 12 gauge. Stopping the gun mid-swing will often be the major difficulty.
Returning to the question of appropriate loading: almost everyone who owns a 28 gauge gun will also own (or have migrated from shooting) a 12- or 20-gauge gun. If there really is a need to fire an ounce of more of lead shot (we admit that non-toxic shot represents a special case) at our quarry, then surely the employment of a larger gauge, more suited to that purpose, is the way forward?
For any given load, a larger gauge will generally give better performance with fewer pellets becoming deformed through scrubbing and crushing a the choke. Just as one does not use an optician’s screwdriver to drive a 4″ screw, one does not generally employ a 28-gauge gun, loaded with BB shot (Is that three or four pellets? – Ed.) to down 60-yard geese: far more appropriate tools are available for the job.
Unfortunately, recent trends have not been sympathetic to this view. Somewhat depressingly, in May 2010, the C.I.P. accepted a submission for a 76mm (3″) 28 gauge specification and guns and cartridges for the chambering have recently started to appear. Benelli now produce a 3″-chambered semi-automatic 28 gauge and Fiocchi produce loaded ammunition in 3″ cases. No doubt other manufacturers will follow suit, given time.
Even the old 2½” and 2¾” guns are no longer safe: the author vaguely recalls that Winchester recently produced (and apparently withdrew) a 30g load in a 2¾” case – a colossal quantity of shot! Amongst the learnéd, a 19-23g load is probably about average.
Chuck Hawks, the gun writer, describes the 28-gauge as the “little shell that could”. With or without its 21st-century developments, it certainly can.