The 28 Gauge for Hunting

The 28 Gauge for Hunting
Thanks to load and pellet upgrades, the 28 gauge now offers improved patterns and lethality at distance. Photograph by Dale Spartas/
By Tom Roster

I get this question all the time: Is the 28 gauge still a wimp for hunting?

No! And here’s why. 

In the “old days” all we had for the 2¾" 28-gauge were lead loads of ¾ ounce. And they all pretty much traveled at 1,200 fps. Shot sizes were principally limited to No. 6s, 7½s and 8s. For skeet shooting and among some quail hunters, lead No. 9s were and still are preferred. 

Then along came plated lead loads for most gauges, including the 28. Winchester’s was called Lubaloy, and it was a true electrolysis plating of copper. It improved patterns for lead loads. Trouble is most copper “plating” on lead shot these days is a mere thin copper wash rather than a true electrolysis plate. Since Winchester discontinued its Lubaloy shot decades ago, in my pattern-testing I have yet to obtain any better patterns from copper-washed lead shot than unplated lead shot. 

Next came electrolysis nickel-plated lead shot. Nickel is harder than lead and harder than copper. Most that we saw in the US came from Europe. If you test such pellets, they will mic out very spherical and uniform in size. But their Achilles heel is that they usually contain a relatively soft lead core of no more than 2% to 3% antimony. So while the nickel plating on many lead pellets makes them appear wonderful, in fact their relatively soft lead core still makes them quite vulnerable to deformation during setback. Their smooth surface, thanks to the nickel plate, does result in less feather-draw. But the deformation they suffer results in greater downrange deceleration and thus less retained energy and reduced penetration. 

But things are better today. If you’re a handloader, you now can purchase 5%- to 6%-antimony, hard lead pellets with a true electrolysis nickel plate applied by Precision Reloading, in Mitchell, South Dakota. From my necropsies, Precision’s nickel-plated lead pellets give improved penetration on pheasants by as much as 15% to 20% over soft nickel-plated lead pellets. Precision’s nickel-plated shot is not cheap, but it’s well worth the cost to those seeking the highest lethality from lead shot, especially in sub-gauges like the 28. 

Furthering the effectiveness of the 28 gauge, we now have an abundance of 7⁄8-oz and especially 1-oz lead loads available from various manufacturers. This is especially helpful when hunting large birds like pheasants with the 28. Pattern densities are substantially improved with the extra ¼ oz of shot, especially in No. 6 or larger, and boosted by the much-improved one-piece plastic wads now loaded in many of today’s 1-oz 28-gauge loads. 

But if you want to make a quantum leap in 28-gauge lethality, you need to go to a pellet other than lead, plated or not. I’m speaking of the tungsten-alloy, hard nontoxic shot types such as HEVI-Shot, HW-13, ITX-13 and the new kid on the block, TSS. All of these pellets have higher densities than 11-g/cc lead. HEVI-Shot is available in 12- and 13-g/cc densities; HW-13 and ITX-13 have 13-g/cc densities, and TSS can be had in 15- and 18-g/cc densities. The increased densities of these pellets alone make them automatically more lethal than 11-g/cc lead shot because, pellet size for pellet size, they carry increased momentum downrange with greater per-pellet energy and penetration abilities, assuming they are launched at the same velocity level. And what’s more, because they are much harder than lead, they do not deform inside the shell and barrel like lead does. Thus they exit the muzzle much more aerodynamically efficient in shape than lead pellets do. This translates into substantially higher pattern densities at distance compared to lead, plated or not. 

Therefore, the 28-gauge shotgunner wanting to maximize his or her game for large birds especially beyond 35 yards will select factory loads containing hard, high-density nontoxic pellets and/or handload them. At this time the predominant 28-gauge tungsten-pellet-based factory loads would be HEVI-Shot and Backridge Ammunition. All such loads, of course, need a heavy-duty, one-piece plastic wad to properly protect the barrel and choke from scoring and erosion. All factory 28-gauge tungsten-composite loads contain this type of wad. And as of two years ago there is now available at least one 28-gauge reloading wad of this type. 

The only negative about the hard, high-density nontoxics for the 28 is that the shotgun and choke system to be used must be “steel shot proof.” The concern here is that tungsten-composite pellets that are as hard or harder than steel shot can expand integral chokes. If screw-in chokes are employed that were designed only for soft shot types such as lead or bismuth, their threads can become meshed with the barrel threads, preventing choke removal. As nontoxic loads do not develop higher chamber pressures per gauge and shell length than lead loads, there are no pressure issues to be concerned about. Just be sure the shotgun is safe for use with modern smokeless-powder chamber pressures. In the 28 gauge this would be up to 12,500 psi for service loads. 

With these load and pellet upgrades, today’s 28 gauge truly has left its former wimp standing for hunting and now closely approaches—sometimes even matches—the performance of 2¾" 20-gauge lead ammunition. 

To consult with Tom Roster or to order his manuals on reloading buffered lead and bismuth shot, reloading HEVI-Shot, or having shotgun-barrel-modification work performed or his instructional shooting DVD, contact: Tom Roster, 1190 Lynnewood Blvd., Klamath Falls, OR 97601; 541-884-2974,

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1 Comment

  1. says: Travis Thacker

    After trying a few of Mr. Roster’s buffered Lead and Bismuth loads for the 28 gauge I am 100% convinced that the PRI Spherical Buffer compound does increase the core pattern % with Lead shot by as much as 20% or 15% on AVG. It can make the difference between a clean killed Pheasant or a wounded bird. On longer shots it can mean the difference between a clean miss and a downed bird that a good dog can find and provide you with a second chance.
    I do however stand with the majority of the 28 gauge crowd and continue to support the 3/4 oz Lead or Bismuth payload as the most effective and light recoiling load for the 2 3/4″ inch 28 bore shotgun. The heavier 7/8 oz and 1 oz loads do give a higher over all 30″ inch pattern % but it’s usually just more pellets added to the outer ring of the pattern within the 30″ and 20″ inch area of the pattern circle when using even the modified or improved modified chokes. A well constructed 3/4 oz buffered and plated shot load will really give you the best results to stretch out at 40-45 yards.

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