I don't know if there is any one correct order of buying shotguns. That said, my own purchases seem to mirror that used by a lot of folks with whom I shoot and hunt.
Oddly enough, the first shotgun I shot was a .410 which was considered a 'boy's gun.' The recoil was certainly light for an elementary school kid, but the small amount of shot in each shell really meant that I'd have to be an experienced shooter to hit with one. In essence, the .410 is a 'man's gun,' but that description was reserved for the shotgun I first bought: a 12 gauge. I chose that shotgun for use on clays, pheasant, turkey, and waterfowl. A few months later I added a second shotgun which was a 20 gauge. The smaller bore was better suited for grouse, woodcock, quail and other smaller birds. Along the way, I added a 16 gauge, a 28 gauge, and even a .410.
Also See: If It Fits, Shoot It
To this day, I frequently overlook my 28 gauge. Is it because I get looks from my buddies when I pull it from its case? The group that favors 12's and 16's call my gunning iron a pea shooter. On the flip side, the group that favors .410's calls my shotgun a cannon. Then there is the 'your wife shoots a 28-gauge, doesn't she?' That's all polite ribbing, and I laugh along. But the fact is that my wife is deadly with her 28 gauge and shoots it all the time. Unless my daughter grabs it first...
Nonetheless, I had a perception about the 28 gauge that kept me from shooting it. It took a conversation with my friend Lars Jacob from Lars Jacob Wingshooting to get me over the hump. According to Jacob, "when shooters pick up a 28 gauge shell they believe they will be under-gunned. But think about that, for it isn't the case. A 28 gauge shoots a 3/4 ounce load which is the same charge used by most grouse or woodcock hunters in their 20-bores. Some ammunition companies, such as RST, has gone so far as to produce a two-inch 12-gauge shell that delivers the same 3/4 ounce load. The reason for such a small shell is that you've got a gun you can shoot all day long and not tire as you would when shooting magnum loads. And it patterns like a charm.
"Small upland birds are hard to hit but easy to kill, particularly inside of 35 yards. An upland birds' plumage is light, the stems on their feathers are thin, so all it takes is 4-5 pellets to be lethal. Larger upland birds like wild pheasant or Chuckar partridge have thicker feathers and stems, so more impact is generally required.
"It comes down to the size of your shot as well as the number of pellets in each shell. There are 300 pellets of #8 shot in a 28-gauge shell, and 269 # 7 1/2 pellets, just as much as comparable loads in the light 20 and 12 gauges. Where the fall off comes is with larger shot. Take a load of #6's for example where the number of pellets drops dramatically down to 167. Combined with the fact that a square load of smaller shot delivers more pellets to the target at the same time and you've got great pattern density. There is less pattern deformation with the 28 gauge, and the shot string doesn't spread across several feet. It's a highly efficient gauge and particularly well-suited for all small game birds."
The other important factor when considering the 28 gauge is chokes. With birds shot at close range, most shooters favor more open chokes. "Skeet 1/Skeet 2 is an ideal combination with the 28 gauge," said Jacob. "Improved Cylinder/Modified would be the second best option. The more open your choke, the less pattern deformity you will have, a contributing reason they are highly effective at close range."
With less steel and a trimmer stock, 28 gauges usually weigh under 6 pounds. That can be a problem with regards to follow through, for shorter barrels and lighter weight can create a whippy gun mount. If you favor 26-inch barrels the easy solution is to go with the slightly longer 28-inch tubes. That extra length helps shooters complete their swing properly instead of checking it. For balance, pointability, and sheer joy in the fields and in the woods the 28-gauge is one you can carry all day. Don't overlook them this fall. In fact, you may leave your other shotguns behind.