Slugging It Out With Your Buck

Unless you have hunted deer with a shotgun lately, you probably don't realize how much slug guns and their loads have changed. Join the author in looking into this revolution.

The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield's signature line was "I don't get no respect." It usually got him a laugh. But among deer hunters, that's the way many feel about shotgun slugs, and a laughing matter it's not.

Shotgun slugs have not enjoyed a sterling reputation, and that has nothing to do with their knockdown power. They have that in abundance. In fact, many guides and biologists who prowl northern "bad bear" country consider a 12-gauge slug gun to be perfect "bear medicine." When it comes to close-range punch, it's hard to argue with a .70-caliber, soft-lead, 1-ounce, 12-gauge slug zipping along at 1,600 to 1,800 feet per second. That'll hammer a grizzly.

But, of course, bears are big and when a slug needs be used in self-defense that bear is close. Change the target to a whitetail deer at 100 yards and the accuracy shortcomings of the traditional slug become a major concern. In fact, regardless of the sight system in use, any smoothbore shotgun is lucky if it can create a group of 6 inches at that range.

That's not exactly the level of accuracy a deer hunter would opt for. However, many have had no choice. In a number of areas, regulations mandate a shotgun be used. Those hunters who found themselves in that situation usually tried to get close, and hoped for the best.

At least, that's how things worked in the "old days." That's not the case anymore. In fact, modern high-tech slug guns are capable of producing accuracy levels that equal many pump, lever-action and semi-auto rifles, while delivering more than enough game-downing power to harvest deer to at least the 150-yard mark. Two important advancements in slug technology have made that possible.

The first is replacing the soft-lead "pumpkin ball" Foster-type slug with a sub-caliber, aerodynamically shaped bullet encased in a polymer sabot. This produces a higher ballistic coefficient than the Foster-style slugs and maintains its velocity much better. The more streamlined shape produces increased downrange power and an extended range.

However, that does the shooter no good if he can't achieve the accuracy required to take advantage of the improved ballistics. Thus, the second significant advancement is to mate the sabot slugs with either a fully rifled shotgun barrel, or a screw-in rifled choke tube.

Unlike the Foster slug, which flies like a rock in a sock, a sabot in a rifled barrel imparts the same spin to the encased slug that one gets from a rifle bullet. The polymer sabot grips the bullet tightly, is tough enough to engage the rifling without stripping, and imparts that spin to the bullet. As the package exits the muzzle, the sabot separates into two pieces, flies free of the bullet, and the slug continues on its way with spin stabilization.

The increased ballistic characteristics are now combined with a barrel system that delivers the accuracy needed to capitalize on it. However, that only happens when the sabot is combined with a rifled barrel.

Shoot a sabot slug through a smoothbore barrel and you get smoothbore accuracy. Shoot a soft-lead Foster slug through a rifled barrel and you'll quickly wind up with a smoothbore because the lead is not hard enough to engage the rifling. It doesn't spin; it just sort of squirts through. That strips lead into the grooves, fills them up, and makes a real mess -- not only of the bore, but the accuracy.

If you shoot soft-lead slugs through a rifled barrel, you achieve less performance than you would when shooting them through the smoothbore barrels for which they were designed. If you shoot sabot slugs through a smoothbore barrel, you gain little, or nothing, in the way of performance over a soft-lead Foster slug.

Shoot a sabot slug in a rifled barrel, however, and 2- to 3-inch, 100-yard groups can be the norm. That may not sound as good as the 1-inch groups that can be obtained with a quality centerfire rifle. If, however, you're taking your deer at ranges less than 150 yards, it does provide all the accuracy you need. There are many lever-action rifles that won't shoot that well.

With a rifled choke tube in a smoothbore barrel, the accuracy may or may not be that good. But it will easily surpass that of a Foster slug in a smoothbore barrel.

There are several ways you can benefit from this new technology.

Adding a rifled choke tube to an existing shotgun is one option, and such tubes are available from a number of gun makers, or from aftermarket makers like Briley, Cation or Colonial Arms. In order to take advantage of that, you need a quality set of adjustable sights on that gun.

If you have a Thompson/Center Encore rifle, a rifled slug barrel is available. If you own a pump or semi-auto shotgun that accepts interchangeable barrels, the route is simple. Just obtain a rifled barrel. Most makers have them available for their interchangeable barrel models. If not, Hastings offers them in its Paradox line, and they can be had with either adjustable iron sights on the barrel, or with a cantilever scope mount.

The latter is the way to go if maximum accuracy is the goal. The cantilever mount is a Weaver base, mounted firmly on the barrel and extending back over the receiver. Mount a scope, sight it in, and when the barrel is removed for cleaning, the scope stays firmly affixed to the barrel and the point of impact on the scope doesn't change.

Combine a rifled slug barrel with a cantilever scope mount and a variable powered scope in the 1X to 4X range, and you have the makings for a "tack driving" slug gun that can deliver rifle-like accuracy at 150 yards.

There are a number of new generation slug loads that will give you that.

Hornady's offering is the SST Slug in both 12 and 20 gauge. The SST projectile is a polymer-tipped, copper-jacketed bullet that is similar in design to those used in their rifle and handgun loads. Encased in a sabot, the 12-gauge version weighs 300 grains and leaves the muzzle at 2,000 fps. According to Hornady, when sighted in 2.7 inches high at 100 yards, it will be dead on at 150 and only 6.7 inches low at 200 yards, while packing almost 1,200 foot pounds of energy at that longer distance. The 20-gauge version isn't too far behind. Its 250-grain slug clocks 1,800 fps, and sighted 3.3 inches high at 100 yards is dead on at 150, 8.2 inches low at 200, while packing 815 foot pounds at that range.

Federal offers a number of high-tech slug loads, and the one that excites the most is its Premium Vital-Shok

Barnes Expander in 12- and 20-gauge sabot loads. The Barnes bullet does not come apart, even when the heaviest bone is struck. They always expand, and penetration is excellent. It's a great bullet design.

Those opting for a 12 gauge can have this in a 2 3/4-inch, 1-ounce load clocking 1,450 fps and a 3/4-ounce load hitting 1,900. A 3-inch load throws a 1-ounce slug at 1,530 fps. When sighted in at 100 yards, the different loads are between 2 and 3 inches low at 125 yards and deliver 1,315 to 1,600 foot pounds of energy.

The 20-gauge versions are available in 3-inch loads of 273 grains that provide 1,900 fps and 1,272 foot pounds at 125 yards, or a new 2 3/4 inch version with 273 grains, 1,600 fps, and 909 foot pounds at 125 yards. With a 100-yard zero, they are between 2 and 3 inches low at 125.

Remington offers a wide selection of loads and the ones that spark my interest are the Managed Recoil Buckhammer loads. Designed specifically for rifled barrels, they use a reduced velocity to achieve less recoil, while providing deer-downing power to the 100-yard mark.

Winchester, as well, has an extensive line and the most interesting to me is the new Supreme 3-inch sabot load that launches a 260-grain Partition Gold bullet at 2,000 fps. This bullet looks suspiciously like the same one they load in their .454 Casull handgun load; that bullet works very well.

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