by Louis Kun
No matter how much we love our favorite deer rifles, sooner or later hunters of experience end up in situations where a slug gun is the right, or the only, choice.
For example, some great deer-hunting areas are open only to hunters using shotguns during the open gun season. In fact, some of the best trophy hunting in the U.S. takes place in shotgun-only states. High-powered rifles are often banned for use close to human population centers. These suburban areas are often big-buck hotspots, mimicking well-managed hunting properties with lush food plots and sanctuary areas, which give the deer time to grow. These qualities are all required for bucks to develop large racks. In most suburban areas, hunters can gain access to good hunting grounds, but they must leave the .30/06 at home to hunt these deer.
Whatever the reason for looking at slug guns in the first place, hunters soon realize that the range and accuracy of today’s slug guns, sights and ammunition is phenomenal, particularly when compared to the “pumpkin balls” and bead sights of old. After seeing what modern slug guns are capable of, the question may be, “Why do I need the rifle at all?”
If you are in the market for a slug gun, it is important to understand that the ammunition and the barrel must be considered together. Traditional slugs, also known as Foster-style slugs, were designed for smoothbore shotguns, which allow the skirt of a lead projectile to contact the barrel. These early slugs had little spin for stabilization, and as a result were not very accurate beyond 50 yards or so. Later, rifled slugs were developed that were somewhat more accurate, but it wasn’t until sabot ammunition was introduced that slug hunting became a serious concept for many deer hunters. Designed for rifled shotgun barrels, each sabot slug has a plastic sleeve around the projectile that molds itself to the rifling as the slug moves down the barrel. This imparts a controlled, stabilizing spin on the projectile that, in many guns, produces 3-inch groups of five shots at 100 yards.
Sabot ammunition may be used in some smoothbore slug guns, but it is not recommended because typically there is no improvement in accuracy or trajectory over traditional slugs. Foster slugs can be used in rifled tubes also, but with no improvement in accuracy and the added detriments of very bad lead fouling and lots of cleaning time.
Smoothbore slug barrels are easily capable of 3- to 4-inch groups at 50 yards with almost any ammo off the shelf. That kind of accuracy, coupled with a slug’s steep trajectory (lots of drop), puts their effective range at about 75 yards. That is still good enough for the majority of whitetail hunting situations. Best of all, most field grade shotguns used for small game can be fitted with a smoothbore slug barrel, complete with adjustable sights, for under $150.
Rifled tubes offer better performance, and many hunters enjoy wringing the best performance out of their gear. Some may want to utilize every possible advantage during their precious vacation hunt. Whatever the reason, slug-specific shotguns with rifled barrels are hot-selling items these days.
Putting a slug barrel, especially a smoothbore, on your old pump or semi-auto field gun will most likely provide the advantage of a comfortable, familiar feel. Some rifled tubes are heavy enough to significantly change the way the gun carries and comes to the shoulder. With either barrel, it is likely that the iron sights will line up just as well as the bead on the old, familiar field barrel.
When mounting a scope, however, these actions pose some challenges. Mounting the scope to the receiver offers a natural sight picture, but the zero will need to be rechecked every time the barrel is removed for cleaning. Scopes can be mounted directly to the barrel using a cantilever setup. This solves the re-zero problem, but it raises the line of sight by one-half inch or more. It is up to you to determine whether this setup fits you or not. Other options include removable cheek pads or a Monte Carlo stock on a slug-only, pump-gun setup.
The debate over whether one shot is enough has raged on for years, and I am not about to open it up here. My only advic
e is that if you are considering a single shot, make sure that you like the fit, feel and sight picture of the gun you buy. Snap the gun from port arms to your shoulder and try to hold the sights or scope (even empty scope rings will work) on a point about 30 yards away. If doing this a few times leaves you feeling confident that you can hit a deer-size target with that slug gun under hunting conditions, plunk your money down and enjoy the great value. Most hunters, however, simply feel more comfortable and confident with the pump or bolt action guns that they are used to.
Bear in mind, however, that not all bolt actions are the same. Some models feel and handle just like the same manufacturer’s rifles, and some are significantly bulkier and heavier. For this reason, try before you buy as much as possible.
For some hunters, bolt actions just feel more accurate in their hands. That feeling is just the result of familiarity and comfort with bolt-action rifles, and it can have a bearing on selecting a slug gun. The bottom line on selecting a slug gun is to find the one that feels the best to you.
There are also plenty of used bolt-action shotguns out there that a competent gunsmith can modify to accept a scope. With a little work, he should be able to mount a rifled barrel as well. After that, the stock can be modified or replaced to achieve a custom fit at a semi-custom price.
The availability of a wood stock was important to me, so I was actually disappointed with the limited number of bolt-action models currently available with wood stocks. In the end, for sentimental reasons more than a desire for a strong trade-in value, I chose to go the semi-custom route and convert an old bolt gun my father used to carry. The features that I wanted included a wood stock, a low scope mount, a metal thumb safety, and the improved performance one would expect from the bolt-action rifled-barrel combination.
Converting military rifle actions to sporting rifles is a popular project, and parts and tools are available from a number of sources. For my slug gun conversion project, however, I had to scrounge. I finally found a rifled barrel that was originally designed for a pump action but had had the collar removed, leaving threads that matched up with my bolt action’s threads. My gunsmith was able to fit and mount the barrel, bend the bolt, drill and tap the receiver, re-blue the metalwork, and mount the scope. I then glass-bedded the action in the stock, mostly to strengthen the wood, but also for improved accuracy.
I have to admit that I was disappointed at first. I tested a collection of typical modern sabot ammunition. Only one load was able to match the two-inch benchmark, and the rest barely beat the performance I realized from my smoothbore. Then I shot a group with the same brand of sabots that had performed best in the pump gun.
When I walked up to check the paper I was delighted to find that I had shot an honest-to-goodness 1-inch, three shot group! I also tried a round at the 100-yard target, and the point of impact was close to the four-inch drop promised on the back of the box. That’s the kind of confidence that helps when you start hunting with a slug gun.
If you want to take your slug gun into the field with the highest level of preparedness and confidence, practice shooting in windy conditions. The Tar-Hunt Web site (www.tar-hunt.com) provides a detailed set of instructions for calculating the effect of wind on slug performance. It basically amounts to setting up wind flags along the range and watching how your point of impact changes as the wind changes. It is good advice, and an interesting exercise.
Shooting the premium offerings at both 100 and 200 yards made me a believer in the potential of these slugs. While I had varying results with a couple of brands, I was able to find one that lived up to its claims. My 100-yard three-shot groups came in at just under 3 inches, and my 200-yard groups were just over 6 inches. The 200-yard group is “pie-plate accuracy,” but I cannot in good conscience take shots at long distances in the field under anything less than perfect (no wind and from a rock- solid, two-point rest) conditions.
There have been times in the past when I had been on stand with a smoothbore slug gun with iron sights (effective range 75 yards) thinking, “I might see deer over there, but they would be out of range.” I believe I have more than doubled that range by switching to a rifled-barrel slug gun fitted with a low power variable scope shooting premium sabot ammunition. This gives me an effective range of 150-plus yards. I can think of two stands that I have hunted in the past five years where I could see farther than that: One is a wide-open cornfield and the other overlooks a mature hardwood ridge on the other side of a flooded creek bottom. In most cases, 75-yard accuracy is all you’re going to need.
Yes, I still need my deer rifle because I occasionally hunt those kinds of stands, but my shotgun will suffice for most other situations. In fact, there is a .30/30 in my family that is a good-shooting gun, but it has an awkward side-mounted scope. I would take my slug gun over it any day because the slug gun fits and I have confidence in it.
Save room in that budget for ammunition, buy as many different brands of slugs as you can, and make your decision based on the proven performance of your shotgun with you (not a friend) behind the trigger.
Tight groups at the range are the seeds on confidence in the field, and the ultimate harvest could be the biggest buck of your life.
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