Selecting the Proper Slug Gun System

With a little planning and preparation, you can ensure that your slug gun can compete with any firearm in the deer woods.

by Dick Metcalf

Slug shotguns and slug ammunition have changed dramatically in the past few years. When I first began hunting white-tailed deer with 12-gauge shotgun slugs over 30 years ago, the best - in fact, the only - choice was a Foster-type "rifled" slug in a smoothbore Improved Cylinder barrel with open-notch sights. Fifty yards was a sensible shot. If you tried to push it much past 70 yards, you'd be just as well off throwing rocks.

Today there are a wide variety of new slug designs, bunches of new guns and new barrel designs in which to shoot them, and in many deer-hunting areas you are as likely to see a whitetail hunter carrying a factory-made synthetic-stock bolt-action slug gun with a high-magnification variable scope sight as you are to see a hunter armed with a traditional open-sight lever-action .30-30 deer rifle.

The best of today's slugs and slug guns can deliver accuracy as good out to 100 yards, 150 yards and even beyond, as can many ordinary production-grade rifles. And when you turn to the question of projectile energy, just note this: The retained energy of one of Remington's current Premier Copper Solid 1-ounce sabot slugs at 100 yards is 1,364 ft/lbs. The retained energy of a traditional lever-action's 170-grain soft-nose .30-30 bullet at the same distance is actually 9 ft/lbs less!

At the same time, there are thousands - even tens of thousands - of long-term deer hunters still using their favorite do-everything shotguns with smoothbore barrels - either with or without "rifle" sights - to harvest deer with the same Foster-type slugs used a generation ago. The fact is, today's slug-gun hunter has nearly as many different options in terms of types of guns and types of slug ammunition appropriate for different ranges and hunting circumstances as high-power-rifle hunters do. This is a new thing, and also a good thing, since there are many states and intra-state hunting zones in this country where a slug gun is the only deer-hunting firearm allowed by law.

Photo by Dick Metcalf

At present, there are basically two types of slug ammunition available on the market: sabot-type and non-sabot (with numerous variations within each type). Sabot-type slug ammo designs all utilize some type of relatively soft non-metallic sleeve material (usually polymer) that surrounds a smaller diameter bullet projectile. Bullet configurations and sabot designs vary widely by manufacturers and their types of loads, but all sabot ammo is based on the principle that the bullet "sheds" the enclosing sabot in flight (through wind resistance or the centrifugal force of spin imparted by rifling) or on impact. Non-sabot ammo utilizes a bore-diameter projectile.

There are three different types of shotgun barrels through which slugs can be fired: traditional smoothbore (any choke, with or without rifle-type sights); smoothbore with a screw-in rifled choke tube; or full-length rifled. In terms of ammo performance, it's the barrel that counts. The type of shotgun action - auto, pump, bolt or break-open - is not really significant. Nevertheless, the situation is not mix-and-match. For satisfactory performance, the type of slug ammunition you use needs to be matched to the type of barrel you are using.

A smooth-bore slug barrel does not spin its projectile, so its range is limited. A smoothbore barrel with a screw-in rifled choke is somewhat better because it will impart at least some stabilizing spin to a departing solid or sabot-design slug, and a full-length-rifled barrel is best (which is why high-power rifles are not smoothbore). In general terms, sabots are intended to be spun. The faster they spin, the better they work, the more stable the flight of the projectile they enclose and the more consistently they separate from the bullet. So, the rule of thumb is essentially this: All types of slug ammo, sabot and non-sabot, provide their best accuracy and the longest effective range when fired in a full-rifle barrel. A smoothbore barrel with rifled choke tube will be somewhat less accurate, and a pure smoothbore offers the least accuracy. You can safely shoot all types of slugs in all types of barrels, but if you use premium-grade sabot ammo in a smoothbore, you're wasting your money, and will likely get less accuracy than with a conventional old Foster-type soft lead slug, since the sabot won't properly separate from the bullet and it actually de-stabilizes the trajectory more than a solid-type load.

On the other hand, if you shoot an old-fashioned Foster lead slug through a rifled barrel, you'll get much more accuracy with it than through a smoothbore. Rifling does work, after all.

So does this mean you should immediately junk the smoothbore deer-slug barrel you've been using for years and run right out and buy a new full-rifle barrel or entirely new slug gun? Not necessarily. It depends on what you really need for your particular hunting circumstances. The choice you make is up to you.

How should you choose a shotgun for deer hunting? What type of action is best? What gauge? Is a rifled-bore barrel with rifle sights or a scope really necessary, or will a regular shot barrel be sufficient? Only you can answer these questions.

Actually, traditional smoothbore slug guns have an undeservedly bad reputation. The thing most often heard is that smoothbore slug guns aren't very accurate, that they wound and cripple too many deer. In fact, no state or federal wildlife agency has ever developed any statistics that show that slug guns are either more or less effective than any other type of firearm when it comes to harvesting deer. What does happen, however, is that a lot of hunters using shotgun deer slugs do not use them correctly, and they don't get the kind of results from them that they'd like.

Many skilled shotgun shooters have a tendency to shoot slugs the same way they shoot shotshells - they just point and slap the trigger. That works fine if you're throwing out a cloud of pellets that can cover a 30-inch target circle by the time they're 30 yards from the muzzle. But it doesn't work for a slug, which is a single projectile that has to be fired with the same careful aim you'd use with a rifle.

Ordinary shotgun barrels don't have sights; most just have a single bead to help in point-shooting flying birds. A single bead isn't much help when trying to carefully aim at the chest of a deer that's standing 50 yards away. One of the main reasons that slug guns have a bad reputation is that too many shotgun shooters just take their ordinary shotguns and load slugs in them and go out into the field and try to point-shoot a deer with a slug the same way they do a flying pheasant with a shotshell.

They miss, or they wound. They seldom make clean kills.

The other side of the coin regarding slug guns' bad reputation is that when many shotgun shooters do get a slug barrel with rifle-type front and rear sights, put it on their shotgun, charge it up with new high-tech sabot loads, and maybe mount a scope, they start acting like they have turned that shotgun into a real rifle, and start trying to make the same shots they would try if they had a .30-06 in their hands. It just doesn't work that way. A slug gun is still a shotgun, and it's still firing ammo with a muzzle velocity of less than 2,000 feet per second. It still has a limited range compared to any high-power rifle, and it must be used within its limitations. Traditional slug guns get misused a lot: by hunters who try to shoot them like they were firing shotshells in a shotgun and by hunters who try to shoot them like they were firing a high-power centerfire rifle.

A slug gun is neither a shotgun nor a rifle; it is what it is - a slug gun. If you use it the way it's designed to be used, it makes a fine deer-hunting tool. Regardless of gauge or specific ammo design, a smoothbore slug gun is effectively a 50-yard arm. Beyond that range, the non-gyroscopic smoothbore projectile destabilizes rapidly and cannot be relied on to fly true. At 50 yards, however, a good Foster-type slug gun with solid-form projectiles will print 3-inch three-shot groups on a target. A new full-rifle barrel firing high-velocity sabot slugs will reliably print the same groups twice as far. How much range do you need? You decide.

Whatever slug gun system you choose, the most important thing you should do is take the gun and the slugs to a shooting range and sit down at a bench rest and actually shoot the slugs at a target to see where they're going. This is particularly important if the barrel you are using does not have rifle-type sights. With the proper preparation and some time at the range, you can get great performance out of a slug gun system.

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