Slug Guns for Deer

Shotgun slug technology has come a long way since Grandpa's day. In fact, modern slug guns rival many rifles in off-the-shelf accuracy and dependability, as our expert explains.

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.

A shotgun designed to shoot slugs is an inexpensive way to outfit a new hunter for deer season. The new hunter may already have a shotgun for small game. Field and slug gun combination packages are often less expensive than a single rifle, and certainly cost much less than two guns. Even the high-end specialty shotguns built specifically for use as slug guns are typically less expensive than comparable rifles.

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.

Photo by Tom Evans

The first step in choosing a slug gun is picking a barrel. The accuracy of rifled barrels and saboted ammunition is phenomenal, but many smoothbores still prove very effective in many circumstances. Many experienced hunters have killed more deer with a 12 gauge smoothbore than most guys take with rifles. As always, it's where you put the slug that counts.

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.

The performance advantage of rifled barrels includes better accuracy, less drop, increased confidence and a longer effective range. Modern sabot ammunition designed for rifled tubes generally include 1-ounce lead (or copper) slugs inside a plastic sabot. These loads easily deliver 3-to 4-inch groups at 100 yards, with an effective range stretching out to about 125 yards. A few manufacturers offer ammunition with .45- or .50-caliber bullets set in thicker sabots. The ballistics figures published on these loads could theoretically yield an effective range of up to 200 yards.

If the promise of increased slug performance has you hooked on a shotgun for your next deer hunt, the next step is finding a gun that fits. A shotgun that naturally falls into place on your shoulder and presents a well-aligned sight picture is ultimately worth a lot more in the field than a minor difference in group size at the range. Everyone has personal preferences when it comes to sights, scope mountings and the overall "feel" of a specific shotgun. Also, each action type has peculiarities and characteristics that need to be evaluated. The better a gun fits, the more confidence you will have with it. Confidence in your gear will lead to better performance in the field.

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.

There are a number of single-shot slug guns available on the market that promise great accuracy at varying prices.

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.

For rifle shooters, the bolt action is the accepted standard for strength and accuracy, so it is a popular option for rifled-barrel slug guns. It is a testament to the popularity of these actions that just a short time after specialty rifled barrels became available the number of bolt models available began to run a close second to the highly versatile pump gun.

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.

If, after looking at all the available models, you are still not completely happy, there is still hope. There are custom manufacturers of bolt-action rifled slug guns, and though they are pricey, those who own them say they are worth every penny.

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 like low-range variable scopes for shotgun hunting, something from 1-4X or 2-7X at most. The low end will allow a wide field of view for quick target acquisition in thick areas. A 4X scope will do the job out to 150 yards, but a little more magnification is nice if you are planning on long shots. Choose the largest objective diameter that can still be mounted low enough to keep a good sight picture. For most guns, that is between 28mm and 40mm. Most importantly, do not skimp on eye relief - slug guns kick hard!

Prior to converting the bolt action, I had been using a rifled barrel with open iron sights on a pump action shotgun. I had previously shot an impressive two-inch group at 50 yards with iron sights. A lot of work and $270 later, I sure hoped I could beat that mark.

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.

I was fortunate to have a relatively calm day for my ammunition testing, so varying wind conditions was not a factor in the performance of the various loads I used. The fact is that slugs are susceptible to wind drift because they are large and heavy projectiles, and quickly drop below supersonic velocity.

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 ( 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.

Having determined the best load for my shotgun out of the 1 oz. lead slug sabot class, I wanted to see if the .45- or .50-caliber super-premium sabot slugs could improve its performance. I returned to the range another day with a couple of boxes each of my benchmark rounds and the premium sabots.

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.

I believe that the key to success in the field with any hunting weapon is familiarity with that weapon and confidence in its abilities. The best advice I can give for selecting a slug gun and ammunition combination is to decide which action you feel most comfortable with, handle all the available models, and buy the one that fits you (and your budget) best.

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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