Rifles were not legal for hunting whitetails where I grew up in the northeastern part of the country. Slug shotguns where the rule of law, and as little kid, when my father would pull “Old Faithful” from its leather scabbard, I knew it was time to hit the woods.
I grew to love my father’s Remington 870 and its smoothbore barrel. My fondest memories were watching him kill deer on the coldest days of the year; swinging on a moving deer as it tried to escape through the brush. Even my first big deer fell to the gun, and while today we choose to take guns in calibers like .270 and .35 to the deer woods, there is no doubt in my mind slug guns are a viable and overlooked tool for the deer hunter. While accuracy in slug shotguns has always been a bitter battle, the power with which they hit deer has never been questioned.
Choosing a Gun
Picking a gauge for your deer hunt boils down to what fits you. That should be your first thought. Slug shotguns are synonymous with intense recoil and bruising of the shoulder and cheekbone. Have a steady rest like a Caldwell Led Sled that can help you properly sight in the gun without wearing down your shoulder. To ensure a snug fit, make sure the butt stock falls into place on your shoulder, presenting a well-aligned and clear sight picture. If you struggle to see clearly down the barrel, or feel like you are grasping at the gun, find an option you can shoot with confidence. If the recoil from a 12-gauge is too much, 20-gauge slug guns are a fantastic and highly ethical option.
A great aspect of hunting deer with a slug shotgun is barrels tend to be shorter (between 18 and 26 inches). This creates the ability to choose a barrel that can be used for surveying shooting lanes or an effective gun for hunting in brush. While even some centerfire rifle rounds have been known for their fickleness in brush, shooting a slug through brush is the like the equivalent of sending a bowling ball through the air. An effective slug gun is highly maneuverable and perfect for making quick shots.
When picking your gun, there are two barrels to choose from: smoothbore or rifled. Older shotguns were synonymous with smoothbore barrels. A smoothbore barrel is exactly what it sounds like — no rifling. Smoothbore barrels have been compared to a pitcher throwing knuckleballs; but with the right ammunition and scope, they can be an extremely accurate 100-yard gun. These are great guns for those day you want to stalk through heavy brush or participate in deer drives.
You need the right ammo in order to get the best from a smoothbore barrel. Rifled slugs are front-heavy, 1-oz lead projectile with grooves in the sides. This is also known as a Foster-style slug in which it is hollowed from the back. A rifled slug (shot from a smoothbore gun) produces a lobbing angle of trajectory. When shot from a 12-gauge, these slugs can travel upward of 1500 fps.
Oddly enough, rifled slugs are not recommended to be shot from a rifled barrel, as some in the ballistics community have raised concerns over lead fouling that can build up in the grooves. For a young starting hunter, getting set up with a smoothbore shotgun and rifled slugs is far cheaper than purchasing a centerfire rifle.
Rifled slug barrels are providing hunters the ability to consistently and accurately hit targets ethically out to 150 yards or more. Rifled barrels come interchangeably with pump and semi-auto shotguns. Bolt-action slug guns are also available on the market. The bolt-action platform gives shooters more accuracy due to the solid, vibration-resistant feature provided by the bolt. While a bolt-action, rifled gun isn’t required, if you are going to be spending significant time in slug-gun country, it may be a wise investment. Rifled barrels take saboted slugs. Saboted slugs are attached to a wad or bore-sleeve, gripping the rifling in the barrel. This gives the slug the spin needed to fly accurately.
To increase accuracy, scopes and chokes can be used in tandem to create more consistency. Slug guns have notoriety for churning through scopes, though. A 12-gauge slug shotgun shooting a standard 3-inch shell with a 1 5/8-oz slug produces 52 foot pounds of energy upon the shot. While there are varying levels of shell size, powder charge and slug weight, investing in quality rings and bases will protect your scope. Furthermore, pick a scope from a reputable brand (like Nikon) that has a history of success.
Since shotguns are primarily considered a close-quarters gun, the need to quickly locate a moving deer in brush is paramount. If you know you want to use a slug gun for tight cover, then pick a scope with less power. If sitting over a late-season food plot, a 4X to 12X scope is more than sufficient.
The rings and bases for your shotgun are as equally important to accuracy as the scope itself. Rings and bases come in multiple forms — fixed or detachable systems. Now, while single-piece bases are superior at resisting the forces of recoil, they can sometimes interfere with the chambering and ejection of a round. Dovetail mounts are popular since they are adjustable and have a long history of proven success. When picking a picatinny rail and dovetail mounts, pick a low height that provides clearance for your scope and allows you to position your dominate eye in line with the scope. Being able to comfortably see into the scope while not having to raise your head to look through it will greatly impact accuracy.
Regardless of your skills or your experience in the woods, hunting for deer with a shotgun provides an easy way to ethically kill a deer without breaking the bank. The ability to decide between specific rounds and interchange barrels on one platform (depending on your hunting scenario) is a desirable trait, especially for those looking for an easy-to-use platform. Just remember, find the gun that fits you. And don't flinch.