By Dave Henderson
Today’s 20-gauge slugs are more accurate than ever. They carry more punch, too. while providing far less recoil than their 12-gauge cousins.
We live in a world of information overload, with seemingly pertinent data assailing us from all angles, thanks to packaging design, the media and the Internet.
In many cases, it’s too much information. From cold medicines to vehicles, electronics to hunting boots and bows, there are seemingly endless choices, with statements and claims in favor of many different products.
If you don’t have a good grasp of the subject, making an intelligent buying decision is virtually impossible.
Selecting the best shotgun slug for a particular gun is one of those subjects. Rifled slugs, full-bore attached-wad slugs, high-velocity sabots, reduced-recoil slugs - the selection is wider and more varied than at any time in history.
The bottom line is that you must try several in your gun to determine the best. But that makes for a very short article. So let’s take a look at how to narrow the candidates that you tote to the range.
That list can be trimmed appreciably according to the type of gun you shoot. If you hunt with a smoothbore shotgun, for instance, use a moderately open choke and don’t bother looking at high-tech sabot slugs.
Shoot a sabot slug out of a smoothbore, and its sleeves aren’t likely to release efficiently. This means very poor flight characteristics and greatly reduced range for the slug that costs much more than rifled or full-bore slugs.
Sabot slugs - undersized slugs encased in or attached to bore-sized sleeves or wads - are designed for rifled barrels. The soft material in the sabot sleeves or trailing wad grips the rifling and imparts a spin on the projectile. It needs that spin to maintain stability. If it is not spinning - and regardless of what you’ve read, slugs fired from a smoothbore do not spin - the sabot sleeve will have difficulty separating from the slug and will actually destabilize it.
So if you’re shooting a smoothbore, stick to rifled slugs such as those made by Remington, Winchester and Federal; or full-bore slugs such as the various Brenneke, PMC, Fiocchi, Rottweil or Wolf designs.
Conventional-velocity slugs for rifled barrels: Hastings Magnum; Hevi-Shot Sabot; Brenneke Gold; Remington Copper Solid; Remington BuckHammer; 1-ounce Federal Barnes Expander; Brenneke Super Sabot; Federal Premium Sabot; and Winchester Hi-Impact Sabot.
Despite the fact that virtually all rifled slugs have grooves or flutes on them, they do not spin in flight. The grooves are actually raised areas that give the projectiles a buffer against becoming deformed when squeezed through a tight choke. Stop-action photos of rifled slugs in flight show that the rifling is actually rubbed off the slug by the time it exits the barrel.
If full-bore slugs don’t spin, what stabilizes them? The answer is their nose-heavy design, which gives the full-bore slug its forward impetus - sort of like throwing a rock in a sock.
Different slugs tend to like different bore constrictions, but start with a relatively open choke. All modern slugs will shoot through chokes as tight as full without damage to the gun, but if the choke squeezes the slug too much, it is liable to deform the projectile, making it inaccurate.
Rifled slugs and full-bore slugs for smoothbores can be virtually as accurate, and hit as hard if not harder, as sabot slugs from rifled barrels at ranges from 60 to 75 yards. It’s at this range that these static-flying projectiles drop below the speed of sound and can be destabilized by the impact of the sound wave. Truly consistent accuracy at 100 yards is problematical with full-bore slugs in smoothbore guns.
That’s where sabot slugs come into play. Where full-bore slugs begin to peter out, sabots begin to stretch out and run. Their true superiority shows up beyond 75 yards, where their spinning stability allows them to retain velocity and energy.
If you have a smoothbore gun and would still like the advantages of the sabot loads, use a rifled choke tube. The rifling, even though it’s only 3 to 6 inches, is sufficient to impart a spin on a sabot slug.
Research has shown that longer choke tubes, such as the Hastings and Browning models, are more effective than shorter ones.
Rifled choke tubes will shoot any sabot slug on the market, but you’ll find that they’re most accurate with the lower-velocity sabots, including the reduced-recoil versions.
Hastings Low Recoil, Lightfield Lites, Winchester Standard Velocity BRI, Federal loads labeled Low Recoil and Remington Managed Recoil BuckHammers work well with rifled choke tubes.
If you are truly serious about slug shooting, however, a fully rifled barrel is the direction for you.
There are a slew of conventional-velocity (1,400-1,550 fps muzzle velocity) sabot slugs on the market that are very accurate (single-hole groups at 50 yards and under-3-inch groups at 100) in most rifled-barrel guns.
The Hastings Magnum, 1-ounce Federal Barnes Expander and Federal Premium Sabot, Remington Copper Solid, Winchester Hi-Impact sabot, Lightfield Hybred, Brenneke K.O. Sabot and Hevi-Shot Sabot and others offer good performance out of most rifled barrels, regardless of the rifling twist rate. All retain lethal energy out past 150 yards.
If you’re looking for the absolute best performance - flat trajectory, plenty of retained energy out past 150 yards and excellent upset performance on deer - the highly publicized high-velocity sabot slugs are for you. The drawback is that they are not accurate in all guns.
We’re talking about the 2,000 fps Hornady SST sabot (which replaced the Hornady H2K Heavy Mag in 2005) and Winchester Partition Gold, the 1,900 fps Remington Core-Lokt Ultra, Lightfield Commander, 3/4-ounce Federal Barnes Expander, 1,700 fps Winchester Platinum Tip and Brenneke Super Sabot.
There are three schools of thought on why the truly quick sabots don’t shoot well out of all guns. Some experts contend that a faster rifling twist (typically 1-turn-in-28 inches as opposed to the conventional 1-in-35) is essential in handling the high-velocity slugs. In fact, the American Barrel Co.’s new fast-twist (1-in-25) barrels for Remington, Winchester, Ithaca and Browning shotguns shoot Federal’s 3/4-ounce Barnes Xpanders with astounding accuracy well beyond conventional ranges.
But others will tell you that, given the pressures generated by the higher velocities and the hardness of the bullet/slug at setback, sabot-to-barrel fit (rather than twist rate) is more critical with the faster slugs than it is with the softer, slower sabots.
In fact, the difficult-to-control nature of high-velocity slugs is probably the reason the industry has put more design work into the more predictable full-bore sabot slugs in recent years.
The third thought behind the high-velocity slugs’ erratic behavior in some guns has more to do with the shooter than the ordnance. High-velocity slugs simply kick much harder than other slugs, and it takes experience and persistence to adequately deal with heavy recoil off a bench.
You should also realize that the high-performance slugs are not necessary for the average deer hunter. Recoil affects everyone to some degree, and that’s the reason shotgun slugs have been added to the list of kinder, gentler shotshells that has swept onto the market in the last couple of years.
The softer-recoiling slugs are entirely adequate for normal deer hunting conditions, and won’t loosen your bridgework in the process. In fact, I killed a South Carolina buck at 146 yards with a Managed Recoil Remington BuckHammer 12-gauge slug a couples of years ago.
Granted, that was extreme, but all of the lower-recoil loads are accurate and retain their lethal energy out to almost 100 yards, which should be enough for virtually anyone.
As noted, there’s nothing wrong with smoothbore shotguns and full-bore slugs for the relatively short ranges encountered in most deer woods. If you’re looking for long-range performance in your slug gun, however, that option is available in rifled-barrel shotguns and high-tech saboted ammunition.
But the final step is always the same. Take the best candidates to the range and shoot them to determine which is best for your particular slug gun.
Reprinted from the December 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine