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Slug Guns Today

By Dave Henderson

Sabot slugs’ ability to expand contributes reatly to their effectiveness on deer.
Sabot slugs’ ability to expand contributes reatly to their effectiveness on deer.

Which deer hunting shotgun and load is right for you?

An estimated 3 million of the nation’s 10 million whitetail hunters go afield with shotguns each year, and that number is growing. The majority of us who hunt with a shotgun do so because it’s mandated and we don’t have any choice in the matter. Most of us do, however, have a choice of loads and guns. And given the recent boom in technology in this area, there are plenty of options.

Slugs vs. Buckshot

If your state allows the use of buckshot or slugs, choose the latter. Slugs are the most effective deer loads you can use with a shotgun. Although buckshot is usually devastating at short range, any slug, full-bore or sabot, will be more effective at long distances. And, although the margin for error is reduced, slugs are every bit as deadly as buckshot up close.

Types of Slugs

Saboted slugs may get most of the press, but conventional full-bore slugs still outsell them. The full-bore slug represents 60 percent of the retail sales of the slug market.

Are saboted slugs more effective than full-bore slugs at long range? Definitely. Are saboted slugs more accurate when fired from a rifled bore? Absolutely. Does everyone need that extra wallop and extended range? Nope.

Most deer taken by shotgunners are dropped within 80 yards. Foster-type full-bore slugs such as those loaded by Winchester, Federal and Remington, and the various non-saboted Brenneke designs, are very effective out to the 80-yard mark. If you shoot a smoothbore shotgun and take typical shots (40 to 80 yards), using these slugs will not be a disadvantage.

Eight states, including Illinois, where this buck was taken, limit deer hunters to using shotguns or muzzleloaders.
Eight states, including Illinois, where this buck was taken, limit deer hunters to using shotguns or muzzleloaders.

Saboted ammunition, at least before the new high-velocity loads hit the market, offered no benefits over full-bore slugs at traditional deer-woods ranges. The high-tech stuff didn’t really show its stuff until it had a chance to stretch out and run at longer distances.

Superior aerodynamics and ballistic coefficient - and the stabilizing effect of the spin imparted by rifling - help the saboted slug maintain velocity, trajectory and energy far longer than the bulky full-bore slug.

Barrels Make a Difference

Odds are that your smoothbore will shoot slugs more accurately with an open choke. Shotgun manufacturers, in fact, used to recommend improved cylinder choke for slug shooting. But shotgun bores vary in dimension, even in the same brand and model. But I’ve seen some modified-choke shotguns that were real tack-drivers. And the Belgian Browning Auto-5 that I inherited from Dad shot Brennekes like they were designed for each other - despite its fixed full-choke barrel.

Will shooting sabot loads through your smoothbore increase your effective range? Maybe, but certainly not to the point that would justify paying seven or eight times as much as you would for full-bore slugs. In fact, you will probably find saboted ammunition to be less effective than old-style slugs in your smoothbore. If the slug is not spinning, the sabot sleeves don’t easily separate from it. This destabilizes the slug.

Sabot slugs are made for rifled barrels. Period. The sabot sleeves grip the rifling and impart spin to the slug, increasing stability in flight. Full-bore slugs rely on their nose-heavy design to stay stable for their relatively short journey to the target.

If you shoot a smoothbore but would like to take advantage of the high-tech loads, your best bet is to add a rifled choke tube. All major shotgun manufacturers offer such tubes, and they are improving all the time. Aftermarket tubes are also available from Hastings, Colonial, Cation and others.

Eight states, including Illinois, where this buck was taken, limit deer hunters to using shotguns or muzzleloaders.The fact remains, however, if you want to take advantage of the latest innovations and ballistic superiority of today’s high-tech slugs, you need a rifled slug barrel.

Be advised that a rifled barrel dedicates the gun to slug-shooting only - it will not effectively pattern shot. But it will stabilize any slug and extend its effective range. Full-bore slugs actually skid a bit in the rifling and will leave copious amounts of lead fouling in the grooves in a short period of time. But they generally shoot well in a rifled bore.

The best slug-gun models have fixed rifled barrels. This means they can’t be used for anything but slug shooting, unlike models with interchangeable barrels. All major shotgun manufacturers offer at least one model with a rifled barrel. Most offer optional rifled barrels that can replace your conventional barrel for the deer season. Hastings and Ithaca Gun also have a wide variety of aftermarket rifled barrels.

With a stiff barrel, good trigger and solidly mounted scope, your rifled-barrel slug gun should be able to consistently put three conventional-velocity saboted slugs through the same hole at 50 yards from a solid rest. Accuracy at 100 yards will vary with the wind conditions, trigger pull, load and the shooter’s ability.

Read More Stories From GunHunter Magazine There’s nothing wrong with smoothbore shotguns and full-bore slugs for the relatively short-range hunting that takes place in most deer woods. But if you’re looking for long-range performance, that option is there in the rifled barrel shotguns and high-tech sabot ammunition.  

Reprinted from the premier issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine in 2003

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