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Take 'Em with a .20

By John Haviland

The Remington Copper Solid slug penetrated 8 inches in bundled newspapers.
The Remington Copper Solid slug penetrated 8 inches in bundled newspapers.

Did anyone get the license number of that 12-gauge slug gun that just belted me like a speeding dump truck?

No doubt, today’s 12-gauge slugs get the job done on big game, but their recoil can be brutal. Fortunately, there’s an alternative with about half the recoil. Twenty-gauge slugs are very accurate and pack enough punch that a deer will never know what hit it.

Development of the shotgun choke in the late 1800s complicated shooting bullets through smoothbore barrels. A choked bore required bullets smaller than the bore diameter so they could safely pass through the choke. The accuracy of these bullets rattling down a bore was based mostly on a hope and a prayer.

The Foster slug was the American attempt at improving accuracy. Today, the Foster is usually called the rifled slug because of the spiral grooves on its exterior. These impart some rotation to improve accuracy, but their main function is to enable the slug to squeeze down easier when it passes through a choked bore.

The rifled slug’s flight is stable because its weight is concentrated toward the front. This keeps the slug flying nose-first, sort of like a rock in a sock. It is accomplished with a hollow base that’s 50 to 60 percent of a 20-gauge slug’s length. The thin skirt of the hollow base expands from pressure on firing to fill the bore for a tight gas seal for better guidance and accuracy.

Perhaps even more importantly, the thin lead wall squeezes down to pass easily through even a full choke. There is no concern about the solid-lead nose passing through even the tightest choke because it’s well under bore diameter.

I’m not sure what came first, the fully rifled bore or sabot-type slugs. They certainly need each other. The fully rifled barrel has the same diameter its entire length. This allows firing sabot slugs with a size that matches the rifling groove-to-groove diameter. That tight fit not only keeps the slug running straight down the barrel, but also imparts a stabilizing spin to keep the slug flying true.

The nine different slugs listed in the accompanying chart pretty well cover the 20-gauge designs available for big game hunting. I shot them for accuracy at 50 and 100 yards from a fully rifled barrel of a Thompson/Center Encore rifle with a Weaver Grand Slam 1.5-5x scope. The Encore’s hinged receiver and barrel lock together rock solid, and that solid link goes a long way to improve slug accuracy. I also shot the slugs into water-soaked newspaper bundles at 30 yards to check their terminal performance.

SCENTite’s Joey Biddy
SCENTite’s Joey Biddy with an Alabama buck felled by a 20-gauge slug from a Thompson/Center Encore. The TC’s tight lockup improves slug accuracy.

But before discussing their attributes, let’s answer the question of whether 20-gauge slugs pack enough punch for deer hunting. The Remington Buckhammer 1-ounce slug carries about the same amount of energy at 50 and 100 yards as a .44 magnum rifle shooting a 240-grain bullet at 1,800 feet per second. The Winchester Partition Gold sabot slug’s 260-grain bullet delivers nearly 11/2 times more energy at 100 yards than the .44 magnum. That’s enough energy to get any buck’s attention in the short time it will be alive after being hit with a 20-gauge slug.

Remington’s new Buckhammer is a hybrid of an old pure-lead slug and a fairly recent sabot. Most of its weight is toward its squared-off nose, while a stem extends down into a plastic wad. The wad acts to stabilize the slug in flight.

The Buckhammer slugs shot nearly the same group size at 50 and 100 yards. The slug and its plastic sabot/stabilizer tail may have been unstable and fishtailed around at 50 yards, but settled down to fly true by the time they reached 100 yards.

The Buckhammer is aptly named. The plastic stabilizer remained with the lead slug, so it just added weight on impact. The slug expanded to nearly 1 inch in diameter and retained nearly all of its weight. That limited penetration somewhat, but if the Buckhammer will tear as wide a path through a deer as it did the newspaper bundles, it will bring home the venison.

The Remington Slugger 1/2 and 3/8-ounce rifled slugs grouped fairly well at 50 yards. The diameter of these lead, hollow-base slugs is narrower than the land-to-land diameter of a 20-gauge rifled barrel. In fact, these slugs dropped right through the Encore’s barrel bore. Still, they showed good accuracy at 50 yards. Perhaps the slug’s thin and soft lead skirt expanded enough on firing to fill the rifling grooves and take on a stabilizing spin. The ground-plastic filler packed in the hollow base of the slugs also helps accuracy because it keeps the cardboard wad over the powder from wedging itself in the slug base on firing. A wad trailing erratically out the back of a slug in flight ruins accuracy.

Take ’Em with a .20
One hundred yards is about as far as anyone should shoot deer with a slug.

The recovered soft lead slugs expanded into flat, round lengths of lead. The combination of the light 1/2-ounce slug and its relatively high velocity of 1,800 fps limited penetration to 4 inches. The slower and heavier 5/8-ounce slug penetrated nearly twice as deep.

For some reason, the Federal rifled slug did not shoot well through the Encore’s rifled barrel. The slug was undersized and also dropped through the Encore’s bore. Perhaps its thicker skirt failed to expand on firing to fill the bore. Holes on the targets had an oblong look that suggested the slugs might have been flying cockeyed when they hit.

The lead slugs recovered from the newspaper bundles also indicated the slugs were askew when they hit. The slugs looked like they had struck the bundles sideways and their hollow bases had collapsed. Still, they tore a deep and nasty hole through the newspaper.

The Federal Premium Hydra-Shok Sabot Slug is a third weight-forward design. A two-piece sabot pinches the waist of the hourglass-shaped slug at the waist. This keeps the slug and plastic collar tightly together during the force of firing and the spin down a rifled bore. The trick is for air resistance to peel off the sabot without disturbing the slug’s flight. Federal has that figured out because the Hydra-Shok’s accuracy was as good any slug fired.

Take ’Em with a .20

These 5/8-ounce slugs are made of a harder lead alloy than regular rifled slugs. This alloy, along with its relatively long length, punched deep into the newspapers. At close range, the slugs expanded well. But at longer range, the bullet is too hard to expand much. The Hydra-Shok I recovered from an Alabama buck never expanded. However, it still drove a nasty wound through the animal.

Another option is to get rid of the lead slug altogether.

Remington’s Copper Solid 290-grain slug has a solid copper shank and a hollowpoint tip. This bullet expands to over an inch in diameter when the petals of its nose spread out. Once the petals are folded back, the .45-caliber shank of the bullet continues to penetrate. The Copper Solids drilled a wide hole 8 inches deep in the newspaper bundles. The last step a deer takes will be toward the meat pole when it’s hit with a Copper Solid.

The Copper Solid was also accurate. It grouped three shots right at 1 inch to slightly over an inch at 100 yards. Some of that accuracy was because I wasn’t anticipating getting punched in the shoulder.

The Federal Premium Barnes Expander is 5/8 ounces of copper. The 50-caliber bullet has a huge hollow point that extends inside the bullet two-thirds of its length. With a muzzle velocity of 1,900 fps, the Expander lived up to its name. It also penetrated very deeply.

The Expander’s accuracy was adequate with groups running at about 3 inches at 100 yards. And really 100 yards is about as far as anyone should shoot deer with a slug.

The Winchester Supreme load features a .45-caliber 260-grain Partition Gold bullet held in a sabot. The one-piece sabot locks to the bullet to ensure the bullet accepts a spin as it goes downbore. A metal disc molded into the base of the sabot keeps the bullet from setting back into the base of the sabot and giving the bullet a tilted start.

Expansion of the Partition Gold bullets was perfect and deep in the newspaper. The bullet’s petals sheared off one after another at about half of its penetration depth. The remaining shank kept going - the deepest of any slug tested. Accuracy of the Partition Gold was also good. One five-shot group measured slightly over an inch at 100 yards.

The Winchester Platinum Tip bullet wears a sleeve of a jacket around a lead core. At 30 yards, it expanded until it was nearly flat. Still, it held together enough to penetrate deeply. The Platinum Tip is a good choice for hitting a deer with a maximum amount of impact to disrupt the most tissue and apply the most shock right up front.

The tests show the Federal Hydra-Shok, Remington Copper Solid and Winchester Partition Gold and Platinum Tip slugs should all work well on whitetails. I took a couple of boxes of Federal Hydra-Shok loads and my Thompson/Center Encore when I headed to Alabama to hunt deer.

In southern Alabama, pines and oaks grow in dense stands, and brush and creeping vines fill in what little space remains to make an impenetrable jungle. On the SCENTite Blind deer lease near the Alabama River, food plots have been planted for the deer, but also to provide hunters with a clear shot. These blinds allow you to hunt close to deer without spooking them.

The first morning of my hunt, I climbed into a SCENTite blind long before daylight. As the day began, a narrow field came into view, but it was empty of deer. In the next hour, five turkey gobblers trooped past and scratched for bugs and nipped at the grass.

By midmorning, several strings of shots from neighboring deer leases had broken the quiet. Just before noon, a single shot came from the next ridge. I picked up the Encore just in case. Within 30 seconds, a buck appeared on the ridge, stopped to look, then kept going. It was back in the brush before I could slide open the window on the blind.

With the rut going, I figured the bucks would be moving all day. So right after lunch, I picked another food plot to watch. A couple of hours passed, and I began to twirl my thumbs. On the hill across the way, I spotted the movement of a doe and fawn picking their way through the vine thickets. I kept an eye on them, mostly watching their backtrack for a trailing buck.

Subscribe Today!At the edge of my eye, I caught brown against green — a deer trotting across the green field. I picked up the Encore with one hand and slid open the blind window open with the other. The buck was headed right on through. I made a hokey-sounding doe bleat, and the buck stopped and looked back. Its thick antlers stood tall on its head.

That was all I needed to see. I fired, and the impact of the Hydra-Shok slug tripped it up. The buck recovered, though, and dove into the thicket. I hurried down the ladder and across the field. The buck had only gone 50 yards and lay under an oak tree. I shot again from 30 yards and the buck jumped up, bounded down the steepest hill in the county and fell.

While dressing the buck, I found the first slug had hit the near shoulder and plowed up nearly three-quarters the length of its neck. That slug’s nose was only slightly dented. The second slug raked down the buck’s back and left a fatal wound.

Reprinted from the August 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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