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The Slug Gun Ricochet Factor

PhotoBy Randy D. Smith

-- What does a recent study really mean to a slug gun deer hunter?

An estimated 3 million United States deer hunters use shotguns. To my mind, there have always been three reasons for choosing a slug gun rather than a rifle for deer hunting. The first is that many states and localities dictate that only slug guns may be used. I hunt certain areas with a slug gun because hunting regulations demand that I must.

The second is economy. If the only place you plan to hunt offers only short-range deer shooting opportunities, a shotgun loaded with slugs is often all you need. There is no point in buying a deer rifle unless you prefer one.

The last is a human population center safety issue. Slug gun projectiles do not carry as far as high powered rifles. This reason is related to the first because it is the rationale behind state and local mandates for slug gun-only hunting in the first place.

Now, it seems, we have new research challenging that notion. Recent newspaper and magazine articles referenced to the research as a repudiation of a myth. The myth, as claimed in these articles, is that deer hunting shotguns are safer than rifles because shotgun slugs do not travel as far as rifle bullets.

According to Mountaintop Technologies of Johnstown, Penn., who conducted a study with the assistance of ballistic experts at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, say that shotgun slugs are much more prone to ricochets than rifle bullets. Because of that phenomenon, shotgun slugs can travel farther than rifle bullets in common hunting scenarios. 

According to a summation of the study, when shots are fired holding guns level at 3 feet off the ground, a shotgun slug will travel 0.99 of a mile; 16 percent farther than a .30-06 rifle bullet under the same circumstances. The study asserts that the reason is that slugs tend to hold together better and lose less energy during ricochets than rifle bullets. This leads to the conclusion that slugs actually travel farther than rifle bullets.

I'm no engineer, and I don't have the complete data or technological background to challenge the results of this study. Therefore, I will assume from what I have read and until I read a contradictory study that this research is valid.

But, as a hunter with several decades experience hunting with slug guns I have to ask what this study really means to me and what it should mean to state regulatory agencies. I also know, from many other scientific research projects that I have been engaged in, that sometimes the conclusions drawn from exceptional circumstances in one particular study do not necessarily lead to the broad conclusions that might be drawn from it.

Can a shotgun slug or even a series of shotgun slugs fired under a specific set of conditions in a controlled environment travel farther than a rifle bullet? Yes, I have no reason to doubt that. Does this specific set of conditions create a scenario that should dispel the belief that slugs do not carry as far as rifle bullets? No, because it is not representative of all hunting scenarios or even common sense physics.

The study claims that slugs can travel farther than rifle bullets. We cannot draw the conclusion from that study that they will or that they do. Projectile velocity differences alone present a clear picture of the capabilities of a slug gun versus a .30-06 rifle. Most slugs travel at less than half the velocity of a .30-06 projectile. Without getting into a lot of technical ballistic data I know that if I zero a 150-grain .30-06 projectile at a 25-yard target that it will return to that zero at 200 yards. If I zero a 1-ounce shotgun slug at 25 yards, it will drop into the dirt long before it reaches 200 yards.

Or, from a more common sense approach, if this study reflected a state of representative conditions that accurately dispelled the notion that rifle bullets travel farther than shotgun slugs, I'd be hunting open plains mule deer with my Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun rather than my Mossberg .30-06 rifle. Of course, that is not the situation.

All of this scientific gobble-de-gook doesn't dispel any basic responsible shooting practices;
- Become proficient with your firearm and know its capabilities. 
- Always carefully aim your firearm at a specific target. 
- Always be aware of what is beyond your target and how the projectile could affect it. 

The main conclusion that I draw from this study is that whenever I am hunting with a slug gun I need to be mindful of potential ricochet circumstances when I take aim and use that knowledge to decide on whether or not I will attempt a shot. Until then, I will continue to choose a slug gun for hunting in heavily populated areas or anywhere that a slug gun is less likely to do damage to property or livestock.

The whole notion that slug guns are now less safe for hunting high populated areas is little more than a tempest in a teapot. Common sense is still the best determination of responsible gun usage and hunter safety.

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