Slug Gun Buying Guide

Posted by  Friday, May 03 2013 7:00 am


SlugGun 1
The business end of a modern slug gun. Today's slug guns are effective to 200 yards, and a scope is almost a necessity.

It's been 30 years since I took my first deer — a 14-point — a great buck, especially for a kid. Raised in a shotgun only state, the buck was taken with a 30-inch barreled Model 12 more at home in the duck blind than the deer woods, and a far cry from the slug guns of today. Dad bought the gun used in 1956 just a few years after the first modern deer season opened, not shoot a rarely seen deer, but to knock squirrels out of the tallest hickory trees.

How things have changed. Whitetail deer are thriving, and today's new breed of slug guns resemble rifles with short barrels and scopes — much different than Dad's hand me down Model 12.

For years, the standard firearm for the slug hunter had a smoothbore with only a slight amount of choke in the end of the barrel, either improved cylinder or modified choke. That is if the owner hadn't made short work of a long barrel by taking a hacksaw to it.

Manufacturers saw a niche market and soon the Ithaca 37 Deer Slayer, a short barrel pump gun with rifled sights, erupted on the market. The Remington 870 Deer Gun made its appearance that same year, but results were varied; one gun would shoot respectable groups, considering the hunk of lead that popped out of the business end of the barrel, but not all guns fared well. Even consecutive serial numbered guns shooting identical slugs would produce very different results. The search for the perfect slug gun continued, eluding many for decades.

Plenty of Actions to Choose

Today's slug-gun hunter has an array of choices in all types of actions.

Pump actions lay claim to the most popular slug guns. These shotguns delver accuracy with the capacity of a fast follow up shot at an affordable price. Pump guns from Remington, Ithaca, Browning, Benelli, and Mossberg offer slug shooters options — from open sights to scope mounts in cantilever or drilled-and-tapped receiver models, rifled barrels to rifled choke tubes. The options list is quite extensive.

However, pump guns aren't the only shotguns with options.

The semi-auto shotgun has been coming on strong, closing the popularity gap once enjoyed by pump guns. The accuracy coupled with the ultra-quick second shot makes the semi auto a great choice for any slug gun hunter. The complaint of a semi auto being heavier than other guns has been laid to rest by most manufacturers as alloy receivers have paved the way for lighter model shotguns. Remington, Mossberg, Browning, Berretta and Benelli all offer a slug gun or two in their semi- auto lineup.  

Bolt shotguns are slowly gaining popularity with offerings from Savage and Marlin leading the way. These bolt guns, like their bolt rifle cousins, can produce cloverleaf targets when using well matched ammunition.

But the list doesn't end there.

Single shots offer excellent accuracy in almost any price range. Also, side-by-side shotguns are long from being dead, most notably Beretta and Dakota, and round out the different styles of actions.

Another new development for slug guns is the introduction of "Designated Slug Guns" or DSGs, shotguns designed exclusively for shooting slugs for hunting big game. Pulling out all the stops, manufacturers like Remington, Mossberg and Ithaca, as well as custom builders like Tar-Hunt, are catering specifically to slug gun shooters with options like pinned-in or screwed-in rifled barrels, again like their centerfire rifle cousin.

SlugGun 2
A Foster slug, the first commercial sabot slug, the BRI now marketed by Winchester (complete with a sabot), and the latest in slug gun ammunition, the Remington AccuTip.

Perhaps the biggest advancement in slug guns, introduced sometime in the mid nineties, is the rifled barrel for the purpose of shooting slugs. Though these barrels were the subject of many legal issues at first, rifled barrels proved to be a vast improvement for the slug shooter, and technology in ammunition hastily tried to keep up.

And caught up it has. From the humble "pumpkin ball" or Foster type slug named after its designer, Karl Foster in 1931, which resembles a lead thimble with rifling molded into the slug. This molded rifling minimizes friction on both the barrel and projectile and allows the slug to safely be swaged down when the slug hits the choke of the barrel. This molded rifling does little to impart actual spin on the slug.

Even with the new ammunition offerings, many hunters still prefer to stuff pumpkin balls in their shotguns each deer season.

Europeans and some early slug gunners here in the States used the Brenneke slug, designed by the German gunsmith, Wilhelm Brenneke in 1898. Unlike the Foster slug, these slugs were pointed and also had molded rifling. Its accuracy came from the attached wad that stabilized the slug much like a badminton shuttlecock.

As rifled barrels hit the market, so did new fodder — sabots. These slugs were encased with a two piece plastic sleeve or more technically a "shoe". After exiting the barrel this shoe drops away from the lead projectile as it lumbers downrange. Slug gun accuracy improved dramatically with these, the higher ballistic co-efficient slugs, as did their range. Today, every manufacturer offers slug hunters more choices in ammo than could be used in a month of deer hunting. Though the Foster type slugs can be used in rifled barrels and sabots in smoothbore barrels, you are handicapping both yourself and the capability of your slug gun by doing so.

Yesterday's slug guns matched with the Foster type slugs made decent deer guns if kept to their effective range of about 90 yards or so. For example, a typical Remington 2-3/4 inch Foster type slug leaves the muzzle at a respectable 1,560 feet per second, packing more than 2,300 foot pounds of energy with its full bore one-ounce projectile; however, gravity causes it to rapidly slow down, and its rainbow trajectory makes long distance shooting more of a lucky shot than skill. At 90 yards, the big slug has shed more than half of its muzzle velocity and is at the minimum recommended amount of energy (1000 foot pounds) to quickly and humanely harvest a big game animal such as a deer.

The slug with a 50-yard zero falls more than 17 inches and delivers a well below marginal 768 foot pounds of energy at 150 yards. On the other hand, the 385 grain saboted Remington AccuTip, 2-3/4 inch, leaves the muzzle at 1,850 feet per second with more than 2900 foot pounds of energy, the more aerodynamic projectile drops only 8.22 inches at the same 150 yards and retains more than 1,275 foot pounds of energy. In fact, even to ranges of 200 yards this slug retains more than 1,000 foot pounds of energy. This slug, coupled with a ballistic reticle scope like the Nikon 3-9 x 40 Slughunter 200 BDC and a slug gun that shoots it well, legitimates the shotgun as a 200-yard deer gun.  

A few final thoughts on ammunition. Just because your buddies' slug gun is a tack driver with brand X, don't assume your slug gun will shoot that brand just as well. Use it as a starting point; it might take some experimenting with various brands of slugs to find the one that shoots the best from your slug gun. Also, don't assume that just because brand X, 2-3/4 inch slug shoots well, the 3 inch version will be as accurate, or vice versa. Seldom are they. Try as many different slugs as you can afford, and when you find the most accurate slug, stick to it like glue.

Putting the Components of a Slug Gun Together

What makes a slug gun different than the run of the mill shotgun of today? Plenty, let's look at the modern day slug gun from end to end and point out the differences, as well as the similarities.

Taking Stock

The modern slug gun, like other shotguns, has a stock. It is the design, however, of the stock that gives the modern slug gun the edge when shooting slugs. The modern slug gun is often equipped with a telescopic sight of some sort, making traditional stock dimensions of a shotgun very uncomfortable at the least — painful is actually a much more common description. The modern slug gun utilizes a Monte Carlo type stock that gets the shooter's eye on the same plane as the scope. On a conventional stock, the shooter would almost need to stick his chin on the stock to acquire a sight picture through the scope.

Mount Up

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When you find a slug that shoots this well, buy as much of that ammunition as you can get your hands on.

Scopes are quickly becoming commonplace on slug guns and manufactures like Nikon, Leupold, Simmons, Burris and others have introduced shotgun models. Many of these scopes have reticles matched with the new ammunition available which takes much of the guess work out of holdover (aiming over the targets back) at longer ranges.

Though gunsmiths and slug gun enthusiasts have been drilling and tapping shotgun receivers for decades, many manufacturers have been reluctant to do the same; however, strides are being made and many consider it the optimal method of attaching a scope to a slug gun. Other types of mounts are "clamp-on" styles that bolt to the side of the receiver. However, the most popular trend seems to be the cantilever, which attaches solidly to one end of the barrel while the scope base floats over top the receiver to permit the use of a conventional scope.

Trigger Control

The proper method of firing a shotgun is by slapping the trigger — not very conducive to accuracy, especially with a shotgun with an eight pound trigger pull. On many of today's slug guns, this is no longer a concern; guns like the Ithaca Deer Slayer have a crisp trigger much like a rifle trigger, and the Mossberg 500 LPA has an adjustable trigger.

Other aftermarket triggers and sear kits are available for guns like the Remington 870.

All Choked Up

In 1967, Winchester introduced the first successful interchangeable choke system, which today is commonplace among shotguns. Some manufacturers even produce fully rifled choke tubes for their choke systems. While not all rifled choke tubes are created equal, many of these rifled tubes will shoot as well as fully rifled barrels.

Like a Kick in the Head

While I don't claim to be a physics professor, I do know that a slug gun tends to kick — HARD — and there are many things that contribute to this, such as improper stock fit. There are many things that a shooter can do, though, to reduce the pain and suffering that a slug gun delivers.

As discussed earlier, a proper fitting stock will help the perceived felt recoil of a slug gun as will a good quality recoil pad, and today most slug guns have well designed recoil pads on the butt of their stock to ease this abuse.

Little will shield you from the harsh recoil when firing a shotgun from the bench; however, if you find yourself behind a slug gun and want to reduce the pounding you are about to take, Caldwell makes a great shooting aid called a Lead Sled. The slug gun is placed in the device, allowing the shooter to fire the gun, but the recoil is delivered to the back of the device eliminating the nasty kick associated with slug guns from the bench.

If you don't have a Lead Sled, slip on a floatation device to sight in slug guns. The thick foam absorbs the recoil. The only thing you have to watch out for the scope coming back and crowning your eyebrow. This can usually be avoided by keeping a firm grip on the gun.

Change is Good

Many changes have evolved the modern slug gun in a relatively short period of time. Rifled barrels, sabot slugs and shotgun scopes are now the norm on today's ultra accurate slug guns. For those of us regulated by law to use slug guns, we are no longer looked upon as second-rate hunters. Our slug guns have definitely come of age, and one thing is for sure — this ain't your Daddy's slug gun.

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Last modified on Friday, May 03 2013 9:00 am
Steve Felgenhauer

Steve Felgenhauer is a freelance writer in St. Louis, Mo., whose passion for the outdoors is non-stop. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, he went on to pursue a career in gunsmithing. Soon afterward, he began putting his expertise of firearms into written form. 

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