Twenty years ago the rifled shotgun barrel was a rarity. The added fuss of improving the accuracy of a shotgun firing slugs simply wasn’t worth the trouble to most hunters. If they wanted a more accurate firearm they could just switch to a rifle and be done with it. Recently, though, the advent of higher population density and consequent special hunting areas has changed this perspective. Hunters now find themselves with the option of hunting in areas limited to shotgun, muzzleloader and handguns that may even be open during special early or late seasons. These special hunting areas are nestled in or around urban settings and the limited scope of allowed weaponry are meant to provide an added level of safety with regards to errant bullets potentially leaving the designated area. For some hunters the proximity of these areas to population centers can result in substantially decreased travel time, while for others these areas may be the only realistic option they have when it comes to big game hunting. Regardless of time or travel constraints, many hunters find interest in these designated areas for the fine trophy-grade animals that reside there and the added sport of taking game at close ranges. For this new frontier of hunting, the shotgun firing slugs is the weapon of choice for many.
When it comes to selecting a slug gun the buyer has three basic choices:
1) A smoothbore that can fire slugs.
2) A smoothbore that can be equipped with a rifled barrel, or convertible slug gun.
3) A dedicated slug gun equipped with rifled barrel.
All three of these options are workable but they are best suited to certain uses and types of hunting. As always there is the financial component to consider, as well. Some of these options offer more utility per dollar. Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Smoothbore Slug Guns
Obviously the most affordable and available option for most prospective slug hunters is to simply shoot slugs out of a standard smoothbore shotgun. By the time a shooter is considering getting into slug hunting, many already possess a smoothbore shotgun for small game hunting or home defense, so why not make use of it for the new sport? It does work and has worked for over 100 years, but there are a few considerations to bear in mind.
For starters, not all smoothbore shotguns are created equal when it comes to shooting slugs and it is very difficult to predict which ones will give good accuracy. Over the years several features have been supposedly found to increase accuracy in smoothbores: modified or cylinder chokes, adjustable chokes, shortened barrels, full length barrels, pinned barrels and rifling being cut into the slugs themselves have all been tried, in some cases lauded, and eventually found wanting. After twenty or so years of fiddling around with smoothbores and slugs the only real advice that I can offer is to try as many different brands of slug as you can and hope one of them offers better-than-average accuracy in your particular gun. That being said, just about any smoothbore — 12 or 20 gauge — will place its slugs in a 4-6 inch group at fifty yards, which is more than accurate enough for hunting at that range. It is after the fifty yard mark that things get complicated. Past 50 yards wind drift, drop and all the other things rifle shooters try to predict become very unpredictable with smoothbore slug guns. Through the misjudgment of range I have taken big game past 100 yards with smoothbore slug guns, but in each case dumb luck was as much of a factor as marksmanship.
The point of impact of slugs out of a smoothbore is also very difficult to predict. The fact that most shotguns have very rudimentary and non-adjustable sight systems complicates this further. In most cases, if a smoothbore shoots slugs a foot high and to the right the shooter is stuck with holding a foot low and left with no other alternative. If you encounter a smoothbore that shoots to point of aim hold onto it like grim death — they are rarer than you might think. Some semi-automatic shotguns offer a bit of play when it comes to slugs. Adjusting the friction rings on long recoil shotguns or adjusting the gas ports on gas-operated models will move the point of impact for slugs. Whether it is moved in the desired direction can only be determined by trial and error and a lot of empty hulls.
When it comes to purchasing a smoothbore with the desire to use it for slug hunting the best advice is to buy the shotgun model that best suits your needs with regards to its use as a small game weapon and then test it with different slug brands to determine its usefulness and maximum range. While truly splendid accuracy (under 4 inches) can be achieved with smoothbores, having the shotgun fit your preferences and fit you physically will be more conducive to accuracy than culling through an entire gun rack trying to find the best slug-shooting shotgun.
Shooting saboted slugs or, especially, hot-loaded slugs from smoothbores rarely provides any advantage. Sabots and specially-loaded slugs have their place, but in smoothbores the only guarantee is that they will kick more. When you begin your smoothbore slug testing start with the cheapest ammo you can find and move up in price slowly. If you are lucky the lowest price brand will result in performance sufficient to satisfy your slug gun needs.
When it comes to choosing a gauge it could be argued that the 12 is preferable to the 20 in smoothbores. Given the lack of accuracy, the 12 gauge 1oz slug offers considerable wiggle room when it comes to lethal hits on game. 12 gauge slugs are .69 caliber and hits that would normally only wound with smaller projectiles often completely incapacitate game when struck with a slug. That being said, although the 20 gauge slug is a bit lighter, it is still big, coming in at around .58 caliber. The 12 definitely hits harder, but the 20 will always kick less, so the only real question is how many foot-pounds you are comfortable applying to both the game animal and your shoulder.
Convertible Slug Guns
The second most cost effective and utilitarian option for slug hunting is to make use of a shotgun with a barrel that is easily removed and can be replaced with a rifled barrel. The two barrels can be switched back and forth with little trouble, preserving the shotgun as a small game option while offering most of the increase in accuracy that can be had from imparting spin on projectiles. The detachable rifled shotgun barrel is an option that most choose and has led to an excellent variety of barrels on the market that can be attached to your favorite shotgun. Aesthetically, most of these barrels don’t do the shotgun any favors, but the increase in accuracy is often quite impressive.
Just about every shotgun with a detachable barrel has, at one time or another, had a rifled barrel manufactured for it, but some of these can be very expensive options; I recently had an opportunity to buy a rifled barrel for my Browning Double Automatic, but it would have cost more than the shotgun itself. To keep costs low it is best to stick with extremely popular models (the Remington 870 or Mossberg 500 are most commonly encountered – to the point that many sporting goods stores stock rifled barrels for these two models in blister packs on their shelves). As an added benefit, many of the aftermarket barrels come equipped with adjustable open sights or cantilever scope mounts so the shotgun isn’t just more accurate but shoots where it should after adjustment. There are even several shotgun models from various manufacturers that come from the factory with two barrels, one smoothbore and one rifled, making for a do-it-all kit right from the start.
Essentially, the addition of a rifled slug barrel to a formerly smoothbore rig will give the kind of accuracy at 100 yards that can be expected of the smoothbore at fifty yards. 4-6 inch groups should be expected and can be improved on by going through the same kind of testing suggested above. Here we can also start making use of saboted slugs that offer higher velocity and less drop which, in theory, means the shotgun’s effective range is increased. I say “in theory” because if velocity increases and accuracy deceases little is gained in terms of effectiveness and sabots do not always behave as they should. After trying a few different brands of saboted slugs through any gun the owner will begin to notice that some work wonderfully and give good accuracy and some don’t, resulting in worse accuracy than smoothbore-fired slugs. Much of this has to do with how the plastic sabots react to the twist and type of rifling in the barrel and whether or not this causes the projectile to be upset when it separates from the sabot. Some sabot brands will shoot well out of some barrels and some won’t, just as some barrels will not care for certain varieties of lead slugs. Once again trial and error is suggested until the right combination is stumbled upon.
Special note should be made here about the care and maintenance of the rifled shotgun barrel. The lead used in slugs and the plastic used in sabots is rather soft by projectile standards and tends to build up quickly in rifled shotgun barrels. If this buildup of either lead or plastic is not taken care of, the accuracy will begin to decrease as the potential for pressure-related safety issues increases. To clean the barrel, more than the standard shotgun cleaning kit (such as plastic brushes) is required. The slug gun owner needs a set of good copper brushes to dislodge lead or plastic build up, and they should be done vigorously and often to preserve accuracy and safety.
The low cost of affixing a rifled barrel to a low cost (usually pump action) shotgun and the increase in accuracy makes the convertible shotgun the option most hunters choose. They are not as accurate as the slug gun can get, but they are good enough for most of the hunting they are intended for. They also save a hunter the cost of buying a separate gun, which is especially nice if the slug gun isn’t going to see frequent use.
Dedicated Slug Guns
Once fully dedicated to the idea of hunting with slugs the obvious destination at the end of the path is a shotgun purpose-built for slug hunting. In recent years many such shotguns have become available. Many companies now offer slug guns where formerly detachable barrels are now solidly mounted to the receiver and scopes can be readily receiver-mounted. All the “flop” is taken out of these guns and the increase in accuracy is impressive. Several companies have even gone a step further by repackaging their bolt action rifle actions as shotguns. So, these days your slug gun can have a truly remarkable similarity to your favorite rifle, except for the larger barrel, of course. The good triggers and ergonomics of these rifle-like shotguns make a shooter feel right at home if the bolt gun is his or her normal equipment.
Not surprisingly, dedication to purpose results in a corresponding increase in accuracy. With a favored slug load most dedicated slug guns will keep all their rounds touching at 100 yards and increases the effective range out to the 200 yard mark where we can expect 4-6 inch groups. With the dedicated slug gun we also have the opportunity to milk every last bit of advantage from high velocity saboted slugs. The higher velocity of these rounds means less drop at 200 yards and makes for much easier and more accurate shooting at longer distances. Once an accurate load is discovered most dedicated slug guns are capable of roughly the same performance that was expected from rifles at the turn of the century.
A shotgun designed solely to shoot slugs is a fairly recent idea. It represents the full circle that has been traveled in slug hunting and also raises some nomenclature questions as to where rifles end and shotguns start. Some claim that the added strength and performance of the dedicated slug gun (many fire loads comparable in energy and trajectory to the 45-70) are only designed to stretch hunting regulations to their limits and allow for unethical hunting that, while within the word of the law, are not in keeping with its intended purpose. I would tend to disagree with this assessment. Most of the regulations requiring shotguns to be used in an area center on the idea that the low velocity of shotgun slugs keeps them from wandering out of the designated areas. This is a fine theory, but shotgun slugs skip over the ground better than any stone I’ve ever skipped over a lake. With shotguns or any other firearm the user is the only real safety catch. Shotgun slug hunters need to observe the same safety rules in regard to backdrop as any other hunter does and something like a set muzzle velocity isn’t going to keep anyone safe if they do not. I would also argue that the increased accuracy of the dedicated slug gun makes for more ethical hunting in that they help ensure that slugs end up where they are meant to for a quick kill. Slug hunting is oftentimes a very fast game where the judging of range and holdover takes place in mere seconds so the flat trajectories make for more lethal hits than wounded animals.
Those who are really invested in slug hunting or those who find themselves with slug hunting as their only option often choose the dedicated slug gun. I live in a very rural state where slug hunting is basically a sideline, but if I found myself in certain areas of the Midwest where the choice is between slug hunting whitetails or playing golf I would definitely have a dedicated slug gun on hand. As the population density of America increases many hunters will have to make this choice, so I’m betting that the dedicated slug gun is going to start showing up more often in a field near you.