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Slug Guns - The More I Use Them, the More I Like Them

By Randy D. Smith

I guess you could call it the "peasant gun" and I'm just peasant enough to know. Peter Capstick wrote in one of his many books that the slug gun is the "poor man's express rifle." He went on to say that many professional hunters in Africa use them for everything from bird hunting with shot loads to Cape buffalo with slugs under the right conditions. He would use nothing else for going after a wounded leopard. A pump shotgun loaded with buckshot saved his bacon more than once.

I've heard that shotguns are occasionally employed in the northland for bears and I've read from several sources that at close range nothing is more devastating than heavy loads of buckshot for defense against man or beast. During my brief stint as a maximum-security corrections officer, I was twice handed a pump shotgun by the shift captain and told to follow him into a cell house ruckus. If things went bad I was instructed to shoot into the floor in front of the inmates so the pellets would catch them in the legs. It is amazing how quickly a cell house run will clear when a pissed off shift commander and backup appear with 12 gauges.

Back when I used to do a lot of research on the Santa Fe Trail caravans of the 1830's to 1850's, I read a journal saying that there were two distinct opinions on what was the better firearm to carry on the trail. The riflemen liked the range and power of their plains rifles. The shot gunners using both buck and ball loads liked the flexibility of their muzzleloaders because they could hunt much more abundant small game as the caravans passed along the trail. There was a saying at the time that a man with a shotgun never went hungry. They also preferred shotguns for standing night guard. In an age when spectacles were not commonly worn, many men couldn't see well enough to be proficient riflemen.

OK, I'll buy into that. As nearsighted as I am, I can't even see the front sight on a rifle without my glasses. For years after graduating from college I was just a poor cowpoke and hardscrabble farmer who also taught school to make a living. Before I realized that I could make a better living doing almost anything else, I carried a bolt action Marlin Goose Gun with the barrel shortened to twenty-five inches behind the seat of my jeep pickup. A guy wanted an old camera of mine and I traded for the Marlin.

During pheasant season, if I spotted a rooster while working, I'd fish out that Marlin, load the clip with some #6's and go on an impromptu, and usually successful, pheasant hunt. In spite of that sawed off Marlin having the same choke as a sewer pipe, I've knocked down birds at fifty yards using three-inch shells.

During calving season from the last week of February until the middle of April, that Marlin rode in the seat just on the other side of the vitamin A shots and ear tags, usually loaded with 00 buck with a handful of one ounce rifled slugs jammed in the glove compartment. Coyotes, feral dogs, and pushy varmints got the buckshot and suffering critters with no hope got the slugs. That Marlin seldom got cleaned and very rarely oiled. The stock was scarred from bouncing around on bare metal in a four wheel drive vehicle that was used to feed cattle, pull a horse trailer, fix fence, ear tag calves, plow snow drifts, ford creeks and herd balky bulls.

Whoever shortened the barrel did a poor job of removing the old finish and I just poured on the cold blue to keep it from rusting. I wasn't much interested in hunting or fancy firearms in those days, just surviving. I had better at home, but they were too good for that kind of abuse.

Although I didn't realize it then, that old Marlin may have been the most versatile and useful firearm I could have owned. I got a whole fifty bucks out of it on a trade a few years back and thought I got the better of the deal. It was a poor man's express rifle before I ever knew what an express rifle was. But I was raised in a world where there were only two firearms worth having, a .22 rifle and a 12 gauge shotgun. In central and western Kansas before the 1970s a fellow seldom even saw a deer or a turkey much less hunted one. How much the world has changed since then!

When I finally learned that a person could make a living wage and have enough left over for toys if he got out of farming, I started experimenting with rifles, shotguns and handguns. I even became an outdoor writer on the side. The pay was almost as terrible as ranching but it was fun so I've stayed with it for nearly twenty years.

A few seasons ago I went back to experimenting with slug guns due to range concerns I had for deer hunting in the same general area where I used to cowboy. When I sold my Mossberg collection because all it was doing was sitting in my gun safe collecting dust, I went shopping for an all-purpose slug gun for close range coyote calling and jump shooting deer.

I walked into a Dick's Sporting Goods store in eastern Kansas looking for a good smooth bore, pump action, slug gun. Now slug guns are about as popular as Bill Clinton and horsemeat steaks in Kansas. The guy behind the gun counter had a special deal on a two or three year old Remington Model 870 Deer Gun with a fully rifled 20" barrel and open rifle style sights, new in the box. He had it on sale for fifty bucks less than a new smooth bore plastic stock Mossberg Maverick. I bought it.

Damaging the rifling using shot didn't concern me because I like cheap rifled slugs a whole bunch better than expensive sabots anyway. They work just as well out to seventy yards on deer and beyond that I'll use a rifle. So I just shuck in the #4 bucks for coyotes and one ounce slugs for brush country whitetails. Although I've preached about the advantage of scopes in another slug gun article on this web site, I've kept the Remington just as it is with open sights. It is too darned handy.

The point of all this rambling is that as serviceable as that old Marlin was this Remington is even better. It's faster on target, quicker to load, much more accurate, and even more flexible. It lives behind the seat of my pickup and is usually loaded with #4 buckshot, because I've found them better than 00's for patterns when calling coyotes. It is a wonderful feral hog slug shooter, especially in the thick country where they love to tear up jack and ruin crops. It also does very well for the occasional varmint that needs some attitude adjustment.

Now that I'm an outdoor writer who can make a decent living at grant writing and can afford to take big game hunts, the Remington makes a great camp gun as well as for travel trailer and household personal defense. Who needs a handgun when 12-gauge buckshot has the potential of doing a whole bunch more damage to some villain without going through thin camper or house walls and greatly upsetting the neighbors?

We've all read the magazine articles berating the accuracy of the slug gun but I'm not finding those statements to be entirely accurate. If I want a rifle, I'll use one. But for those sudden shots at freshly flushed whitetails out to fifty yards, a quick shouldering, fast aligning, short barreled slug gun is just pretty darned hard to beat.

You're shooting more like you would at a pheasant rather than a long-range mule deer. You take your lead, watch your follow through, pull the trigger and watch the deer tumble. For close country coyote calling a shotgun is excellent. There are only seconds to recognize a coyote or bobcat that was suckered into a call and realized at the last instant that you are not some poor suffering jack rabbit. A shotgun is often the difference between making the shot or just saying, "Damn, I almost had a shot at him." Shot loads like #1 and #4 buck do not do the hide damage that many rifle cartridges do at 30 to 40 yards, either.

Yeah, a six-inch group is probably the best you can do at a hundred yards from the bench on a real good day with a slug gun. But then again, I've given up on dragging benches, target rifles, and fancy scopes through the whitetail woods, hog tangles, and sagebrush coyote trails.

For jump hunting on the swing at that whitetail deer in the cedars, with only a heartbeat to spare and never-ever more than five seconds to make the shot, that open sighted slug gun is probably just as likely as any lever action, pump, or semi-auto deer rifle, and a whole lot quicker than a bolt gun. You've got to get the sights on the critter before you can make the shot and I've found that a short barreled, open sighted, Remington 870 rates right up there with a Marlin Guide Gun for snap shooting.

With one ounce soft lead slugs, if you get a solid hit on a deer, it will normally knock it to the ground where it's hit. Same thing with feral hogs, a critter that I've never shot beyond seventy yards because of the crap and corruption that is always between him and me. A one-ounce rifled slug is a shoulder breaking, heart and lung wrecking, hog killing machine at the ranges where most feral hogs are shot.

So, the more I use a slug gun, the more I like it. It isn't a glamorous choice, even cheap slugs are more expensive than most popular rifle cartridges, the recoil is heavier, and some long shots cannot be taken.

On the other hand, you can hunt just about anything with one if you keep a selection of #6 birdshot, #4 buckshot, and slug shells handy. A slug gun is dependable, quick handling and far more accurate than many believe for short range hunting situations. And, for whitetail deer hunting in traditional whitetail environments, there are few handicaps to offset the benefits. I agree with Mr. Capstick about the versatility of a rifled shotgun.

I recently had a friend ask if I was interested in going with him after some Colorado elk next fall. He had free room and board lined up with his brother-in-law, who would also act as a guide. This made it a pretty cheap hunt and last season there were plenty of elk to choose from. The only drawback was that it was in a slug gun only unit. What did I think?

I just smiled.

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Copyright 2003 by Randy D. Smith. All rights reserved.