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Slug Guns in Kansas

By Randy D. Smith

In a state where deer hunting is normally associated with rifles, slug guns can provide surprisingly strong performance in heavily populated areas. It was the final weekend sunrise of the special January whitetail "Anterless Only" Kansas deer season. A cold front had moved in and I was still hunting one of my favorite haunts, 480 acres of sand hill cedars and plumb thickets to fill a muzzleloader tag that had gone unfilled during the regular season. Rather than a rifle or carbine, however, I was carrying a 12 gauge Mossberg Model 500 pump shotgun. Equipped with a 24" rifled barrel and mounted with a Tasco 1.5-4.5x scope, it was loaded with Winchester 2 3/4" 1 oz. slugs.

I had already filled two anterless permits and had taken a nice Texas buck that fall. I was interested in experiencing big game slug gun hunting, and the present environment seemed perfect for it. Once I entered those woods the longest shot I was likely to take was 60 yards with the majority being less than 30 yards. These woods usually hold large concentrations of whitetails, but are not popular with many hunters because the owner does not allow stands and shot opportunities are quite brief. It takes a lot of experience to still hunt heavy concentrations of plumb thickets without making noise, and shooting can be frustrating for hunters used to having more time to make a decision. It is a perfect environment for filling the freezer with venison and always an exciting area to hunt.

I knew that there were two places where I was most likely to encounter some does. With the wind coming from the Northwest and into my face, I made slow progress toward an irregular line of cedars marking the edge of the thicket. From there the terrain broke into a series of rolling tall grass sand hills. Deer often congregate here and will break in all directions when they realize they are being stalked. Sometimes they will balk before breaking and sometimes I'll have only a fleeting shot as they either retreat into heavy cover and escape to the west, or charge over the near hills to the northeast.

A small doe stepped from the cedars and impatiently stamped her foot at me from less than 30 yards. I chose not to take a shot and froze in position. Many times in the past larger deer have stepped from cover to see what these "herd watchmen" were encountering. This time, however, does scattered in all directions from the cedars. My eye caught the form of a larger doe breaking for the sand hills. I put the scope sight on her front shoulder as she quartered away, gave her a two foot lead, and pulled the trigger. The soft lead slug struck just behind the shoulder blade and literally tumbled her forward, head over heels into the plumb thickets.

Why Use a Slug Gun?

It was impressive performance. But, to be frank, I've enjoyed similar performance from my .45-70 rifle and .50 caliber muzzleloading rifles. Both would function better than the slug gun if I encountered a shot longer than 50 or 60 yards. But I hunt all over the state and there are several locations where I will use the slug gun. Heavily populated areas surrounding Topeka and Wichita both have some excellent whitetail habitat but are laced with small semi-urban farmsteads and homes. I love to hunt these highly productive areas but I'm more comfortable using something with limited range.

There are some areas in south-central Kansas where winter livestock grazing and feeding is heavily concentrated around narrow strips of wooded creek and river channels. A short-range slug gun will lessen the chances of accidentally hammering a neighbor's critter and hopefully keep me in good stead with the cowmen and farmers that I grew up with. They want the deer harvested but draw the line on their herds. In recent years there has been a rash of cattle wounding that is directly related to increasing hunter traffic.

Finally, nearby Pratt Sand Hills and Byron Walker Wildlife Refuges have good whitetail hunting, but are heavily used by upland game and deer hunters. I had been toying with the idea of trying a short range slug gun for hunting all of these areas, and like many Kansans I had little experience using one. I decided to test the practical effectiveness of hunting with a slug gun. Within its limitations I now believe a slug gun is a practical and effective choice for hunting many areas of Kansas.

Guns and Ammunition Tested

My first step was to read a short book, Mossberg Guide to Modern Slug Shooting . . . And More. Filled with several interesting charts and guides it proved a valuable resource to get an idea of what I wanted to test and what I could expect from various equipment choices.

I decided to test three different shotgun configurations and several different types of ammunition to see what would work best for me. My usual upland game and waterfowl shotgun is a 12 gauge Model 91 Mossberg Maverick with a 28" vent rib barrel and modified choke. This pump action gun will chamber 2 3/4", 3" and 3 1/2" shells. My second gun is a Mossberg Model 695 bolt action smooth bore shotgun with a 22" 12 gauge barrel. This gun will chamber 2 3/4" and 3" shells and is normally equipped with an extra-full choke. It is my favorite turkey hunting shotgun. I mounted a Bushnell 1.5-4.5X scope on the 695 and equipped it with a Hastings Model SDI-12 Paradox sabot discarding rifled choke to improve accuracy. My last gun, a nice used Mossberg Model 500 Viking equipped with a 24" ported and fully rifled (1:36") barrel and a 1.5-4.5X Tasco scope, came from Ohio. It will chamber 2 3/4" and 3" shells. Since I collect Mossberg firearms, I thought it would be a nice addition to my collection after the testing if I found one of the others more effective.

There are a number of choices for ammunition. They can be categorized into two general types: Foster style and Brenneke style slugs for smoothbores and sabot loads for rifled barrels. Foster and Brenneke style slugs have been around since the 1930's and are called "rifled slugs" because of grooves in the sides. The "rifling" or side grooves of these soft lead slugs do not impart a spin on the projectile but rather allow the slug to pass through various choke constrictions without damage to the barrel. Both of these slug designs utilize a weight forward design so that the projectile, much like a badminton shuttlecock, will fly in the direction it is aimed.

Foster style slugs are manufactured by Remington, Winchester and Federal and are the most popular form of slug in the U.S. They are offered in 10, 12, 20 and .410 gauges, but it is illegal to use less than a 20 gauge slug for big game in Kansas. They can be fired in choke constrictions from cylinder bore through ultra full, but seem to function best in choke constrictions of modified or less. In 12 gauge they normally weigh from 1 ounce to 1 1/4 ounces. Muzzle velocities range from around 1,000 fps to 1,400 fps.

Foster style slugs are the least expensive, have a great deal of short range power (exceeding the .30-06 at the muzzle) and are capable of grouping inside two inches at 50 yards. Felt recoil is about the same as heavy shot loads and not too uncomfortable. Groups vary dramatically at 100 yards, with 8 to 12 inch groups a reasonable expectation. It is generally conceded that the Foster style slug is most appropriate for deer hunting at 70 yards or less with 100 yards a reasonable maximum and 125 yards an extreme maximum. Considering the fact that the vast majority of whitetail deer are taken inside of 70 yards a Foster style slug is a reasonably efficient deer round.

Conventional wisdom is that a Foster slug sighted to hit 1 inch above the bull's eye at 50 yards will generally strike 3 inches below the bull's eye at 100. I found that this varied greatly depending upon the gun and the load. It takes a great deal of range practice to know what a Foster slug will do from your individual gun at various ranges.

With the advent of the rifled shotgun barrel a number of companies market sabot style slugs to attempt to gain enhanced down range accuracy. A sabot allows a smaller diameter projectile to utilize the spin of the rifling for greater accuracy and efficiency, but does little to extend the range. While accuracy is improved, most rifled guns will not group sabots tighter than 5 inches at 100 yards. Felt recoil seemed a bit lighter in most of the loads I tested. When mixing ammunition in the same gun during testing most sabot loads hit a fifty yard target at least a foot higher than Foster slugs. As with Foster slugs, plan on several practice sessions to become proficient.

As expected the gun that performed the poorest was my Model 91 Maverick. A bead sight for pointing rather than aiming was a significant negative influence on group size. Were this gun equipped with open rifle sights or a scope I could expect better 100 yard groups. Still, in situations where my shots would be no farther than 50 yards the gun works very well, and I was able to shoot some 2 inch 50 yard groups with all the brands of Foster and Brenneke style slugs that I tested. I would not even attempt to shoot a deer with this gun beyond 70 yards.

Rating the next two places is somewhat subjective, and I'll let you decide which is better for you. That decision really depends upon how you intend to use the gun. Both the Model 500 and the Model 695 were equipped with 1.5-4.5x scopes. I believe that this is all the magnification you need for shotgun slug hunting. I generally carried the Model 500 with the scope set at 1.5 and the Model 695 with the scope set at 4.5. Equipped with the Hastings rifled choke the bolt action 695 managed one group of 4.5 inches at 100 yards and a cloverleaf 50 yard group using Hornady H2K sabots. This sabot load uses a 300 grain XTP .44 caliber pistol bullet in a 2 3/4" shell. I have had great success with the 300 grain XTP over the years in muzzleloaders. The combination of the rigid breech and barrel fit, the fine Hastings 5" rifled choke, a better trigger pull and the scope allowed the 695 to perform magnificently. From what I have read it is a rare shotgun that will match it at that range. I have a .30-30 lever action rifle that I've taken deer with for years that won't do much better.

The best the Model 500 pump could manage at 100 yards was an 8" group using Federal Hydra-Shock HP's. However, in the thick stuff, inside 70 yards, I can send three slugs down range in less time than I can fire two from the bolt action gun, without taking my eye off of the target. The gun grouped inside of 5 inches at 75 yards and inside two inches at 50 yards. It still managed 2-inch 50 yard groups and 6.5 inch groups at 75 yards with Foster style slugs. It did not like the Hornady load grouping 4 inches at 50 yards. Throughout my tests there was a wide performance disparity between various configurations of ammunition in all the guns.

With a shorter barrel and more rifle-like stock the 695 was a shade faster getting on target for the first shot at low scope setting than the somewhat bulkier Model 500, but after the first shot the pump gun could not be beat in the thick stuff. I have always liked my 695 for turkey hunting from a set position, and it would be a great choice for hunting deer from a blind or tree stand. I would rate it a bit higher for any longer range hunting situations, but the 695 is not an ideal upland game gun. I have the Maverick Model 91 for that job and the 695 makes a nice alternative for deer and turkey.

If I could only have one shotgun, however, I'd pick the Model 500 or Model 91 and use interchangeable barrels, as Mossberg does not recommend using shot loads in rifled barrels. I have a relatively inexpensive 30" full choke non-ribbed barrel for the Model 500 that I have used for upland game and coyote. A budget conscious hunter in the eastern or central part of Kansas and many midwestern states might not need anything else for year-round hunting. Rabbits and upland game to turkeys and whitetail deer could be harvested effectively with this gun. For fast action, short range deer hunting, the purpose that I originally intended for the shotgun, it is a nice setup. And, it does very well with less expensive Foster style slug loads.

General Recommendations

If you are considering trying a slug gun for big game hunting I would make some general recommendations. First, unless you plan to hunt at very short range, you need to improve your sights either with a scope, peep or open sights. A good scope is the best choice and dramatically tightens groups of all slugs and sabots. Don't get a scope with too much magnification, and make sure it has an eye relief of at least 3.5 inches (slug guns kick, don't you know). I like the 1.5-4.5X models for their versatility. With the scope set on 1.5x I was able to lead my deer and make my shot without losing my sight picture. You might also consider an electronic red dot sight.

Next, if your gun has interchangeable chokes, I strongly recommend purchasing a rifled choke. Give a strong look at the Hastings Paradox choke or something like it. It is longer than most to enhance performance and did an excellent job matched with the 695. If you have a pump shotgun I'd recommend adding a fully rifled barrel and scope. Fully rifled barrels have the greatest potential of grouping sabots and extend your effective range. I was perfectly happy with the performance of the Paradox choke, however. If you want a shotgun expressly for big game hunting, give strong consideration to the bolt action, fully rifled guns.

Lastly, purchase a wide assortment of ammunition and learn what works best, then go to the range and practice at 25, 50, 75 and 100 yards. Learn your gun thoroughly. Slug guns perform much differently than conventional cartridge rifles or muzzleloaders. Contrary to what I've heard, however, I did not find any of them unpleasant to shoot.

Slug guns are being mandated by several deer and even elk hunting states in certain locations. As population grows, this may be a continuing trend. I believe slug guns can provide some added insurance against accidents, although nothing works better than proper gun handling and careful shot placement. They are powerful and accurate at the ranges for which they are designed. Certain shotguns can be converted to slug guns for a much lower investment than a new deer rifle and many hunters may find that a slug gun is all they need.

Like muzzleloading rifles, slug shotguns increase the challenge of the hunt and the sense of accomplishment. All in all, I liked hunting with them and plan to hunt with them in the future, especially in those special circumstances where I am not comfortable using longer-range rifles.

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