As deer season begins, hunters in many states leave their rifles in the safe and instead pull out their trusted shotgun. While it’s hard to argue that a high powered rifle isn’t the better hunting option, state and county laws and regulations prohibit rifle use during deer season. Hunters in western or sparsely populated states may find it inconceivable to head out on a deer hunt without a rifle, but the reasoning for states that allow only shotgun slugs is simple. If you place a lot of hunters in an area with a high population and let them fire off rifles at deer, something bad can happen if stray rifle rounds travel too far. Shotgun-only restrictions are common in Midwest and Eastern US states, and like it or not, you’re going to have to get used to using a slug gun if you want to deer hunt in these states.
Hornady’s American Whitetail rifled slug line is a popular choice for hunters confined to using a shotgun during deer season.
A shotgun slug has the ability to be just as effective as a rifle round, albeit with a reduced range. Although hunters brag of longer shots on deer with slugs, most shots end up being around 50-100 yards. Firing a slug at a deer over 100 yards away becomes somewhat unethical unless you truly know your slug will be accurate at an extended distance (more common for sabot slug users). This said, it can be discouraging to find that slug hunting is not an exact science, at least the ballistics portion of the hunt. A successful slug gun setup requires matching the right gun to the proper rifled or smoothbore barrel, and of course you have find the right slug brand to shoot out of the setup as well. Today we’ll concentrate on the latter, and dig a little deeper into shotgun slug selection.
German ammunition pioneer Wilhelm Brenneke developed the first modern shotgun slug, and this popular variety still bears his name today. These slugs are made from solid lead, and they have ridges that protrude from the side of the slug. As the slug is fired, the shotgun wad stays attached to the slug. The wad serves as a stabilizer in flight, helping to keep the slug on a relatively flat trajectory for a limited distance. Brenneke slugs are designed to be used out of a smoothbore barrel, and the solid slug design imparts a lot of energy upon the target and improves overall penetration. The Brenneke company still manufactures slugs for the hunting and self-defense market today.
Several years after Brenneke developed his slug design in Europe, American Karl Foster created a similar slug for use in smoothbore barrels. Instead of utilizing a solid slug design like Brenneke, Foster slugs have a deep hollow groove in the back of the slug. This hollow portion functions similar to Brenneke’s attached wad and helps maintain trajectory throughout the slug’s flight. Foster slugs have wads like any shotgun shell, but they do not stay attached like they do in Brenneke slugs. Foster slugs also have ridges on the side of the slug, often called rifling, although these ridges do not spin the slug like the name would suggest. The “rifling” instead helps the slug travel down the barrel and through the choke tube safely. The Foster name did not stick quite like Brenneke’s did, and most common “rifled” slugs are just modern takes on the Foster slug design.
Fiocchi Rifled Slugs are similar to Foster’s initial line of rifled slugs.
Sabot slugs are a relatively new form of slug when compared to the Brenneke and Foster varieties, and they provide increased accuracy and longer range than their traditional slug counterparts. The sabot design consists of a lead cored and full copper-jacketed slug, and this streamlined slug is held in place by a plastic “sabot” or device that keeps the bullet in the center of the barrel. Sabot slugs are significantly smaller than the diameter of the barrel, and the sabot is needed to keep them in place. The plastic sabot seals the bore to create significant combustion, and it also helps spin the slug when used with a rifled barrel.
Hornady also makes several lines of sabot slugs like these Superformance Sabots.
While Brenneke and Foster slugs can be used in either smoothbore or rifled barrels (with the drawback of fouling in rifled barrels), sabots are designed for use only in rifled shotgun barrels. Since the sabot slug gets a boost from the rifled barrel, the range and accuracy of these slugs is significantly increased. The copper jacket also encourages penetration when it hits the target. As you would expect, sabot slugs are more expensive (not to mention the cost of a rifled barrel if you don’t have one), but the advantages are clear for those who can’t get results with smoothbore slugs.
Sighting In And Testing
Sighting in any slug gun setup is absolutely necessary, and anyone who hunts without testing how slugs perform out of their gun is inviting a missed shot when the deer season opens. Fact is slugs are notoriously finicky, even out of the best shotguns. The only way to know your slug gun setup is dialed in is to hit the range and check out what sort of pattern it is firing. It’s wise to bring at least 3-4 different brands of slugs to experiment with as well. Often, hunters will sight in at 50-75 yards and then compare how the results change at 100 yards. As far as slug selection, you have two basic choices:
If you’re on a budget, or want to try the simple method of hunting with slugs first, you can just use your favorite hunting shotgun with a smooth barrel. Test out how rifled slug and Brenneke slugs perform out of the smoothbore, and select the best brand that works for you. Sometimes the addition of an improved cylinder choke can aid in slug accuracy, but don’t go any tighter than that.
Alternatively, if you’re not getting results with a cylinder or improved cylinder choke, you can opt to install a rifled choke and try sabot slugs out of your smoothbore. Honestly, you’re not going to see a ton of improvement using sabots with a rifled choke, but the investment cost is certainly far less than a rifled barrel. For our money, put the cost of the rifled choke towards the rifled barrel instead.
Try out as many brands as you can get your hands on like these Sellier & Bellot Rifled Slugs.
If you can’t get the smoothbore option to work effectively enough for you, or if you demand a higher level of performance out of your slugs, then buying a rifled barrel and spending a decent chunk of change on sabot slugs is your only option. That said, this investment will definitely pay dividends down the line, especially if you come across that once in a lifetime buck or plan to hunt every year. The testing premise remains the same here. Go to the range with several different sabot slug brands and see which performs best. Even with sabot slugs, performance can differ between different guns and rifled barrels.
Whatever you decide, good luck finding the right slug and gun setup for your season!