The Ever-Versatile Shotgun

Tom LounsburyBucks n Bears, Friends of ELO

By:  Tom Lounsbury.

The shotgun has played an important role throughout the history of firearms. From matchlock and flintlock “fowlers” to today’s wide array, shotguns can be considered as multitask tools because they can handle a wide variety of shot, including heavy duty buckshot, and even solid projectiles for a heavier and very effective “punch”. This was originally a large lead round ball (aka “punkin-ball”), but it was usually not consistently accurate at long range. 

All of this would change when Karl M. Foster, who wished to help American hunters put meat on the table during the Great Depression, developed the hollow-based “foster” shotgun slug in 1931, which he later patented in 1947. American ammunition manufacturers, who dubbed matters “rifled slugs” due to the grooves spiraling around the outer surface, were quick to offer it in all the shotgun bore sizes, and the ammunition became immediately very popular with American deer hunters who hunted in “shotgun only” zones. The grooves were designed to collapse when exiting the muzzle through various choke constrictions, especially tighter full chokes. The key to accuracy was the slug’s weight-forward design which caused the slug to fly in a manner like a shuttlecock. However, shooting tests revealed that when the spiraling grooves were left relatively intact, the slug did achieve a slight spin due to the aerodynamics, and probably why better accuracy was usually achieved if choke constriction didn’t exceed that of the more open improved cylinder. Foster shotgun slugs are quite effective out to 100 yards which truly fit the bill for whitetail deer hunters where such was required, because most deer are harvested at that range or less, and usually less. 

Southern Michigan had been closed to deer hunting during the early 20th Century to allow whitetail numbers in the region to rebound. The first deer season in what was determined to be the “shotgun zone” made its debut in 1948, where only shotguns firing buckshot could be used. The reason for this was safety concerns for the high number of hunters which would be on public lands during opening morning. However, shotgun slugs would soon be allowed as well. Besides the popular foster slugs, other shotgun slugs such as the German-made Brenneke (which was first developed in 1898 for European hunting and was a favorite round for the 3-barrelled drillings of the elite) and Activ also became dependable “deer getters”. The 12 ga Activ slug (1 ¼ ounce) was one of my favorites, because it could really put the smackdown on tenacious whitetails (sadly, it is no longer made). The Brenneke slug remains to be a real deer thumper which offers amazing penetration. I once shot a buck head-on in the chest at close range, and when I later skinned it, I discovered the 12 ga Brenneke slug, with its fiber wad (which is used to stabilize the solid lead slug down the barrel and in flight) still attached, lying just under the skin on the back of a hindquarter. By not hitting much bone, that slug had travelled the entire length of the deer’s body and yep, folks, that buck had dropped on the spot!

One of the best things to come along for shotguns during the 1980’s were screw-in choke tubes, which allow individual shotguns to become more versatile than ever by quickly and simply changing choke tubes of various constrictions. From wide open (cylinder) to super tight (extra full), a shotgun could easily meet the need for a wide variety of applications in the field. A rifled choke tube was even developed for firing shotgun slugs, but it was not considered legal in Michigan’s shotgun zone, where only “smoothbore” shotguns were allowed for deer hunting.

However, by the 1990’s, common sense prevailed and rifled choke tubes as well as fully rifled shotgun barrels became legal for deer hunting in the shotgun zone for not only in Michigan, but in other states as well. Allowing a shotgun slug to become more accurate is a positive factor, and if anything, it increases the safety factor, as well.

I began using the screw-in choke system per a 12 ga Remington Model 870 pump, which entailed improved cylinder, modified and full chokes. When the law changed, I stepped right into the fully rifled shotgun barrel arena, first with a heavy duty 12 ga H&R “Ultra Slug”, soon followed by a 20 ga T/C Encore, and then a rifled barrel for my 20 ga Remington 870. All performed a dependable job of putting whitetails down for the count, and I had admirable accuracy out to 150 yards. During this, I discovered, for me at least, the 20 ga did all I required and in a more compact and lighter weight shotgun. The performance was such, I wouldn’t hesitate to use the 20 ga version for also hunting black bears.

The general rule is that foster shotgun slugs are for smoothbore barrels and only “sabot” shotgun slugs (an undersized bullet seated in a plastic cup which falls away after the bullet exits the muzzle) are intended for fully rifled barrels. This is not a bad rule to go by, but it isn’t necessarily fully correct. Curiosity found me doing some testing on my shooting range and smoothbores can adequately handle sabots and the same applies to firing foster slugs out of a rifled barrel. However, the soft lead foster slugs can “lead-up” the rifling groves, so frequent cleaning is a must, but the same also applies to sabots which can eventually leave a plastic residue in the rifling grooves.

When it comes to firing slugs of any type, shotguns can be fickle creatures, more so than rifles, and will often prefer a particular “flavor” (aka brand name) to do their best performance. Such can only be discovered on the shooting range. My favorite sabot slugs for my rifled shotgun barrels were Lightfield and the Remington “Buckhammer”, both of which offered outstanding performance. Sadly, both have been discontinued in recent years.

Several years ago, I purchased a used 20 ga H&R single-shot shotgun which was in mint shape. Featuring a 26-inch standard smoothbore “bird barrel”, I had the barrel bobbed off at 18.5 inches and I topped it with a “ghost ring” rear peep sight and a green fiberoptic front sight. Its cutdown barrel featuring no choke at all (cylinder), handled foster slugs very accurately out to 100 yards, which covers most of my encounters with local whitetails, and my longest kill with it being 60 yards in heavy cover. The reason I went to this system was because of the cost of sabot ammo for rifled shotguns, and I like to practice a lot. When sabot shells cost around five dollars apiece (and the price tends to keep climbing), proper practice becomes a tad pricey!

Then 2014 came along, and Michigan’s Shotgun Zone became the Limited Firearms Zone which allowed certain rifles and I, of course, took that route and the cutdown H&R 20 ga then sat idle. I did use it on a couple occasions for rabbit hunting, and it was quite good out to 20 yards, but after that, it was quite the “scattergun”. It had been almost forgotten in my gun safe until last year, when I decided to reactivate it. I had the muzzle threaded for screw-in choke tubes, with the goal of having a modified choke installed, which is my favorite all around choke choice for small game hunting. While I was at it, I also purchased a rifled choke tube for deer hunting, and an extra full choke tube for turkey hunting, making the cutdown H&R a very versatile shotgun, which is quite compact and quick and easy to handle.

This shotgun patterns beautifully with both the modified and turkey choke tubes, and it is very accurate with the rifled choke tube firing standard foster deer slugs (it prefers Winchester 2 ¾ inch with a ¾ ounce slug), and it is no longer being forgotten in the gun safe! The modified choke tube screws in flush with the muzzle, and the rifled and turkey choke tubes both extend out an extra inch. An interesting fact is that the rifling twist in the rifled tube matches the same spiral as the grooves found on a foster shotgun slug, which sure doesn’t hurt accuracy any! I fully appreciate the entire package with all the choke choices.

Yep folks, I did carry the cutdown H&R 20 ga with its rifled choke tube several times during the recent deer seasons, because it is downright handy for certain up close hunting applications. And with the modified choke, it is going to see plenty of service during the lengthy squirrel and rabbit seasons this winter, as well it should be great for fox and coyotes when stoked with buckshot. When spring rolls around, it will be a top contender for turkey hunting when equipped with the extra full choke.

Versatile shotguns are like that, ready for just about anything.

Tom Lounsbury
Latest posts by Tom Lounsbury (see all)