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The Legalities, Trends, and Efficacy of Deer Hunting with Shotguns

Deer Hunting with Shotguns
Travis Smola

Deer hunting with shotguns is still popular in many areas of the country.

The trend in hunting deer with firearms in recent years has mostly seen long-range as king. People are continually looking for ways to maximize their effective distance with a centerfire rifle or muzzleloader.

But lost in the shuffle are those of us who still hunt deer with shotguns.

In many states it's one of the only legal firearms you can use. But are they still popular as deer guns? And should you consider trying one this season?

The legalities of shotgun hunting

Most parts of the U.S. and Canada likely don't even consider shotguns when it comes to hunting deer. Shotguns are strictly a waterfowl or turkey firearm.

But if you live in the Midwestern United States like I do, you know hunting whitetails with a slug gun is common. In fact, for many years in the southern part of my home state of Michigan, shotguns were one of the only legal firearms for deer. Certain handguns have always been legal, but they've never been as popular as shotguns. No rifles allowed.

The thinking on this is somewhat antiquated now, but apparently lawmakers were worried many areas of the Midwest were too densely populated and rifle bullets travel too far to be safe in these areas. I wonder if shotgun deer hunting would even be a thing if not for these regulations.

In any case, the main states you're going to be hearing deer hunters talking about shotguns are Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. Most of the time, hunters are going to be using either a 20 gauge or 12 gauge. I have heard of people using 10 gauge and 16 gauge which are perfectly legal in most states, but they usually aren't as common. Note that most states don't let you use larger than a 10 gauge anyway.

In some areas .410 shotgun slugs are legal for deer, although we can't really recommend it. Make sure you read the fine print in your state's hunting regulations before you try to hunt deer with one. For instance, Illinois does not permit shotguns smaller than 20 gauge for deer.

Some states have restrictions on the type of shotguns you can use, but some of those regulations are going away. Pennsylvania didn't allow semi-automatic shotguns for deer until recently.

Outside of those states, I haven't heard of a state where shotguns aren't legal for deer, but they are certainly less common. Even if you know shotguns are legal for deer in your state, it doesn't hurt to read the regulations. Most states limit you to just four rounds: one in the chamber and three in the magazine.

Trends in shotgun deer hunting

For a while at least, gun manufacturers were really bracing the idea of shotguns as deer guns. Those of us in shotgun only states weren't neglected in favor of making the next big thing in rifle technology. That's the way it felt anyway.

Gun manufacturers realized that people hunting deer with shotguns weren't just heading into the woods with iron sights and buckshot blasting away. Some of them were starting to use rifled barrel guns and sabot slugs to increase the effective range, and achieve distances previously unheard of with a shotgun.

Some companies started selling specialty slug barrels for classic guns like the Mossberg 500 or the Winchester 1300, featuring rifling specially designed to make shotguns shoot flatter and faster. At some point the gun companies took notice.

Several began converting some of their more popular rifle formats into shotguns instead. One notable entry here is the Browning A-Bolt, a bolt action shotgun introduced in 1995. It took all the best features of the Browning A-Bolt centerfire rifles to make a shotgun that could easily reach out to ranges of 150-200 yards.

But Browning eventually discontinued this bolt-action slug gun before it really became popular. It probably had something to do with the $900 price tag. This gun remains expensive on the resale market to this day. When the gun was introduced, I suspect most hunters didn't want to drop that much on a shotgun when a gun like the Ithaca Deerslayer was available to put venison on the table for a fraction of the cost.

But there was also a shift in the winds in recent years when it comes to hunting with shotguns. Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Iowa have all started allowing straight wall pistol cartridge rifles to be used in previously shotgun or muzzleloader-only areas. This was a very popular decision, and I noticed the shift immediately. The past couple deer seasons I've been hearing the distinct cracks of these rifles more and more often as I sit in my treestand.

Sadly, I think the trend of using these rifles is only going to stifle new developments in deer slug guns, at least for the foreseeable future. It's hard not to get excited when you watch YouTube videos of hunters in your part of the state downing a big whitetail with one of these guns at distances where you could only sit and watch in the past.

The efficacy of shotgun deer hunting

Some hunters in western states may only think of shotguns as bird guns, but I can tell you they are incredibly effective for whitetail deer. In fact, they're a very affordable way to hunt.

I grew up right in the heart of Zone 3 here in Michigan, which is a shotgun/muzzleloader only zone. Everyone I ever knew growing up, and everyone I know now who still hunts, either has or still uses a shotgun for whitetails.

My three largest whitetails, all 10-pointers, each fell to my Remington 870, 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. The 870 is by no means an expensive gun, but it is a highly effective one. Mine has a smoothbore barrel on it and a low power scope.

I'm not fancy with my ammo. I shoot 2 ¾-inch, rifled, foster-style shotgun slugs out of it. They aren't the fastest or the flattest shooting rounds on the planet, but they're more than adequate for the type of hunting I do.

Note that while they are effective, I also don't believe you really need a 3" magnum-style slug in order to bring down your average whitetail with a shotgun.

Most of my hunting with this gun takes place over small food plots or in thick, brushy areas where most of the shots are at close range anyway. Looking back at all the deer I've killed with my 870, I don't think I've ever shot one beyond 50 yards.

The first 10-point I shot weighed well over 200 pounds and I shot him slightly quartering away at 35 yards. The shot hit a little high and back, but the buck only made it about 60 yards before he piled up. The second 10-point (my biggest buck ever), I hit directly broadside at 10 yards in an open clover field. It was a perfect lung shot, but the buck somehow managed to make it over 150 yards before expiring.

I'm still scratching my head over that one. I actually still have the slug that killed that deer. My taxidermist found it in the cape when preparing the mount!

The last 10 point I shot with my 870 happened in 2013. I shot him broadside at 30 yards on opening morning of firearms season. The shot was perfectly behind the shoulder and the 12-gauge slug passed through both lungs. The buck ran 30 yards and piled up within sight of my blind.

All in all, it's not bad for a slug considering it sells for about $5 a box at the local WalMart.

As a side note about Foster-style slugs, it's interesting that they were initially designed as a cheap way to take down deer back in the 1930s. It was likely a Godsend, as many families were struggling to put food on the table during the Great Depression. The simplicity and effectiveness in design meant these slugs continued to prove themselves well beyond those hard times.

The point I'm making here is that shotgun hunting is one of the most affordable ways you can consistently kill deer. In fact, in all the years I've been using my 870, I can only recall one occasion where I needed more than one shot to put down a deer, and that was a doe. I made a bad initial shot, and it wasn't the gun's fault. Every other deer has fallen within 150 yards from a single hit.

That being noted, my setup is NOT a long-distance shooting setup by any means. I'm comfortable at around 50 yards, but anything more than that and I tend to pass and hope for a better shot. That doesn't happen often thankfully.

Deer Hunting with Shotguns
Travis Smola

If you want more performance and need to reach out to greater distances, shotguns are able achieve that. We recommend a good rifled barrel and sabot-style slugs for hunters who want to reach out to greater distances. The Hornady SST, for example, delivers an excellent muzzle velocity of 1,800 feet per second and has very little drop at a distance. Once you get dialed in with slugs like this, every deer you hit should be a dead deer.

If you're looking for opinions on buckshot, I say avoid it. I may catch some flak for this, because I know there are a ton of hunters out there who swear by it. I also know there are plenty who feel it's a "necessity" for running shots in brushy areas.

However, I also know far too many people who have wounded and lost deer while using buckshot, and plenty of others who had to make multiple follow-up shots to put a deer down for good using the stuff.

As for running shots through brush, well, I don't take running shots. I let those deer get away. From an ethical standpoint, it isn't worth not making a clean kill or worse, simply maiming the animal. I never hear rifle hunters complaining about not being able to get a shot through brush, so I simply cannot recommend buckshot for deer or any other big game in those situations. I also simply cannot understand why anyone would want to willingly limit their effective range and stopping power when slugs work as well as they do. But that's just me.

It's also worth keeping in mind that buckshot isn't legal everywhere. Indiana, for instance, does not allow it at all. So if you insist on using it, read the regulations first to make sure what you're doing is even legal.

Shotguns are a simple and effective hunting weapon

While many hunters only pick up a shotgun for turkey or waterfowl, I can tell you from experience that a shotgun is as effective a hunting weapon as any other you can buy, and almost always slightly more affordable.

They also present an excellent challenge for anyone who has conquered every other legal method of harvesting a deer and is looking for something new.

Instead of a rifle, maybe it's time you try the American tradition of deer hunting with a shotgun.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis Youtube channels

NEXT: AN OUTSIDER'S LOOK AT MICHIGAN DEER HUNTING

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The Legalities, Trends, and Efficacy of Deer Hunting with Shotguns