Deer Hunting with Shotguns
Harry Collins via Getty Images

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

The trend in hunting deer with firearms in recent years has seen chiefly long-range as king. People continually look 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? Most parts of the U.S. and Canada likely don't consider shotguns when hunting deer. But if you live in the Midwestern United States as 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. Specific handguns have always been legal, but they've never been as popular as shotguns. No rifles allowed.

The thinking on this is old-fashioned now. Still, lawmakers were worried areas of the Midwest were too densely populated, and rifle bullets traveled too far to be safe in these areas. I wonder if shotgun deer hunting would even be a thing if not for these regulations.

The primary states where deer hunters talk about shotguns are Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. Most of the time, hunters use either a 20-gauge or 12-gauge. I have heard of people using a 10-gauge and 16-gauge, which are perfectly legal in most states but aren't as common. Most states don't let you use larger than a 10-gauge. In some areas, .410 shotgun slugs are legal for deer, although we can't 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 allow shotguns smaller than a 20-gauge for deer.

Some states restrict the type of shotguns you can use, but some of those regulations go 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 four rounds: one in the chamber and three in the magazine.

Is shotgun deer hunting trendy?

deer hunting shotgun

For a while at least, gun manufacturers were bracing the idea of shotguns as deer guns. They didn't neglect those of us in shotgun-only states 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 started using rifled barrel guns and sabot slugs to increase the effective range and achieve distances previously unheard of with a shotgun.
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 their more popular bolt-action rifle formats into shotguns instead of rifled slug barrels. One notable entry 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 ranges of 150-200 yards.

But Browning eventually dropped this bolt-action slug gun before it became popular. It had something to do with the $900 price tag. This gun is still expensive on the resale market to this day. When they introduced this weapon, 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 recently a shift in the winds about hunting with shotguns. Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Iowa have all started allowing straight wall pistol cartridge deer rifles in previously shotgun or muzzleloader-only areas. This was a prevalent decision, and I noticed the shift at once.

The past few deer seasons, I've heard the distinct cracks of these rifles more often as I sit in my treestand. I have since picked up a Savage Model 110 in .450 Bushmaster, but at least I know I have a cheap ammo choice in my Remington 12-gauge slug gun if I need it. And I feel much more confident with the shotgun than with a muzzleloading rifle.

How to hunt deer with shotguns, efficiently

deer hunting with a shotgun

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Hunter in western states may only think of shotguns as bird guns. Still, I can tell you they are incredibly effective for whitetail deer. They're a very affordable way to hunt. I grew up in the heart of Zone 3 here in Michigan, a shotgun/black powder muzzleloader-only zone. Everyone I ever knew growing up, and everyone I know now who still hunts, either have or still uses a shotgun for whitetails.

My three most giant 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 3/4-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 my hunting type. While they are effective, I also don't believe you need a three-inch magnum-style slug to bring down your average whitetail with a shotgun.

My hunting with this gun takes place over small food plots or in dense, brushy areas where most shots are at close range. Looking back at all the deer I've killed with my 870. I don't think I've ever shot one beyond fifty yards. The first 10-point I shot weighed well over two hundred pounds, and I shot him slightly quartering away at 35 yards. The shot hit a little high and back, but the buck only reached about sixty yards before he piled up. I hit the second 10-point (my biggest buck ever) 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 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 the 2013 hunting season. It was opening day, and I shot him broadside at 30 yards. The shot was perfectly behind the shoulder, and the 12-gauge slug passed through both lungs. The buck ran thirty yards and piled up within sight of my blind. Overall, it's not bad for a slug considering it sells for about $5 a box at the local Walmart.

The point I'm making here is that shotgun hunting is one of the most affordable ways to kill deer consistently. 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 first shot, and it wasn't the gun's fault. Every other deer has fallen within 150 yards from a single hit.
My shotgun setup is NOT a long-distance shooting one. I'm comfortable at around fifty yards, but anything more than that, and I tend to pass and hope for a better shot. That doesn't often happen, thankfully.

If you want more performance and need to reach greater distances, shotguns can achieve that. We recommend excellent rifled barrels and sabot-style slugs for hunters who wish for greater distances. The Hornady SST, for example, delivers a superior muzzle velocity of 1,800 feet per second and has a minimal drop at a distance. Once you master slugs like this, every deer you hit should be a dead deer.

I say avoid buckshot. I may catch flak for this because I know there are a ton of hunters out there who swear by it. I also know plenty feel it's a "necessity" for running shots in brushy areas. However, I know people who have wounded and lost deer while using buckshot and others who had to make multiple follow-up shots to put a deer down for good using the stuff.

As for running shots through the brush, well, I don't take running shots. I let those deer get away. Ethically, it isn't worth not making a clean kill or simply maiming the animal. I never hear rifle hunters complaining about not being able to get a shot through the brush, so I thoroughly cannot recommend buckshot for deer or any other big game in those situations. I also 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 simple and effective hunting weapons. While many hunters only pick up a shotgun for turkey or waterfowl, I can tell you from experience that a shotgun is as practical a hunting weapon as any other you can buy and always slightly more affordable. They also present a tremendous challenge for anyone who has conquered every other legal method of harvesting a deer and is looking for something new. Instead of a rifle, it's time you try the American tradition of deer hunting with a shotgun.

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