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Shotguns are another extremely popular choice for deer hunting. They’re often legal to use during modern firearm seasons in states or areas of states where rifles are outlawed. While they have shorter effective ranges than rifles, they retain many of the same characteristics that make rifles such efficient weapons. They are relatively easy to operate, and they have good accuracy out to 150 yards or more (depending on the setup).
In this article, we'll cover the most important factors you need to consider when choosing your deer shotgun, including projectiles, barrels, gauge, action, chambering, sights, and shells.
The drawbacks are similar to rifle hunting: shotgun seasons are typically crowded, which makes the deer harder to hunt, increases the risk of accidents, and lowers the chances of experiencing solitude in the woods.
Another advantage to shotguns is their versatility. Unlike a big game rifle, which can pretty much only be used to hunt big game, a shotgun can potentially be used to hunt a wide variety of game. Shotguns can be an especially good value if you purchase a combo with two interchangeable barrels: a smooth bore and a rifled. This is probably the most versatile hunting weapon on the face of the earth, allowing you to hunt deer, turkey, waterfowl, upland birds, and small game -- all with one weapon!
If you decide that a shotgun is the way you want to go, there are a number of decisions you’ll have to make in order to choose the right one for you.
First, let’s cover what you’re actually shooting out of the shotgun. The way to hunt deer with a shotgun is to shoot slugs. A slug is a single, large projectile, and it’s highly effective at taking down a deer. Contrary to what you might think from the name, buck shot, which is composed of numerous projectiles, is not often used to hunt deer anymore. You can shoot a deer with buckshot, but your range is going to be severely limited (think 30 or 40 yards max).
The first decision you have to make when buying a shotgun is the type of barrel. The most typical choice for shooting slugs at deer is a rifled barrel, which has spiraled grooves that make the slug spin, increasing aerodynamic stability and dramatically enhancing accuracy. This gives the modern slug gun hunter the ability to take deer at ranges of 150 yards and more. You can shoot slugs out of a smooth bore, but it requires specific ammunition and chokes, and it significantly reduces your range (think 50 to 75 yards max). If you’re serious about hunting deer with a shotgun and want to take advantage of all the benefits it has to offer, than a rifled barrel is essential.
Next, you’ll need to decide which gauge to get. As a rule, 12 gauge shotguns are by far the most popular due to their unquestioned ability to cleanly kill a deer. They have the widest selection and availability of ammunition, and consequently the ammunition also tends to be cheaper. Hardly anyone hunts with anything larger than a 12 gauge anymore. A 20 gauge shotgun (which is smaller than a 12 gauge) would be your other option, and, because of the lighter weight and reduced recoil, this can be an acceptable choice for people with a smaller stature.
Next, you need to choose an action. Pump action shotguns are far and away the most common for deer hunting. They’re simple, reliable, offer a fairly swift follow-up shot if needed, and are affordably-priced. Another good option is the break action single shot. These shotguns are accurate, they can be even more affordable, and you’re not losing much by having a slower follow-up shot. Also, the newer bolt action shotguns offer almost identical benefits to the pump, and they’re potentially even more accurate. As with rifles, I would recommend staying away from semi-automatic shotguns.
Next, you have to decide which length of shell you’d like your shotgun to be chambered for. The three options are 2 ¾”, 3”, or 3 ½”, and any of them will certainly work. However, the 3 ½” offers you the widest flexibility because you can opt to shoot any of the three sizes. That doesn’t mean you’ll end up shooting 3 ½” shells (often smaller shells can give you superior performance), but it pays to have options. If you’re planning on hunting other types of game with your shotgun, then a 3 ½” chamber will maximize your shotgun’s versatility.
Next, you’ll need to pick a sight. As we’ve discussed above regarding rifles, telescopic sights (also known as scopes) are the most popular and offer advantages like magnification of the target, ease of use in low light conditions, and increased accuracy at longer distances. Open sights (which today are usually made with fiber optics for increased visibility), give you faster target acquisition, are less susceptible to moisture problems, and are often cheaper. However, they’re much less accurate at longer ranges. Red dot or holographic sights offer the fastest target acquisition. However, they are also less accurate at longer ranges, can be expensive, and are less reliable due to their dependence on batteries and electronic components. Unless you know for certain that you’ll only be shooting deer at less than 50 yards, it’s probably best to choose a scope over any other type of sight for your shotgun.
There are a ton of different deer hunting slugs and loads on the market these days – along with all the advertising hype that goes with them. As long as you’re buying ammunition from a major, established company, it should get the job done just fine. However, your shotgun has a favorite shell out there somewhere, one that it will shoot with more consistent accuracy than others. It pays to do a little experimentation. Buy a handful of different brands and loads, head to the range, and see which one shoots the best. Then you’ll know for sure that you’re getting the best accuracy you can get out of your gun.