At one time more deer were killed in the United States with the shotgun than with all other firearms combined. The shotgun was inexpensive compared to the center-fire rifle, and if one allied himself a hunter in our country you could count on that person owning a shotgun. In the old days, many folks only had one hunting firearm in the house and it was a scattergun. It still amuses me today to hear this or that rifle or handgun called «the gun that won the West,» because in reality, it is the shotgun that should claim that title.
We built this country with a shotgun close at hand; a fact that is particularly true in the southeastern states, where even today the shotgun is still well-represented in the deer woods, and indeed, mandatory for deer hunting in many areas. Since most deer are killed at less than 100 yards, particularly in the thick woods of the Last, carrying a shotgun is not the handicap some hunters would imagine. Factor slugs into the mix and it isn’t an issue at all.
I killed my first deer with a shotgun. In 1971, using Dad’s 20-gauge Remington Model 58 and a Remington Foster-type slug, I smacked a big Grayson County, Va., doe at 40 yards and she hit the snow so hard she bounced. Over the ensuing years, on many, many deer drives or dog hunts, I never fell at a disadvantage with a shotgun loaded with buckshot in my hands. For thick cover, quick-shooting, short-range hunting or over the hounds, hands-down, the best deer gun is the shotgun.
Loading for Deer
Not many shooters handload for the deer shotgun, the reason being the availability of good factory ammunition in 12 gauge. But if you want to take a poke at a deer with your 10, 16 or 20-gauge shotgun and want to use buckshot, the choices on store shelves are somewhat limited. For deer we must limit our discussion to either buckshot or slugs; many, many deer have been (and continue to be) taken with smaller shot sizes, especially in the new «heavy» elements, but for our purposes we will stick with the old standbys.
Handloading with buckshot can be tricky: you must weigh your pellet load carefully and do not be fooled into thinking that you can simply count out the number of buckshot pellets you think you need. This is especially true if you use a buffer with the shot, where the total weight of the projectile load must include the weight of the pellets and the buffer. The old 10-gauge, 3Vi-inch load of 18 OO pellets at 1,000 fps might be too much for your gun if you include any buffer with the shot. If your load data says «2 ounces» for the payload, do not exceed that weight!
Parenthetically, under 40 yards it won’t make much difference if your load in said 10 gauge is 2 ounces of OO buckshot or 2 ounces of #4 buckshot; if your pattern is tight and centered on the chest, you will be needing a skinning knife. Of course the larger, heavier pellets will show better penetration, particularly at ranges beyond 30 and 40 yards, but in my experience the results have been pretty much the same. What matters is which pellet size patterns best in your gun.
Sweet 16 and Beyond
I have long been a fan of the 16 gauge, but these days if you want buckshot in that gauge other than No. 1 size, you must handload. I’m working with 1 ounce of single-0 for my 16-gauge single-shot NEF gun, and it shows some promise with the full-choke 28-inch barrel delivering 24-inch patterns at 40 yards. And that’s with 21 grains of Longshot in the AA hull.
OO does not seem to want to pattern from this gun so I think next I’ll try some blackpowder loads in MagTech brass cases to see if it tightens things up. In my experience with buckshot, it is rare that you will get the tightest patterns with the highest velocity. Back off a little and see if that pattern tightens up. Your gun may be different.
With the demand today for combination guns (just check the prices of used Savage 24V guns) the buckshot load for the 20 gauge is getting more attention from more shooters. In the two Model 24V guns that I own, the factory Remington No. 3 buckshot 20-gauge load is a very poor performer. However, using 1 ounce of single-O buckshot mixed with 16 grains of Longshot powder in the AA plastic hull, this load shoots very tight through the modified choke, 24-inch barrel out to 35 yards. As best as I can measure it, this load runs about 1,100 fps and at that level should work well on deer with a good pattern.
The best place I know to start your deer shotgun handloading research is with Ballistic Products Incorporated (ballis-ticproducts.com). They have manuals, tools and materials for the shotgun handloader. I especially like the reloading packages and their selection of shot sizes in both lead and nonlead. Their selection of materials and tools for the shotgun handloader is pretty hard to beat, too.
For suggested loads for your shotgun the Hodgdon site www.hodgdon.com is a goldmine of information. No matter where I get a suggested load, I always start my experimentation by comparing the new load with the Hodgdon data. Since I use Hodgdon powder in most of my shotgun loading it only makes sense, and Hodgdon’s knowledge base is one you can count on.
Ammunition prices are still up and availability remains a problem. If you handload for your centerfire rifle, then it only makes sense to position yourself to do the same for your scattergun. If you deer hunt with the shotgun you could be missing out on performance factory ammunition can’t provide in your gun. Give handloading a try; it could mean more meat in the freezer this coming season.