Depending on where one hunts in Pennsylvania, deer have either gone the way of the buffalo – and, yes, buffalo once roamed these pre-Colonial forests – or they are there for the taking.
Obviously, it one hunts where the latter is the case, chances are it is done in Wildlife Management Unit 5C. This WMU is one of three that has some of the most liberal seasons and bag limits in Pennsylvania, but for those who hunt in what is designated the Special Regulations Area, leave the rifles at home and grab a "gun" when the two-week statewide firearms season opens Monday, Nov. 28.
Only shotguns and muzzleloaders are legal in the SRA, and with the improvements that have been made in today's slug guns, hunters using these shotguns find their performance in the deer woods are equal to such popular rifle calibers as the .45-70 Government, .30-30 and .32 Special. There was a time when hunting with a hand-me-down, break-top, single-barrel shotgun and using "pumpkin balls" as ammunition was reserved for youngsters or rookies in a hunting party.
Today, slug guns are available with both smooth and rifled barrels, are equipped with adjustable standard and fiber-optic sights and are drilled and tapped for scope mounts. Gone too are the days when the only option when hunting deer with shotguns meant firing smooth slugs through a smooth barrel.
Now, there are smooth slugs that are designed to be used with rifled barrels that can surpass the performance of some rifles and rifled slugs that increase the accuracy of smooth-barreled shotguns. Just as most serious turkey hunters have a shotgun that is used exclusively for the big birds, many deer hunters eventually purchase a slug gun.
Such purchases, however, are often a luxury, as all the major manufactures offer pump shotguns with interchangeable slug barrels that can be used with field guns. With all the improvements that have been made in slug guns, many hunters are using them instead of rifles for all their woods hunting.
When used for deer hunting, the plugs can be removed from pump guns to give them five-shot capabilities. A word of caution, however, for those that hunt with an auto-loading shotgun in New York State is that they are illegal for deer hunting in Pennsylvania.
For those contemplating a slug gun for deer hunting, the most important consideration is buying a shotgun that fits. As for the price, some models are less expensive that centerfire rifles, and others with custom stocks are nearly as expensive as high-end trap guns.
In most situations, a pump gun is better than a bolt action, but, here again, that is a matter of personal preference. And while open, fiber-optic sights are sufficient for most hunting situations, a low-power, adjustable scope can provide an edge.
Today, several manufactures market single-shot, break-action slug guns that are designed for deer hunting. Most hunters who enjoy the single-shot challenge, however, simply use a muzzleloader.
With that in mind, here – in alphabetical order are some of the most popular slug guns for deer hunting:
Benelli Super Black Eagle II Rifled Slug: This comes with open sights, but is drilled and tapped for scope mounts. Benelli's inertia action is highly reliable, and the optional high comb provides more rifle-like performance. Benelli is generally considered the "Cadillac" of off-the-shelf shotguns, be prepared for sticker shock, so some who want the premier performance of the brand may want to compromise and save several hundred dollars by choosing the M2 Field Rifled Slug.
Ithaca Deerslayer: A time-honored brand, the Deerslayer model is a favorite in the woods because of its reliability as a bottom-ejecting, pump shotgun in the Deerslayer II and Deerslayer III models. A bit hefty, the 9-pound, 12 gauge features a fluted, heavy barrel that allows an experienced shooter get 4-inch groups at 200 yards.
Mossberg 500 Slugster: Like all Mossberg models, the Slugster is the slug gun for those on a budget who want dependability. There are a variety of models and features, including rifle sights or cantilever scope mounts and synthetic or wood stocks. For those who insist on shooting magnum loads, the Mossberg 835 is chambered for 312-inch shells.
Remington 870 Express: Remington has built its reputation of producing firearms that a ready to hunt straight out of the box, the 870 Express upholds that tradition. In addition to affordable pricing, the modular design and readily-available aftermarket parts make it possible to switch barrels, stocks and fore ends for every hunting situation. It also comes in a Combo package containing a ventilated rib smooth barrel and a rifled slug barrel and the receiver is drilled and tapped for scope mounts.
Savage Model 212 and 220: Savage is known for its quality and affordable pricing in bolt-action firearms, and these slug guns meet the need of any hunter who prefers these over pump actions. Both the 212 and 220 had a 22-inch rifled barrel, a two-round detachable box magazine and the Savage AccuTrigger, which is rated superior to any trigger on a pump gun.
Winchester 1300 Speed Pump: This is an upgraded version of the popular Winchester Model 1200 and the rifled-barrel 1300 has remained a favorite of slug-run hunters for nearly 25 years. Manufacturing of these guns was halted when the U.S. Repeating Arms Company closed its Connecticut plant in 2006, but fans of the 1300 seek them out at gun shows and on racks of used firearms at gun shops.