As whitetails colonize our habitat and we colonize theirs, the gun season in more and more areas has become limited to shotguns only. This is no longer a great handicap, though, as the performance of modern slug guns keeps getting better and better. Pair a rifled shotgun with premium sabot or attached-wad slugs and you can cleanly take deer at 125 yards or more. Moreover, some of the latest slug-gun designs-with recoil-reducing stocks, better triggers, and a customlike fit-make for less painful, more accurate shooting. Here’s what to look for in a great shotgun for deer:
Action: Go with a pump or autoloader, both of which offer fast follow-up shots if needed. Pumps are reliable even in the coldest weather, and gas-operated autos reduce recoil, which can be ferocious when you’re shooting slugs.
**Gauge: **The 12-gauge remains the standard, although some of the newest sabot-bulleted 20-gauge slugs are very accurate and kick less out of smaller, faster-handling guns. Any 12 or 20 that will handle 23/4-inch slugs is fine for almost any whitetail hunting situation. Three- and 31/2-inch slugs shoot only slightly flatter than 23/4-inch versions but deliver a boatload more recoil.
Barrel Length: Keep it fairly short. A 21- to 24-inch barrel will handle well even if you’re tucked into the brush or hiding in a tree.
Sights and Mounts: Cantilever barrel mounts let you attach a scope to the barrel, which allows you to remove your scope and barrel as a unit without worrying about ruining your zero. Most models with drilled and tapped receivers also have iron sights on the barrels, giving you the choice of attaching a scope or using the open sights, which are perfectly adequate for areas where shots will be close.
**Trigger: **With some notable exceptions, most shotguns have heavy, gritty triggers. Dry-fire the gun to see if you can live with the trigger pull. Keep in mind, however, that a bad trigger needn’t be a deal breaker, as a gunsmith can smooth and lighten the pull of most guns.
Extras: Every slug gun should have swivels for a sling, which will leave your hands free to drag home your deer. A synthetic stock is a good choice for a gun that’ll get hard use. Some models come with shim kits that let you tailor the gun’s fit to your own dimensions; others feature recoil-reducing stocks. All the excellent slug guns at left have rifled barrels and come ready for optics.
Winchester 1300 Black Shadow Deer (800-333-3288; winchesterguns.com)
Action: Pump ¿¿¿ Gauge: 3-inch 12 and 20 ¿¿¿ Barrel Length: 22 inches ¿¿¿ Sights/Mounts: Drilled and tapped receiver and iron sights ¿¿¿ Price: $376 ¿¿¿ Comments: The 1300 shucks extremely fast, thanks to a rotary bolt. It’s a great value: an accurate, no-frills, lightweight gun.
Mossberg 535 Slugster (203-230-5300; mossberg.com)
Action: Pump ¿¿¿ Gauge: 31/2-inch 12 ¿¿¿ Barrel Length: 24 inches ¿¿¿ Sights/Mounts: Drilled and tapped receiver and iron sights ¿¿¿ Price: $389 for camo; $322 for black ¿¿¿ Comments: Mossberg’s new 535 is a budget-priced pump with a slimmer, lighter barrel than the 835. The top safety is great for left-handers.
Remington Sportsman 11-87 (800-243-9700; remington.com)
Action: Gas autoloader ¿¿¿ Gauge: 3-inch 12 ¿¿¿ Barrel Length: 21 inches ¿¿¿ Sights/Mounts: Cantilever mount ¿¿¿ Price: $705 ¿¿¿ Comments: This new lower-priced version of the soft-shooting 11-87 has a black synthetic stock and matte metal finish. The Monte Carlo stock puts your eye in line with a mounted scope.
Benellli M2 (301-283-6981; benelliusa.com)
Action: Inertia autoloader ¿¿¿ Gauge: 3-inch 12 ¿¿¿ Barrel Length: 24 inches ¿¿¿ Sights/Mounts: Drilled and tapped receiver and iron sights ¿¿¿ Price: $1,320 for camo; $1,200 for black ¿¿¿ Comments: The M2 has all the famous Benelli reliability and features the new ComforTech recoil-reducing stock with an optional high-comb insert for a proper fit with optics.
Browning Gold Rifled Deer Hunter (800-333-3288; browning.com)
Action: Gas autoloader ¿¿¿ Gauge: 3-inch 12 and 20 ¿¿¿ Barrel Length: 22 inches ¿¿¿ Sights/Mounts: Cantilever mount ¿¿¿ Price: $1,131 ¿¿¿ Comments: Browning’s Gold is one of the softer-shooting gas autos and a perfect match for high-velocity, hard-recoiling sabot slugs, especially in 20 gauge. Overall, it’s a reliable, good-looking slug gun.
**Beretta Xtrema2 ** (800-237-3882; berettausa.com)
Action: Gas autoloader ¿¿¿ Gauge: 31/2-inch 12 ¿¿¿ Barrel Length: 24 inches ¿¿¿ Sights/Mounts: Cantilever mount ¿¿¿ Price: $1,595 ¿¿¿ Comments: The new Xtrema2 has a redesigned, crisp, clean trigger and a synthetic stock with easy-to-grip rubber inserts in place of checkering. Beretta’s Kick-Off recoil-reducing hydraulic stock is available as an option.