Shotguns vs Rifles for Deer Hunting, which is better?

Rifle and shotgun on wal with hunting hat.

At 16 years old, I started deer hunting with my shotgun and I bought my first hunting rifle 2 years later. Deer hunting is a family tradition that I will pass down to my children.

A rifle is more accurate and has a much further range than a shotgun, but both work for deer hunting. A smoothbore shotgun will kill a deer at 50-yards with slugs and buckshot, a rifled shotgun will go to 200-yards, and most hunting rifles will kill deer to 500-yards. Shotguns have more short-range energy, but rifles retain energy longer.

Shotguns and rifles are polar opposites and hunting with them are two completely different skill sets.

Is a Shotgun Good for Deer Hunting?

Shotguns are highly effective for close-range deer hunting. Depending on the shotgun and ammo, the maximum effective range is between 50 and 200-yards. In some states, like Michigan, shotguns are the traditional deer hunting firearm.

Depending on where you are from, hunting deer with a shotgun may sound normal or it may seem silly. I have friends out west who scoff at the idea of hunting deer with a shotgun. But around here, half the hunters go in the woods with a shotgun looking for their trophy buck.

I killed almost all my deer with a shotgun. I was actually very impressed with how well it went. I fired and they went down. I had been using a smoothbore 12-gauge pump shotgun made in 1962. I gotta admit, it went pretty well for not knowing what the heck I was doing.

I just bought some cheap buckshot and slugs, took two practice shots with the slugs, and staggered buckshot/slug in the magazine (because some old guy told me to). I hadn’t pattered the buckshot and I wasn’t exactly a shotgun marksman, but somehow I ended up with 2 deer downed at last light on my first ever firearm hunt.

With a little practice, I got better and was able to bag a buck each year for the next few seasons. I still used cheap buckshot and slugs. They worked fine. Some hunters get angry if you ask about using buckshot, claiming that it will only wound all the deer. I’ve wounded deer with a bow, but never with my shotgun.

It’s all about knowing the effective limits of your equipment and staying within an ethical distance. In other words, keep it close and it will work every time.

How Far Away Will a Rifle Kill a Deer?

Most deer rifles have a max effective distance of 200 to 500-yards. A .223 and 30-30 is good to 200-yards, and a .308 or .270 can take deer past 500-yards. Modern rifles are highly accurate tools and with a good scope and quality ammo, they have no problem making a good shot at 500-yards as long as it’s within the shooter’s skill.

The average distance for a deer shot with a rifle is about 200-yards, but many hunters regularly make 400-yard shots. Modern rifles shoot bullets that are much faster and significantly more aerodynamic than what a shotgun can launch. The ammo tends to be a bit more expensive, but they are more capable of hitting a small target.

A rife is generally slower to aim and fire than a shotgun with buckshot, but they can certainly shoot past 50-yards with no problem. Generally, if you will likely have a shot opportunity at or past 100 yards, you should probably just use a rifle if you are able to. In the areas where I hunt, it’s unlikely to get a clear shot past 50 yards, so a shotgun should do fine.

That’s fairly common in the upper midwest. And, it’s not just due to the expected short range. States like Michigan have a ridiculous amount of hunters out, usually 600,000 in the southern 1/3 of the state. It’s so densely hunted that traditional rifles are not allowed for deer. You have to use either a shotgun or certain short-range rifle options.

When fired from a level shooting position, buckshot and foster-type slugs generally hit the ground at around 150-yards and rifled slugs can go 250 to 300-yards before hitting the dirt. By that point, they’ve lost at least 75 percent of their energy, and about another 35 percent from touching the ground. Not much downrange danger at that point.

This Remington Express 00 buckshot killed my first 4 deer as a youth.

How Far Away Will a Shotgun Kill a Deer?

A 12-gauge shotgun with a good 00 buckshot or a foster slug is effective to about 50-yards for deer. 20-gauge shotguns have a bit less distance. With improved sights, a foster slug is good to 100-yards. A rifled shotgun firing a sabot can be effective to 200-yards. Shotguns are close-range weapons but work well within their limits.

First, let’s talk buckshot. BUckshot is a very close-range option for deer and is really only functional out to 50 yards. Not all buckshot is good that far either. It really depends on how much the buckshot spreads out. Once the pattern gets 30 inches, you really shouldn’t go further.

Depending on the gun and ammo, that’s usually between 30 and 50 yards. In some instances, I’ve seen Buckshot hold a good pattern out to 70-yards, but that’s not too common.

The one to avoid is Wolf buckshot. That stuff doesn’t use a shot-cup and it’s honestly not good past 10 yards. Don’t use Wolf buckshot. I’ve done well with cheap Remington and Winchester 00 buckshot in a 2-3/4 inch shell. You’ll need to pattern it to see how it shoots for you.

I wrote a full-length article on hunting deer with buckshot. Here’s a link to it.

Shotgun slugs are very effective for deer within their short range. You could consider a shotgun with slugs to be a poor man’s rifle. Not super accurate and short-range only, but they work. I’ve proven that. My shotgun is a smoothbore so I use foster-style slugs, often erroneously called rifled slugs.

They have spiral grooves on them, but it’s nothing about imparting a spin. It’s actually just grooved so it will squeeze down if you shoot it through a tight bore, and the groves are spiral as a marketing gimmick. They don’t spin.

Foster slugs are front-heavy like a badminton birdie. That keeps them straight-ish in flight. If you shoot a rifled slug through a smooth bore, it will tumble in the air and lose accuracy because it’s not stable without a spin. But, you can shoot either in a rifled barrel. Rifling will improve the accuracy of a foster slug. Just remember to clean the lead out.

I’m a good aim with a shotgun. I can hit an 8-inch target with my smoothbore and slug at 50-yards pretty much every time. Many shooters cannot the max distance for a slug is the furthest distance you can get all shots in an 8-inch target. For reference, that’s a regular paper plate.

With a red dot, scope, or basic sights, you can easily stretch to 100-yards with a foster slug and 200-yards with a rifled slug. Past those distances, the bullet loses too much energy. A foster slug will lose 75 percent of its energy by 100-yards. Brenneke slugs hold energy better than a foster, but not as good as a sabot. I personally prefer the Brenneke.

I like shotguns a lot, but they have a solid recoil with heavy hunting loads.

Shotguns Have More Recoil Than Most Hunting Rifles

A 12-gauge shotgun hunting load generates about 15-30 percent more recoil than the average hunting rifle. A standard load of 00 buckshot has as much recoil as a 30-06, about 20 pounds. Most 12-gauge slugs recoil near 35 pounds, which is more than the 300 Win Mag.

Shotguns are funny things. they can have insane recoil and incredible energy at the muzzle, but they just shed energy incredibly fast. In the early days, Shotguns were transformed into “safari guns” capable of taking rhinos and elephants. They did this with 6-gauge and 4-gauge slugs, and at a close distance. The recoil could break a shoulder.

My old 12-gauge shotgun has enough potential to make a clean kill on any animal in North America, including the largest bison or grizzly. There are loads designed for that, but they come with a hard price, painful recoil.

The most powerful shotgun load I’ve seen in production fired a 600-grain (1 3/8 oz) slug at 1890 fps with 4,750 pounds of energy. In my shotgun, that would generate about 85-90 pounds of recoil. That’s more recoil than a 50BMG but less than half the energy.

It’s truly crazy just how versatile a good 12-gauge is. I can get light loads to hunt squirrels, or I could get a full-power slug to take a 2,000-pound bison. That’s why the shotgun is traditionally so popular.

These are cheap options, but I killed many deer with those cheap Winchester slugs.

Buskshot vs Slugs for Deer Hunting

Buckshot and slugs both work for deer hunting. Slugs are definitely a further distance option. If you have a good sight on your shotgun instead of the traditional front bead, slugs would be the more effective option. Slugs damage more meat than buckshot. If using a slug, aim for the lungs, just behind the shoulder to save as much meat as possible.

You might also be interested in these articles: Best Shot for Rabbit Hunting Where to Aim on a Deer with Buckshot

Jordan Buck

Jordan Buck is an outdoor writer, a man of faith, and a family man. He grew up hunting, fishing, and trapping. Jordan has taught marksmanship, woodsmanship, and self-defense classes. He has earned black belts in four martial arts and is a certified Krav Maga instructor. He also runs his own Gun Blog and YouTube Channel. Jordan enjoys giving his time and resources to help others and has spent 15 years volunteering in a boy's mentoring program He is and will always be an American Patriot. MOLON LABE

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