When gun deer season opens at sunrise Nov. 22, most Western New York hunters will be out with their trusty slug gun.
Rifles are allowed in Adirondack and Catskill regions, and some gunners prefer to take a deer with a pistol, but the majority of deer devotees will bring home their harvests with a shotgun.
There has been an evolution in shotgun single-projectile shooting. The old "punkin ball" slug has been upgraded with rifle-like technology. Manufacturers and field hunter-guides have added refinements and techniques to improving shotgun deer hunting, but few have the expertise and hunting time in the field as Endicott outdoor writer Dave Henderson.
A guide on hunting trips in 25 states and seven Canadian Provinces, Henderson has written hundreds of articles on shotgun shooting and three books on shotguns.
His most recent text, "Shotgunning for Deer," a 2003 Stoeger publication, has information useful to all shooters, from the newest rookie to the most knowledgeable and experienced shotgunner.
Anyone who has hunted for deer with a shotgun for more than 20 years recalls the era of the punkin ball, a round ball loaded into a paper shotgun shell.
Fired through smoothbore shotguns, these ball-type slugs gave shooters fits trying to find the right barrel and loads to achieve some degree of accuracy. Nonetheless, practice and patience gave gunners good hitting power with these slug balls. The New York State record typical buck, which stood as a world record for some time, was taken with a punkin ball in 1939.
Henderson begins a chapter "Why Use a Shotgun?" with the line: "Hunting Deer with a shotgun is like going to bat in a baseball game with a broomstick."
All hunting gun writers of Henderson's youth -- Jack O'Connor, Warren Page, Elmer Keith, Col. Askins, and many others -- keyed on big-game hunts with rifles such as the .270 or the .458 for really big game.
Pending legislation in New York State might allow area hunters to use high-powered rifles for big game hunts along the Southern Tier, but Empire state hunters from the Finger Lakes to the southwest corner of Chautauqua County now must go with shotguns when whitetail gun season opens.
Suburban sprawl has prompted municipalities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and even Helena, Mont., and Edmonton, Alberta, to impose shotgun-only hunting areas near population centers.
Fortunately, shotgun slug shooting has seen vast improvements. Henderson writes, "Development of slug loads and slug-shooting shotguns have advanced more in the last 20 years than any other aspect of the firearms industry."
Foster slugs go back to 1933 and production of the Original Brenneke slug began in 1935. Upgrades and redesigns in the 1980s and '90s led to an array of modern versions of these two slug types.
Factor in rifled-barrel designs in place of smoothbore shotgun shooting tubes and the modern shotgun can be fine-tuned to accuracy close to high-powered rifles -- with 12-gauge bores larger than rifles used for lions and cape buffalo.
Despite all these advancements, Henderson points out that 60 percent of shotgun slug sales are still of conventional full-bore slugs fired through smoothbore shotguns. Buckshot, illegal for use when big-game hunting in New York State, represents only about three percent of shotgun loads in use.
At close range, buckshot can be devastating, but Henderson cites the single slug as the most effective load for deer and other big game taken at a distance.
The differences in barrels available are vast. Henderson suggests care in selecting the best load for the bore and going with an open choke to send slugs accurately and consistently through a smoothbore.
A fixed rifled barrel used exclusively for deer slugs is best, and mounting sights is as important as barrel selection.
He attempts to debunk myths of long distance kills with little practice. "Shotguns and slugs are short-range ordnance, regardless of what you're reading," Henderson asserts. Modern slug gear is virtually light years ahead of yesterday's slugs, but "the new stuff may not threaten rifle performance."
Simple tips such as proper handling of slugs make the difference between a precise hit or a missed shot.
These and other pointers make "Shotgunning for Deer" a must read for area big-game getters. Readers can find it at area bookstores or by ordering directly from Henderson (800-735-5519 or HendersonOutdoors.com) for an autographed copy.