Straight Wall Rifles vs. Slug Guns for Deer Hunting

I grew up in the heyday of bullet hunting. Whitetail populations began to explode in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in suburban areas, like in my home state of Ohio. Since centerfire rifles were considered dangerous for whitetail hunting in populated areas, shotgun slugs were the best choice.

The sudden demand for slugs led to some improvements to their design. The Foster-style lead bullet, never particularly accurate at range, gave way to sabotage bullets that could be fired through rifled shotgun barrels and kill deer at 200 yards. Adjustable sights replaced single-bead front sights, and scopes and red dots replaced adjustable sights for increased accuracy at longer ranges.

The widespread passage of laws allowing the use of straight-walled cartridges for deer hunting (Illinois is the most recent country to legalize straight-walled cartridges for the 2023 season) has thrown the future of rifled bullets and sabots into question. . After Ohio began allowing straight-wall cartridges in 2014, interest in rifles chambered for .450 Bushmaster, .45/70, .444 Marlin, and other straight-wall cartridges grew rapidly. Likewise, single-shot and lever-action rifles chambered in .44 Magnum, .45 Colt, and other legal hunting calibers were also in high demand.

The .350 Legend was released in 2019.
Winchester released their .350 Legend in 2019. brad fitzpatrick

The rise of the legend .350

In 2019, Winchester responded to the demand for straight-wall ammunition by releasing the .350 Legend, a cartridge that pushed a 150-grain bullet at 2,325 fps, with a velocity of 1,800 feet per pound. of energy in the mouth. He dropped just 8 inches at 200 yards when zeroed out at 100.

The .350 Legend is anemic compared to some bottlenecked cores developed at the same time, such as the 6.5 PRC and .300 PRC. But it produced enough power to consistently kill whitetails out to 250 yards and did so without generating much recoil. The recoil energy produced by a 7-pounder rifle chambered in .350 Legend (150 grains) is a manageable 10½ pounds, similar to that of a .30/30 of the same bullet weight. More importantly, its 1.71-inch box met the requirements for straight wall hunting in states like Michigan and Ohio. It was also affordable for hunters. When the .350 Legend debuted, it cost $1 per round. That price has nearly doubled since then, but you can still buy a box of 20 for less than $40.

Additionally, affordable bolt pistols and single shots such as Winchester’s XPR, Ruger’s American Ranch, and CVA Scout were available in .350 Legend, and the cartridge could also be run in AR rifles. I have shot several .350 Legend rifles from different manufacturers and with different ammunition. They could all shoot groups of less than 2 inches at 100 yards. Some shot below 1½ inches and some flirted with 1-inch groups.

Today, you can find straight wall ammunition in a variety of offerings, and they can also be fired from a number of platforms, including lever action, pistols, semi-automatic rifles, and bolt action. Here is a list of the most common loads used by deer hunters:

  • .44 Remington Magnum
  • .357 magnum
  • .454 Casul
  • .45-70 Govt.
  • .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum
  • .500 Smith & Wesson
  • .450 Bushmaster
  • .444 Marlin
  • Legend .350
  • 10mm automatic
Straight walls are effective up to 250 yards.
Straight walls can kill whitetails up to 250 yards. brad fitzpatrick

Slugs vs straight walls

Straight walls aren’t going to win any PRS matches, but you don’t need them. You just need to be able to hit the vitals of a Whitetail at 200 yards with one. For example, during Outdoor Life’s 2019 gun test, the Winchester XPR chambered in .350 Legend averaged 1.89-inch, five-shot groups at 100 yards. This isn’t stellar accuracy for most hunting rifles, but it’s as good or better performance than you’d get from your average BB gun. The chart below shows how the .350 Legend and .45/70 compare to rifled slugs and sabots in terms of accuracy and recoil energy (I used Bison’s ballistic calculator to determine recoil energy).

A look at how straight walls compare to slugs.
This is how straight walls compare to slugs. brad fitzpatrick

There are some interesting takeaways from the chart above. First, the .350 Legend is by far the lightest shell on the list at 150 grains, and it has a higher muzzle velocity than any of the others. The two 12-gauge bullets produce 700 ft-lbs. more muzzle energy than the .350 Legend and 240 at nearly 400 ft./lb. more than the .45/70.

However, the ballistic advantage changes at the 200-yard mark. The .350 now has more energy than Federal’s 1-ounce rifled bullet and the .45/70 hits with more energy than any other load on the list. The .350 also shoots flatter than bullets. At 200 yards, the .350 drops just 7.6 inches when zeroed out at 100 yards. The 12-gauge Hornady sabot bullet drops just under a foot at 200 yards when zeroed at 100, about the same as the .45/70. Hornady’s 20-gauge Custom Lite bullet drops more than 18 inches, and the 1-ounce lead 12-gauge rifled bullet drops more than 2 feet at 200 yards.

As you can see from the graph, the 12-gauge and .45/70 bullets produce much more recoil than the .350 Legend, although Hornady’s 20-gauge Custom Lite projectile produces only slightly more recoil than the .350 Legend.

A 20 caliber bullet pistol.
Could 20 caliber BB guns like this fall out of favor with deer hunters? brad fitzpatrick

Do slug guns have a future in deer hunting?

It is clear that some bullets have more recoil and are ballistically inferior to straight walls, especially at range. So aside from versatility, what does shooting a slug gun really offer? That’s a good question for ammunition manufacturers, so I asked Winchester and Hornady where they see the future of slugs.

“We’re certainly not moving away from slugs,” says Nathan Robinson, marketing manager for Winchester. Robinson says the demand for slugs is softening, but it’s not going to go away. In fact, he says, Winchester is in the process of developing new and more advanced shotgun slugs for hunters this fall.

“From a technology perspective, everyone wins by going to the straight wall,” Robinson said. “However, you can continue to use your slug gun and we will continue to make the ammunition that shooters and hunters want.”

Hornady’s marketing and communications manager, Seth Swerczek, isn’t as optimistic about the future of BB guns. But Hornady plans to keep offering slugs as long as demand remains.

“My answer is speculative, but I would say that the market for slugs is going to shrink,” says Swerczek. “Although I don’t think it will happen at a fast pace. Yes, straight-wall cartridges will likely increase effective range slightly and generally provide better accuracy at all ranges, but there are still plenty of slug guns out there and not everyone will jump on the straight-wall bandwagon all at once. ”

I also spoke with a gun manufacturer that sells BB guns and straight wall rifles. Without disclosing exact numbers, the gunmaker confirmed that they are seeing an increase in straight-walled gun sales and a slowdown in firearm purchases. Additionally, the manufacturer noted that the development of new BB guns has slowed while the straight-wall rifle offerings continue to progress and evolve.

Slug pistols still offer versatility

Even though straight walls are gaining ground among deer hunters, there is still a lot of value in owning a good shotgun. If there’s a semi-automatic or pump in your gun cabinet, there’s one big advantage over a rifle: You can carry the same gun for spring turkeys, squirrels, rabbits, ducks, and geese as you do for deer season. The only extras you’ll need for whitetails are a rifled barrel, if you fire sabots, and an optic for increased accuracy. As someone who hunts across the country, I can also tell you that it’s nice to travel with just one gun. If you’re going bear hunting in Maine or coming to Ohio and hunting deer and also want to shoot some grouse or duck during your trip, you can do it all with just one shotgun.

Read next: The best budget hunting rifles put to the test

Slugs are still popular.
Slugs are still popular deer loads, but straight walls are gaining ground. brad fitzpatrick

The most popular straight wall rifles and slug guns

Since deer hunters can legally shoot whitetails with straight wall cartridges in most states, and hunters still use slug guns in states that previously only had shotguns, here is a list of the rifles and Most popular bullet guns for whitetail hunters. Just remember that each state has its own set of restrictions on the size of the straight wall cartridge and the guns you can hunt with. So check the rules before you go.

Legend .350


American Ruger Ranch Rifle

Synthetic Mossberg Patriot

CVA Explorer


Marlin 1895 SBL

Winchester 1886 short rifle

Henry Side Door Lever Action

.450 Bushmaster

Waterfall CVA

Ruger AR-556MPR

slug guns

Mossberg 500 Country/Deer Combo

Stoeger M3000R

Cantilever Dollar Winchester SX4

henry single shot

Browning Maxus II striated deer

Wild 212/220