Back before the invention of the compound bow, shooting a whitetail nearly always took burning gunpowder. In that regard, you had just a couple good options from which to pick: a centerfire rifle or a smoothbore shotgun.
Due to geography, finances or both, some hunters could use whichever of these struck their fancy; they not only owned both types of guns but also hunted where centerfires were legal for deer. But millions of other hunters lacked that option.
They either didn't own a rifle larger than a sublegal .22 rimfire or hunted in a part of North America — typically the Midwest or Northeast — where concerns over public safety precluded the use of long-range centerfire rifles on whitetails.
So the big question for many deer hunters wasn't which gun to use. Rather, it was simply what to shove into that bead-sighted bird gun.
While slugs had been around since the Brenneke design was introduced in 1898, across whitetail country buckshot was widely favored. For hunting in a thicket or shooting deer pushed by fellow hunters or dogs, 00 buckshot was hard to beat.
With the load being launched from a choked pipe with no rifling, a covey of pellets had better odds of at least drawing blood than did a single slug.
Then, during the Depression, along came the Foster slug. Designed for the choked smoothbores of the era, this slug slightly expanded the shotgun's effective range in the deer woods.
But the rifled slug barrel, whose introduction coincided with a boom in deer numbers later in the century, was the real turning point. Its ability to deliver greater accuracy led to a wave of innovation in guns, ammunition and sighting systems.
Today's well-equipped slug guns make killing a deer at 100 yards predictable. Even some distance beyond that is doable for a skilled shooter with the right setup. This is in contrast to the smoothbore days, when cleanly downing a deer outside 75 yards was a real trick.
It did happen back then, though, and occasionally on a special buck. For instance, in 1971, Chester Veach made an 83-yard shot with his 20-gauge smoothbore to fell a huge non-typical in Ohio's Pike County.
That massive deer scored 267 0/8 Boone & Crockett points, claiming the overall state record. With such a giant in front of him, it's easy to understand why Chester decided to let one fly.
While no major record-keeping group lists separate rankings for shotgun kills, the Veach buck was in effect the world record in that category. But he held the title for just two years. In 1973, Larry Raveling slugged an even bigger non-typical in Clay County, Iowa.
Featured on our April-June 1983 cover, the Raveling buck had a net score of 282 0/8. That made him not just the world's top shotgun buck but also the No. 1 hunter-taken whitetail by any method to that point.
The shotgun mark now stands north of 300 inches, thanks to Tim Beck's 2012 buck from Huntington County, Indiana. Tim's 37-pointer nets 303 7/8, making him No. 3 among all hunter kills. (Only Tony Lovstuen's 307 4/8 muzzleloader buck from Iowa and Jerry Bryant's 304 5/8 crossbow giant from Illinois top him.)
So when it comes to bagging great bucks, history shows slugs can get the job done.
Since North American Whitetail came onto the scene in 1982, other firearms options have encroached upon what was once strictly shotgun country. Starting in the mid-1980s, muzzleloading got its own facelift, with inline ignition systems and better barrels, bullets and propellants.
Soon afterwards, an industry push for separate blackpowder seasons encouraged many slug hunters to adopt muzzleloaders as their sole deer guns.
More recently, a number of straight-walled cartridges — .444 Marlin, .45/70, .500 S&W, etc. — have been added to the list of legal options for deer hunters in certain places, including Ohio.
This fall, Indiana even is letting hunters use select centerfire cartridges (those shooting .243 or .308 bullets). Handgun hunting for whitetails also has seen a rise in popularity, as ownership of such firearms has spiked.
But while there are now more options than ever in places where standard rifles remain illegal, don't dismiss the modern slug gun as a deer killer. Properly outfitted and dialed in, it's a highly reliable tool. Walls adorned with huge racks and freezers filled with tasty venison will attest to that.
Serious hunting situations call for serious equipment, and the Winchester SX3 Cantilever Buck is right at home in the deer woods.
Available in 12 or 20 gauge, the SX3 features a self-adjusting active valve system allowing for use of a wide variety of shotshells. The Weaver-style rail is also rock solid for mounting optics such as this Nikon SlugHunter. For hunting sans scope, the flip-up adjustable rear sight works in tandem with the TruGlo fiber optic front bead.
Among this model's other notable features is its all-weather textured synthetic stock. The material is well suited to the harsh weather hunters often face during mid- to late-fall gun seasons in the Midwest and Northeast. A provided set of cast/drop shims also makes adjusting the length of pull a breeze.