The Buck Stops at Double Ought

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I could hear deer coming. The reckless rustling of the leaves and breaking of sticks made it clear that they were coming fast. I was hunting a single trail in a dense thicket and if the deer chose not to come down that trail I would only catch a glimpse, if I saw them at all.

The deer were spooked and as such did not come ambling single file down the trail that cut its way through the brush 10 yards from my stand as I had hoped. Rather they were charging through the woods at break-neck speed to get away from whatever it was that had frightened them.

The first glimpse was of a doe, the second of a yearling struggling to keep up. The third glimpse was of horn. I followed the buck with the bead on my barrel as best I could and tried to anticipate when he might hit an opening clear enough for a shot. The buck's chest flashed through a hole in the brush and I fired on instinct.

He only made it ten yards after the shot; most of that distance was simply the result of momentum. As I walked to the buck that lay still, never having known what hit him, I was thankful that on this day I had chosen to go in to the field with a shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot. I'm quite sure no other weapon could have made that shot.


When deer hunting in thick cover or traveling through bear country, a shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot
provides hunters with an easy to aim firearm that packs a heavy punch. Photo by Aundrea Humphreys.

Buckshot Ballistics
The effectiveness of buckshot in hunting applications is a point of contention within the shooting community. Some swear by it; some swear at it. As with any big game hunting cartridge the effectiveness depends on three variables: energy, penetration and accuracy.

Buckshot is designed for close range work... period. 12 gauge 00 buckshot is traditionally loaded in a high brass 2 ¾ inch shell with 9 spherical pellets each weighing about 54 grains. Buckshot is designed to allow the shooter to use the aiming mechanism of a shotgun while providing enough knockdown power to ethically dispatch deer sized game.


Buckshot and a pump shotgun might seem old fashioned to some, but when used under the right
conditions the combination is as effective today as it ever was. Photo by Aundrea Humphreys.

The combined weight of the 9 pellets is roughly 486 grains. With an average muzzle velocity of 1,300 fps, the result is point blank energy of 1,800 foot pounds with 1,200 foot pounds being retained at 30 yards. It is important to understand that this energy exists only if all 9 pellets hit the target. For every pellet that misses, the load's energy drops by the energy of one pellet.

Penetration is hard to quantify for 00 buckshot. A spherical projectile has inherently poor penetration capabilities. A pellet that strikes the chest between the ribs might pass through a deer, one that strikes on the thick part of the shoulder blade might not penetrate the vitals at all - I've seen both scenarios.

My own experience has indicated that if shots are kept to a distance in which all 9 pellets strike a 9-inch circle (roughly the size of a deer's boiler room), enough penetration is accomplished to cause the tissue damage required to ensure an ethical harvest.


A uniform pattern evenly distributed around the point of aim ensures an effective
hunting tool and a reliable defense firearm. Photo by Aundrea Humphreys.

Using my Winchester pump 12-guage, which wears a 26-inch barrel and a full choke, I can keep all 9 pellets in a 9 inch circle out to 25 yards. With all 9 pellets striking at 25 yards I'm carrying roughly 1,300 foot pounds of energy. Logic would suggest this is reasonable for deer; my own experience has confirmed it.

It is important to experiment with multiple 00 buckshot loads in the shotgun you intend to use just as you would test various loads in a deer rifle. Just because it is a shotgun doesn't mean you are going to hit where you aim. Point of impact and the quality of the pattern will likely vary from one load to the next and it is critical to find the load that works best in your shotgun.

Same goes for choke. Any given 00 buckshot load will pattern differently based on the choke of the shotgun. Traditional thought holds that modified or improved chokes pattern best and based on my experience this is probably true, but my old Winchester has a full choke and does everything I need it to. Again, testing of different loads with different chokes if possible will indicate the best option.

More modern loads are also available in 3 and 3 ½ inch cases carrying up to 18 00 buckshot. This clearly offers more energy and pattern increasing the terminal potential of the load. A word of warning - good old fashioned 9 pellet 00 buckshot produces noticeable recoil. 3 and 3 ½ inch magnum loads are down right vicious. Spend some time at the range making sure you are up to the task before attempting to hunt with these loads.

2 ¾ inch 9 pellet 00 Buckshot Ballistics

Range

0

10

20

30

40

Velocity

1,300

1,197

1,121

1,061

1,012

Energy

1,824

1,546

1,356

1,215

1,105


Buckshot in the Field
The roots of 00 buckshot run deepest in the southeast states where there is a rich tradition of hound hunting for whitetails in swamps and thickets. This type of hunting produces close range shots at fast moving deer and the weapon of choice among houndsmen is a shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot.

Scopes are a handicap in close quarters hunting and provide little to no value to the hound hunter. Open sights are better, but a firearm shooting a single projectile in thick brush at a moving target severely limits shot opportunity. The front bead of a shotgun in conjunction with the knockdown power of 00 buckshot has proven to be the perfect combination for hound hunting whitetails.

Though most common in the hands of a southern hound hunter, 00 buckshot is useful in other applications as well. My own use of buckshot is as a blocker in deer drives and for stand hunting thick cover.

As a kid I looked forward to doe season every year when a few friends and I would organize a deer drive in the thickets around my farm. The drives were simple. Some of us would dress in blaze orange from top to bottom and push through a cedar grove or brushy ravine while others waited at the other end. The blockers on these drives would see deer that were close and running at full throttle. 00 buckshot enabled me to make shots that simply would have been impossible with a rifle.

Today, with the drive hunts of my youth nothing more than a fond memory; I still hunt the same cedar groves and thick ravines. These days, however, I hunt from strategically placed tree stands and watch trails that are likely to send a calm and unsuspecting deer my way.

Stand hunting is vastly different from either hound hunting or driving and one could argue that an open sighted 30/30 might serve me just as well. When I hunt these areas, however, all of my shots are within 25 yards and 00 buckshot still performs as it always has. Additionally, on the rare occasion the buck I'm after comes through the area on the run, I'm glad to have my old Winchester with me.


A 2 ¾ inch shell loaded with 9 00 pellets can be an effective hunting load
and provide reliable defense in bear country. Photo by Aundrea Humphreys.

Buckshot is Best in Bear Country
If you should ever find yourself bored and looking for entertainment walk in to your local gun shop on a Saturday morning and ask the guy behind the counter (loud enough for everyone to hear) what would be best to use as self defense in bear country. I'll bet you my old Winchester that before the shop keeper can answer, everyone else in the store will have expressed an opinion.

In general there are two "camps" when it comes to what is best to carry in bear country. The first camp would suggest that a handgun shooting a heavy bullet is best. The other camp prefers a shotgun with 00 buckshot and/or slugs. The handgun guys will tout energy and penetration as justification for their opinion. After all, nary a bear in the woods can take a .44 mag between the eyes and live to tell about it. Technically speaking, they are right. The problem I have with handguns in bear country is that very few people can actually shoot them well enough for the energy and penetration to matter. I certainly can't.

Handguns are difficult to shoot accurately when perfect form is used at a still target. To suggest that most people could place a bullet between the eyes of a charging bear given all the variables that would exist in that scenario is optimistic at best.

The shotgun crowd, of which I am one, believes that the odds of providing a face-full of 00 buckshot once a charging bear is within 5 yards are much better than precisely placing one bullet in the brain. At 5 yards buckshot is devastating and infinitely easier to aim than a handgun. There is some debate in this camp as to whether or not the shotgun should have slugs following buckshot, but we all tend to agree that 00 buckshot should come first.

I've been very close to bears in the wild. Thankfully, none of those bears have ever charged. Despite my good luck through the years and a relatively high comfort level when around bears, in the interest of preserving life (my own or that of another) I will always choose to carry a shotgun fully loaded with 00 buckshot with me whenever I'm in grizzly country and not carrying a rifle.

Though I usually choose the tried and true 2 ¾ inch 9 pellet 00 buckshot when deer hunting, I use a 3 inch magnum load with 15 pellets for defense when in grizzly country. If I ever need to pull the trigger I want all the stopping power I can get to end the situation immediately. I don't own a shotgun with a 3 ½ inch chamber, if I did I'd use a 3 ½ magnum load with 18 00 pellets. When it comes to stopping a charging bear there is no such thing as too much power.

Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington all allow outdoor recreationists to carry a firearm for self defense when in grizzly country. A shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot is legal for self defense in all of these states. It is important to note that all of these states dictate that human life must be in imminent danger to use a weapon as self defense against a bear. In Alaska the incident will be investigated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In the lower 48 the incident will be investigated by both the relevant state fish and game department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as grizzlies are a protected species in the U.S. outside of Alaska.

The states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service clearly want recreationists to protect their own life. They assume, however, that anyone voluntarily entering in to grizzly country understands the risk and is accepting a certain level of responsibility in ensuring fair and reasonable treatment of the bears. A bear dead from a wound that is in the front of that animal and that was clearly delivered from short range will certainly exhibit the evidence necessary to be ruled as self defense; a dead bear with a backside full of buckshot will just as assuredly end up with the shooter in jail - and rightfully so.

The debate over buckshot will certainly outlive me. Some will continue to swear by it; others at it. I've used it enough to see first hand that when time is taken to match the load to the shotgun and when it is used under the conditions for which it was designed - the buck stops at double ought.


Doug Humphreys lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia with his wife Aundrea, his son Oren and daughter Amelia. Doug hunts as often as he can in as many places as he can get to and enjoys freelancing for hunting publications.

Comments

B-A-Hunter's picture

00 Buckshot works

Great article. I've only been hunting for 4 years now and I started off with using black powder. I have harvested a couple of deer using black powder and I think it's fun hunting. However, for the last two years since where I hunt now we could only use shotgun I've been hunting with my 12 gauge shotgun which has a full choke. The first year I used 3 1/2 inch 00 buckshot. I was walking to my stand when I heard a deer running my way. I quickly sat down at the first tree I could find. It was still dark out so I quickly shut my hat light off and waited. I heard the deer stop running off to the left of the tree where I sat down. As I waited the sun started to come up slowly. By this time I could make the silhouette out and realized it was a doe. She started grazing and nibbling at some acorns around 15-20 yards in front of me. I sat there quietly waiting for "shooting light/time." I didn't want to lose my hunting priviledges since I hunt on a military base. She kept grazing and then she was out of my view and went behind some brush and I lost sight of her. When she went out of view I relaxed my grip on my gun. Suddenly she's right in front of me stomping and snorting looking right at me. I squeezed my trigger and I thought once the smoke cleard I'd see her on the ground but to my amazement I heard her crashing through the woods. I thought for sure that I hit her because she was so close but I never found a blood trail. After telling some of my hunting buddies my story they told me that because I had a full choke and she was so close it didn't allow the pattern to open up properly and it was more like a "rifle" shot. I don't know, what I do know is that I ended up breaking my finger that day because I relaxed my hand so much because of having short arms that I held the gun right behind the pump action and with the recoil it slid through my glove breaking my finger. I didn't realize it was broken until I loaded another round in the chamber. LOL! Lesson learned about 3 1/2 inch 00 buck shot. Last year I got my first deer using my shotgun and I used 2 3/4 inch 00 buck shot. She was about 30-35 yards. This shot dropped her right in her tracks and like you said all 9 pellets hit the boiler! Thanks for sharing your article and allowing me to comment on it. Sorry my comment is so long.

numbnutz's picture

Great information provided

Great information provided here. I have never hunted with buck shot as all of my shotgun deer hunts were with slugs. But I have target practiced with buckshot and at close ranges it will be devastating like mentioned in this article. My dad has taken deer in his youth with buck shot out of a 12 gauge while he lived in Minnesota. When it comes to self defence I would use it in a home invasion type senerio. For protection in the woods from bears I would rather use bear spray any day of the week. Mentioned in the article was waiting for the bear to charge and firing when the bear was at 5 yards. I'll pass on that.. For me thats a bit too close in case something went wrong. With bear spray (atleast the stuff I bought) it has a 15 foot wide cloud and will shoot out to 40 feet. I like my odds a bit better with a cloud that large. It has been proven to be more effective than using a hand gun for self defence purposes. I'm sure the buck shot however would do the trick I just don't like that the bear would have to be so close before I could effectivly fire the gun. Again great points inthe article and I recommend that everyone should read.

 

Retired2hunt's picture

  I think this article

 

I think this article is very good for the novice buck shot user - that's me!  I have never used buck shot.  I came from a state that only allowed the use of a shotgun for deer hunting (no rifle) so I became proficient using a slug.  The article provides a great deal of information.  Self defense wise this would be a very damaging and stopping method.  To use it for self defense with a bear... I don't know as I think the pepper spray still has more stopping qualities.  I'm certain there is a debate there as well.  Anyhow - great article.

 

groovy mike's picture

Thanks for the article on buckshot Doug.

Thanks for the article on buckshot Doug. 

I don’t believe that it is legal to hunt deer with buckshot in New York State but I think it is a good choice for a self defense and close range varmint eliminating tool.  

You are exactly right that buckshot is designed for close range work, but as you said, when it is used under the right conditions it is as effective today as it ever was.

My own experience on targets matches yours, that all nine pellets strike paper out to 25 yards. Beyond that you start losing pellets on the target.  They simply open up too much to keep all nine on a paper plate beyond 30 yards.  You MIGHT get sufficient penetration with the few that hit at 50 yards, but maybe not too. 

It is good advice to test the load and the gun you want to use because results vary load to load and gun to gun. In my opinion three and three and a half inch loads are more recoil than you want to deal with.  If it is legal in your state and you plan to hunt in an area where all of your shots will be within 25 yards then 00 buckshot is an option. 

All the arguments mentioned in support of using buckshot for bear defense would apply to just about any close range defensive application.  At indoor distances buckshot is devastating and a shotgun is as easy to aim as a handgun or rifle. Short of facing Africa’s big five, I would not feel under gunned with a well 12 gauge that holds more than a few shells.  And the beauty of the shotgun is that you can load for anything from quail to wounded lion if you have to so that you can use the tool that you are intimately familiar with from many seasons afield with it after birds and bunnies if you ever need to pick it up when you need it to stop something bigger.

Makes a great point about

Makes a great point about handgun vs a shotgun. I have always carried a .44 Redhawk and was going to get a Taurus Judge Magnum to carry the .454 in the bush (and a 410GA round or two in there for the occasional grouse). However, thinking about it, a shotgun makes more sence. Montana has had a few incidents this year already, I never had any issue but it is just a matter of odds and time.

 

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