Bolt-Action Slug Shotguns: Savage, Tar-Hunt Get The Nod
With nearly 40 percent of the nation’s 10 million whitetail deer hunters relegated to using shotguns rather than rifles, slug-shooting has advanced markedly. What should you buy?
The bolt-action has become state-of-the-art in slug guns, ostensibly because of the greater inherent accuracy of the solid, vibration-resistant lock-up provided by a bolt, and partly because of price point.
The Browning A-Bolt slug gun was probably the best-designed production bolt gun ever made when it was introduced in 1996. But it was discontinued after just three years of production because, at $700 retail, it simply couldn’t compete with the Marlin 512, Mossberg 695 and Savage 210 on price. The latter three were not only much less expensive (at least 50 percent cheaper), but were seen to rival the Browning’s performance in all but the most experienced hands.
These are not the bolt-action shotguns you might remember from your youth — $100 beginner models by Mossberg and Marlin — although there are some similarities. The addition of good-quality rifled barrels, which in turn allowed the use of high-tech saboted slugs, elevated the bolt-action designs among slug shooters.
The Tar-Hunt RSG-12, a custom bolt-action designed by Pennsylvania gun builder Randy Fritz, is inarguably the best slug gun made — as well it should be with a price tag of $1,795. We included it in the test to provide a standard of efficiency and accuracy against which the Marlin 512P Slugmaster, $370; Mossberg 695, $315; and Savage 210 Master Shot, $400, could be compared.
The state-of-the-art in slugs is represented by high-velocity, saboted designs introduced by Hornady, Winchester, Lightfield, Federal and Brenneke in 2000 and 2001. The Brenneke Super Sabot design was not yet available at test time, so we used the Hornady H2K, Winchester Partition Gold, Lightfield Commander and Federal High-Velocity Barnes EXpander as fodder in the test.
How We Tested
We ran 15 rounds of each slug through a bench-mounted, remote-fired “rail gun” with a 24.5-inch barrel and timed them with an Oehler 35P chronograph system to determine velocities, then also timed them (five-round averages) through each gun. There was no demonstrative difference in velocities, even in the longer-barreled Savage.
The Hornady load, a 300-grain, 0.50-caliber jacketed lead bullet encased in a thick cup-like plastic sabot, is advertised at 2,000 fps out of a 30-inch test barrel (1,930 fps for a 24-inch barrel). But it was actually timed at 2,021 fps in our tests with a substantially shorter barrel. The standard deviation was 24 fps with an extreme spread of 97. However, it was by far the least accurate of any round in the test.
The Winchester load, introduced in 2000, is a 385-grain, 0.50-caliber partition bullet (designed like the Nosler Partition as part of the Combined Technologies agreement between Winchester-Olin and Nosler). The factory projected 1,900 fps in its 30-inch barrel, and the load predictably averaged 1,829 fps in our shorter test barrel. Standard deviation for it was 28 fps with an extreme spread of 88 fps, and the round was quite accurate in both 50- and 100-yard testing.
The Lightfield Commander, the only 3-inch slug in the test, will be available to the public for the first time this year. Featuring a 525-grain lead slug with an attached wad and a one-piece sabot sleeve that isn’t discarded in flight like other sabots, it came with advertised 1,800-fps velocities in factory tests in a 24-inch barrel and was timed at an acceptable 1,778 fps average in our tests. Standard deviation was 37 fps with an extreme spread of 97 fps. It, too, performed well in the accuracy department.
The new Federal High-Velocity Barnes EXpander is actually the 0.75-ounce soft copper Barnes X-Bullet from the brand’s 20-gauge design loaded for 2001 in a 12-gauge hull with an appropriate powder adjustment. Advertised at 1,900 fps (again, a 30-inch barrel figure), we could only come up with 1,733 fps in our test. The standard deviation, however, was an impressive 18 fps and the extreme spread just 56 fps, by far the most consistent round, shot-to-shot, in the test.
The guns were fitted with 6-18x40mm Redfield Golden Five Star target scopes with adjustable objectives. We shot several five-shot groups at 50 yards and again at 100 yards with each load in each gun for comparisons. Accurate slug shooting from a bench takes experience, and our testers included a veteran of more than 30,000 slug rounds and two national caliber bench-rest riflemen with vast slug-shooting experience.
We found that the new high-velocity slugs did not group as tightly in the test guns as does standard velocity (1,450-1,550 fps) sabot ammunition, which commonly will print a single hole at 50 yards. Unseasonably high temperatures, a constant breeze, and faster barrel heating caused by the hotter high-velocity slugs probably contributed to the larger groups. Certainly, shooting five-shot groups rather than three-shotters made a difference since the groups, since they were fired briskly without waiting for barrels to cool between shots. We noticed the groups invariably grew as the fourth and fifth rounds wandered.
Although barrel cleaning is largely unnecessary with saboted ammunition, which leaves no lead fouling, only a slight carbon wash from the powder, we cleaned the guns with Shooter’s Choice MC-7 Bore Solvent after each round of slugs to give the next a clean track. We then shot two fouling rounds to clear the barrel of any remaining bore solvent before shooting for groups.
In addition to an accuracy comparison, we also noted the feel, recoil and trigger pull of each gun while being fired from the bench. Here’s what we thought of them:
Tar-Hunt RSG-12 Professional, $1,795
As noted, this is the Ferrari of slug guns and is noted here as a benchmark rather than in a competitive sense. We tested the base model, the Professional, which retails for $1,795. Other finishes and an optional silhouette stock increase the base price accordingly.
This is actually a rifle chambered for 12 gauge — a Remington 700 on steroids. The receiver and barrel are made of rifle steel, 4140 chrome moly, stronger than conventional shotgun steel, and proofed for more than 90,000-psi chamber pressure, where a shotgun is usually proofed in the 20,000-psi neighborhood.
The bolt employs two front locking lugs with Remington extractors. The 22-inch barrel, rifled with a 1-in-28-inch right-hand twist, is a thick-walled, ported custom creature of barrel maker E.R. Shaw.
The gun features a Jewell rifle trigger set at 3 pounds and is fitted into a McMillan composite stock. It came with Weaver scope bases (same as the Remington 700), and swivel studs, an integral one-shot magazine and a Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad. The test gun was chambered for 2.75-inch ammunition only, but starting this year all RSG-12s will sport 3-inch chambers.
This model is actually the second generation of Fritz’s RSG-12, which he started making in 1990. The gun is also available in 20 gauge; that gun is called the Mountaineer. The current RSG-12 sports a smoother action and more conventional stock, while the original version used a two-shot Marlin steel clip.
Fritz will cut the stock to fit the order and set the trigger according to the buyer’s wishes. The gun performed without a flinch, was flawless in fit and finish, and the rifle-like trigger, well-designed stock, and world-class recoil pad made the hard-recoiling pursuit of slug shooting not only efficient but down-right enjoyable when compared to shooting the production guns.
Marlin 512P Slugmaster, $370
Introduced in 1994, this was the first production bolt-action gun available with a rifled barrel. Modeled after the company’s long-standing Model 55, the most famous version of which is the 32-inch barreled Goose Gun, the 512 features a ported 21-inch (1:28 rifling) barrel and two-shot detachable box magazine.
The 8-pound gun was originally built on a checkered birch stock (a la the Model 55 Goose Gun) but now comes with an ergonomic black synthetic stock that helps both aesthetically and with heft. The stock was well thought out, in our view. It seemed to be stiff in all the right places while providing a welcome handful in the forearm and grip.
The synthetic-stocked version, which is fitted with an ventilated recoil pad, is known as the 512P. It features fiber-optic rifle sights with a hooded front bead. We saw the sights as so much window dressing, since rifled barrel slug guns should be scoped. They simply cannot be aimed finely enough with open sights to determine their accuracy advantage over smoothbores.
Being an adaptation of a cheaper previous design, the bolt was a typical shotgun type, featuring no locking lugs. The bolt locks up when the handle is dropped into the curved receiver cut, providing all the stiffness needed when dealing with shotgun chamber pressures below 14,000 psi.
On the downside, the trigger was heavy at 7+ pounds yet crisp, a situation that a competent gunsmith can lighten easily. Another feature that we didn’t like was the awkward side-saddle scope mount that necessitates special Weaver bases and rings.
Suggested retail for the 512P is in the $370 neighborhood, but we’ve seen them for $100 less than that on dealer shelves. Even with its shortcomings, the Marlin functioned the best of the production guns in the test when we weighed its accuracy, function, and features against the Savage and Mossberg products.
Savage 210 Master Shot, $400
Introduced in 1996, this gun is essentially a 12-gauge version of the company’s long-standing 110 series bolt-action rifles. Unlike the Tar-Hunt, the Savage 210 does not use rifle steel but does feature many of the same characteristics of the 110 rifle — a 60-degree bolt rotation, 24-inch rifled barrel (1-in-35 right-hand twist), and black, glass-filled polymer synthetic stock with a ventilated recoil pad. The suggested retail for the Savage 210 is around $400, and can usually be found on dealer shelves in the same general retail neighborhood as the Marlin 512.
Fed from a two-shot integral box magazine (which destroys the aesthetics and ease of carrying the gun, in our view), the 7.5-pound Savage 210 is built around a front-locking bolt that features three locking lugs and controlled feed with left- and right-hand extractors. There are no rifle sights on the gun, and none are needed because it should be fitted with a scope.
This is the sleekest slug gun on the market, if you can ignore the clumsy box magazine, and it shot well in the test. The trigger was a relatively heavy 6 pounds, but we found it to be crisp. We also noted it can be easily adjusted.
One glaring drawback, however, was the one-piece scope rail, which traversed the bolt port, continually interfering with ejection of spent hulls. We also question the ports on either side of the receiver near the chamber. Called gas ports, we hope they are not actually venting anything at that critical position. They appear to be slots cut to accommodate the gun’s sizable ejectors.
Mossberg 695, $315
Like the Marlin, this Mossberg is a descendant of a much cheaper bolt action formerly in the New Haven, Connecticut, company’s extensive line, the Model 495. Introduced in 1996, one year after the company’s smoothbore Maverick, which essentially served as test mechanism, the Mossberg 695 is the least expensive and biggest seller among the modern bolt-action slug guns. Price point and a keen and innovative marketing approach makes Mossberg the world’s leading seller of shotguns. The suggested retail of $315 is often $50 more than the price you’ll find at the dealers.
The 695 features a 22-inch rifled barrel (1-in-34 twist) that is ported in a unique pattern near the muzzle. The gun comes with a two-shot clip that fits into a goiter-like swell in the receiver and, like the Marlin, offers fiber-optic rifle sights in addition to Weaver-style scope bases.
The gun features a black synthetic stock with a schnabel-nose forend and an ample recoil pad. All three guns have 3-inch chambers, and there is word that the 695 will feature a 3.5-inch chamber next year.
The Mossberg 695 we tested was a bear to shoot. The 8.5-pound trigger (it felt “like the last turn on a sardine can,” quipped one shooter) featured so much creep that it functioned like a two-stage unit, and the bulky bolt constantly failed to fully eject spent hulls. Actually, we think the problem was far more pronounced in this gun than before Mossberg “fixed” the same gun’s poor ejection in the late 1990s.
Also, the holes for the scope mounts on our test gun were so far out of line that the $400 target scope could not be adjusted to zero at 50 yards, meaning that we had to hold about 4 inches off line to keep it on paper at that short distance.
On top of that, the 695 stock’s low comb greatly accentuated kick and felt recoil. Our testers said it was by far the worst-recoiling of the guns tested. Nevertheless, the gun shot some good groups.
Gun Tests Recommends
Mossberg 695, $315. Don’t Buy. As tested, we’d definitely advise against buying this gun. Despite its relative accuracy and low price, the awkward configuration and poor workmanship made it difficult and very unpleasant to shoot.
Marlin 512P, $370. Conditional Buy. We’d pick the Marlin 512P as a second choice behind the Savage, given the 512P’s helpful ergonomics and ease of operation.
Savage 210 Master Shot, $400. We liked the Savage 210 marginally better than the Marlin 512P despite the Savage’s clear ejection problem and unsightly box magazine. The bolt throw, trigger and lock-up are far superior to either the Marlin or Mossberg, in our estimation.
Tar-Hunt RSG-12 Professional, $1,795. Conditional Buy. This is a superb product, every aspect of which we like. Though it is an apple compared to the production-gun oranges tested elsewhere, we nonetheless recommend you buy the RSG if price is not an object. However, for most shooters, price is a factor to consider, and the gun’s cost is the only reason we don’t recommend it unconditionally.