WHERE I GREW UP, IT WAS SHOTGUN-ONLY hunting on state land, and we didn’t have any private dirt to hunt deer. My uncle and I lusted after TarHunt slug guns, but could hardly afford one. That first year I hunted deer, I bought a rifled slug barrel for my 12-gauge Remington 870 instead. I still remember that first shock of recoil. It was vicious.
In 2010, Savage debuted the bolt-action 20-gauge 220 shotgun— and saved the shoulders of all us slug-county deer hunters. It’s old news now, but advances in 20-gauge slug design coupled with good 1:24 twist barrels quickly outdated the 12-gauge as a slug gun. As shotgun wizard Randy Wakeman put it back in the day, given rifles of the same weight, “All a 12 gauge gets you in a rifled slug gun, with this load, is more recoil than a 20 gauge. No advantage whatsoever in ballistics or lethality for today’s deer hunter.”
My uncle was sold, and bought a 220 right away. It was fickle and only liked Remington AccuTips, but boy did it like them. It reliably grouped them at 1-inch at 100 yards. At our gun club, we pock-marked an 8-inch pie plate at 300 yards with every shot we took. I was a grad student and couldn’t afford a box of slugs, let alone a new gun, but Uncle Tim’s Savage had my dad’s attention. Dad went out and bought one right after that trip to the range.
Despite the new gun, my old man didn’t take to deer hunting. (He’s a crack wingshot and hell on turkeys, but never liked sitting for hours and not seeing deer—as is the way on public land and in the northeast in general) My gain. I carried that Savage 220 on every deer hunt I went on for at least six years.
It didn’t like AccuTips, but shot Federal Barnes Expanders very well. I reckon I’ve killed more deer with that setup than anything else in my gun safe—from spitting close under a treestand, out to 160 yards or so.
The Savage 220 was then, and remains today, the finest factory-ready slug gun for deer hunting on the market.
Yes, you can spend expectantly more for a custom build like a TarHunt, but that’s not in the cards for most of us unless we hit the lottery.
What makes the Savage special is the price, and the raw accuracy when paired with the right slugs, and the excellent trigger. Turned all the way down, the AccuTrigger on mine breaks just under 3 pounds, but the current AccuTrigger on the 220 is adjustable from 1.5 to 6 lbs.
I took my dad’s 220 out opening day this year, and before 9 a.m. had two down with offhand heart shots at 80 yards. I don’t consider myself a crack shot, but the 220 points, shots, and hits with devastating effect. Over the years I’ve helped it some—fine-tuned it, really— all things you shotgun-only deer hunters might want to consider.
The first-year 220s had feeding issues. Savage has since corrected that, but I never sent my dad’s gun to them for work. I did have a gunsmith jewel the bolt to slick things up. It helped, but not much.
Then a friend showed me a trick that really helped her feed: a thin line of Super Lube on the bolt rails. Grease the rails, work the bolt, and wipe away any grease that leeches into the mag well. Since doing this at the start of deer season, it’s never jammed in the field.
THE SCOPE BASE
The extra-long 20-guage action requires an extra-long scope—or a scope rail. When the 220 first came out, the only option was from Evolution Gun Works.
Weaver, Leupold, and Warne, have options on the market now, too. New 220s ship with Warne bases, but I recommend the rail from EGW or Warne. This allows you to mount shorter scopes—scopes that make more sense on a 200-yard slug gun—like my compact Leupold VX-3 2.5-8×36 scope. It’s the first scope we ever put on my dad’s 220. Every year I think about changing it, and every year I decide it’s perfect.
The factory plastic stock on the original 220 won’t win any beauty contests, and after all, I’ve always wanted a TarHunt—so with this Savage, I recently tried to emulate that with a walnut stock.
For this I turned to Boyd’s excellent Gunstock Configurator website. They inlet 14 different stocks for the 220. I went with the Heritage in Claro XX Walnut and high-gloss finish, and was very happy when it arrived.
I took the stock to my friend and gunsmith Justin Potter, at Valley Armament in Sayre, PA for a bedding job.
He used an ACRAGLAS Kit to match the action to the stock—an investment that paid off at the range.
These Savage slug guns are famously picky when it comes to ammo. Factory fresh, this gun would not shoot Remington AccuTips worth a flip, but my Uncle’s 220 had them kissing MOA from the very first box. His didn’t shoot the now-out-of-production Federal Barnes Expanders very well, while mine loved them. Neither of our factory guns shot the Hornady SSTs.
Justin’s recent bedding job changed all that. My dad’s 220 now shoots everything I’ve fed it—except Winchesters—within minute of deer, including a sub-inch group at 100 yards with the new Remington Premier Expander sabot slugs in 3-inch.
The 3-inch AccuTips and 2 -3/4-inch Hornady Super Performance MonoFlex loads weren’t far behind in bench accuracy, either. More importantly, the two Remington and Hornadys all grouped especially well together—they have the same point of impact at 100 yards.
Now, I can confidently switch between loads during deer season and not worry about re-sighting my shotgun. This, to me, is a bigger win than even MOA accuracy, as good 20-guage slugs cost around $3 to $4 a shot these days, so versatility means I don’t have ammo around I can’t hunt with.