Mossberg’s M500 FLEX—combined with
Hornady’s “Custom Lite” sabot slugs—is
a black bear buster.
In the annals of shotgun literature, less attention has been given to slugs and slug shooting than any other aspect of shotgunning. ’Tis a pity, because slug ammunition, slug guns and specialized slug barrels have made dramatic advances during the last few years.
If you’ve ever wanted to own a “smack-down stopper” and didn’t want to plunk down your life’s savings on a big-bore double rifle, consider a slug gun. Why? Take a standard 1-1/8-ounce 12-gauge, 2-inch Foster-type slug weighing 492 grains with a starting diameter of 0.730-inch. Then accelerate it to 1,700 fps at the muzzle. The resulting muzzle energy is 3,080 foot-pounds, and it’s still delivering 1,149 ft-lbs at the 100-yard mark with a bullet almost 3/4-inch in diameter.
Holt, his M500 FLEX slug gun and one very nice Alberta black bear.
The handiest, all-around hunting binocular is a compact 8×30.
Just Run The Numbers
Better yet, take a modern, flat-shooting sabot slug round like Hornady’s 300-grain, 12-gauge 2-3/4-inch load featuring their tough, streamlined, FTX bullet with a starting diameter of 0.500-inch, a muzzle velocity of 2,000 fps and muzzle energy of 2,664 ft-lbs. At 100 yards, the FTX bullet is still clocking 1,641 fps and churning up 1,795 ft-lbs.
Compare those numbers with the standard 170-grain loading in the .30-30 with a muzzle velocity of 2,200 fps and muzzle energy of 1,827 ft-lbs. Out there at 100 yards, the .30-30 bullet is stepping out at 1,879 fps, but its energy has dropped to 1,332 ft-lbs. And its bullet is a mere 0.308-inch in diameter at the moment of impact.
So, which round do you think would be the better 100-yard deer or bear load? Consider this: In Alaska, the almost universal gun-of-choice for up-close encounters with big bad bears is the 12-gauge slug gun.
When I first started hunting deer and bear in slug-only zones, the premier tool of the day was Ithaca’s rifle-sighted, smoothbore Model 37 Deerslayer. The slugs available then were either Foster-type rifled slugs or the German Brenneke slugs (designed around 1898). The only debate among them was whether the 12 or the 20 gauge was the better gun.
The 12-gauge adherents pointed to the smack-down qualities of their big slugs, while the 20-gauge advocates firmly believed their smaller slugs delivered more penetration at longer ranges. Regardless, those early Ithaca Deerslayers shooting those old-school slugs slew a pile of big game.
Fast forward to 2014. Mossberg applies of their versatile FLEX system to the Model 500 20-gauge line, and Hornady’s release of a 2-3/4-inch, 20-gauge reduced-recoil “Custom Lite” sabot load, featuring a 250-grain SST at 1,600 fps.
So I decided to combine these two developments and came up with a plan to morph my FLEX 500 20-gauge—which had been set up for turkey hunting—into a dedicated slug gun and go hunting.
In the month of May, the black bear season was in full swing in Canada. So arrangements were made with Wally Mack of W&L Guide Services in High Level, Alberta. W&L has developed an enviable reputation in the outfitting world based on the quality of their camp facilities, cuisine, professional guides and their consistently high-quality black bears. For about $3,450—plus a modest two-bear license fee—you can enjoy a week of bear hunting you’ll never forget.
Before I left for Alberta, I needed two accessories to change my Model 500 from a turkey platform into an effective big-game slug gun—a fully rifled barrel with an integral, cantilevered scope base and a dual-comb, 4-position adjustable hunting stock. Once I had these, making the switch-over from turkey gun to slug gun literally took only a couple of minutes.
If you’ve never worked with the Mossberg FLEX system—now applied across-the-board to their shotgun, centerfire and rimfire lines—it’s remarkably simple, rugged and versatile. The heart of the system is a tool-less, locking-spline-coupling to connect any of the FLEX buttstocks to any of the FLEX receivers. Essentially, there is a zinc multi-splined stub at the rear of the receiver which mates with a female socket in the wrist of the stock. Locking them together is a vertical, swiveling key attached to the receiver stub, which is recessed into the upper section of the wrist.
To change out buttstocks, all you do is lift up the recessed locking key, turn it 90 degrees counterclockwise, remove the existing stock, insert the new one, turn the key clockwise and seat it down into the wrist of the stock.
Because I was going to shoot slugs (even “lite” ones), I pushed a button release at the bottom of the stock, popped off the existing recoil pad and snapped on a 1-inch pad. Then, because I would be putting optics on the gun, I mounted the high comb pad, which came with the 4-position stock, by merely sliding it in place and locking it down with a recessed Allen screw.
If I had wanted to change out the forearm for some reason, all I would have had to do was to push a button release at the base of the forearm and swing the forearm out and off.
Now the only missing part of my ensemble was optics.
Hornady’s 20-gauge Custom Lite slug load provided plenty of penetration on black bear.
The FLEX system allows you to match your stock to the sights (above). A high-comb pad on
Mossberg’s 4-position stock provides perfect eye alignment when using optics (below).
The Glass Equation
The traditional method of hunting bear in Alberta is over bait from a tree stand. Typical yardage from your tree stand to the bait is only 20 or 30 yards, which places a premium on using a scope with a wide field of view featuring a low-power setting. The terrain is flat and densely wooded with mature aspen and spruce stands. Again, when it comes to using a pair of binoculars to help you pick out the important details of an incoming bear ambling in and out of the timber, you need a wide-angle glass of modest power.
The bear scope I borrowed was the Swarovski 1-6×24 with a dawn-to-dusk, adjustable, illuminated red aiming point. It’s a compact scope with a straight 30mm tube. Mine had possibly the most practical power range of any big-game scope made. For most of my time in the woods, I had the Swarovski cranked down to 1X, which offers the fastest sight picture in existence when shooting distances are less than 50 yards. At 1X, you don’t just see a big patch of fur in your scope, you see the whole animal, as well as the trees and brush surrounding it.
Two features I really appreciated in this scope were an extra battery stored under one of the turret caps and the ingenious illumination system, which shuts off to save battery power when your gun is not in a mounted position. For binoculars, Swarovski’s Companion 8×30 was an easy choice. Based on my experience they provide optimum performance for 80 percent of big-game hunting.
Mating the scope to the gun was a cinch using some inexpensive Weaver rings. To bore-sight the 20 gauge (or for that matter, any shotgun or rifle), I used Wheeler Engineering’s green-laser Bore Sighter, which is secured magnetically to the end of the muzzle. It’s fast, accurate and shotgun-compatible.
The Mossberg rifled slug barrel featured the highly successful, cantilevered optics rail permanently and rigidly secured to the barrel. When changing out barrels, the scope stays with the barrel so scope/bore alignment is not affected. Once you’ve mounted your scope on the rail and zeroed it, you’re permanently set with that slug barrel/optics combination.
Hornady’s SST (Super Shock Tip) projectile with a thin jacket, locked-in lead core and sharp polymer tip, is designed to expand rapidly on game. In a shotgun slug sabot, it delivers flat trajectories and high-retained energies. What’s new is their shoulder-friendly, reduced recoil load featuring a 0.452-inch 250-grain SST sabot at a reduced velocity of 1,600 fps under the “Custom Lite” designation. As a comparison, Hornady’s other 20-gauge slug loads feature either a tough 250-grain FTX or 250-grain MonoFlex sabot at 1,800 fps.
Considering most black bears are taken strictly by chance during the deer season, with average deer guns and average deer ammunition, black bears are not difficult to tag with adequate shot placement. Still, going to a reduced-recoil loading with a lighter jacketed bullet at a lower velocity might have proved problematic. As it turned out, it wasn’t.
Accuracy of the Custom Lite load in the rifled Mossberg Model 500 was acceptable. At 50 yards, 3-shot groups averaged 2-1/2 inches, and at 100 yards, 4-3/4 inches. One thing I’ve learned about slug guns is you have to experiment with a variety of loads to find the “sweet spot” between bore dimensions, slug dimensions and slug design.
Shots in thick timber tend to be offhand and fast. An illuminated low-end
variable scope—like this Swarovski—gives you an edge.
Alberta based W&L Guide Services is known for their
camp facilities, cuisine, guides and bears.
Bear hunting in Alberta takes place in the afternoon and evening. In May, at that latitude, you can still read a newspaper outside at 11 p.m., so you’re sitting on your stand from basically 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.
The bear I took was almost an anticlimactic event. When I walked into the stand with guide Shane Wilson a big boar was already there crunching away on beaver carcass bait. The canny bruin immediately sensed us and vanished into the aspens. We backed off the bait and waited. Not more than 15 minutes had passed when I picked up patches of black fur in my 8×30’s, moving through the dense aspen stand back toward us.
The bear was coming in on a direct line to the bait. Turning the scope up to 2X and flicking on the illuminated dot, I concentrated on a small window through the trees and prayed the bear would enter it. It did, and at 30 yards I took a center-of-chest shot. Normally, I don’t like that shot, but when a black bear—or any bear—is ambling directly at you and you’re between the bear and the bait, you do your best.
At the shot, the bear turned, ran about 10 yards and expired. Skinning out the 6-foot, 9-inch bruin, we found the reduced-recoil SST load had—surprisingly—penetrated the bear from stem-to-stern, exiting out the right thigh. So much for any doubts about its effectiveness on black bear.
When I came away from that memorable hunt, I realized what I liked in particular about the gun/load combination I used was my feeling it would be an ideal 100-yard setup for youths and recoil-sensitive adults. Plus the fact it could then be converted in a couple of minutes into an upland bird or turkey gun, and properly fitted to any member of the family.
That’s what the Mossberg FLEX system is all about.
By Holt Bodinson
2 Slater Rd
Cranston, RI 02920
3625 Old Potash Hwy
PO Box 1848
Grand Island, NE 68803
W&L Guide Services
High Level, Alberta, Canada
5885 W. Van Horn Tavern Rd.
Columbia, MO 65203