Savage Precision: Advances In The Art Of Slug Guns
September 23, 2010
The new Savage Model 220 F makes a centerfire rifle unnecessary for eastern hunters.
Deer hunters in states that require the use of slug guns and don't allow centerfire rifles finally have a tool worthy of their mettle. The new Savage 20-gauge Model 220 F is a true bolt-action "slug rifle" that delivers minute-of-angle accuracy at 100 yards, effective range to 200 yards, and more power than either the .454 Casull handgun cartridge or the .45-70 Gov't. in a rifle. It is not just state-of-the-art, it advances the art. It gives slug gun hunters the firearm they have dreamed of for many years, and for most hunting situations in the eastern half of the nation, it makes a centerfire rifle unnecessary.
As a 30-year slug gun hunter, I'll stand by them. Until very recently, few would have conceived that building a slug gun with such capability was even possible, due to the inadequacies of slug ammunition and the loose tolerances typical of shotgun design and slug-barrel manufacture. Then, the advent of sabot slug loads and the development of full-rifled slug barrels, combined with technology advances in the accuracy of modern in-line muzzleloaders built to capitalize on similar sabot-projectile performance, opened the door for a breakthrough. Aware of the potential offered, and sensitive to the frustrations of the nation's thousands of slug gun hunters, Savage President Ron Coburn accepted the challenges inherent in creating a true minute-of-angle slug shooter and laid out a set of specific criteria for his designers and engineers.
The new tool he proposed would be a dedicated slug gun, but it would be built as a rifle from the ground up, not as a shotgun adaptation. It would be designed specifically for optimum performance with the most ballistically effective particular modern sabot slug ammunition loads currently available instead of being generalized for all types of slug loads, both traditional and modern. (Each Model 220 F eventually produced, in fact, will come with a tag recommending use of either Federal's Barnes Expander Tipped sabot slugs or Remington's AccuTip sabot slugs for optimum accuracy.) It would also embody all of the zero-tolerance manufacturing processes and advanced accuracy and usability features that have made Savage a leader in both centerfire rifle design and in-line muzzleloader design in recent years. And it would be a 20 gauge instead of a 12 gauge.
The result is the Model 220 F. (The "F" in the model designation, incidentally, is to distinguish it from the much earlier and long-discontinued Savage Model 220, which was a break-open, single-shot shotgun that has no similarity at all to the current product. But from here on I'll merely refer to the new gun as the Model 220 for simplicity's sake.)
In All Ways A Rifle
The new Savage Model 220 is built on the proven Savage Model 110 long-action rifle receiver, originally introduced in 1958 and currently the longest continuous-production American centerfire bolt-action design on the market. Using the 110 action allowed the Savage designers to lock the Model 220's 22-inch barrel to the receiver in exactly the same manner as Savage's super-accurate centerfire rifles. The barrel is chambered for 3-inch 20-gauge shells and is fully free-floated in a dual pillar-bedded synthetic stock, which is available in either matte black or Realtree AP camo finish. The bore is rifled with a 1:24 twist to exactly the same specifications as the Savage Model 10ML-II .50-caliber muzzleloader, which fires the same .45-caliber sabot projectiles as used in premium 20-gauge slug loads with MOA accuracy in the hands of a careful shooter. The barrel is approximately the same diameter as a centerfire varmint barrel, with somewhat thicker walls than used in most conventional shotgun slug barrels, allowing greater barrel stiffness and rigidity without excess weight (thanks to the large 20-gauge bore). Overall weight of the Model 220 is just 7.5 pounds--same as most standard hunting rifles. It balances and handles like a standard hunting rifle.
The Model 220 F's slug barrel is attached to the receiver with the same solid lockup as on Savage Model 110 centerfire rifles.
Also critical to the Model 220's performance is the inclusion of the crisp, safe, and adjustable Savage Model 110 AccuTrigger, which sparked a revolution in trigger precision among American riflemakers overall. Shooting Times's review sample Model 220 came from the box with its AccuTrigger factory set at a clean 3.5 pounds, which I adjusted down to its minimum 2.5 pounds. It is simply the best, most precise trigger ever offered on a factory-production slug gun of any kind.
All the operating mechanisms on the Model 220 are also the same as on any Savage Model 110 centerfire rifle, including Savage's silent three-position ambidextrous manual safety mounted atop the receiver's rear tang extension and a bolt-release latch located on the receiver's right rear. The bolt handle is an oversize "tactical" style for increased leverage and reliable operation with gloved hands. The receiver is drilled and tapped for standard Savage Model 110 long-action scope mount bases; no iron sights are provided. The two-round polymer box magazine is drop-detachable for quick reloading and allows three-round maximum loaded carry as is required by slug-gun hunting laws in most states. The synthetic stock features a checkered fore-end, pistol grip with a Savage "Indian Head" medallion grip cap, Savage's super-cushioning P.A.D. buttpad, and standard front and rear sling swivel studs.
The manufacturer's recommended retail price for the Model 220 is $519. A quick on-line survey will show that over-the-counter prices are currently running $420 to $450, depending on your area. That's an incredible bargain for the quality of this product. Put another way, considering that premium 20-gauge sabot slug ammunition runs around $15 per box of five these days, the gun only costs about as much as 150 rounds of the ammunition it fires.
Shoots Like A Rifle, Too
Okay, the new Savage Model 220 slug gun is in all ways built as a rifle. Bu
t does it really shoot like one?
The first part of a full answer to that question is to address the issue of why Savage decided to make it a 20 gauge instead of a 12 gauge. The primary reason is simple ballistics. Current premium-grade 20-gauge sabot slug ammunition from all major manufacturers except Federal employs .45-caliber bullets in the 250-/260-grain weight range, which are either virtually the same or exactly identical to the bullets used by those manufacturers in their .45-caliber handgun and centerfire rifle deer-hunting loads, at comparable velocities. Federal uses Barnes 275-grain (labeled "5/8-ounce") .50-caliber Expander slugs with very similar ballistic characteristics.
As is apparent from the ballistics comparison chart on page 56, top-performing premium 20-gauge sabot slug loads today provide velocity and energy that surpass full-power major-manufacturer .454 Casull handgun ammunition of the same bullet weight and also equal or exceed the velocity and energy of both traditional and modern high-velocity .45-70 Gov't. rifle loads carrying substantially heavier bullets. Nobody has ever said that the .454 Casull or the .45-70 Gov't. were underpowered for deer; in fact, many would say they are more than is needed.
The Model 220 F is available with a matte black stock as well as with one in Realtree AP camo finish.
Moreover, compared to 12-gauge sabot slug loads, 20-gauge slugs are much less punishing to the shooter and much flatter shooting, making trajectory considerations for a 200-yard shot with a sufficiently accurate gun/load combination much more reasonable in the field. As an example, consider Federal's current 275-grain Expander Tipped 20-gauge sabot load at 1,900 fps nominal velocity. Sighted-in for maximum point-blank range on an 8-inch-diameter target (the approximate diameter of a whitetail deer's vital area), the maximum 4-inch rise over line of sight is at 95 yards, dead zero comes at 167 yards, and drop below 4 inches comes at 195 yards. Drop at 200 yards is less than an inch more. Again, this is very similar to the trajectory of a modern high-velocity .45-70 rifle, and again, nobody has ever said the .45-70 was not an effective 200-yard deer-slayer. By comparison, the drop of a 12-gauge sabot slug load is more than twice that.
Our review sample Model 220 arrived just in time for last November's Illinois whitetail season at my home in Pike County, and I was anxious to see if it lived up to the praises my friends at Savage were singing. I also wanted to try Nikon's 3-9X 40mm SlugHunter scope with its BDC 200 reticle keyed specifically for sabot slugs. But I quickly discovered that the long-action Model 220 receiver did not allow the SlugHunter (or any other small- to medium-length optic) to fit with conventional two-piece mounts, so I obtained one of Warne's excellent one-piece Picatinny-spec Tactical bases (which permit mounting any type of optical sight, no matter how short or long) and a set of Warne's quick-release Maxima rings. Problem solved. Bear this in mind when you set up your own Model 220.
I next set up an accuracy-review protocol using the Federal and Remington slugs recommended by Savage for the Model 220 as well as five other premium 20-gauge sabot loads, both 3 inch and 2¾ inch, and fired a series of five, three-shot groups with all at 100, 150, and 200 yards, shooting only in still-air conditions, either early morning or late afternoon. The results are listed in the accompanying accuracy chart. First, let me say that the Model 220's accuracy with its most preferred loads was literally jaw-dropping for this decades-veteran slug hunter.
Hornady, Remington, and Winchester use .45-caliber bullets in their 20-gauge sabot slug loads, whereas Federal uses .50-caliber Barnes Expander slugs.
The two recommended loads did indeed average minute of angle or better at 100 yards, and that's for five groups each. All the 3-inch loads (which match the Model 220's chamber length) printed at least one sub-MOA group out of the five groups fired. Interestingly, the 3-inch loads all averaged tighter groups than any of the 2¾-inch loads (the difference was slight at 100 yards, but more noticeable at 200 yards). This is testimony to the conventional wisdom that the best accuracy with any ammunition always comes when you fire it in a correct-length chamber, and sabot ammunition is particularly vulnerable to concentricity distortions when passing across a longer chamber's "freebore."
The longer-range accuracy of the 20-gauge Model 220 with all loads was also fairly mind-blowing for a hunter who started his deer-hunting career with a smoothbore 12 gauge firing Foster-type "punkin ball" slugs. Even the "least" accurate of the loads was still well within "minute of whitetail" at 200 yards, and I'd not hesitate at all taking a set shot with any of these loads at that distance. The best individual group fired at 150 yards (with the Federal Expander load) measured just 1.25 inches; the best at 200 yards (with the Remington AccuTip) was 2.83 inches.
The author installed a new Nikon SlugHunter 3-9X 40mm scope using a Warne Picatinny base and Warne rings.
I also discovered that the varied weights, velocities, and ballistic coefficients of the different styles of projectiles used by the various manufacturers made for some significant trajectory differences at the longer ranges. The Nikon SlugHunter scope is designed to be zeroed at 50 yards, with BDC "aiming circles" below the crosshair keyed to nominal 100-yard and 150-yard trajectories, with the top of the bottom thick post a 200-yard marker for a sufficiently accurate load. However, when I used a computer ballistic program to chart all the review loads' trajectories using the suggested 50-yard zero, I found nearly 7 inches difference in 200-yard point of impact between the extremes of load performance.
Since that information is not provided in any of the ammomakers' published catalog data, I've provided a drop table on page 56 as a reminder to always verify the actual trajectory of your load in your gun, on-target at range, before using any type of trajectory-compensation reticle. Nominal is seldom actual. Proof of my own pudding came with an Illinois whitetail herd-management doe that dropped at 161 yards with a perfectly centered full-penetrating broadside chest shot from a Winchester Platinum Tip load using the SlugHunter's 150-yard BDC aiming circle--after I'd verified the trajectory markers.
I've flat fallen in love with the new Savage 20-gauge Model 220 F slug rifle--not only because of its unprecedented accuracy and its ultrafine
trigger and rifle-familiar handling qualities, but also because of its pure comfort to shoot. I put more than 400 benchrest rounds altogether through the gun while sighting and targeting, and I didn't even need to use a Lead Sled. Any 12-gauge slug gun, and even most other 20-gauge "shotgun" slug guns, would have pounded me to a frazzle. But the familiar American-style stock configuration of the bolt-action Model 220, combined with its superb recoil pad, made it feel about the same as shooting a compact .260 Remington. I walked away not even thinking about recoil.
The Savage 20-gauge Model 220 F is a true 200-yard deer rifle. At home in Illinois slug gun country, I'll never again have reason to wish I could hunt with my pet Remington Model Seven 7mm-08 instead.