Let me be perfectly clear: I am not an expert turkey hunter! No way am I going to give you calling tips or turkey hunting tips. I bumble along, and fortunately we have a lot of turkeys to hunt these days.
So, important admissions made, I’m pretty good at shooting turkeys if and when I get a chance. Over the years—and I can go back about 50 years—I’ve hunted all the varieties, and I’ve hunted turkeys in a lot of places. My opinions have shifted over time, and may shift again. In part this is because, as turkey hunting has exploded, our turkey guns and turkey loads keep getting better.
Today I am convinced of three things: To anchor turkeys consistently you need good chokes, you need good shells, and sights are a really great idea.
What About Gauge?
Note that I didn’t specify gauge. Bore diameter is purely a means of conveying the shot charge. I know people who “snipe” turkeys with .410s and 28-bores, but they’re better turkey hunters than I am.
Being a 10-Gauge Guy
For years I was mostly a 10-gauge guy. I have a short-barreled 10-gauge double, double triggers with interchangeable chokes, offering instant choice of No. 6 for the head shot, and 4s in the other barrel for a body shot.
Great in theory, and this gun has taken a lot of turkeys. However, the 10-gauge is the least popular shotgun gauge, and thus has received the least load development. 10-gauge shells are hard to find, with limited selection.
I’ll make another admission: My gun doesn’t pattern very well. This is certainly not common to all 10-gauge guns, but as a theory, it’s probable that choke development hasn’t progressed as far in 10-gauge guns as it has in the much more popular 12 and 20 gauges.
Turkey Hunting with a 20-Gauge
Being a 10-gauge guy, I was really skeptical of hunting turkeys with a 20-gauge, but it’s mostly about choke and a little bit about payload. On the latter, with flying birds there’s a valid argument that the shorter shot column of, say, a 1 ¼-ounce 12-gauge load gets more shot on the bird than the longer shot column of a 1 ¼-ounce 20-gauge load. With turkeys this doesn’t matter because most shots are stationary. So what if the end of the shot swarm has to catch up with the leaders? Similarly, the 3 ½-inch 12-gauge has been lambasted because of its extra-long shot string, but for our current subject, turkey hunting, it delivers close to the same payload as the 10-gauge, and so what if the rearmost pellets lag by a millisecond?
It was only a dozen years ago that I shot my first turkey with a 20-gauge, a “writer hunt” where I had no choice. We started at the pattern board, and the patterns were devastating. We were hunting those tricky Osceola turkeys, and my bird was a bit farther than I wanted, pushing 40 yards when it strolled past…but knew the hold and had confidence in the pattern…and I flattened the bird.
Choke and Shell
Since then I’ve accepted that it’s more a matter of choke and shell. Donna’s pet shotgun is a Krieghoff K-20 (20-gauge). It was not designed as a turkey gun, but it has awesome chokes, as you might expect from a premium-grade shotgun. We’ve both pasted gobblers with it, and we’ve had no runners. Two years ago, in Kansas, I shot a bird with my old 10-gauge, but then I was down to just two shells with no resupply available. So, with a second tag in hand, I went into the woods with a light 20-gauge Beretta semiauto with Hornady 3-inch No. 5 turkey loads. I called a gobbler off the roost shortly after daylight, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t know the difference between 10 and 20-gauge.
With today’s sophisticated wads, it is not as true as it once was that shotguns pattern differently with different loads and sizes of shot. Still, there are variances, so, despite the cost of turkey loads, it’s wise to expend a few shells verifying pattern and, perhaps more importantly, point of aim. Interchangeable chokes are darn near universal, but “Extra Full” is not always desirable, and the tightest chokes may not yield the densest patterns.
Shotshells matter greatly, but turkey hunting is such an important springtime event that we have awesome turkey loads from all manufacturers. Common features include special wad columns developed for tight patterns and minimal shot deformation, and usually plated or otherwise “special” shot. These are expensive shells, but they are usually packaged in boxes of ten, and sometimes a five-pack like buckshot loads. For most of us, ten is plenty to get through turkey season, but if you’re really serious, invest in some different loads and spend time at the range figuring out what patterns best in your shotgun.
Variations in Turkey Loads
The various manufacturers often take significantly different approaches with their turkey loads. Years ago Remington pioneered Duplex loads, two shot sizes in one shell. Federal’s 3rd Degree loads take this another step, with 40 percent copper-plated No. 5, 40 percent Heavyweight No. 7, and 20 percent No. 6 Flitestopper pellets. These last are cast to cause more erratic flight; they give some pattern spread for close shots (not a bad thing). Winchester’s Long Beard XR has a Shot-Lok feature: The shot charge is initially held together with resin. Hornady’s Heavy Magnum turkey loads use nickel-plated shot, with the thickest coating of nickel in the industry.
Payloads and velocities vary. Hornady’s 3-inch 12-gauge load has a fairly standard 1 ½-ounce payload at a fast 1300 fps; their 3-inch 20-gauge load has a 1 3/8-ounce payload, but velocity drops to 1200 fps. Winchester has similar payloads and velocities in their Long Beard XR line, as well as loads with larger payloads that are, of necessity, slower. A 3 ½-inch 12-gauge load has a heavy 2 1/8-ounce payload, deep into 10-gauge territory, but velocity is down to 1050 fps. Winchester also has a 1 7/8-ounce 3-inch 12-gauge load, also 1050 fps. Our group of four hunters used these shells in Sonora last year, taking seven big Gould’s gobblers with a grand total of seven shots. Impressive!
I have come to prefer No. 5 shot as a great compromise between pattern density and pellet weight, while others prefer No. 6 (or even smaller) for the first shot, then coarser shot for followup. Especially with today’s extra-good shot, extra-good shells, and extra-good chokes it’s really about the pattern…and putting that pattern in the right place.
Sights Can Make a Big Difference
To this end, having hunted turkeys with a plain-barreled or ribbed shotgun most of my life, I am increasingly convinced that sights make a big difference. After all, in turkey hunting you are almost always aiming the shotgun at a specific point, generally targeting the head. Remember those seven Gould’s turkeys? Two of my partners were using Mossberg 935s with low-powered scopes. Linda Powell (of Mossberg) was using a 500-series slide-action with a red-dot (reflex) sight, while I used my new “go-to” turkey gun, a camouflaged left-hand action Mossberg 500 with fiber-optic open sights on the rib.
I believe use of sights had much to do with all gobblers down on the spot with no followup shots. Shot placement is key, and the only sure way to drop a turkey is to get multiple pellets in the head and neck. That said, ranges are close, and I’m not certain a magnifying scope is the best option because of the “tunnel vision” effect it creates. On one of the few occasions I used a magnifying scope on a turkey gun I dropped two gobblers with one shot, and I swear I never saw the second one a few yards behind the first! I was lucky I was in a two-gobbler area.
Although I’m reaching a point where iron sights are hard to see, I’m comfortable with the highly visible fiber optic on my Mossberg. Still, I’m convinced that a reflex sight is the best option. Any standard reflex sight will work, but there are also specialized shotgun sights such as the Redring, and Aimpoint has a new shotgun sight as well. These sights have the advantage of clamping onto a shotgun rib. Like a scope reticle, the reflex sight gives a precise aiming point—but they’re fast, plus drive the shooter to keep both eyes open. I’m certain any sight is more precise than squinting down the barrel, but it’s absolutely mandatory that you spend time on the range “sighting in!”
Turkey hunting has evolved since I first started. Advancing technology has given us better firearms, a wider variety of ammunition, and many accessories (like sights) that allow us to customize and optimize our equipment. Over the years, though, I’ve found that the choke, the shells, and the sights have made the largest contributions to my success in the field, and as a result, those are good starting points for anyone looking to make changes in their turkey hunting arsenal.