Detailing Your Turkey Gun
You’ve often heard that a turkey shotgun is much like a rifle. It is aimed, not pointed. It often has (or should have) rifle-type sights or a scope. And, in an ideal situation, it is fired at a stationary target.
Today’s huge array of ever-improving lead and heavier-than-lead tungsten-alloy shotshells and pattern-tightening choke tubes makes this comparison more apt than ever. Indeed, find the right formula and it’s not too tough to drill a 10-inch circle with 150 to 200 or more No. 6 pellet holes at 40 yards. The quantum leap in turkey gun performance during the past few years has me wondering if maybe the 40-yard standard we use to compare the effectiveness of guns and loads shouldn’t be 45 or 50 yards.
I’m not advocating trying to turn turkey hunting into a trick-shooting game where we constantly try to stretch the limits. In fact, I think striving to get a bird inside of 40 yards before you pull the trigger is still good advice, no matter what you’re shooting.
But I also believe there is no such thing as killing a gobbler “too dead.” Also, mistakes happen. You underestimate distance. A bird moves just as you pull the trigger. An invisible sapling somehow gets between you and a tom. For these reasons and more, delivering the tightest swarm of the hardest-hitting pellets possible with rifle-like precision is good business.
The downside, as anyone who’s missed a spitting-distance tom can attest, is that the same gun that flattens a turkey at 50 yards can easily miss at close range because of the ultra-tight pattern. A gun that isn’t a tight shooter is actually an advantage at close range because there’s more margin for error.
If you want to be prepared for any situation, treat your shotgun like a rifle. Let’s look at several ways to do that, starting with the back of the gun and working toward the business end.
The stock is probably the least-analyzed part of a turkey gun. After all, if the stock fits reasonably well — that is, if the gun’s length of pull is within an inch or so of a perfect fit — there isn’t much else to think about. Or so it would seem.
But one measurement that’s just as important as stock length is stock height. Some specially designated “turkey” model shotguns feature stocks with raised combs to better align your eye with the sights or scope. If you aren’t using such a stock, you will likely benefit from raising the comb, allowing you to keep your cheek tight to the stock when you aim and shoot. This is important for two reasons. First, the more contact points between you and the gun, the easier it is to hold your point of aim. If you have to lift your head to get the proper sight picture, all sorts of bad things start to happen. Second, recoil from a heavy turkey load doesn’t simply drive the gun back into your shoulder, it also kicks up into your cheek. Give that stock an inch of head start and when it hits your face it’s going to hurt. A lot.
You have a few simple and affordable options to raise the comb. One is Cabela’s lace-on leather cheek pad, which is available in 1/4-, 1/2- and 3/4-inch-rise models. When I converted one of my Remington 870s from a duck gun to a turkey gun with the addition of an Aimpoint red-dot scope, I swiped the 1/2-inch pad from my old deer rifle and put it on the 870, where it’s remained ever since.
This past spring I outfitted a Mossberg 935 and a Thompson/Center Encore with scopes, and both of them got the comb-raising treatment as well. For these I used a slick kit from Beartooth Products that consists of a neoprene sleeve and several foam pads of varying thicknesses. You simply slide the sleeve onto the stock and insert pads until the comb is raised to the desired height.
I don’t think I have to say much here about fixing up the butt end of the stock. Anyone who’s ever shot a turkey gun understands the benefit of a soft rubber recoil pad. Some guns come from the factory equipped with excellent recoil pads. Others beg for an aftermarket improvement.
Both the Mossberg and T/C I mentioned earlier are fine turkey guns, but their hard rubber pads are far from ideal. I outfitted the Mossberg with a Limbsaver custom-fit pad and the T/C with a Shooter’s Friend slip-on pad. They both did a great job of protecting my shoulder, although I wished the Shooter’s Friend had a slimmer profile so it would hang up less on clothing and obstacles.
You go to great lengths to sight in your deer rifle, don’t you? A precision turkey gun demands the same attention. Open sights that are adjustable for windage and elevation, a low-power shotgun scope or a red-dot sight are all good choices in helping you shoot with precision.
Many turkey-specific guns now come equipped with fiber-optic rifle sights, but if you need to add an aftermarket sight to your barrel, there’s never been a better time to shop for one. TruGlo, HiViz and Williams Gun Sights, to name just a few, offer a huge array of traditional rifle sights with fiber-optic inserts that help you aim in all but the darkest conditions.
You’ll find the same technology modified in the HiViz TriViz sight. The TriViz features three pointed fiber-optic inserts at the top and both sides of the triangular housing. You sight in your gun so that all you need to do is center a gobbler’s head inside the triangle and pull the trigger.
TruGlo and Hunter’s Specialties both offer sighting systems with a “ghost ring” rear sight, which is the same concept in a more traditional format. An advantage to all of these “enclosed” rear sights is that they force you to keep your head down on the stock for a proper sight picture, cutting down on the chance that you’ll peek over the sight in the excitement of the moment, causing a miss.
Two pieces of shopping advice if you’re interested in these types of sights: Make sure you know the width of your shotgun’s rib; some sights have a universal mount but others are packaged according to rib width. Second, metal trumps plastic, for obvious reasons.
As good as all of these open sights are, they tend to cover up quite a bit of a gobbler’s head and neck at longer distances. A scope or red-dot sight might be a better choice if you want to aim with true precision. Another benefit of scoping a shotgun is that you can hand the gun to a guest, tell him or her to center the turkey’s neck and know that the shot will be true.
?Most manufacturers now offer designated “turkey” model scopes. These are usually low-power variables with a special diamond or circle reticle that is helpful for judging distance. With a bit of practice, you can figure out how much of the circle or diamond is filled by a turkey’s head at various distances and use that information to figure out if a bird is in range.
In the past few years I’ve become a big fan of red-dot sights. Last season, the Mossberg carried a Nikon VSD?(variable size dot) red-dot scope and the T/C was topped with a Burris SpeedDot red-dot scope. These are both zero-magnification sights (1X). The Nikon’s variable-sized dot option lets you pick the size of the dot you want to use — 2, 4, 6 or 8 MOA (minute of angle, which is how much area, in inches, the dot covers at 100 yards). I find the 4-MOA setting (which covers an inch at 25 yards, or 2 inches at 50 yards) a good choice for turkeys. The Burris uses a slightly smaller 3-MOA dot.
Aimpoint and TruGlo both recently added 2X red-dot scopes to their lineups. These might be the best of both worlds — a precision aiming point and some magnification to help you out at longer distances.
Like most hunters, I’ve always been focused on finding the shell and choke that work best in a given shotgun to produce the best possible pattern, and then finding the maximum lethal distance for that combination. For this discussion, let’s use the widely accepted minimum-performance standard of 100 or more pellets in a 10-inch circle. If your gun can do that at 40 yards, you’ve got what is considered a good shooter. If it does better than that, great. When you reach the distance that it will no longer put 100 pellets in that circle, you’ve found the gun’s maximum range.
As I alluded to earlier, the “heavier than lead” nontoxic shells have made reaching this standard remarkably easy. Imagine my confidence after building this combination:
Mossberg 935, Kicks .680-inch choke tube (for overbored barrel), Winchester Xtended Range 31/2-inch No. 6 shell. Average pellet count in a 10-inch circle from five shots: 201 pellets.
Here’s another: T/C Encore with 12-gauge Turkey barrel, T/C .670-inch factory choke tube, Winchester Xtended Range 3-inch No. 6 shell. Average pellet count in a 10-inch circle from three shots: 172 pellets.
Giddy with excitement over these long-range turkey busters, I used one or the other on my first few hunts last year … and shot turkeys at 8, 18, 20 and 32 yards. So much for stretching the limits. Shooting a turkey at close range, particularly one that is moving at 8 yards, is just asking for a miss. But being able to place that tennis-ball sized pattern with precision made all the difference.
In another irony, I was also lucky enough to be one of the first hunters to try Remington’s new Wingmaster HD shells. Like the other tungsten alloys, this stuff patterns ultra-tight. But it’s not magic; the shooter still has to do his part. I loaded a Wingmaster HD No. 6 shell in a borrowed camp gun with a bead sight and a trigger only a lawyer could love … and missed a Texas Rio at 32 yards. I’d shot the gun at the range, so I’m not going to make excuses. But I’ll bet if I’d have been more familiar with the gun, could have adjusted the trigger and been able to top the gun with one of my beloved red-dot scopes the outcome would have been different. (Speaking of triggers, a crisp 3- to 4-pound pull is about right for a turkey gun, but see your gunsmith if you’re considering such a modification.)
Why It Matters
Once you begin insisting on precision performance from your turkey gun, minute performance differences from shell to shell or choke to choke really start to bug you. I’ve seen huge changes in point of impact — 8 inches at 20 yards was the most dramatic — simply by changing choke tubes.
But here’s one I never gave much thought to until last season: All shells do not shoot to the same point of aim. Sure, they shoot close to the same, but if you’re trying to dial in a turkey gun that shoots so tight it shreds paper at 30 yards, close is not good enough.
Like most people, I sight in a new gun by shooting a trap load at close range. After adjusting my sights, I move the target back farther and farther, checking the patterns of various shells at each distance until I find the one I like. Last year I had gotten my T/C Encore mostly sighted in, but a Wisconsin snowstorm kept me away from the range before I could finish patterning it prior to heading to Florida for the season opener. From shooting at big paper I already knew that it threw a decent pattern with Winchester Xtended Range No. 5s, so I took a box of those shells and an extra box of Winchester Supreme Hi-Velocity lead loads.
My friend Dodd Clifton from Realtree and I set up a target in Florida turkey camp the night before our hunt. After shooting a couple of lead loads at 30 yards, I commented on how low the gun was shooting and wondered if something had happened to the red-dot scope during my flight. I raised the elevation and shot again. “Perfect,” I declared.
“Are those the shells you’re hunting with?” Clifton asked.
“No, I’m going to shoot the Xtended Range shells tomorrow, but so what?” I replied.
“You should shoot one of your hunting shells at 10 yards, just to be sure,” he said.
Clifton once missed a bird at 5 yards, and he’s never forgotten it. So the last thing he does when he’s sighting in is shoot one shell at close range, say 10 yards or so, as a sort of last-minute confidence-booster. Normally I would have told him to mind his own business. But the next day I would be hunting with Michael Waddell in front of one of his Road Trips TV cameras, and the last thing I wanted to hear was an “I told you so” from Clifton.
So, I loaded up an Xtended Range shell and shot … about 6 inches high. “Pilot error,” I thought, so I shot again and hit in the exact same place. I was still astounded that two shells fired at about the same velocity could have such different points of impact, but the paper didn’t lie. Sheepishly, I clicked the red-dot back down and shot again until I was satisfied.
The next day I shot the 8-yard gobbler, and I’ve never been happier about taking the time to properly sight in a turkey gun.
To further document my point, I went to the range after the season and shot some easy-to-see Caldwell Orange Peel targets with trap shells and two different Winchester No. 5 loads (see photos). As you can see, it wouldn’t take much of an aiming miscalculation to blow an “easy” shot at close range. And the point-of-impact difference at longer range is worth noting, too.
A shotgun that throws a super-tight pattern is only an advantage if you can hit what you’re aiming at with consistency. Fortunately, we have a huge variety of tools to help us do just that.