Picking my 12-year-old son's first turkey gun was as simple as looking in my gun safe. Well, wait, that's not true. Let me start over...
Picking my son's first turkey gun involved several hours of perusing catalogs, Web sites and retail store gun racks in search of a youth-size pump or semiauto that could serve double-duty. We'd outfit it with a scope or rifle sights for turkey season, and then, come fall, he would be able to use it for ducks and pheasants.
I found many models that would have been good enough, but there was always some limiting factor that led me to think the features that would make such a gun perfect for turkeys would also make it inferior for other game, or vice versa. For example: Long, vent rib barrel: Good for wing-shooting; unnecessarily cumbersome for turkeys. Short, vent rib barrel: Good for turkeys; not so great for teaching proper swing-through on moving targets.
Then there was the question of what such a gun should weigh. The weight of a pump or semiauto would certainly absorb some recoil, but at the cost of carrying around at least 7 pounds of wood and metal all day. That doesn't sound like much, but ask a sub-100-pound kid his opinion on the subject after toting it through woods for several hours.
Anyway, I ended up standing in front of my gun safe, scratching my head and searching for ideas, which is where I started...
Settling on a Single-Shot
I own a number of firearms that could serve double-duty, but I'm a big fan of shotguns dedicated to a specific purpose, especially when it comes to turkey guns. After all, shooting at a turkey has almost nothing in common with shooting at a bird on the wing. (And, really, is there such a thing as "too many" guns? Of course not.)
As I pondered which gun Jacob should carry on his first turkey hunt, my gaze fell upon my Thompson/Center Encore 12 gauge, and I started thinking about its light weight and simple operation. Having only one shot, I reasoned, isn't really a disadvantage for a young or inexperienced hunter. I doubt that in the excitement of shooting at a turkey a young hunter would have the poise to rack in a second round and shoot at a missed bird.
Yes, the Encore as a 12 gauge was too much gun for a youngster, but it wouldn't be when I got done with it.
First, I traded off the barrel and replaced it with a 20-gauge pipe and the correct-fitting T/C forend. Next, I ordered T/C's bantam stock, which has an inch shorter length of pull than the full-size stock. T/C's 12-gauge Turkey gun is completely covered in Realtree camo, but the bantam stock is available only in walnut.
The camo forend for the 24-inch, 20-gauge barrel wasn't available, so I got that in walnut too. Cosmetically, the gun is a mess, but I mean that as a compliment that only a turkey hunter could understand.
The next order of business was the butt end. The stock sported the traditional hard-as-stone "recoil" pad — a misnomer if ever there was one — still found on so many manufacturers' guns. That would not do. Perhaps it was "only" a 20 gauge, but it would be shooting stout 3-inch turkey loads.
And at roughly 6 pounds, the gun wasn't going to soak up any extra recoil.
I removed the factory pad and sent the stock to a gunsmith friend who works for North Pass, manufacturer of HiViz sights and X-Coil recoil pads. The company doesn't offer its Redi-Fit pad for the T/C bantam stock, so he installed a Universal X-Coil pad and then ground the edges to create a custom fit. (North Pass does not routinely do installations, but any competent gunsmith should be capable of performing this service.)
I was tempted to put a scope or red-dot sight on Jacob's gun, but decided against that option. He had learned to shoot a .22 rifle with open sights, and the T/C comes with fiber-optic rifle sights, so I knew there would be no aiming issues. Besides, I didn't like the idea of messing up a simple single-shot with an extra piece of hardware.
Jacob used the Encore on a Michigan turkey hunt this past spring to down his first gobbler. On the same trip, young Philip Muffler shot his first spring bird with an H&R Topper Jr. 20 gauge. This dandy little single-shot has a youth-length stock and 22-inch barrel.
Philip's dad, Pat, had outfitted the Topper with a Hunter's Specialties V-Pod shooting stick, an excellent idea to help young hunters steady their aim.
As it turned out, the young hunters killed the only two birds of our trip.
The single-shots had done the job, and I expect they will account for many more birds in years to come.
It's no secret that today's 20 gauges shoot more effectively than they did a decade ago. It's not so much the guns as the awesome shells loaded with tungsten-alloy pellets we now have available.Environ-Metal's Hevi-Shot (the original "heavier than lead" pellet) and Hevi-13, Remington's Wingmaster HD and Winchester's Supreme Elite Xtended Range shells are all available in 20-gauge turkey loads.
You have fewer pellets in a 20-gauge shell than a 12 gauge shell, so it's worth the extra expense to use loads that will wring out the maximum energy from every pellet.
I had used 3-inch Winchester loads in No. 5 shot on a few hunts, so I decided to try them first with this gun. My son and I went to the range and shot with the T/C factory choke (.570-inch diameter at the bore) and a Swarm Turkey choke (.555-inch).
Both chokes performed well enough, but the edge went to the Swarm, which threw a pattern that was both tighter and more even.
When we were done I knew it was an honest 35-yard gun. There just aren't enough No. 5 pellets in the Winchester load to produce a pattern dense enough for complete confidence beyond that distance. However, I have no doubt that using 20-gauge shells loaded with tungsten-based No. 6 shot and tinkering with various chokes could easily produce a 40-yard or better gun.
Environ-Metal offers 20-gauge Hevi-Shot and Hevi-13 loads in No. 6 shot, and Remington's HD loads are also available loaded with the smaller pellets.
— Jim Schlender