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Detailing Your Turkey Shotgun
(Originally published in the Western Sportsman Magazine)

© By Othmar Vohringer

If you want to be ready for any turkey hunting situation, pay the same attention to detail on your shotgun as you would use on your deer rifle.

Sure, you can shoot a turkey with just about any shotgun. But to optimize your guns performance, and ultimately your hunting success, you need to pay attention to detail and customize your shotgun. Just like a waterfowler or upland bird hunter relies on a specialized gun for ultimate performance under special conditions so should a turkey hunter. In this article I’ll explain how to turn an ordinary shotgun into the ultimate turkey gun, or if you’re in the market to purchase a new shotgun, what to look for.

The most difficult aspect to grasp for some, especially seasoned waterfowl and upland bird hunters, is that a turkey gun is not pointed at the target but rather aimed. This is actually understandable since shotgunners have it ingrained that a shotgun is always pointed. This observation has been born out many times during my years as a turkey hunting guide -one of the biggest obstacles to overcome was convincing some clients that they have to aim the gun at the turkey. The reason why you aim a turkey gun is that you will be shooting a very tight pellet pattern at a relatively stationary and quite small target. Miscalculate by a few inches and you could end up missing the bird completely, or worse, crippling the animal.

With that said it would make sense then that a specialized turkey gun requires the characteristics of a rife. Gun manufacturers have recognized this and build special turkey guns and an array of after market products to turn almost any shotgun into a tack diving turkey gun.

Modern turkey guns are equipped to accept rifle-like sights or scopes. Scopes come in a variety of options, from the regular scope to holographic-red-dot-sight and fibre optic dots consisting of one front bead and two rear beads. All of the sights are adjustable for windage and elevation. Personally I like things simple and reliable and so my gun is outfitted with a fibre optic front and rear sight and I find it to be very satisfactory. Another modern invention that many avid turkey hunters find very useful is the pistol grip. These have become so popular that many manufacturers offer guns with pistol grips already built into the gun and make them also available as an after market accessory for older gun models. While I do not use a pistol grip on my gun (not yet anyway) I can see the advantage they offer in holding the gun steady during aiming.

The preferred gun model of veteran turkey hunters is without question the reliable 12-gauge pump-action shotgun chambered for 3 ½-inch shells. Choosing a gun that can hold 3 ½-inch shells just gives you more options since you can also use any of the shorter shells. There are times when a 3-inch shell is ideal but there are situations where you need the added reach and knockdown power of a 3 ½- inch magnum shell. Ideally you would want to choose a gun with a shorter barrel length, something in the order of 24 inch to 26-inch is an accepted standard among turkey hunters. A shorter barrelled gun is easier to manoeuvre around in the thick vegetations where big toms travel and it’s also lighter to lug around all day long.

Another feature you would want to pay close attention to is the gunstock. This is probably the least analyzed but a very important part of a turkey gun. Just as important as the length of pull – which should be a perfect fit for the shooter – there is much to think about the measurement of the stock height. Some of the special turkey guns feature stocks with a raised comb to assist in aligning the eye with the sight or scope. If your gun does not have a raised comb you would benefit from adding an after market module to the stock that will raise the comb higher. This is important for two reasons. First, the more contact points there are between you and the gun the easier it is to hold your point of aim. Having to lift your head off of the stock to get a proper sight picture will result in the loss of attaining repeatedly the same position that is so important to good shooting. Second, the recoil from a heavy turkey load pushed through a narrow choke can be quite severe. The recoil does not only push the gun back into your shoulder but also upward into your cheek. If your head is an inch or so above the stock the gun is going to smack you hard in the cheek and that it is going to hurt you.

To tame some of the heavy recoil common to most turkey shotguns, manufacturers have come up with two solutions. One is to ad extra thick recoil pad of which many are vented or filled with shock absorbing gel. The other solution, often in addition to a thicker shoulder pad, is to fit the stock with a recoil absorbing system. Benelli took this technology one step further and invented the Benelli ComforeTech® stock and recoil pad. The stock is split diagonally from the buttstock to just under the pistol grip, and connecting the two pieces are eleven synthetic shock absorbing chevron pads to form a highly effective recoil barrier. The company claims that this system alone reduces felt recoil by as much as 48 percent.

There are other measures you can take to tame recoil besides specially designed stocks and shoulder pads. Ported shotgun barrels or ported choke tubes will also take away some of the kick. Ported barrels and chokes not only lessen felt recoil they also prevent -to a degree- muzzle jump. These things may seem minor issues to some and not worth spending the extra money. Wrong! I’ve seen more turkey hunters than I care to remember, especially novices, that developed the bad habit of becoming gun shy and flinched in anticipation of what’s in store for them once they pull that trigger. Flinching is a sure way to miss shots, even the ones that are at spitting distances.

Shotgun triggers are also in the category that get barely any attention but should be of important consideration to turkey hunters. In most field applications a shotgun trigger is slapped. Not so when turkey hunting. Since you aim a gun like a rifle it only makes good sense that the trigger should be squeezed in order to obtain optimal accuracy. It’s hard to squeeze a standard shotgun trigger set at four to five pounds. If you’re lucky your shotgun comes equipped with an adjustable trigger. If not, look into having the trigger replaced. I am not going to tell you how light a trigger should be set as each person is different. All I will say is that, like on a rifle, the fire pin release should come as a surprise which you can’t do with a heavy trigger pull.

From the gun let’s move on to the ammunition and chokes. Today’s vast array of turkey ammunition comes in a large variety of lead and tungsten configurations and is offered as regular, magnum and super magnum. This can be mind boggling to a beginning turkey hunter. “What is the best turkey load?” is a question often asked. There is no simple answer to that. The best performance of a shotgun load is achieved as a result of a workable combination of gun, ammunition and choke tube. A load that performs well with my set up may not be suitable for your gun. Each gun is different. The best way to find out what works for your gun is by spending time on the shooting range.

When I pattern a new shotgun I start off with purchasing as many different ammunition brands and load combinations, containing shot sizes between No. 4 and No. 6 as possible. My patterning sessions start at 20-yards, shooting at life sized paper turkey targets with the vital zones clearly showing. My aim is to create a pattern of evenly spread pellets in a 10-inch circle. This guarantees that enough pellets will penetrate a turkey’s relatively small vital area. During this process I keep changing ammunition brands, load configurations and choke tubes until I find the pattern I am looking for. Once I get a consistent pattern at 20-yards the targets are moved to 30-yards and the process is repeated then it is on to 40-yards. It can take quite a bit of work to establish a pellet pattern that spreads evenly from 20-yards to 40-yards but the effort is well worth it.

My current turkey gun, a Mossberg ATS 12 gauge pump action shoots Federal Premium Mag Shok 3-inch magnum shells loaded with 1 ¾ oz of No. 4 lead pellets pushed through a regular full choke. Several other load/choke combinations produced either too many holes in the pattern or were so tight at close distances that it shredded the target beyond recognition. As mentioned earlier a turkey has a very small vital area. If the pellet pattern has too many open spaces at long distances it is quite possible that you can miss the target although the aim is right. Conversely, if the pattern is too tight you may miss a shot at very close range. Exactly this happened a few years ago to one of my hunting partners. His gun patterned perfectly at 30-yards shooting with an extra tight turkey choke and 3 ½ inch Winchester Xtended Range high velocity shells. The tom stood at less than 10-yards. The moment my partner pulled the trigger the bird moved it’s head a few inches back resulting in a complete miss. A pattern that tight, although performing well at longer distances, was just too tight for close distances. Had my partner spent the time on the range to work up a load that performed equally well at close and long distances he would not have missed that tom. Think of a very tight pellet pattern like you would think of a bullet when you shoot at close distances and you get the idea why hunters often miss turkeys at spitting close distances.

When you pattern your shotgun it is advisable to do so from a shooting bench with the gun firmly locked into a gun vice to obtain consistency in the point of aim.

Now you hold the perfect turkey gun in your hands and you have patterned it to perfection. You’re ready to go hunting. Not quite! As important as all of the above is it’s one thing to shoot a gun from a bench and quite a different thing to shoot under actual hunting conditions. It’s good advice to shoot a few sessions at targets set up randomly at different distances while sitting on the ground as you would in a real hunting situation, while wearing the clothing, including head net, that you will wear on a hunt. What do you do when the turkey, as often happens, comes from the “wrong” side? If you’re right-handed, the wrong side is your right side. If a turkey approaches directly from your right shoulder it is impossible to take that shot, unless you have taught yourself to shoot left handed.

If you have not practised this and other scenarios you’re limited to taking only the ideal shots and believe me when I say that in the real turkey hunting world these are few and far between. Many a big gobbler got away because the hunter was not capable of making the shot. That’s good for the turkey but not so good for you.

It takes time and work to detail your turkey shotgun but the results are definitely worthwhile. With this extra confidence in your equipment and shooting ability, you can concentrate on the shot without worrying about anything else.

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Where To Aim?
Good question; many new turkey hunters do not seem to know where the kill zone of a turkey is. Turkeys are quite tough animals. Their wing feathers are thick and cover the vital organs, lung, heart and liver. Shooting a turkey in the chest with a shotgun would result in most pellets just bouncing off the bird. The few pellets penetrating the winged armour would injure or cripple a tom but not kill him outright.

The only place on a turkey’s body that guarantees a quick and humane kill with a shotgun is the head. The proper aim point is just about right where the neck becomes featherless.

How Many Pellets Does It Take To Kill A Turkey?
Studies have shown that at the very least 5 pellets must penetrate the turkey’s vitals. The vitals are the brain and spinal column. When patterning a turkey gun always use a life sized turkey paper target where the vital areas are clearly outlined.

Caution With Scopes
Scopes mounted on shotguns should be designed expressly for that purpose. Regular riflescopes are not made to withstand the heavy recoil of a turkey shotgun and could get knocked out of alignment. Most reputable optics manufacturers offer special turkey gun scopes. These specialized scopes are usually low in magnification, something from 1 time to 3 times.

 
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I welcome assignments from hunting related media. Send for queries and requests by email.


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