The Turkey Gunner's Handbook

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How did the modern turkey gun evolve? How do I choose the right choke? How can I get better at range estimation? All these questions and more are answered here by a well-traveled turkey slayer.

It's amazing how far gun technology has come in recent years. And it's also pretty ironic that now more and more blackpowder hunters are hitting the turkey woods.
photo by brad herndon

The Evolution of Today’s Turkey Gun
Over the past quarter century wild turkey populations have grown tremendously creating more opportunities for hunters to pursue these noble creatures. As the number of hunters grew, gun manufacturers raced to fill the new equipment niche this wildlife resource offered.

For many turkey hunters the gun of choice was a full-choked 12 gauge. Many of these fixed-choke models were waterfowl sporters with 30- to 36-inch barrels. By the late 1980s, several gun companies cut their shotgun barrel lengths down to 20 to 24 inches to accommodate turkey hunters’ needs for easy-to-aim guns in tight brush. Camouflaged shotguns also came into vogue to conceal shiny metal from wary gobbler eyes.

Prior to 1987, few if any firearms manufacturers offered shotguns specifically for turkey hunting that fit today’s ideal: short barrel, accepting extended extra-full choke tubes, camo finish and fitted for a sling, rifle sights, etc.

Working in cooperation with gun manufacturers, a team of experienced turkey hunters on the NWTF national staff shared design ideas that would produce shotguns that offer features that work well in hunting situations. These men also shared their expertise on gun designs that would command premium prices in the fund-raising banquet arena. Many of the guns were embellished with engraved wild turkey scenes created by NWTF CEO Rob Keck.

Shells, Chokes and More


Through the hard work of NWTF volunteers and the organization’s growth, many of the firearms manufacturers have been willing to pay a premium for the NWTF seal of approval through the “trade gun” arrangement. Several newer variations of turkey guns have been developed as a result of past NWTF gun programs. The resulting dollars raised through NWTF gun sales have benefited wild turkey restoration and management across the country.

A flurry of wildcat cartridges is often developed on the heels of any new factory center fire cartridge. Once the initial research and development pays off in the form of a new cartridge, it paves the way for shooting enthusiasts to tinker with new variations based on the parent cartridge case. A similar occurrence took place when Winchester Arms developed the Winchoke interchangeable choke tube systems. Gunsmiths around the country began tinkering with the new technology to create and improve new chokes for various shooting applications. One of the largest uses in aftermarket choke tubes is for turkey hunters wanting to shoot tight patterns with relatively large payloads. One of the earlier companies specializing in aftermarket choke tubes was Nu-Line Guns in Harvester, Mo. This writer recalls sending a 12 gauge Remington 870 barrel to Nu-Line more than a decade ago to be cut to 21 1/2 inches, threaded and a .670 choke tube installed. The only threading equipment they had at the time was for Winchester’s style of chokes, which resulted in a Remington that would only accept Winchester choke tubes. It was an unusual match, but one that has accounted for its fair share of turkeys in the years since. Today, there are nearly two dozen companies offering aftermarket choke tubes for turkey hunting.

Another significant development was the advent of the 3 1/2-inch, 12 gauge shotgun and cartridge. Mossberg is credited with developing the first shotgun for the 3 1/2-inch magnum in the late 1980s. They toyed with the idea of resurrecting the 10 gauge in their Model 500 shotgun to answer the dilemmas faced with shooting steel shot at waterfowl. Key personnel at Mossberg learned that Federal Cartridge and Browning had discussed the idea of a 3 1/2-inch shell and gun to shoot the magnum loading, but Browning opted for the 10 gauge instead to solve the woes of shooting steel. When Mossberg’s engineers learned of this decision, they went to the drawing board and developed the 835 Ulti-Mag. An agreement with Federal to supply the 3 1/2-inch ammo set the production wheels in motion for this successful gun/load marriage. A short time later, 3 1/2-inch turkey loads were developed for the 12 gauge, and a new era in turkey guns was born. Several shotgun manufacturers have followed suit by offering 3 1/2-inch chambered 12 gauge guns, with Remington the latest to add the Model 870 Super Magnum pump-action to their lineup.

Gunsmiths around the country are still tinkering with various improvements to the turkey guns on the market today. Collectively, the best ideas will surely work their way into productions guns in the coming years to improve the way we take aim at this marvelous sport. To get the latest information about new turkey guns and related equipment, check out the latest issue of Turkey Call Magazine, a bi-monthly magazine for NWTF members. If you’re in the market for a new turkey gun, attend a Wild Turkey Super Fund Banquet near you. NWTF Super Fund banquets offer a wide selection of guns, hunting equipment and wildlife art. Call 1-800-THE-NWTF for more information.—Jay Langston

Pick the Right Choke Tube


Today’s turkey guns are specifically made to shoot heavy loads and give tight, dense patterns, and to get the best performance from lead turkey loads, you need an extra-tight choke.

To get the best performance from your gun, you may need to experiment with various choke sizes and loads to get the top performance from your gun.

A normal 12 gauge barrel measures about .724 thousands of an inch. By comparison, a factory full choke squeezes down the muzzle to about .700 of an inch. The normal way to get tighter patterns is to reduce the choke size some more. For example, many popular turkey guns come equipped with chokes that measure .665, and shoot turkey loads of No. 5 or 6 shot very tightly.

You can have too much of a good thing if you use a choke that’s too tight for your gun and load. Too much choke constriction has the tendency of creating ragged patterns that leave large voids between pellets.

A good place to start with a standard size 12 gauge barrel is with a .660 tube. Back-bored barrels usually do well with chokes that measure around .680 thousands of an inch. Try various choke sizes to get your best performer and you’ll up your confidence for making a clean, ethical shot on that old longbeard next season.

For more tips like this, turn to the pages of Turkey Call magazine, the official member publication of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Turkey Call is published six times a year and is the most comprehensive magazine on wild turkey hunting and habitat improvement available. Each issue features tactics for harvesting turkeys and gear that makes your days afield more enjoyable, safe and successful. To become a member of the NWTF, call 800-THE-NWTF or sign-up on-line on the Federation’s web site at www.nwtf.org. —Jay Langston

Range Estimation Made Easy


Bowhunting for deer and shotgunning wild turkeys share the similar attributes of short-range big game hunting pursuits. One is the chance to intimately learn the quarry hunted through close observation. On the other hand, there’s the certainty that any mistakes made on the hunter’s part spell trouble if your intentions are more than just observing a bouncing whitetail’s flag or watching how adept wild turkeys are at flying.

With either pursuit, range estimation is one of the biggest areas where miscues turn into missed opportunities.The guns and loads for turkey hunting available today translate into a 40-yard-and-less pursuit. Estimating when a gobbler is within range is easy, if you practice.

Range estimation is a skill that must be learned through repetitive practice. A lot of novice turkey hunters do their homework—practice calling, pattern their guns and outfit themselves in full camo—only to go afield without a skill that is equally as important.

It has been proven in military field tests that the average person estimates range with a probable error of 30 percent. If the average untrained person has a 30 percent error handicap it’s a pretty sure bet that a lot of turkey hunters go afield ill prepared.

Borrowing a method from the bowhunting fraternity is the simplest way to accurately judge distance. Several range-finding devices are available to help you estimate distance.

When a gobbler is coming to your call is obviously not the time to try out a range finder. Find various landmarks, trees, rocks, etc., to note distance when you first set up. By the time a tom strolls within range you should be ready to shoot rather than squinting through a peephole.

If you go the route of using a range finder, don’t make the mistake of trying it out the first time the morning you go turkey hunting. A little practice at home will go a long way toward success later.

Editor's Note: The above article was reprinted courtesy of the National Wild Turkey Federation. To gain a more in-depth knowledge of the NWTF and to find out how you can become an active member, click on over to www.NWTF.org.

Practice With A Partner

There’s another method that works well if you don’t choose to use a range finder. Have a partner place a turkey decoy at an unknown distance in the woods, sit down and guess the yardage. Vary the terrain, lighting conditions, thickness—or lack of—brush to offer true hunting situations. Remember to sit down to estimate range because things look deceptively different from different heights. Take turns at this game and your range estimation will dramatically improve. Several NWTF chapters have incorporated this game into their JAKES (Juniors Acquiring Knowledge, Ethics and Sportsmanship) youth events with a lot of success.

Accurate range estimation could help you in another way as well. I’ve found that there’s a threshold at about 25 to 30 yards where mistakes, usually hunter movement, seem to be more critical than when a gobbler is beyond this distance. When a bird walks into this “hyper zone” practically any hunter movement can spell disaster. On several occasions this writer has watched birds within gun range, but beyond 25 yards, hesitate when they see something they don’t like and often calm back down if they don’t see something to confirm their fears. Inside 25 yards, a gobbler’s best judgment is full retreat if he becomes suspicious. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s something to consider when afield. Turkey season is just around the corner, so take the opportunity soon to sharpen your range estimation skills. A little practice now will make you a better turkey hunter. For more tips to make your turkey hunting more successful, catch Turkey Call television on TNN every Saturday at 11 a.m. (Eastern/Pacific). —Jay Langston