Tom Lounsbury: What’s your turkey gun?

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The title “turkey gun” conjures up a variety of images in the minds of turkey hunters today.

What seems popular is a short-barreled (usually about 26 inches or shorter for more maneuverability) and camouflaged (to avoid detection by sharp-eyed and very color-perceptive wild turkeys) shotgun that is equipped with a tight-patterning screw-in choke tube.

It will also usually be a 3-inch or 31/2-inch, 12-gauge “Magnum,” or even a behemoth 10-gauge using 31/2-inch shells for the ultimate performance and reach in putting very tough and tenacious gobblers down for the count. The turkey shotgun will usually also feature a sling for allowing hands to be free while roving and calling, or for when a lucky hunter has to carry a heavy bird out of the woods.

Specialized “turkey” shot-shells today are filled with a copious amount of shot to put as many pellets on the target as possible, a fact which, combined with the tighter constriction of typical turkey chokes, results in a very long shot-string, which in the world of turkey hunting isn’t a bad thing at all.

The reality is, we aren’t talking wing-shooting here, and the main focus is placing the shot pattern in the neck/head area of a usually stationary bird (my aiming point is where flesh and feathers join just below the head, thereby fully utilizing the entire pattern), so it is more similar to shooting a single projectile than a wide pattern, at least at the closer ranges.

For this reason, a turkey shotgun is often equipped with rifle-type sights, including low power optics, for precise shot placement, and quality sights are available for attaching to vent ribs, which will certainly do the trick. Without question, the turkey shotgun and the specialized loads it uses are a continually evolving process that points to the continually growing popularity of the wild turkey in this country.

Personally, I’ve only hunted wild turkeys in Michigan thus far, and I’ve been at it for about 50 years. This has allowed me to witness the continual evolution of the gear and techniques which have developed while the wild turkey has expanded its numbers and range, not only in Michigan but nationwide as well, including in places it was never found before, such as Hawaii.

The wild turkey in America is without question a very successful conservation story, and here in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, as well as parts of the Upper Peninsula, you don’t have to travel far to find good turkey hunting opportunities.

When I first started spring turkey hunting during the late 1960s, the options weren’t nearly as good as they are now.

I was very fortunate to be drawn for a limited hunt in northern Michigan and had no idea what to expect. My turkey call had to be special-ordered at the local hardware store because none were stocked on the shelves, and the shotgun I used was my Granddad’s old 12-gauge “Auto-Five” Browning.

The load I opted for was high-brass number 2’s, which were legal back then and which did a good job on geese and red fox, so I assumed they were fine for wild turkeys. I didn’t have an opportunity to bag a gobbler on that hunt, but I became totally smitten with spring turkey hunting, which has a unique and addictive atmosphere like no other.

During the 1970s, more spring turkey hunting opportunities developed in northern Michigan and I was often lucky in the draw and my skill seemed to improve during a continual learning process, and turkey calls actually could be found on shelves.

Besides my Granddad’s Browning, I also used a 12-gauge side-by-side double (featuring modified and full chokes) and a 12-gauge Model 37 Ithaca pump with a 30-inch full choke barrel.

All three shotguns use 2-3/4 inch shells and became my favorite turkey guns for 25 years. They did their part if I did mine, and I never had a maneuverability problem with the Ithaca’s long barrel, plus I appreciated its long sighting radius (and the bright orange front bead). Except for the double-barrel, which I painted olive drab, the other shotguns have a dull matte wood/blue finish that I found didn’t alert and scare off any turkeys.

I never used a 3-inch magnum shell for turkeys until I acquired a 12-gauge Remington 870 Express around 25 years ago. It also featured the newly developed screw-in choke tubes which are a versatile blessing for avid shotgunners today.

One thing I discovered right away is that each shotgun is an individual and has a preference for specific shot-sizes and even brands when you pattern them. So, preseason patterning is an annual affair for me (and even though I already know how each shotgun patterns with certain loads, I want to know I’m still in tune) and it is a very important and integral part of turkey hunting, magnum or otherwise.

Patterning is as important to me as sighting in a long-used deer gun before each season and knowing that all is functioning well, including my shooting eye. New turkey loads are also continually coming out, which I like to test, of course.

I also practice “switch-hitting,” because wild gobblers don’t always come in at the angle that is expected. Being right-handed, I’ve seen cagey gobblers come in silent from behind me on my right side, and when I switched the shotgun to my left shoulder, they were toast — well, maybe, anyway. Doing this effectively requires practice, and in my case, when I partially close my dominant right eye, my left eye takes over.

A favorite turkey gun I use frequently today is a Remington Spartan over-and-under 12-gauge in 3-inch magnum that I had custom camouflage-painted, and when it is choked standard full and full (which has reach but is more forgiving than “super-full” chokes), it offers two quick shots, if needed, and with sufficient patterns to 35 yards. It is also easy to quickly load or unload in the field. (I carry five spare rounds in a shell-carrier on the buttstock.)

Spring turkey hunting opportunities began to really pick up in the 1980s and, better yet, in the 1990’s, including closer to home in my Thumb area.

It was during the Thumb’s first early seasons when my two oldest sons, Jake and Josh, were just getting into hunting and lucked out on the draw. By that time, nothing larger than number four birdshot could be used for turkeys, which wasn’t a bad thing in my mind. It was while patterning my sons’ 20-gauge shotguns that I became really impressed with this smaller bore for turkeys.

Both pumps (one a Mossberg 500, the other a Remington 870) proved to be effective turkey-getters out to 30 yards, which works for me in the turkey woods anytime. The fact is, I often use a 20-gauge today for turkey hunting because I appreciate the lighter weight and recoil, and I’ve taken enough turkeys with this smaller bore to know that it is fully up to the task.

The fact is, the longest kill-shot I’ve ever done on a wild turkey with any shotgun is 32 yards, with the remainder being taken at well under 30 yards.

A case in point about “turkey guns” is the local girl who used a single-shot H&R .410 to knock a gobbler spurs-up at just under 20 yards, thanks in part to the calling efforts of her father. The big, mature gobbler never knew what hit him, and to me this scene is what turkey hunting is all about.

All firearms for hunting require the user to understand any limitations and to stay within them before touching the trigger. So, the reality of what can be determined a turkey gun is what the hunter has available and also what he or she is comfortable with.

My youngest son, Joe, still prefers to faithfully use his Ithaca pump 16-gauge, and my middle son, Josh, now prefers a recently acquired vintage Model ’97 Winchester pump 12-gauge that features a 30-inch, full choked barrel which produces superbly tight patterns. My oldest son, Jake, still prefers his old Mossberg pump 20-gauge, so, needless to say, some old shotguns can still very effectively bag tough and tenacious wild turkeys.

Nothing at all is wrong with a specialized “turkey gun.” Today’s versions are top performers, and the ammunition is the best I’ve ever seen.

Spring turkey hunting, to me, is the art of calling gobblers in as close as possible and making the shot according to whatever shotgun is being used, a done deal.

Email Tom Lounsbury at tlounsburyoutdoors@gmail.com.



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