The wild turkey is one of the most fun big game species of North America to pursue because these birds talk back. Unlike typical deer hunting set ups, where you sit on stand for hours on end waiting to see an animal, a distant gobble from an excited Tom gives away his location. Allowing the hunter to be mobile and home in on him, get into a position from which to call the bird into range, and make a shot. But a shot to be made with what weapon?
Rifle hunting may be allowed in some states, but personally, the adrenaline pumping, heart racing, excitement that I live for as a turkey hunter and feel when the bird gobbles in my face at 30 yards, and is still echoing in my ears as I settle my bead on his head, is lost when you can reach out and touch them at extended ranges. But for some, rifle hunting improves their chances for success and offers a challenge of a small target area. A henned up, hung up, or out of range Tom for shorter range weapons would still be in play. That being said, a headshot with a .22 long rifle, .22 mag, .220, and up to a .243 will provide sufficient power for taking down wild turkey. Higher calibers are harder to hold on the cue ball sized head where there is no room for error and do too much damage if aimed at the body. Despite what seems to be benefits over more conventional weapons (shotguns and bows), I highly recommend leaving the rifle at home when it comes to turkey hunting. I think you will find a greater experience, more success, and you’ll thank me in the end.
The shotgun, by far, is the most popular weapon shouldered each season by hunters looking to bag their limit of gobblers. However, not every shotgun is equal when it comes to putting turkeys down quickly. The key is getting as much shot in the kill zone with as much energy as possible. The basic factor that applies to all loads is spread in regards to distance. Once the shot has left the barrel it begins to separate or spread out. Older shotguns are barreled with a particular sized muzzle where as modern shotguns allow for interchangeable choke tubes to be inserted at the end of the muzzle to open or tighten the spread of your shot load depending upon your intended quarry. Turkey hunters should always choose a minimum of a Full choke so to maintain the tightest patterns possible at maximum range. In general, you can expect a spread of approximately 1″ per yard with a full choke (40″ spread at 40 yards). However, you will find that with only a full choke, your maximum range is drastically reduced compared to tighter tubes. Some manufacturers also produce an Extra Full or Super Full choke that will hold the shot tighter for even greater distances putting more pellets on target. These are the tubes that I consider a must for turkey hunting.
This begs the questions 12 gauge or 20? 2 3/4″ shell or 3 1/2″ magnum? Well, in my opinion, the 20 gauge is a great entry-level gun for young hunters and recoil sensitive shooters. After all, it does not amount to a hill of beans how much power or how many pellets you’re sending down range if you can’t stay on target. A 20 gauge with #5 or #4 shot will deliver adequate energy to the turkey and enough pellets to make a clean kill, but I would limit my maximum shot length to about 30 yards. Slower muzzle velocities in comparison to the 12 gauge, result in fewer percentages of pellets reaching the target within the kill zone and less penetration at longer distances.
The 12 gauge shell is not a simple choice either. Available in 2 3/4″, 3″ magnum, and 3 1/2″ magnum, the 12 gauge shotgun shell is a very versatile and efficient load for turkey. It delivers plenty of shot with great energy retention at ranges exceeding 40 yards. The 2 3/4″ shell has a proven ballistic superiority over the 20 gauge, delivering more shot with better penetration out to 40 yards. However, that does not mean that I would extend its maximum range beyond 30 yards, especially with only a Full choke.
The magnum loads are a favorite among veteran turkey hunters for the additional pellets, higher muzzle velocities, and greater energy delivered to the target. But less we forget the greater thump felt by your shoulder. The significant increase in recoil leaves some folks wondering if it is worth it. Both loads perform tremendously well at 40 yards leaving plenty of pellets on target to take down the biggest gobblers. But the increased shot capacity of the 3 1/2″ means more is better if you can keep it on target. Heavy recoil can also pose a problem with 2nd shot recovery. Whether you’re trying for a double or you flat-out missed with the first shot, getting back on target after such a whopping kick can be tough. I personally have loved my Mossberg 835 while shooting 3 1/2″ shells with #5 shot. I have taken several birds at 40 yards and all were head dusters! To better manage the recoil, I added a slip-over Limbsaver recoil pad over the factory pad and it feels like firing a 2 3/4″ shell. Another point to remember is that shots in the field are often taken through brush, limbs, saplings, etc. All of these variables reduce the total number or pellets and energy reaching that gobblers head. If you want to know why I choose to shoot a 3 1/2″ magnum, watch our video of Kevin’s Virginia gobbler in 2012 and you will see just how well this shell performs when shooting through brush..
Ultimately, each make and model shotgun will pattern a little differently depending upon the choke (Extra-Full, Ultra-Full recommended) load and size of shot. Your best bet is to experiment with as many combinations you can and see which performs the best for your recoil sensitivity and your make and model of shotgun. Remember it is not about being macho when it comes to recoil. It is about being comfortable, accurate, and efficient to ensure a good clean kill.
Last, but certainly not least and growing in popularity, is bow hunting for turkeys. A common misconception is that because turkeys are smaller in size, that getting penetration is much easier than a white-tailed deer. In reality, a gobbler’s feathers provide very good resistance to broadheads. So a bow setup of a minimum of 60lb + draw weight, 100 grain heads, and arrows 9.0 gr/in should be considered, essentially the same as your minimum white-tailed deer configurations.
Mechanical vs fixed-blade broadheads is a matter of preference. I have seen both perform very well with well placed shots to the body. Head shots with a bow are an aggressive approach and leave little room for error. Over-sized blades intended for head shots only, are designed and produced to remove the head upon impact. I have never personally shot this style of broadhead, but although the concept is appealing, I am concerned about arrow flight, down range accuracy, and durability. I hope to have the opportunity to test these blades personally and have an answer to these questions very soon.
Weapon and ammunition selection for turkey is as much about the hunter as it is the hunted. Consider what you are looking to take away from the experience and what measures up as a success. Is it a dead gobbler from 100 yards? Or the experience of working a bird all morning to have him within range of your shotgun? Are you ready for the additional challenge of archery? Putting that gobbler’s eyes and his best defense against your nerves and a weapon that requires movement at close range to even provide the opportunity for a shot. I have provided my recommendations on weapons and ammunitions, now it is up to you to choose!
I hope to see you out there this spring!