Turkey guns fall into one of two camps. First, there are jack-of-all-trades firearms that serve more than one master. In the fall, these guns might pull duty in the duck blind one day and the uplands the next. Once spring rolls around, full chokes replace modified chokes and some fiber-optic sights get slapped on the rib for good measure.
Then there are dedicated turkey guns. Though they might make fine home-defense weapons, these tactical-style smoothbores aren’t good for much else besides killing turkeys.
So, which is better? Truth is, they both work. If you’re in the market, keep these pointers in mind while doing your research for the best turkey shotgun.
It wasn’t long ago when 12-gauge shells were the only game in town for turkey hunters. Sure, there were a limited number of 10-gauge shells designated as true turkey loads. Some folks even self-loaded hot 20-gauge homebrews that could tip over a gobbler with the best of ‘em. But if you were serious about killing turkeys, you were shooting a 12 gauge of some kind.
Today, 12 gauges are still the most popular. However, recent advances in shotshells have enabled turkey gun manufacturers to cater to a growing crowd of hunters who favor smaller bores. Now that the cartridge field has been leveled, choosing a gauge is more about personal preference than true performance.
If you favor a lighter, smaller-profile gun with less recoil, a 20-gauge is a great choice for ranges out to 40 yards. It’s also better suited for smaller-framed shooters, including women and youth.
Going a step further, if you know any shot you’ll take will be within 30 yards, there are also 28-gauge and even .410-bore options available.
I still use a 12 gauge simply because it kills more efficiently at longer distances than smaller gauges. I’m a prairie bird hunter, chasing longbeards in the great wide open of South Dakota and Nebraska. While calling a bird in close is always the goal, many of my kill shots stretch past 35 yards, where the extra punch a 12 gauge affords will come in handy.
If you’re leaning toward a 12 gauge, don’t feel compelled to purchase a 3.5-inch magnum model. That extra half-inch doesn’t buy what it used to, so save your money and your shoulder and stick with 12 gauges chambered for 3-inchers.
When choosing barrel length for turkeys, less is more. At times a longer barrel matters at the trap range, in the uplands, and while waterfowl hunting. Primarily, the added weight of a longer barrel affects how a gun swings—it helps the “feel” of a gun on moving targets. Barrel length also has an incremental impact on muzzle velocity. The longer barrel, the faster the pellets leave the barrel.
However, for turkey hunting, a consistent pattern is everything and patterns are determined by shotshell quality and the amount of choke. Barrel length has no impact on how a gun patterns.
Also, any loss in pellet velocity due to a barrel’s shorter length is negligible and won’t weaken a gun’s killing power. This is a point worth remembering with any type of shotgunning. Velocity should never take priority over pattern density and consistency.
A shorter barrel is lighter and easier to handle, whether it’s slung over your shoulder or sitting on your knee as you shift positions in the woods. For a dedicated turkey gun, 22- or 24-inch barrels are common. If you’re looking at an all-purpose gun, a 26-inch barrel provides a happy medium that performs well in the spring turkey woods or during fall waterfowl and upland seasons.
If you’re looking at an all-purpose gun, fit is an important consideration. However, if you’re looking at buying a dedicated turkey gun, I’d argue that fit is almost a moot point.
I can count on one hand how many times I’ve actually been in a comfortable shooting position when I pulled the trigger on a longbeard. However, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve contorted, twisted, or otherwise maneuvered to somehow barely squeeze off a shot.
It shouldn’t feel like you’re trying to aim a cinder block at a bird, but don’t let fit be a deciding factor unless you plan on using the gun for other purposes.
Some folks really care about the action of their turkey gun. I’m not one of those people. Turkey hunting is a one-shot affair, and any gun I rig for turkey hunting is configured with a single shot in mind, regardless of action. If you’re worried about lightning-quick follow-up shots or bagging more than one bird at once, you’re in the wrong sport.
If you like less recoil and can afford it, go with a semi-auto. If you like the simplicity and price of a pump, so be it. If a double gun is your jam, find one you like and have at it.
Hunters care far more about the looks of their guns than turkeys do. Camouflage and non-glare finishes are welcome additions to any turkey gun, but they often come at additional cost.
If cost is not a prohibitive factor, Cerakote and other weather-resistant finishes are becoming standard on some shotgun models. Years ago these were custom options only. If spring in your state can be below zero and snowing one minute and sunny and hot the next, then paying more for a finish that offers impermeable protection for your turkey gun may well be worthwhile.
A majority of turkey-specific guns only come with synthetic stocks, which is a good thing. My turkey guns are tools meant to take a beating, and I don’t care if I nick or scratch a synthetic stock while crawling after a gobbler. But to gouge a nice wood gun? That leaves a scar on my soul.
Many features on a turkey gun are optional. Swivel studs are not one of them. Running friction calls, carrying gear, and trimming branches all require two hands. That means a sling isn’t a luxury–it’s a necessity. Plus, a sling wrapped around your off-hand’s forearm can help stabilize your aim from sitting or standing positions.
When it comes to sights, shotguns with just a single brass bead have killed plenty of turkeys. However, I’m a huge advocate of fine-tuning a setup with add-on sights designed to make point of aim more consistent. Fiber-optic sights are often inexpensive and easy to install, while some reflex or red-dot sights might require installing a tactical rail or saddle mount.
I prefer red-dot sights simply because they erase doubt. To avoid getting too technical, the shot goes where the dot is. Simple as that. Other sights can be just as effective, but I’m happy to pay for the consistency red dots provide, regardless of how my eye finds the target.
I used to think pistol grips were a gimmick, but a hunt high on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River changed my mind. I sat down wrong under a lone cedar, and the gobbler appeared well to my right, locking up at 40 yards. I’m a right-handed shot, and I couldn’t swing that far and shoulder the gun as I normally would. So, I slowly adjusted the grip to my off hand. On this hunt I was test-driving a semiauto fitted with a pistol grip, which surprisingly felt natural in my left hand and helped guide the stock to my left shoulder. A single cluck from my mouth call got his head up and a load of 6-shot closed the deal.
Would I have been able to make the same shot with an all-purpose gun with a regular buttstock and grip? I’d like to think so, but the added confidence from the pistol grip didn’t hurt. When all is said and done, confidence is what matters most when firing any shotgun, whether it’s at a gobbler’s head, a flushing rooster, a decoying greenhead, or a clay target.