Turkey guns are a contradiction: They’re shotguns we shoot like rifles. Sure, you can roll a turkey with most any shotgun, and plenty of people have. But today’s best turkey guns feature several common traits: a short barrel; a tight choke; the ability to shoot heavy loads; sling swivels; and a matte or camo finish to hide them from sharp, suspicious eyes. All of the models here—two classics and eight modern—are such guns, and they have proved themselves time and again in the turkey woods.
How to Pick the Perfect Turkey Hunting Shotgun
My friends in the ammo industry tell me about 15 percent of hunters buy premium loads, while 85 percent choose whatever is cheapest. I’ve always suspected that ratio carries over to guns and other hunting gear as well. It would explain why most hunters use their duck gun for turkey hunting—and dove hunting, bird hunting, and deer hunting (where applicable). Which is makes sense. I used to do it. Shooting a standing turkey in the head isn’t that hard.
But as a committed member of the 15 percent—both for professional reasons and by personal choice—I shoot a dedicated turkey shotgun. The gun, a Remington 870 SPS Super Magnum, sums up what I think a turkey gun should be. (At least for now. As always, I reserve the right to change my mind.) Below is rundown of the features on my go-to gobbler gun, couched in a list of general considerations you should have in mind when picking the best turkey gun for the type of hunting you do.
The Right Gauge for a Turkey Shotgun
I shoot a 12-gauge, which used to be the only answer to the question of turkey gauge, but the astonishing effectiveness of Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) means any gauge—even all the way down to a .410—can kill a turkey. And more affordable ammo, like Winchester Long Beard, make the 20 gauge a genuine 40-yard gun, too. The 10 gauge, in my opinion, is too much to lug through the woods for little added advantage. It’s a different story in a goose blind, but we’re not talking about geese.
Read Next: Taking Down Turkeys with a .410 Shotgun
Top Choke Tubes for Turkeys
My gun has a Rob Roberts .665 turkey tube in it, which prints very tight patterns. The choke suits me well, because when a turkey gets to the point where I can shoot it or call it closer, I shoot. My average shots are often 30 or 35 yards, not 20. If you expect to shoot far, it pays to get an aftermarket choke specially made for turkey hunting. If you hunt the woods and like to call turkeys close, an Extra-Full or even standard Full choke will do the job.
The Best Turkey Gun Barrel Length
My gun has a 22-inch barrel. I mostly notice barrel length when I walk around with a gun slung over my shoulder, where short barrels definitely catch fewer branches than longer ones. Once I’m sitting down it doesn’t make nearly as much difference. Experts tell me 24-inch barrels pattern better than shorter barrels, but I don’t know how much better my gun needs to pattern since it will already kill turkeys farther away than I want to shoot them.
Turkey Gun Triggers
A turkey gun is aimed and fired like a rifle. In recognition of this fact, my gun has a Timney trigger fix kit inside, and the pull is far finer and crisper than I deserve. I do notice the trigger at the range. The more that a gun kicks, the more important I’ve found good triggers to be. Even on a dedicated turkey shotgun, you don’t need a crisp trigger, but it is a nice extra to have.
The Right Weight for a Gobbler Gun
Lighter is better if you carry your gun a lot. If you hunt from a blind, who cares how much it weighs? That said, I ordinarily carry so much gear in my vest that I don’t much notice an extra pound of gun weight. My gun, with scope and sling, probably goes 9 pounds. That extra weight absorbs some recoil, too. On the other side of the coin, I know some hardcore turkey hunters who walk and move so much that they refuse to wear even a vest. If that’s you, a lightweight gas-operated semiauto (which also reduces recoil) is probably the way to go.
Sling Swivel Studs on Turkey Shotguns
It almost goes without saying that any dedicated turkey gun should have sling swivel studs. Even if you’re only going to carry your gun from the truck to the blind, there’s a good chance you’ll also be carrying decoys or other gear. You may also want to stop and call, and a sling leaves both hands free run a box or slate call to strike a bird.
The Best Turkey Gun Sights
Having missed a few turkeys, I am more confident when I have a sight on my gun. It can be anything: double beads, iron sights, a red dot, or a scope—but lately I have come to prefer the last, thanks to one miss in particular. I’d called a whole flock to me in some thick, brushy woods, and the boss hen brought a pile of turkeys with her to challenge the bird she thought she heard. She came to 10 or 15 yards with a string of turkeys behind her and a gobbler bringing up the rear. There was always another turkey or too many branches between me and the tom. Finally, the hen decided there was nothing to see there—I should have put out a decoy, but in such thick woods I had thought why?—and she turned to leave. All of the other turkeys turned, too, and it was time to find a hole in the brush and shoot or let the gobbler walk. I shot. He didn’t walk, he ran.
That was the one shot I took that spring with an unscoped gun. (It had front and middle beads.) Coincidence? You decide, but I have been sold on turkey gun optics since. I am fairly certain I would have killed that bird with a scoped gun. Personally, I prefer the magnification of a low-power scope to a red dot, especially as chokes and ammo improve to the point that long shots are feasible.
The Right Stock and Finish for the Turkey Woods
I bought an aftermarket Monte Carlo stock for my gun for scope and red-dot use. Despite my preference for walnut and blued steel, for some reason, I don’t mind if turkey guns are plastic-stocked. In its black-stock-and-camo-metal phase, mine was possibly the ugliest turkey gun ever. Now, in its coat of old-school Bottomland (see the photo at bottom), it’s just regular ugly. If I can find the right walnut stocked turkey gun (say, an older 870 Upland Special) I might switch, but in the meantime, this is the gobbler gun for me.
The Best Turkey Gun Action
I shoot pumps at turkeys. If I need to run after a turkey following a bad shot, my gun is totally safe until I work the action. A pump does kick a little harder than a semiauto, but I don’t notice recoil when I’m shooting at a turkey, and I’m padded up when I pattern a gun. If you are more recoil-averse, semiautos make great turkey guns, too, offering immediate follow-up shots and softening the thump of magnum turkey shells.
Now, let’s get to the guns.
The Best Pump-Action Turkey Guns Ever Made
1. Winchester Model 12
Winchester’s Model 12 was introduced in 1912, a time when only pockets of turkeys survived in the U.S., and mostly in the big timbers of the Southeast. In those days, the 30-inch Full-choke Model 12 was the last word in long-range shotguns, and it was the gun many Southern hunters carried into the river bottoms and hollows where turkeys still lived.
Although inspired by John Browning’s Model 97, the Model 12 was more than a mere update, since about all it shared with the earlier design was a sliding forend. Hammerless, sleek, and butter-smooth to stroke, it earned the nickname “The Perfect Repeater,” and in its 52 years of production, it reliably served police, military forces, target shooters, and hunters alike. A Model 12 may lack screw-in chokes, but the old Full-choke versions can still roll turkeys, as I am here to tell you.
2. Remington 870 Express Turkey
Fill in the blank: more _____ have been killed with a Remington 870 than with any other shotgun. Introduced in 1950 as a cheaper replacement for the machined and hand-fitted Model 31, the mass-produced 870 has become the most popular shotgun ever made. With well over 11,000,000 in existence, the 870 has killed more of almost anything than any other shotgun, but “turkeys” could certainly fill the blank above.
Its ubiquity aside, the 870 is slick and reliable, and comes in both 3- and 3½-inch 12-gauge versions perfect for turkey hunting. Moreover, the youth 20-gauge model has proved popular among run-and-gun hunters, who value lightweight gear over everything. Remington has also made several dedicated turkey versions of the 870, with short barrels and stocks that are practical hybrids between a pistol grip and a conventional stock. The company is currently under new ownership and it’s not clear yet which guns will remain in the lineup, but the 870, in various models, is the most likely to stick around. And there are plenty of used models out there.
3. Winchester 1300/SXP
The Winchester 1300 suffered comparisons to the great Model 12, which were totally unfair. The Model 12 was complex, finely machined, and assembled by skilled craftsmen. The 1300, on the other hand, was an inexpensive mass-produced pump with an alloy receiver. Taken on its own merits, however, the 1300 was a good field gun and a great turkey gun. Winchester offered it in one of the very first dedicated turkey models, with a short barrel, a camo laminated stock, and iron sights on the barrel. There are newer dedicated turkey guns out there, but the NWTF Model 1300 is all the turkey gun anyone needs.
Production of the 1300 ceased when the New Haven Winchester plant closed, in 2006, but the gun was reborn as the SXP and is now imported from Turkey. The new guns were redesigned to eliminate a few weaknesses of the originals and come in several dedicated turkey models.
4. Ithaca Model 37 Turkey Slayer
Ithaca waited 20 years for the patents on John Browning’s Remington Model 17 to expire, and then it knocked off the design brilliantly with the Model 37. Introduced in the depths of the Depression, the Model 37 remains in production today and is an old favorite among upland hunters. But as a bottom-ejecting, lightweight pump gun, it’s no doubt suited for turkey hunting, too, especially now that the gun is made with 3-inch chambers.
The best Ithaca turkey guns are the ones produced in Sandusky, Ohio, after 2007. The Model 37 Turkey Slayer has a 3-inch chamber, high-quality iron sights, and a fixed barrel for added rigidity (turkey guns need accuracy, too, after all). It’s drilled and tapped for a scope and is available in standard and thumbhole versions.
5. Mossberg 835
The 12-gauge 835 hits turkeys hard, thanks to a 3½-inch chamber and a near 10-gauge bore that patterns heavy loads of shot very well. I shot an 835 at turkeys for several years, and it never failed me, even on a couple of occasions I’d rather not discuss, when I had to empty it at birds. It’s a light gun, too, and won’t weigh you down if you like to cover ground while searching for toms.
Introduced in 1988, the 835 was the result of a secret collaboration between Mossberg and Federal to create an alternative to the 10-gauge for shooting big payloads of large steel shot. Although intended as a waterfowl gun, it wasn’t long before someone looked at the 3½-inch hull and thought, Hmmm, I wonder how many lead 6s fit in here? and the 835 Ulti-Mag was repurposed for turkey hunting, with a short barrel and fiber-optic sights.
The Best Semiauto Turkey Guns Ever Made
6. Browning Auto-5
In production from 1902 to 1998, the Automatic 5 was, like the Winchester Model 12, introduced in a time of few turkeys and discontinued when more turkeys occupied North America than they had when Columbus landed. Browning made nearly 3 million Auto-5s, and many of those guns—including mine—had turkeys to their credit.
The Auto-5 was the first semi-automatic shotgun ever produced and worked (and it always worked, so long as you kept a few drops of oil on the magazine tube) on John Browning’s long-recoil design, meaning that the barrel and bolt traveled together almost 3 inches back into the receiver upon going off. The Auto-5 was made in Light, Standard, and 3-inch Magnum models, in 12 and 20 gauges, as well as in a scaled-down Sweet 16 model.
7. Remington 1100/11-87
In the 1960s, just as turkey restoration efforts were picking up steam across the U.S., Remington introduced a new semi-automatic shotgun—the 1100. It wasn’t the first gas gun, but it was the first that worked reliably, and it changed us into a nation of gas-gun shooters. And the soft-shooting 1100 was a perfect match for heavy-recoiling turkey loads.
The 11-87, introduced in, you guessed it, 1987, added a pressure-compensation valve to the 1100’s gas system, enabling it to shoot shotshells from light 2¾-inch target loads up to 3-inch 2-ounce turkey magnums. The new model was also threaded for choke tubes, which increased its reach and effectiveness for turkey hunting. But in every other way, it was the same gun. A Super Magnum 3½-inch 11-87 came later, but the 1100 and 11-87’s places among top turkey guns were already secure.
Read Next: The Best Light-Kicking Turkey Loads
8. Browning Gold Light 10-Gauge
At about 9¼ pounds, the Gold Light 10-Gauge is light—at least by 10-gauge standards. With an alloy receiver to save weight and a 24-inch barrel to make it relatively compact, this gun is what you want if you insist on shooting a 10 at turkeys. A 10 will, no doubt, have a slight patterning edge over a 3½-inch 12-gauge in the woods, and it will have a huge advantage in felt recoil, since the extra weight and gas system soak up much of the kick.
Although it shares a name with Browning’s now-discontinued 12- and 20-gauge Gold, the Gold Light is an entirely different gun, and its cult following remains the most devoted among those for the three 10-gauge gas guns (the Ithaca Mag 10 and the Remington SP10 being the other two). The Light 10 is no longer in production, but there are used models out there, and the currently offered Gold 10-Gauge Field is virtually the same gun but with a 26-inch barrel.
9. Benelli SBE 3 Performance Shop Turkey
The Super Black Eagle debuted in 1991 and was the first semi-auto chambered for the new 3½-inch 12-gauge load. The name Benelli and the idea of inertia-driven shotguns were both little known in the U.S. at the time, but the gun soon caught on among waterfowl hunters, who prized its bad-weather reliability. Lightweight and packing a punch, the SBE soon became popular among turkey hunters, too.
The SBE not only put a hurting on turkey heads but also on hunter’s wallets as the first semi-auto to break the $1,000 price barrier. The Performance Shop model shown here sells for a little over three grand. It comes with a lengthened forcing cone; ported barrels; custom choke tubes; a Burris Speed Bead sight; two stocks, one conventional, one pistol-gripped; and several other extras. Yes, it’s a lot of money, but it’s also a lot of gun.
10. Winchester Super X4 NWTF
Winchester’s Super X4 is everything a turkey autoloader should be: light; soft-shooting; hard-hitting; and, in its turkey versions, perfectly tweaked for chasing gobblers. The model is a spinoff of the Browning Gold, the gas gun Browning deemed worthy to replace the great but outdated Auto-5. It’s reliable and easy to maintain.
The SX4 NWTF has Cantilever scope mounts, backup iron sights, and a 24-inch barrel with extended turkey chokes. There are 3-1/2-inch 12-gauge and 3-inch 20-gauge versions, the latter weight just over 7 pounds.
Gobbler Hunting in the Era of Long-Range Turkey Guns
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We are in the era of long-range turkey guns. The chokes and loads we’ve got now shoot patterns you can scarcely cover with your hand at 20 yards, and kill birds way past 50. Where the sweet spot of turkey gun patterns—the point where they are big enough to hit with, but dense enough for sure kills—used to be 20 to 30 yards, now it’s 25 or 30 yards to 40 and change. If you shoot a turkey choke and premium ammunition, you might consider setting your decoys a little farther out or just start shooting sooner when a bird approaches. The bird I killed on the last day of the season a couple years back was coming to me across an open field. It was on course to walk up and sit in my lap, but I shot it at 38 yards, which is a chip shot for the gun and ammo I’m shooting. And, unlike the bird I sniped at 57 steps on opening morning, this one left me all twitterpated as I walked up to it, so by that metric, 38 yards is close enough.
Read Next: The Best Long Range Turkey Loads
If longer shots offend you, or if you hunt in woods where you can’t even see beyond 40 yards and turkeys sneak in undetected, you’re better off going low-tech. Shoot a standard Full choke and regular lead loads, or maybe upgrade to Winchester Long Beard. That’s a more practical setup for killing your birds inside 35 yards, the way we all used to.