Building the Perfect Turkey Gun

I have known hundreds of hunters over the years and I have to say turkey hunters are the most passionate, focused group of hunters I’ve ever encountered. Deer, elk, and duck hunters are all very serious about bagging their quarry, but the turkey guys focus and dedication has always stood out above the rest.

A shotgun that makes one shot count, because that’s all you get with wary gobblers.

The local turkey crowd are the only hunters I know that spend hours patterning their shotguns, trying different loads, and changing out choke tubes in search of the ability to reach just a little bit further to bag a bird. 

My friend Warren Strickland is one of those dedicated hunters and has probably counted more shotgun pellet holes on targets than anyone. After seeing too many birds missed or wounded, he began a quest to solve all the shortcomings of turkey guns and loads. Trust me, he was ahead of his time.

So, what makes the perfect turkey gun? Well, it has to have the ability to reach out reliably and solidly to take birds and have the characteristics to make it easy to carry and maneuver in tough turkey hunting terrain.

Ammunition

Before we get into the details of the gun, let’s take a look at the load that made this gun really come together and that will improve most all turkey hunting performance – Tungsten Super Shot.

Heavy shot was a step in the right direction but Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) is the magic material that makes humane long-range kills much more attainable. Warren started handloading TSS loads almost 8 years ago long before OEM’s started producing their current offerings.

Lead shot weighs about 11 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc), pure tungsten weighs in at 19.3 g/cc, and the TSS alloy mixture now used in turkey loads runs between 18- 18.5 g/cc.

Canister of TSS is as heavy as it is expensive but worth it.

This makes TSS about 1.7 times heavier than lead, giving it the ability to carry more energy, momentum, and sustain that performance out to greater distances. The higher density also allows the use of smaller shot since each pellet has more energy, yielding a higher number of pellets available in each shot, giving potentially greater pattern density. 

In TSS a #9 shot has about the same energy as a lead #4 shot pellet at 40 yards. The smaller pellets also have less surface area, so they lose velocity slower than larger pellets due to decreased wind resistance – another important advantage. 

.555 constriction Indian Creek 20-gauge choke delivers awesome patterns.

Additionally, tungsten is durable and hard. It has the highest melting point of any element, 6192 degrees, and a Brinell hardness of 2000-4000, compared to 38-50 for lead. This means the TSS pellets keep their shape better during setback under recoil and minimize deformation and subsequent flyers in the pattern.

The nice round, extremely hard, compact pellets tend to penetrate better than lead providing superior killing potential. They also perform well at lower velocities since they have all these characteristics, eliminating the need for extreme magnum loadings. All that’s needed is about 1100 fps to make TSS perform.

Testing with a large number of chokes was the only way to find the best

TSS data indicates that even with the diminutive #9 shot it’s possible to get the needed 1 ½” penetration to kill a turkey out to 70 yards. So now all that is needed is a gun that will pattern well enough with the TSS to keep at least the desired 100 pellets in a 10” circle.

If you figure a turkey head is about 8-9 square inches within the 78.5 square inches of the 10” circle, the 100-pellet minimum goal yields about 1.25 pellets per square inch or about 10 pellets in a turkey neck and head; enough to get a clean kill.

So, bottom line a #9 TSS pellet has equivalent energy to a #4 lead, but you get 380 #9’s per ounce of shot and only 170 #4 lead. Additionally, the #9 TSS will fly further, slowing down less, with less deformation resulting in tighter patterns and greater killing potential.

Hand-loaded 3” roll crimped 20-gauge TSS loads proved more consistent than factory.

The only downside is that TSS is expensive, costing about $45 per pound or $7-8 per round, but you should only need one round per turkey once you get your gun, choke, and loads all set up.

Warren relies on his handload 3” 20-gauge 1 5/8-ounce load of TSS #9’s. He meticulously weighs the powder and shot, not depending on auto dispensers. Consistency is the key to extremely reliable patterns.

Gun

Initially, the quest for the perfect gun began with TSS out of a 12 gauge, but that proved to be overkill, and the guns were bulkier and heavier than needed. So, in 2016 Warren began work with 20 gauges.

40-yard target shows over 300 pellets in the center 10” circle, no gobbler will survive that.

The 20-gauge’s offer smaller frames and lighter, more compact guns better suited for scurrying up and down the hills of southern turkey country. The short 21” barrel is easily maneuvered through the brush and delivers fantastic patterns.

The perfect turkey gun was the result of an evolutionary, analytical process. Starting with the reliable Remington 870 Express Magnum 20-gauge platform, this is an amazing gun built with available parts that virtually anyone can assemble.  

The first challenge is getting the gun to pattern; after that, you have to make sure it’s able to hit small targets with small patterns at extended distances. Since TSS is so hard it can’t be choked down too far or pushed too fast, or it blows out the pattern. 

Indian Creek choke looks simple, but results are undeniably great.

Finding the right choke tube can be an exhausting exercise with so many choices on the market. Indian Creek chokes consistently proved to be the best choice for tight patterns with the TSS loads. However, it does take a little bit of experimentation to get just the right tube constriction as gun bores are not identical. For 20-gauge guns, .555, .562, and .570 seem to work the best. For 12-gauges somewhere between the .665 – .680 yielded the best results.

Everything that can be done to aid patterns is accomplished, including barrel polishing.

The 870 is a very affordable gun but not what you consider a high-end gun, so the bore still needs some improvement. Polishing the bore of the barrel and choke to a mirror finish with a barrel hone definitely has a positive effect on the TSS performance. This process increases 40-yard pattern density in the 10” circle by about 10%, raising pellet count from about 300 to 330, well worth the effort.

The next step is making sure this tight pattern hits exactly where it is aimed. Since your eye is essentially acting as the backsight on a shotgun it results in minor misalignments and can cause significant pattern shifts at extended distances. Since TSS patterns so tight and in order to remove this potential cause of misses a real sight needs to be installed. The best option for this is a red dot sight.  

Drilling and tapping the receiver can be done by a local gunsmith or machine shop.

The receiver is drilled and tapped to mount a Picatinny rail to allow rigid mounting of a quality red dot sight. A red dot allows for wide unobstructed views and for precise aiming in low light conditions on morning hunts. An Aimpoint Micro is used on the perfect turkey gun and has held up to all the abuse of testing and hunts. 

The ability to adjust the red dot zero for both windage and elevation makes for precise aiming of the shotgun pattern. Once mounted, zero the shotgun point of aim for 40 yards, center of the pattern. Be wary of lesser quality red dots, they might not stand up to the recoil of the heavy shot loads, so don’t risk your hunt on questionable products that could lose zero.

Aimpoint Micro keeps gun profile slim but ensures precise shot placement at longer ranges.

Unlike a rifle where the barrel is threaded into the receiver, the 870 barrel is just inserted in the receiver and screwed into the front of the magazine tube to hold it in place, not the most precise configuration. In fact, the barrel can be mounted slightly twisted to the side rather than perfectly centered. That misalignment combined with the red dot being mounted on the receiver can result in point of impact shifts from point of aim.

In order to mitigate this issue, the barrel and receiver should be marked where they come together at the front top of the receiver to provide a means of verifying the barrel is in the same repeatable position.

Indicator marks punched in the receiver and barrel to ensure alignment.

Now that the gun has tight patterns, the capability for precise aiming, and a repeatable point of impact, you may notice that the trigger needs some improvement. Timney Triggers makes a kit for the 870 that will drop that factory 8ish pound trigger down to an amazingly light, 2 – 2 1/2 lb trigger with no creep. 

The trigger fix kit comes with a sear, 3 springs, and is adjustable. With the light spring and some adjustment, this trigger feels more like shooting a rifle than a shotgun, which is exactly what is needed for longer shots.

Getting down to the final touches. There is no reason for you to camo up if your gun stands out, so a nice Cerakoting, camo dip, or paint job is needed to knock off the glare and ensure that the gun doesn’t stand out or spook birds.

Collapsible stock makes shotgun fit any hunter and provides a larger recoil pad.

The last component of the perfect turkey gun is a collapsible stock. This allows it to be more compact during transport as well as provides a more vertical pistol grip resulting in a straighter trigger pull for increased accuracy; not words usually associated with shotgun shooting. In addition, the Phoenix Technology 6 position stock has a recoil absorbing feature. 

Components

Remington 870 Express Magnum 20 gauge-

Remington

Aimpoint Micro-                 

Aimpoint

Indian Creek Choke Tubes-                  

Indian Creek

Timney Triggers-                                     

Timney

Phoenix Technology-                              

Phoenix Stock

Performance

Well, unfortunately, I didn’t get to take the perfect turkey gun out until the last day of the AL season, and we didn’t find a gobbler on the parcel we were hunting. However, the patterns and this gun’s history tell a different story. It has harvested 70+ birds over the last few years as Warren hunted FL, AL, TN, TX, ND, SD and NORCAL, and used it as a loaner to lucky friends like me.

60-yard performance of 20-gauge TSS in truly amazing, letting you reach out.

Other than the Aimpoint Micro red dot, this setup is very affordable, lightweight, compact, and provides capabilities beyond its size and cost for taking birds out to 60+ yards. Thankfully several small reloading companies and OEM’s are now offering TSS loads so handloading is no longer required. 

I’m starting my own perfect turkey gun build using this blueprint since I don’t think you can do any better with current market products. Get started on yours, or at least take some of these ideas and implement them on your current gun for greater success when the season rolls around again. Good luck.

All the turkey gun you ever need – it’s perfect.

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About the author: Jeff Cramblit is a world-class competitive shooter having won medals at both the 2012 IPSC World Shotgun Championship in Hungary and more recently the 2017 IPSC World Rifle Championship in Russia. He is passionate about shooting sports and the outdoors. He has followed that passion for over 30 years, hunting and competing in practical pistol, 3gun, precision rifle and sporting clays matches. Jeff is intimately familiar with the shooting industry – competitor, instructor, RO, range master, match director. Among his training credits include NRA Instructor, AR-15 armorer, FBI Rifle Instructor, and Officer Low Light Survival Instructor. As a sponsored shooter, Jeff has represented notable industry names such as: Benelli, 5.11 Tactical, Bushnell, Blackhawk, DoubleStar, and Hornady. He has been featured on several of Outdoor Channel’s Shooting Gallery episodes and on a Downrange TV series. Jeff’s current endeavors cover a broad spectrum and he can be found anywhere from local matches helping and encouraging new shooters as they develop their own love of the sport, to the dove field with his friends, a charity sporting clays shoot, backpack hunting public land in Montana, or the winners podium of a major championship.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Mark C. Walker April 8, 2021, 9:35 am

    Interesting and informative article; thanks. Somewhat hard to refute given the bio-credentials; impressive.
    Question 1: Why not begin the build with a gun already designed as a Turkey Gun, such as the Mossberg 535 Turkey?
    Question 2: Why is the 16 gauge not more popular as a gap-filler between the 12 and 20 gauge turkey guns?

  • David Brill April 6, 2021, 10:24 am

    I detest AR style collapsible stocks and am not fond of the pistol grip either. Brown wood and dull blue steel are adequate camo in the woods. I use a Browning Auto 5 with a 21″ barrel in 12 guage and it kicks less than the Model 870 20 guage. The choke would be worth trying. Nonetheless a very interesting article. To each his own. I am old school.

  • Jamie Biermann April 6, 2021, 8:53 am

    Jeff Cramblit, please contact me to see my latest turkey gun build. I think you’ll be interested. Thanks!

  • Anthony J Meerpohl April 6, 2021, 8:29 am

    I found thatr my 20 gauge Mossberg 500 youth model was the perfect turkey gun for my purposes. Carlson TSS choke and Remington Hevi shot prodced tight patterns out to 55 yards, enough for my purposes. Good article, i will try rloading my 20 to achieve better results. The TSSfactory loads a re way to expensive and now, even harder to find.

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