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Just the facts: rifles and turkey hunting

The debate between rifles and shotguns for turkey hunting goes back to the first legal turkey hunting seasons. The turkey hunter who wants to test his calling ability would opt for a shotgun and “get ‘em in close.” The turkey hunter who wants to test his marksmanship would opt for a rifle. And then there are hunters who have a “drilling,” which is a rifle/shotgun combination. “Kill him close with shotgun, but if he hangs up out of range, take him with the rifle.”

Illustration by Ryan Kirby

No matter which firearm is used, turkey hunting is a very safe sport with an incident rate of about three per 100,000 hunters nationwide.

Safe at any Range

No matter which firearm is used, turkey hunting is a safe sport with an incident rate of about three per 100,000 hunters nationwide. In fact, safety continues to improve. Turkey hunting incident rates during the early 1990s were near eight per 100,000 hunters. Turkey hunting safety education and awareness promoted by state wildlife agencies, International Hunter Education Association and the NWTF are definitely paying off. However, a look at the IHEA hunting incident database reveals some real differences in the outcome of incidents involving rifles as compared with shotguns or bows.

The facts are:

One reason that incidents involving rifles are more likely to result in fatalities is the rifle’s effective range is much greater than a shotgun. A rifle bullet may retain a lethal level of energy for miles. The shooter’s visual range, however, remains the same no matter what firearm is used. While hunters must always positively identify their target, it is easier to do so at shorter distances.

Renowned turkey hunter and callmaker Dick Kirby had a close call while hunting on a south Florida WMA in the early 1980s. Hearing no gobbles early that morning, Dick set up a very realistic decoy on the edge of a field, which was visible from a distant road. After setting up near the decoy, he soon heard a vehicle slow down, then stop. Suddenly, Dick heard a rifle shot and the decoy was knocked over. The vehicle pulled away, leaving a big hole in his decoy. Fortunately, Dick was sitting off to one side of his decoy — a wise precaution that may have saved his life.

Safety is a consideration when determining legal shot size in shotguns, too. Shot larger than No. 4, even at ranges well past 40 yards, retains energy levels that may be lethal to humans and it is partly for this reason that many states mandate the use of No. 4 or smaller shot for turkey hunting.

Less is More

Another consideration when setting hunting regulations is effectiveness of the firearm. According to the 2005 Third Wild Turkey Hunting Safety Task Force, “The best and safest way to kill a turkey is using a shotgun with No. 4 or smaller shot, to place shot in the head and neck at 40 yards or less.”

Research has shown that wild turkeys are most vulnerable when shot in their brain or upper spine. This area of a turkey’s body, while vulnerable, is also small and mobile, making it difficult to hit with a single projectile. The dense pattern of many small shot from a tight-choked shotgun provides an almost instant kill out to about 40 yards. As ethical hunters, we should always strive to make a clean, one-shot kill. Turkeys that are hit only in the body with either bullets or large shot will likely die, but may not be recovered. Large shot are not as effective in producing dense, efficient patterns, simply because fewer large shot can fit within a shotgun shell.

Tastes Great, Less Filling

Edibility after harvest is also a consideration. Many states have regulations prohibiting wanton waste. A turkey shot in the head and neck with small shot will have little or no meat rendered inedible by the shot. This may not be the case with many high-velocity bullets, especially those that expand on impact. Rifles and bullets designed for bigger game may not leave much edible meat.
Changing Demographics

The trend in state hunting regulations in the last three decades has been to move away from rifles for turkey hunting. In 1983, 11 states allowed rifles for spring turkey hunting and 15 allowed rifles for fall turkey hunting. By 1992, this had decreased to nine and 14 states, respectively. In 2009, six states allowed rifles for spring turkey hunting, at least at some times and in some areas, and nine states allow fall turkey hunting with rifles in at least some areas of the state.

In addition to the legality, safety, ethical and edibility factors, there is one other reason that many hunters prefer shotguns to rifles for turkey hunting. The appeal and challenge of turkey hunting lies in calling a gobbler into close range; (less than 40 yards), then making a clean, one-shot kill. To these hunters, shooting a turkey at long range with a rifle takes the challenge away from the hunt.

So, if you have ever wondered why your state wildlife agency doesn’t allow rifles for turkey hunting, now you know the facts. Traditions are hard to change. Turkey hunters need to make a commitment to what is best for all hunters and the wild turkey. — James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., NWTF chief conservation officer

States Allowing Turkey Hunting with Rifles