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April 29, 2008

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Bourjaily: Confessions of a Turkey Misser

A guest post from Shooting Editor and Shotguns columnist Phil Bourjaily

Turkey season started last week.
They say you should write about what you know, and one thing I know way too much about is missing wild turkeys. Until you’ve pointed a shotgun at a stationary bird’s head, pulled the trigger and watched it fly off, you genuinely believe (as I used to) that it’s impossible to miss a turkey. It’s not.

What’s worse, once you break the ice and whiff that first bird, it gets ever easier to miss.
You miss because turkey chokes are so tight they throw patterns the size of a volleyball at 20 yards. After my closest miss (5 yards) I shot a pattern at that range that made one hole you couldn’t fit a golf ball through.
And, you miss because you raise your head to get a better view of the bird falling over, except that when you lift your cheek off the stock, the shot goes high.
Like any shooter, I decided my problem had to be lack of gear. First I added a middle bead to my shotgun and used it as a rear sight. That worked fine, until one day it didn’t, and I put clamp-on iron sights onto the rib of my gun. From there, I went to a peep sight with the rear aperture unscrewed and thrown away. Peep sights are lightning fast, surprisingly precise, and all but forgotten by today’s hunter, which is a shame. Peeps may be great and underrated, but it turns out I can miss with those, too. Since then I’ve put scopes and red dots on my guns.

I thought optics had finally cured me. I went a long time without a miss. I shot birds from 12 to 51 yards, standing, strutting, walking, running and once, under circumstances I will not go into here, flying. Then I missed, having gradually developed a habit of not only looking up, but of dropping the gun out of the way for an even better view.
The solution to the problem is not more gimmicks, of course, but better shooting. My turkey guns still have optics --- an Aimpoint 9000 on one, a Nikon Turkey Pro 1.5-4.5 on the other. My most important weapon in the war on missing, however, is the mantra taught to me by shooting instructor and hardcore turkey hunter Marty Fischer: “Kill them through the gun.” It’s a succinct, effective way of telling yourself to keep your head on the stock and follow-through with the shot. I repeat it to myself as turkeys walk into range. Fischer, a long-time competitive clay shooter, prefers the familiar view down an unadorned shotgun rib when he hunts turkeys.
Confession time: off the top of my head I can come up with seven misses and I’m sure there are more I’m blocking out because they’re too painful. Does anybody out there want to admit to missing turkeys too, just to make me feel better? And who else besides me puts sights on a turkey gun?


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I missed this season, it was my first shot at a turkey. During the wisconsin youth hunt, I was sitting with my grandpa and we had heard some gobbling around us and at about 7:30 in the morning he finally peaked his head out at 50 yards. He wouldnt come any closer,so I took the shot.(mind you that grandpa said that he has shot birds at that range with the same gun) Expecting the bird to fall over I was suprized to see him run off. I thought I would have rolled him, so we left to go check for blood. (leaving out our decoys). So we didnt find any and we decided to go back to the blind and as we are walking back, we heard another one, as it turns out another bird walked within 5 feet of our blind and was going for our decoys. Didnt get another shot.Darn


We've all missed turkeys. Most of us have been chasing THE combination of gun/load/choke for years as well. Tighter chokes, specialized guns, sights, scopes and EXPENSIVE loads. It just HAD to be BETTER! I also missed a couple of birds close with all my fancy gear and realized I rarely had opportunities to use the potential of 40 yard killing power.

In the vein of KISS (keep it simple stupid) I went old school. Now, I just use a standard full choke with regular old remington turkey loads and keep my shots under 30 yards.

I quit wasting money on the latest, greatest toys and concentrated on being a better turkey hunter. I haven't missed a bird since.



I started turkey hunting with a fixed-choke Winchester 1300 with a modified barrel. The gun killed two turkeys, both at about 25 yards. Then the gear bug bit.

I bought a Remington 870 and an ultra-super-duper-mega-full choke. I patterned and practiced, but in the field I missed three birds in a single spring.

My solution: switch back to a modified choke and let the far-away birds walk. Sacrilege, I know, but I haven't missed a turkey since.


My grandfather gave me an old Ithaca 10 gauge for turkey huntong. With 3.5 inch super mags if you miss the concussion from the shot will stun them. Seriously, we all miss once in a while that's why they call it hunting

How in the hell could a good rifleman miss a turkey at 30 yards with a shotgun?

Good thing they don't fly as fast as ducks and are larger than geese.

Ralph the Rifleman

Well, I must be doing better then avarage;I'm two for two so far.
The only change I made from my 1st turkey was shot type. I listened to "seasoned" turkey shooters and used #5 shot 3inch Turkey "heavy loads" in my shotgun and almost field dressed the bird on the spot! It just doesn't take that much power to kill a turkey as far as I can tell? This year I used #6-Rem high brass, and the bird was just as dead. I use a double(O/U)with modified-full chokes. Both birds were shot with my modified barrel.
May I ask;"What is so difficult about hitting a turkey with a shotgun?"


Spend some time shooting clays, ducks or doves and the turkey will become much easier. My challenge is getting the turkeys into range.


Same as me Brian. To bad season is over for me down here in Alabama =(


BTW, I'm also 2 for 2 on turkeys. Now deer are another story. I've missed enough deer to last a lifetime.

Trae B.

I have one of the worst stories. Three shots, one tough turkey.
I saw the turkey out of my livingroom window and ran to my room to grab my gun. I went on the porch and shot three times at about 12ish yards and either I missed or I shot at iron turkey. He gave me a mean look and walked away. BTW it was a while ago so I dont remember what kind of load or choke I had, but it was a 12 gauge pump.


All you turkey hunters, shotgunners, and gun NUTS!
Especially you Petzal and Bourjaily!
I have a question!
I have inherited (because no one else wanted it!) a Stevens Mod 124 in 12 gauge!
Who can tell me anything about it!?
Does anyone else out there have one? In my 57 years, this is only the third one I have EVER seen! (and I worked in a gunshop for 5 years!)


Phil Bourjaily

Thanks for your tales of woe -- it's good to know I've got plenty of company. The world of turkey hunters is divided into those who have missed turkeys, and those who haven't . . . yet.
Bubba -- The Gun Trader's Guide tells me your 124 is a bolt-action shotgun that looks like a semi-automatic. What appears to be the operating handle of a semiauto is actually a straight-pull bolt. It was made from 1947-1952 and unfortunately isn't worth a whole lot: only about $170 NIB. Still, it's well worth keeping as a curiosity. Most people, me included, have never seen one.

R Riggins

My father owns a Stevens 124. I have never seen another one and I worked at a local gunshop for almost 20 years. His has a plastic stock with molded in checkering. He says that while he was buying his another customer brought one back complaining that it wouldn't work semiauto like it should. It has always shot well but ugly as sin and has some recoil due to the light weight.

Del in KS

As you gents might guess ol' Del in KS loves to Turkey hunt. Last Friday I bagged birds no 59 and 60 about thirty minutes apart. My first T gun was a Browning 3" mag vent rib Auto-5. It was deadly to 40 yds with #4 Turkey loads. For about 10 years now it has been a Benelli SBE that has been Cerakoted in green camo(weatherproofed) by Ultraborecoatings, Inc. With Remington 3.5" heavyshot #6's it has taken turkeys out to a measured (by lazer after the shot) 64 yds. No I would not have fired if I had known it was over 55 but it killed that 23 lb gobbler dead. Ironically the 2 or 3 times I have missed was not really long shots. So far my longest beard (12 1/8 inches) was on a 19.5 pounder from southern MO. The longest spurs (1 3/8 in.) was a 25.5 pound Macon Co MO bird. The heaviest was a 26 pounder shot on the same spot a yr later. In the fall of 06 I bagged a 19.5 pound KS tom with a Mathews Switchback XT that had 5 beards totaling 35 inches. The above story pretty much mirrors my experiance with sights. Got rid of the scope and other sighting gizmos and just use 2 beads on the vent rib. My calling skills are really not that good but I have a vest full of all kinds of calls. Most of my birds have been killed with a Lynch Foolproof box that is very raspy and loud. My favorite hunting weather is windy cloudy without rain. Note that when the wind blows the bushes move and a bird won't spot your movement as quickly. Also a lone Gobbler is less likely to hear a real hen in the distance and go the other way. Anyway it was blowing hard when I shot the 2 Gobblers last Friday and also when many of the others fell to old betsy. Sunny calm days usually result in lots of gobbling and no dead bird. I also have bought just about every dang decoy they make yet have killed most of my birds without one. BTW If any of you gents want to go to a state thats loaded with turkeys its Kansas. NR tags are relatively cheap too. Lots of farmers hate them and will let you hunt turkeys. The state also has a walk in hunting program with thousands of acres to hunt on. We have Easterns, Rios and hy-breds to hunt. I am fresh out of tags so now will take friends hunting til the season ends May 31.

Del in KS


Fifty yards is way too far to kill a turkey with anything but a specialized turkey gun. You need to shoot a turkey pattern target with the gun and ammo you plan to use at different ranges to determine the max range for your gun. Six or more #4,5 or 6 shot in the head and neck will usually do the job. Most ordinary shotguns are only good for about 35 yds. My 3.5" magnum with extended Xtra full turkey choke tube and #6 high density turkey loads is deadly to 55 yds and apparently beyond. Never shoot a turkey in the body. The result is usually a wounded bird that gets away and if you kill him he will be full of shot and poor table fare. Hope this will help.

SD Bob

I must admit that last year I missed a turkey myself. I was trying to hit one in the eye with a varmint grenade. Those stationary heads aren't to stationary so after a few shots I opted to aim lower and fixed the ill will.

Clay Cooper

I can’t say I missed a Turkey, not yet
But if it makes you feel better David which I’m sure it will,
During a Regional High Power Match, I reached for my next round on the shooting stool unknowingly I moved my right foot. I pulled down on the target and as the rifle recoiled I noticed down the left side of the M1A, I just crossed fired on the target on my right costing me the match. I yelled at the shooter on my right, “JUST PULL THE TRIGGER SHOOTER! JUST SHOOT MAN!” As we watched his target go down, he looked at me as if I was a raging lunatic and then the target came back up. Dead smack center “X” ring! O’did he feel sick, that would have gave him at least third place!
Show me a Competition shooter that has never crossed fired and I’ll show you a shooter that never competed!
David knows and I’ll agree, if you never missed a Turkey, you never hunted them!

Scott in Ohio

Phil and others,

I just added some gear to my Rem 11-87 including a saddle mount, Simmons prodiamond scope, and a Rem super-full turkey choke. (Perhaps I shouldn't have spent the money based on the above comments?!)

Anyhoo, now I have to sight in one more scope and figured I'd buy a bore sight since my neighbor is probably getting sick of lending me his.

My 2 questions:

1. Anyone have a favorite bore sight? After reviewing literature I had narrowed it down to the magnetic-types since they seem to have more flexibility and portability than the laser-types. My final two choices at this point include the Bushnell magnetic boresighter or the Leopold magnetic boresighter. Anyone out there have a preference?

2. On sighting in shotguns, I've read that you are better off taking 3 shots at a target and a ragged hole (depending on distance) will form on your target to show the "average" point of aim. Once again, any thoughts on a better way to do this?

I’m heading to NW PA in two weeks for a turkey hunt and appreciate your thoughts/comments.

Scott in Ohio


Turkeys aren't hard to kill. Use a stiff load of baby mag 6s and a plain old full choke, leave the extra full at home. They tip over real easy when there head shot. Just get a bigger pattern. Loel


Scott in Ohio,
I purchased the Leupold magnetic boresighter. Found it nearly useless. Returned it, and purchased the standard arbor boresighter kit. Each one is a little different with respect to getting you on the paper. My guns historically (when sighted dead center on the boresighter) will shoot slightly high and to the right. Hope this helps.

james t

i have always done well with the arbor boresighter.


I've got a Savage pump I bought in 1984 at J.C. Penny's (when they were still a department store, now they are just a clothing store) that has a fixed Mod Choke, that gun shoots than either of my other 2 shotguns with screw in full chokes. It's my turkey and squirrel gun, use 3" mag shells with 2 oz of #4 for turkeys and 2 3/4 shells with a near mag load of 1 1/4 oz of #6 for squirrels.
Have rolled both turkey and squirrel with it at up to 50 yards.
Not bad for a shotgun that cost (I believe) $120 new over 20 years ago. Still has only the one front bead, figure if it works don't mess with it!

Early Bird

The Pilgrims killed turkeys without turkey chokes, camo or decoys. Get back to the basics and dont shoot at a bird that is over 30 yards, with nothing tighter than regular full choke. Get a hen and a jake decoy, sit down and be quiet! Oh yes, you must hunt in an area where there are turkeys!

Del in KS

Scott in Ohio,

I recommend you don't waste your cash on a bore sighter. Put up a big sheet of paper with an aiming point in the middle at close range. Something like 5-15 yd. and shoot it with cheap target loads to make your adjustments. Once you are close move out to 40 yd. When everything seems right verify with a few turkey loads and a turkey head target to identify your maximum killing range. It's much cheaper and easier on the shoulder to use target loads in the beginning. The 3.5" turkey ammo I use is about $4.00 a shot now days.

Mike Reeder

Hey, it happens.
In fact, it just happened to me for the first time ever after actively hunting spring turkeys for 30 years. I set up a temp blind and was calling, expecting the birds to come from the left and in front. Instead, a half dozen jakes came from behind and on my right. My wife was sitting beside me and saw them first. They were all of 20 yards away and seemed to already know something was wrong. When I tried to swivel around they picked up some movement and started backing up behind some thin brush. I clucked once on the mouth call, which elicited a gobble and stopped them, but they were still as nervous as a cup of coffee. I knew they were about to vaminose, so even though I was out of position I tried to twist around to shoot across my body. Bottom line was, I rushed the shot, failed to get my head down on the stock and shot just over the top of one's head. They took off like scalded cats and I sat there like an idiot. Luckily I called the same bunch back the next morning. This time they came from the left with their eyes on my decoy, giving me plenty of time to settle down, get my head down and hold below one's chin. Still, I am now in the missed-a-turkey-with-a shotgun-at-20-yards club. Not the first stupid thing I've ever done and undoubtedly won't be the last.

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