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 turkey guns as we know them today 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 have proved themselves time and again in the turkey woods.
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 97 2.0, 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.
In production from 1902 to 1998, the Automatic 5 was, like the Winchester Model 12, introduced in a time of few turkeys, but 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.
Remington Model 870
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 also offers 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 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.
ITHACA MODEL 37
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.
Remington Model 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.
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). It’s also the only one still in production, although the NWTF model, a favorite, isn’t currently available.
Benelli Super Black Eagle Performance Shop
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-pricetag barrier. The Performance Shop model shown here sells for almost 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.
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.
Winchester Super X3 NWTF
Winchester’s Super X3 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 X3 comes in a pair of dedicated turkey versions, one with a conventional stock, the other with a tactical-turkey edition. Both guns have Cantilever scope mounts, backup iron sights, and 24-inch barrels with extended turkey chokes. Twenty-gauge versions of both guns are available, too.
Lead photograph: Remington 870 SPS Super Mag Turkey with Shurshot Stock. Photographs of the Winchester Model 12 and Browning Auto-5 courtesy of James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, Maine, USA.