by Phil Bourjaily

Braced for a jolt of recoil the first time I pulled the trigger of a .458 Winchester Magnum rifle, I thought: That wasn’t as bad as a turkey gun.

A .458–an elephant gun–generates up to 65 foot-pounds of recoil that you feel as a shove. Meanwhile, a 12-gauge loaded with a high-velocity 31⁄2-inch magnum lead turkey load cracks you with up to 75 foot-pounds of recoil. Turkey guns are light to make them easy to carry long distances, and turkey loads contain lots of shot driven at high speed to ensure penetration of skull and vertebrae. The result is massive recoil. It offends my sense of proportion that guns for a 21-pound bird kick harder than rifles designed for the most dangerous game in the world, so I avoid the heaviest turkey loads on principle.

That said, in the excitement of shooting a turkey, no one feels the gun go off. Should we just accept brutal recoil as part of the price of a masochistic sport, along with sleep deprivation, mosquitoes, and chiggers?

The answer: It depends.

The Cost of Kick If you’re an experienced shooter and you want to use the heaviest, fastest 31⁄2-inch magnums in a 61⁄2-pound pump, who am I to tell you not to? I’ll even recommend one: Winchester’s Supreme High Velocity 31⁄2-inch, 2-ounce load of 5 shot at 1300 fps wallops your shoulder, but also kills distant turkeys dead.

If you shoot monster loads, though, you must take precautions at the range. A 20-shot patterning session with 31⁄2s rattles my head enough that I feel addled afterward, and that’s scary. Not only is recoil potentially harmful, it’s easy to pick up a nasty flinch at the range that follows you into the field. Shooting the heaviest payload does no good if you pull it off target. Test your gun from a weighted rest like a Lead Sled, or at least shoot with a padded gun case draped over your shoulder. Keep range sessions short.

Additionally, recoil can ruin turkey hunting for kids and newcomers. The light youth 20-gauge pumps many kids start with kick surprisingly hard with 3-inch, 11⁄4-ounce magnums. A beating at the range can make them too fearful of a gun to shoot well, and may even turn them off of hunting before they ever start.

Shooter-Friendly Ammo The first kids I took turkey hunting practiced extensively with 20-gauge, 1-ounce premium loads of lead 6s, and each killed toms with those loads at 25 yards. Since then, several 12- and 20-gauge alternatives have come on the market that have low recoil and are effective at long range. Heavier-than-lead tungsten-iron pellets retain enough energy so that you can use smaller shot sizes, lighter payloads, and lower velocities while retaining turkey-killing performance. They cost as much as $3 to $4 per shell as opposed to $1 to $2 for lead, but paying an extra $10-$20 to make a newcomer’s hunt successful and enjoyable is a smart investment.

Here are my favorites, in descending order of recoil. I have shot birds with a number of these and patterned them all. Recoil figures are approximate and based on a 7-pound 12-gauge and a 6-pound 20.


(7) Winchester Supreme Elite Xtended Range HD Turkey, 23⁄4-inch 12-gauge, 11⁄2 ounces of No. 6 shot, 1225-fps velocity, 36 foot-pounds of recoil. I have shot half a dozen birds with these to 40-plus yards. Recoil is about the same as a 1450-fps, 11⁄4-ounce steel duck load.


(6) Federal Premium Mag-Shok Heavyweight Turkey, 3-inch 20-gauge, 11⁄2 ounces of No. 6 shot, 1100 fps, 35 foot-pounds. Containing the densest commercially available pellets, these put a 20-gauge on a par with most 12s. I have killed turkeys with them to 50 steps. The 11⁄2-ounce payload is very heavy for a 20, but the low velocity keeps recoil reasonable even in a light gun.


(5) Federal Premium Mag-Shok Heavyweight Turkey, 23⁄4-inch 12-gauge, 11⁄4 ounces of No. 7 shot, 1300 fps, 30 foot-pounds. New from Federal, this is the perfect choice if you’re teaching a new shooter with a 12-gauge. In my gun it’s a 40-yard load, and the recoil is about the same as that of many pheasant loads.


(4) Hevi-Shot Hevi-13, 23⁄4-inch 12-gauge, 11⁄2 ounces of No. 6 shot, 1090 fps, 29 foot-pounds. It has minimal recoil and patterns tightly, and its very dense pellets hit hard at all ranges.


(3) Hevi-Shot Hevi-13, 3-inch 20-gauge, 11⁄4 ounces of No. 7 shot, 1090 fps, 25 foot-pounds. Loaded with hard, dense, tiny pellets, it swarms a turkey target at 40 yards.


(2) Winchester Supreme Elite Xtended Range HD Turkey, 3-inch 20-gauge, 11⁄8 ounces of No. 5 shot, 1225 fps, 24.5 foot-pounds. I find the pellet count a little light and wish it came in 6 or 7 shot, but a friend has killed a pile of turkeys with these in a youth 870.


(1) Federal Premium Mag-Shok Heavyweight Turkey, 23⁄4-inch 20-gauge, 11⁄8 ounces of No. 7 shot, 1100 fps, 20 foot-pounds. This is as soft kicking as turkey loads get. It feels like a target load, but it will kill turkeys almost 40 yards away.


(B) And here’s a bonus lead choice: Fiocchi Golden Pheasant 23⁄4-inch 20-gauge, 1 ounce of No. 6 shot, 1245 fps, 20.5 foot-pounds. Containing beautifully round, nickel-plated lead shot, Golden Pheasant is a low-recoil, lower-cost alternative to ­tungsten-​iron, with a killing range to nearly 35 yards. It proves that a shell doesn’t have to have a picture of a turkey on the box to kill a tom, nor does it have to kick you like an elephant gun.