Turkey Country Field Test Pt. 1

2016 was a banner year for turkey hunting gear heads who are always on the lookout for the latest and greatest gobbler-getting gadget. Manufacturers outdid themselves with the release of a plethora of new calls, turkey hunting ammunition, shotguns and other wizbangs.

I have to admit, my co-workers coined me “Inspector Gadget” nearly two decades ago, and it was for a good reason; I enjoy new tech, new guns and anything with bells, whistles and switches. Now, I don’t believe the hype that these things will make me a better hunter or will guarantee I get a world-class longbeard every trip afield; it’s more that I appreciate innovative minds, creativity and the thought processes behind developing a new tool or technology, especially it if is useful.

When evaluating the 2016 products offered by a selection of manufacturers, many of them partners of the NWTF, I looked at several criteria: Is it really something new, or is it putting a new face on an old product; what does it bring to the mountain of other hunting gadgets that makes it stand out; is it durable; does it do what is promised; and in which direction could it evolve into something even better?

I’m just a lone hunter with my own preferences, experiences and abilities. You may have a different opinion of the same product. Experience them for yourselves to see if you agree.

GUNS AND AMMO

I’m a rangefly. That’s kind of like a barfly, but instead of boozing it up daily at the local dive, I prefer to drown my worries in gun smoke and holey targets. Squeezing the trigger is cathartic to me, and the focus needed to shoot consistently and accurately helps me to relax. So, when a new gun is released into the market, I try to get one on loan to put it through its paces.

Firearms and ammunition are the only two constant factors in turkey hunting. As long as you are consistent and follow through with the shooting fundamentals, you can achieve repeatable results every time you squeeze the trigger.

During spring 2016, I tested several firearms: some on the range and some only in the field, but all were toted in the woods as my primary turkey gun for given hunts. Sometimes I was lucky and killed a bird, sometimes I didn’t. Here is what I experienced:

Savage Arms/Stevens

I hunted with several of Savage’s offerings over the course of the spring. I carried their Custom Rifle Shop Model 212 bolt-action, smooth-bore 12-gauge turkey shotgun in South Florida while hunting with Ted Jaycox at Tall Tine Outfitters (talltine.com).

The previous spring (2015), I received one of only seven 220s in existence, made especially for a select group of turkey hunting writers, and I fell in love with the sleek, low-recoil 20 gauge. In fact, my youngest son, Ben, who was 8 at the time, killed his first turkey with it on a friend’s land in central Florida that spring.

The 212 and 220 turkey guns were born from a discussion with J.J. Reich, Vista Outdoor communications manager for shooting sports. Vista is the parent company of Savage, Federal Premium Ammunition and many more popular outdoor brands. J.J. was the Turkey Calls columnist for Turkey Country before taking the job at Vista. We were talking about how popular the Savage 212 and 220 actions are among the open-division competitors who build custom guns for the NWTF Still Target World Championships and other NWTF sanctioned, still-target shoots. Looking down the shooting line during the 20-gauge and 12-gauge divisions, the Savage actions rule the line. Thus, the idea to try a factory custom-shop turkey gun emerged: replace the rifled slug barrel with a heavy smooth-bore and thread it to accept chokes, dip the one-piece stock in Mossy Oak Obsession and add a scope. It came tapped and threaded for a scope mount, so adding an optic was easy. Ours were topped with the Weaver Kaspa turkey scope (1-4x24mm), and loaded with Federal Premium 3rd Degree shells (20-gauge new in 2016).

With one shell in the chamber and two in the removable magazine, the gun maxes out with three shells, keeping it legal in states where plugs are mandatory for turkey hunting. It balances like a rifle, and other benefits carry over from its slug-gun parentage, such as Savage’s adjustable Accu-Trigger, which gives rifle-like performance on the range and in the field. Next to my old Ithaca 20-gauge Turkey Slayer, this is one of my favorite turkey guns on the market, and at $750, it’s in line with, if not cheaper than, many of the other high-end offerings. Find out more by calling the Savage Arms Custom Rifle Shop at (413) 568-7001 ext. 4299.

A brand-new offering for 2016 was the Stevens 320 pump-action shotgun by Savage. The 320 is an entry-level pump with a look and feel of a higher-end firearm. The model I used while hunting during Florida’s late season on private land and in Texas at the Clear Fork Ranch for Rios featured Mossy Oak Obsession stocks and matte-finished action, barrel and hardware. In Florida, the sighting system was a simple high-visibility, fiber-optic front bead; in Texas, however, it was topped with the Weaver Kaspa turkey scope. Both options were easy to use and intuitive. I like an optical sight (preferring a red-dot style), but the fiber-optic front bead offered good visibility even in deep shade.

The 320’s action was solid and quiet, with no noticeable rattle of the fore-end while walking. When locked into battery and sitting atop my knee — or Primos Trigger Stick, as was the case in Texas — the 320 had a much higher quality presence than its $240 price tag would suggest. During the pre-hunt range session, the trigger and safety engaged smoothly, the action functioned flawlessly and patterns were consistent.

When two Rios surprised me by silently appearing in the short scrub in which I was setup, the safety was exactly where my muscle memory thought it should be, and I was able to make the 10-yard shot without fumbling for the firearm’s controls. The gobbler took the Federal Premium 3rd Degree load in the head and neck and dropped into the ever-present prickly pears that Texas turkeys always seem to expire in. For the price, the 320 is a strong contender as a best-value shotgun, and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy one for myself or one of my boys.

O.F. Mossberg & Sons

Camped out at Todd Rogers’ famous Rut N Strut Guide Service near Cheyenne, Oklahoma, Mossberg’s David Miles brought a selection of turkey guns in their 930 semi-auto and 500, 535 ATS and 835 pump series lines. All were decked out in either Mossy Oak Obsession or Infinity patterns. I selected a 535 and headed to the woods with Miles, a former NWTF employee and longtime friend, to give us a chance to catch up.

The 535 is a solid turkey gun with a 3½-inch chamber and low mounted fiber-optic front and rear sights that are natural to use. While I do not shoot 3½-inch loads, it handled the nickel-plated, 3-inch Hornady Heavy Magnum Turkey loads well, and recoil was very manageable. It comes with a factory XX-Full turkey choke, which when paired with the right load, is extremely effective at normal turkey hunting ranges.

Mossberg’s turkey guns have a longstanding, excellent reputation, and the 535 did not disappoint. Weighing in at 6½ pounds, unloaded, and featuring a 22-inch ported barrel, the shotgun was easy to carry and performed as promised by dropping my largest-to-date Rio Grande at a little shy of 30 yards. Miles followed up with a second shot and dropped its companion a second after.

Stoeger Industries

Maryland’s Eastern Shore isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when picturing turkey hunting in The Old Line State. Not to be confused with eastern Maryland, the Eastern Shore consists of the counties east of the Chesapeake Bay. Lodged at the amazing and historic Great Oak Manor near Chestertown (www.greatoakmd.com), this was one of the most memorable hunting experiences of my career. Not only did I take my heaviest Eastern to date but it was taken on a farm where the light pollution from Baltimore brightened the western sky.

Armed with a Stoeger M3500, their reliable inertia-driven semi-automatic shotgun, I punched my tag on the first hunt on a grain-fed monster that tipped the scales at more than 25 pounds. While long-barreled and a bit cumbersome in a blind (for which I was grateful in the incessant rain), it has a reach-out-and-grab-‘em personality that, when paired with Winchester’s Long Beard XR No. 6s, will deliver a lethal punch out to extreme distances. At just 20 yards, my gobbler reacted as if hit by a freight train and never quivered. For just $799 fully decked in Realtree with a pistol-grip stock, this is an affordable inertia-driven alternative to a Benelli at half the cost.

Following the hunt, we spent time on the sporting clays range to test the new Stoeger P3000 pump gun, an economical offering at just $299. The black synthetic stock and matte finish of the action, barrel and metal furniture gave the gun a modern, sleek and stealthy look. Chambered to shoot 2¾- and 3-inch loads, the 12-gauge P3000 was fun to shoot, and at nearly 7 pounds, it had enough weight to promote follow through on the swing and abate recoil, but not too heavy to adjust to the target.

With some many great new products in 2016, it’s hard to imagine what they’ll come up with for 2017. Whatever it is, though, I’ll be ready to give it a try and pass along my honest opinion.

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