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Turkey Shoots: As American As Thanksgiving Day

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“I’d like to see the winning target, if you please, sir.”

Thus, several years ago spoke the late Captain Michael V. Gannon, then editor of the Field Artillery Journal in Washington, D. C. We, his companions, the late Colonel Hal Sheldon and I, were quite interested in that target, too. The occasion was a turkey shoot in northern Virginia whither we had gone with rifles primed, sighted and ready. Knowing that shotguns were frequently used at these shoots, however, we had taken ours along and this was one of those times when we had to use them. The turkey shoot is a rifle game. It’s not for shotguns. That’s a personal opinion, of course, but it’s also a strong conviction.

The officials produced the winning target for Mike’s inspection and he was satisfied. More than that, we were all rather astounded. Mike has practically riddled his target with a load from a full-choked duck gun and one hole was almost perfectly located on the intersection of the crosslines. It didn’t seem possible it could be beaten. The winning target that Mike held up had only three shot holes in it. But one of them was plumb center on the crossing of the lines. Of course, it took the cake—or rather the turkey.

drawing of right side of female hen turkey eastern wild turkey

I well remember how completely we agreed that, to enjoy a turkey shoot with shotguns, you have to be a gambler, not a shooter. There’s no skill involved in such a game for no one can control the individual pellets of his shot load. It’s just plumb, dumb, luck!

Turkey shoots are as American as Boston baked beans and brown bread, or corn pone and sowbelly. They originated some time prior to TV when the American colonials had to devise and develop their own recreation and entertainment. The very name ‘turkey shoot’ conjures up a picture of a forest glade at the edge of a frontier settlement where men in the buckskins of the forest competed with those in the homespuns of the settlements.

Their skill with those long rifles was to become world renowned. They took great enjoyment then in displaying it among themselves in their friendly bouts at the various turkey shoots throughout the colonial east. In a grimmer mood they also demonstrated it to savages and to certain foreign troops with devastating results.

Turkey shoots arc still popular with American shooters. The announcement of such a shoot rarely fails to bring out a group full of interest and enthusiasm and sure of their ability to ‘take’ their friends and neighbors and to ‘bring home the bacon.’ Few of these men are the confirmed target shooters but rather those who hunt and they come armed with their deer and other hunting rifles. They shoot rarely except during the hunting seasons. These are the men who pay nearly 38 million dollars a year for almost thirteen million hunting licenses.

crowds gather around watching shooters attempt their best shot at receiving a turkey price guns drawing art townImage courtesy of Bettmann archives.

Little encouragement has been given to turkey shoots, a distinctly American game. Where is there anything that can serve as a guide for such a shoot?

In the ‘good old days’ the turkey shoot was a simple affair. It followed the general trend of life of those times. Rifles were fairly uniform in type, caliber and performance. Shooting positions were singular in number, most folks shooting standing on their hind legs. Ranges were short and the targets were either a charred block of wood with cross-lines scratched on it, or the head of a turkey, a live one. Usually he was tethered behind a log at about sixty yards and when he got curious about the goings-on at the firing point he took a fatal look-see over the log.

The modem turkey shoot must likewise be a simple affair, relatively simple, that is. But because we have complicated our lives with a multiplication of confusions, it cannot be quite so delightfully simple an affair as those wonderful shoots of yore.

It will be quickly learned that certain simple groupings of shooters must be made or all the turkeys and other prizes will go to a certain few most of the time. A bit of organization and planning is necessary and classifications can be boiled down to equipment, i.e., rifles and sights.

I have attended turkey shoots where boys not yet in their teens fired their little pint-sized .22s, offhand, in competition on equal terms with belly shooters and all their heavy-barreled, scope-sighted match shooting equipment. This is quickly discouraging to the boys. I have seen affairs where any rifle and any sights were OK, but you used the ammo they gave you. This is no good either. It becomes, as the shotgun game, a place for gamblers, not shooters.

drawing of eastern wild turkey bent over feading black white

The ideal plan is to permit any man or woman, boy or girl to fire his or her own rifle with the ammo he has found best suited for it against others with similar equipment. Group these shooters together and they’ll have a chance every time. They’ll be happy when they win and the others will feel that they’ve been fairly beaten and will eagerly anticipate an opportunity to get even with the winners next time.

It should be remembered that this is primarily a game_ for the hunting rifleman. He will come with his deer rifle, his varmint rifle, or whatever other sporter type he may have. The target shooters may become interested and some of them will want to shoot. But if they come with their target rifles, keep them separated and in their own groups. Don’t pass them up.

This, then, gives us our first two divisions, hunting rifles and target guns. If you would keep your shooters happy and your shoot popular, keep these groups always and forever apart.

Next, separate the smallbore shooters from the heavy caliber boys. I’ve seen shoots where no provision whatever was made for smallbore shooters. This is a mistake as there arc usually many more smallbore shooters than others. But there may be local exceptions where the big-bore shooters predominate and the smallbore men are not so numerous. Under such conditions just use discretion. Remember these are just suggestions for the organization of turkey shoots. They are subject to modification as local conditions or preferences demand.

In the smallbore division we consider only the .22 long-rifle cartridge. If anyone wants to shoot shorts or longs, that’s his prerogative. But the hot-shot .22s, such as the Hornets and all the others up to the .220 Swift, in our opinion, should be run with the bigbore rifles. If you want to complicate things more, run them in a separate group. But they belong with the bigbore rifles and to make the .22s of the long-rifle vintage compete with them is not fair.

right side of turkey walking hen drawing art black white

Now you have the two basic divisions: hunting and target rifles, smallbore and big bores. The next consideration is sighting equipment. This is easy. Just keep the iron sights in one group and the scope sights in another. Can you make it simpler?

In our suggested layout for turkey shoots we have considered ranges for smallbore rifles at fifty and one hundred yards. Shoot these distances prone or offhand as the local preference seems to indicate. We might suggest offhand for the 50-yard go-round and prone for the longer distance. If there are enough shooters who want to shoot offhand at the hundred-yard stint, fix ’em up and let ’em bang away.

How the target shooters may want to shoot is something you will have to decide locally. We have suggested offhand at fifty with iron sights and both offhand and prone at one hundred. For scope-sighted rifles we have only the prone position but this can be modified to suit your people.

It is a mistake, we feel, to require the big-bore rifles to shoot at only two hundred yards. Most game shooting is done at a hundred yards or less and many of the lever-action, .30-30 rifles will be definitely handicapped against bolt-action rifles in inherently more accurate calibers.

Yet I’ve been beaten by a thutty thutty at 200 yards, shootin’ my own .257 handloads in my Griffin and Howe Springfield sporter. A young cowpoke came out of the Dragoon Mountains one day last fall to one of our turkey shoots and fired one shot in the first go-round. He had a Winchester 94 in .30-30 caliber with an old stirrup strap bail-wired to the barrel for a sling, so help me. There was so little difference in our shots that he was much concerned that the judges decided in his favor. I told him that he decisively won that bird because he was shooting iron sights and I had a K2.5. He was somewhat mollified, and then completely satisfied when I won my Thanksgiving dinner on the next go round. Yet at subsequent shoots I’ve seen that same shooter search vainly for the target with the same rifle at the same 200-yard range.

It seems justifiable, therefore, to separate the bolt-action rifles with their inherently better accuracy from the lever- and pump -action rifles for complete fairness. But even this can be modified to suit local conditions. If all types arc just thrown together it will quickly be found that some guy with a good .270 bolt gun handling nice, carefully made handloads will surely be getting more than his share-and all his friends will be getting theirs with the same rifle. If your turkey shoot is to remain popular, the prizes must be distributed pretty generally.

turkey shoot plan text on image outline rules

Few communities have ranges that will permit longer than 200-yard shooting. For this reason we have limited the high-power matches to one and two hundred yards. If your shooters demand greater distances to shoot and you have the facilities, shoot at longer ranges. But the farther the distance from the butts the more complicated becomes the shoot and the slower it goes. This slowing up is something always to be guarded against. Keep things moving and everybody will be happy. Let ’em stand around waiting half the time for something to happen and your shoot will be deader’n the Dodo.

It goes without saying that the shoot should be advertised well in advance. But more than this it should be planned ahead of time so that all the events can be listed and advertised with it and shooters can know just what is going to happen. I’ve seen so much confusion and uncertainty about rules and events before a shoot that half the shooters were discouraged before the thing ever came about. Tell the whole story in your advertisement and give the shooters a chance to sign up for the events of their choice beforehand. Let them pay in advance and you will find that this greatly simplifies things on the day of the shoot-it speeds things up, gives tune for more shooting and greater enjoyment for everyone.

Have enough men designated to the various jobs of running the shoot so that there will be no lag there. But don’t clutter up the place with ‘officials’. And by all means select men for these jobs who can handle people without making them sore at the world. Some people have the knack for riling people up without saying a word. Others can smooth over the most difficult situations with a grin and make everyone like it.

I’ve seen shoots where there was but one shooting position for all shooter s. This is a fine way to drag out a shoot. Have a clearly marked shooting position for every target. Call up your shooters and assign them to the position their target calls for. When all are set, give them the usual instructions to load and fire. Let them fire as they will. When each man is required to fire in turn and he realizes everyone is watching him, sometimes it doe s something to him psychologically and he gets stage fright or whatever you want to call it. When he knows he’s one of a group firing, he’s apt to feel more comfortable, and shoot better.

When firing various matches over different distances on the same range, it’s best, perhaps, to fire all matches of 200 yards, say, first. Then go up to the shorter ranges. If you start at the shorter ranges first, it’s quite probable that when you move back, it will be found necessary to move cars and trucks and equipment that have been run up behind the shooters. Provisions should be made for parking cars and where possible it should be in such a position that it commands a clear view of shooters and targets. Give the spectators something to interest them.

Probably in most cases the regulation NRA paper targets will be used. That’s OK. Each target should bear the name and number of the shooter and his position and target. When the firing ceases, have a designated official collect the targets and bring them to the judges at the firing position or nearby. Don’t let everybody rush down to the butts and clutter up the field. They slow things down and endanger themselves and others. I once saw a dim-wit walk right out in front of a slow shooter who was aiming at his target and at the point of touching it off. Everybody screamed. It did no one any good. especially the shooter who was pretty well shaken up.

The paper targets are OK to spot the exact location of the shot. But they’re dull and uninteresting to the spectators and in themselves they offer no attraction. It takes action at both ends of the range to interest and maintain the interest of the onlookers and even the shooters. To get action at the target requires only a bit of imagination and perhaps some little ingenuity. It’s not difficult. Place a bustible Bullseye over the bull before each round. That offers some action and folks will like it. The busting of the clay shows that the shooter made a close shot, and the target will register the exact position and value of the shot. It’s a simple thing but simple things can make or break an affair.

There are other ways to show action at the targets and even sound. Toy balloons taped to the bull is one suggestion.

It’s not too far-fetched an idea to suggest that you might rig up a bell apparatus at your targets. It’s not difficult. Any good mechanic should be able to do it. But be sure he’s fully aware of the need for safety. We want no unnecessary hazards, no ricochets, or no one hurt. But this can be done with safety. Let ’em ‘ring the bell’ and ‘bring home the bacon.’

Live or frozen turkeys are the traditional prizes of the turkey shoots. They are especially attractive just before the Thanksgiving Day and Christmas holidays. But in the old days there were many other interesting trophies for which those old muzzleloaders spouted lead. A ‘prime beef’ was a real item to shoot for, and who wouldn’t go for one today—or who wouldn’t shoot his darndest for a good healthy roast. Hams, legs of lamb, or other delectable edibles will delight the lady of the house and give the lord of the manor the satisfaction of bringing home something to brag about.

These are but a few of the traditional items for which turkey shooters have vied over the years. But there is no end to other useful and attractive possibilities with lots of appeal for men and women. You can appeal to the brute in the man by offering guns, shooting, hunting and camping equipment; fishing rods and flies, plugs and other baits; field glasses and sporting scopes, rifle scopes and other sights.

“Yeah,” he’ll say, “I won them glasses in the Thanksgiving Day shoot last year and they’re sure going’ to help me find me a buck with horn s on him this year.”

And they’ll get out and shoot more often. They’ll have ‘Old Betsy’ all slicked up and honed down so she puts them all ‘in the groove’ every time. They’ll make America once again a ‘nation of riflemen.’


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