Wait What? You can hunt Turkey with a rifle? Isn’t that a shotgun thing?
**As a public service for those that like to get to the heart of the matter early on – you can skip to the next section if you want to get to the MEAT of the topic involving using rifles on a turkey hunt. This first section is just some background about turkey’s, America, and arguments around the family dinner table.**
Benjamin Franklin believed the noble turkey to be much more aligned with the proud, strong nation that was looking for a national bird than the lowly eagle.
He also invented a lot of things, including bifocals and said poignant things like: “He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals” and “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!”
Mr. Franklin was a staunch believer in the Second Amendment and did enjoy Turkey as an animal and a meal. Around this time every year, as families everywhere procure their farm raised, blanched white turkeys and prepare for the roast bird to be the centerpiece of their holiday meal, the hunter contemplates – “why am I not hunting my own turkey?”
This article aims to take that question for a ride as we consider why more turkeys in the holiday spread aren’t being harvested from the woods and meadows, and why more of those turkeys that are, aren’t being procured with your trusty modern musket? Otherwise known as the AR-15.
With the modularity that makes it your own, and the accessorizing that helps you do things most rifles would be jealous of and the mix of cartridges that are only an upper receiver swap away, the AR-15 is a perfect companion for those who want to mix it up this year and grab an easy tag, put a few birds in the deep freezer and forget the recoil heavy 10 gauge and double 3.5” magnums at home.
All politics aside – except those deep-seated feelings that the two turkey camps argue like pizza purists provoke ham and pineapple lovers – you CAN hunt turkey with a rifle. Sort of. This article will talk all about it, and hopefully shed some light on a topic that may be lesser known nowadays than the .22 Hornet (more on that guy later).
By the way, you could say that the “traditional” or “purists” way to hunt turkey is with a 10-gauge shotgun, but that’s not intellectually honest. Sure, shotguns have been around forever, but they were only getting decent after the turn of the century (1900) and even then, it was not yet considered edgy to harvest a turkey with your lever action.
In fact, it wasn’t an edge case to use a lever action at all, on any target, because many times, the only gun a person had at the turn of that century was a lever action, or a musket, or a single Action Army, or some substantially similar “do-it-all” weapon.
So, isn’t it more accurate to say that traditionalists would be better at serving historical facts by saying the purist’s weapon of choice is a rifle for Tom’s?
Let’s see if we can put some of the contemporary animosity around the topic to bed, because turkey, no matter how you get them can be tasty if you use an oven bag, brine them properly, or dry brine them and spatchcock the bird.
All these methods ensure a much more evenly cooked, and therefore, less dry or difficult to eat main dish. And that’s about 13 minutes at 350 degrees per pound of turkey – unless you are spatchcocking, because that saves a lot of time if you dry brine ahead of time.
But I digress. Let’s talk about guns and hunting.
Is hunting turkey with a rifle even legal?
In many states hunting a turkey with a rifle is legal. This article isn’t equipped to handle the ever-changing laws regarding regulations on minimum calibers for turkey dispatching, but here are some examples of turkey/.223 states:
- Alabama (requires mushrooming ammunition and iron sights – no scopes – AR handguns are permitted too)
- West Virginia
Getting back to politics briefly – here’s a note: In California, you cannot hunt turkey with a rifle, but you CAN hunt them with an air rifle? Which makes about as much sense as other gun related laws in California.
One state that surprised this author was Arkansas, which does not allow hunting of turkey with a centerfire rifle, just a bow, crossbow, or a shotgun – 10 gauge and smaller, with shot no larger than #2 shot.
This is disappointing because the state has some of the best turkey hunting I have ever been involved in and my AR is raring to go.
Obligatory disclaimers: some of these laws are esoteric, and they can change frequently. You MUST be familiar with your state and local jurisdictional hunting regulations, in no state that we know of, is it an excuse to claim ignorance – and some of these regulations carry jail time as penalties.
So, please be aware of the nuances of the turkey hunting rules and regulations in your area prior to embarking on your hunt for those red gobbler beauties.
Even if some varieties of turkey can be hunted in your state with a rifle, some states put specific species-by-species guidelines in place and do not allow rifle hunting on all turkey types across the board. So, look carefully. Again, ignorance is not a legal defense for hunting regulation prosecution.
OK, so it’s .223 for Tom’s, then?
Generally, you just need to meet the minimum centerfire rifle requirement (except in CA, where you must meet a different kind of rifle requirement – air gun only), and the caliber doesn’t matter.
But for the sake of hunting your holiday centerpiece, you may want to use specific loads that make the most sense – more on that topic later.
Flat, fast, and accurate are the main points for a turkey hunter with an AR. For that and given the general parameters that one might hunt turkey under, the .223/5.56 will be just fine.
The .22 Hornet is still a popular turkey round
The .22 Hornet is a fun round. It’s cool looking, and even though it hasn’t had the same popularity recently as the newer ultra-small, ultra-fast rimfires and the other small caliber centerfires for varmint, etc., it’s been a cartridge that has lasted in the turkey hunting rifle community for decades.
It’s fast, reliable and has options that satisfy a lot of the nuanced laws that different states put in place for turkey season when you’re toting a rifle. For the purpose of this article, we aren’t going to deep dive on the .22 Hornet, but suffice it to say: the rifle hunting turkey crew are generally pro-AR.
And a reminder that just about everything regarding hunting turkey with a rifle seems weird at first.
So how do you kill a turkey with an AR?
This may surprise some, but those little bobbing-headed Tom’s are meant to be killed with a headshot.
Which seems ludicrous on the surface, considering they know you are aiming at them; they have no fear, and they are staring at you, and you are supposed to hit their head with a small caliber bullet in order to put them on your dinner table in November.
It seems a bit counterintuitive. Oh, one more thing – it’s ideal to hit them in the spine. “Wait, what? That head, that is bobbing around, that’s forty yards away, has a spine that I am supposed to identify and then accurately hit it?”
That’s the game plan. But when in doubt – you can also go for a heart/lung shot.
Except that a heart/lung shot may be even more daunting. Tom’s puff up, and prance around. The average turkey heart is about the size of a baby’s fist, and their lungs are somewhere under a huge package of feathers around the middle of their chest, sort of.
Good luck finding it. Here’s the real story though: with modern firepower, most Turkey that take a body shot within the breadbasket area are going to lose their lung capacity in short order and they will be dispatched, generally. Still – a head/spine shot is ideal.
So, it really comes down to whether or not you can maintain a 1-inch group at 40 yards when staring down the proudest bird that doesn’t realize it’s not a peacock, in his season, while he is eating. If you think you can, then the AR is a perfect option.
You won’t likely get a second chance, so selection of bird is paramount, and, you’re going to have to hit it midair to get a second shot on target, generally.
Most turkeys hit by a body shot will have a bit of life left in them, even on nearly perfect shots when using a smaller caliber projectile, so expect a “jump and run” routine by the suddenly acrobatic bird.
None of that is really all that funny, but it does happen, so don’t be surprised if it looks like your Tom, you just shot seems ready for the floor exercise in the Olympics.
The goal, again, is a single shot headshot that snaps the spine with its impact. That’s the quickest and most effective way to preserve the whole body intact and drop the bird close to where you shot it.
Practical considerations when you’re in the field with a rifle looking for Holiday dinner
- Turkey heads don’t stay still for long
- Toms are proud, but they are not all that stupid – if they realize it’s a trap they won’t generally come back
- You’re shooting at sub 50 yards, no need for overkill – a .308 or a 6.5 Creedmoor is definitely not going to score you any style points. If you chose it because it’s your only AR, it would work, but it’s more than you need for this fowl
- They see you. And they hate sudden movement more than they THINK they hate being hit by a fast-moving projectile – again, once they split, they aren’t very likely to return on your schedule, so take your shot before they get tired of your presence
- Body shots with just about any cartridge can cause a lot of meat deformation, or problems with butchery if you don’t hit them on the profile side (their heart/lungs are pressed against the inside of their chest, very close to the front of the bird. Ideally, you’re taking that headshot
- Wild turkey tastes better. Maybe that is a placebo effect, but it really does ring true
- Be careful not to target certain birds, you want a Tom. Really what you want, is what the state regulations tell you that you want – down to the specific species
- Turkey are beautiful creatures – don’t hesitate and be hypnotized by their colors, pomp, and style – take the shot or they will be laughing about you later.
- If you are closing in by slinking along in the grass, and you want to take a closer than 40-yard shot, fine, but realize they are only going to tolerate you for so long before they stop walking towards you – take that shot earlier than you think you need to
- Some states do not allow decoys or supplemental feeding, so you need to read the fine print of the regulations
Conclusions about hunting tiny headed birds
A standard AR-15 is a perfect rifle to take a turkey with. And you can be the head of your local chapter of “.223’s for Tom’s”, with a few basic considerations if you live in one of those states above (we may have missed a couple, thanks to newer regulations passed during the past year of lockdown mayhem).
While it seems counterproductive in every single sense for some hunters, a turkey hunt with a rifle can be done.
Specifically, a hunt with the AR: that beautiful defensive weapon that the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin envisioned when they penned the 2nd Amendment – is possible, and more than that, it’s a ton of fun.
Don’t be afraid to try something new, even if pizza with pineapple and ham seems like a travesty. The purists may rebel against you but remain confident that you can make that headshot on that 19 lb. Tom that keeps bobbing and weaving, trying to intimidate you because, yes, he sees you.