I am old enough to have witnessed the evolution of the modern turkey hunting movement. For many of us growing up in hunting families, rabbits, squirrels, doves and quail were pretty much what we hunted. We carried our shotguns to the fields and woods and were for the most part opportunistic hunters. We might return home with a mixed bag of game.
The farm that we owned was well supplied with small game and that game was a part of regular table fare. There were no wild turkeys in that part of the country. Growing up hunting, I watched as the whitetail deer made a return and as all the young men began practicing with bows in anticipation of the first bow deer season.
Deer were still a novelty for many years and no one I knew had ever seen a wild turkey anywhere. I never heard a conversation about wild turkeys and don't recall knowing anything about them.
It was coincidentally, about the time that fish and game departments in many states, and later the fledgling National Wild Turkey Federation began restocking wild turkeys, that I first became aware of them and soon developed an interest in hunting them.
I am of course aware that the wild turkey had existed in several states and was hunted during all those years that I was totally unaware of them. It was after all from the stocks of many of those wild strains that other states were stocked and the modern era of turkey hunting began.
Recently I was reviewing some information about the development of shotshells specifically for hunting wild turkeys. I know that in my early days of turkey hunting, there were no shells specifically designated as “turkey loads” and turkey hunters, at least in my part of the country, used mainly 2.75” high brass shells in with either #4 or #6 shot. Going through some boxes of old shells the other day, I found a box of Federal 2.75” Duck & Pheasant loads with 1.25 oz. of #4 shot, about half full, that I used early on for turkeys.
It wasn't until the late 1980s that ammo companies started to manufacture and market shells specifically for the wild turkey hunting market and once they started, progress was rapid with most major manufacturers getting into the game.
In 1993 the NWTF held its first World Championship Still Target Shoot with the stated goal of challenging gun makers, choke makers and shotshell manufacturers to make more effective products.
That challenge was apparently heard because that date seems to mark the real beginning of the modern era of those products targeted specifically to the rapidly growing number of turkey hunters. Federal shells won that first contest and held the crown until 1996.
It was in 1996 that shells manufactured by Winchester took the crown with their “Double X Magnum” 2 oz. loads of #6 shot. The 2 oz. load was considered by most shotshell makers at the time to be the ideal load for turkeys.
Then in 1997 Winchester introduced a high velocity load with 1.75 oz. of shot which left the muzzle of a test barrel at 1300 feet per second and the high velocity race was on. That shell took the World Championship in 1997, 1998 and in 1999 and gained a loyal following in the turkey hunting community.
It was about that time that several other shotshell makers introduced high velocity loads and Federal also began production of 3.5” turkey loads.
The evolution revolution took a giant step in 2000 at the NWTF World Championship Still Target Shoot when a little known company called Environ-Metal introduced its Hevi-Shot shells to the turkey hunting public. It was quite an introduction.
Randy Lewis, shooting Hevi-Shot shells took the World championship and in a preliminary round, Claude Kinsler, also shooting a 1 5/8 oz Hevi-Shot shell, put 42 pellets inside a 3” circle at 40 yards, eclipsing the former World Record and setting a new standard for turkey shotshells. As an aside, there were 4 additional pellets in the 3” circle that were eventually disqualified or the record would have been 46. That record stood for most of the decade.
Since that win in 2000, Hevi-Shot products have dominated the still target shooting sport, setting new World Records and taking the championships in all classes.
The race was on again! Remington entered into an agreement with Environ-Metal to load Remington Hevi-Shot in 2001 and produced those shells in various 3” loadings until 2005 when that agreement ended.
That same year, Environ-Metal introduced Hevi-13 shotshells, a moly-coated version of Hevi-Shot exclusive to the turkey shotshell market. Federal introduced its Heavyweight shot Flitecontrol Wad shells and Winchester brought out its Xtended Range Hi-Density shells. Later in the decade, in 2007, Remington briefly produced the Wingmaster HD shells, another tungsten-based shotshell.
In the intervening 14 years between 1993 and 2007, turkey guns, turkey chokes and turkey shotshells had made great advances, spurred on both by the publicity that the NWTF World Championship Still Target Shoot produced and the the growing numbers of turkey hunters all over the U.S. The wild turkey had also greatly benefited through conservation and stocking efforts by State fish and game departments and the NWTF. Turkey populations grew all over the 48 states and emphasis was placed on ethical and responsible hunting practices.
Credit should be given to the National Wild Turkey Federation for its efforts to promote shots no further than 40 yards both for hunter safety and for clean kills. It was not by accident that the still target shooting range was set at 40 yards. Throughout its history the NWTF has promoted ethical hunting practices and backed that up with training of both young and older hunters.
By the early part of the second decade of the 21st Century, world economic conditions had changed and we as turkey hunters were not unaffected. We witnessed a rather dramatic increase in the price of turkey shotshells, especially those that are tungsten-based and one manufacturer, Winchester suspended production of its Xtended Range Hi-Density shells, as did Remington with its Wingmaster HD shells.
So, what lies ahead in the future for turkey gear and for that matter, what is the future of the wild turkey?
In a reversal of what many of us have experienced during our lifetimes, wild turkey numbers are down and in some cases dramatically down, in many parts of the U.S. This time, it's not due to market hunting, unregulated hunting, opportunistic hunting or even due to poachers. It is largely due to a loss of habitat. When we look around, it's quite understandable. Everywhere I travel, I see new developments going up where once there were farms or wooded lands.
Saving the habitat needs to be goal for all of us and again I applaud the NWTF for its “Save the Habitat, Save the Hunt” initiative. Supporting that project in any way that we can is in the best interest of all of us if we are to preserve our hunting heritage.
There is an educational component that must not be neglected. We must educated new hunters, not just young hunters but all new hunters, and let them know that what we have today has not always been. We've not always had the opportunities to hunt the wild turkey that we have today. It is a limited resource, any turkey is a trophy and perhaps most important, it's the hunt and not the kill that is most meaningful.
Wild turkeys are not a commodity. Shooting a wild turkey may be a part of the hunt certainly but it is not the most important part of the hunt. Woodsmanship, marksmanship, sportsmanship, ethics, courtesy, safety, responsibility, honesty, and so many other traits are all a part of hunting. Putting too much emphasis on the kill or how many turkeys he's killed, starts a hunter on a dangerous path that may lead him to take shots he should not take.
The development of better guns, chokes and shotshells is a good thing when it helps to preserve the resource by allowing us to take turkeys in a moral and ethical manner. It can come back to bite us and future generations if we use these developments in the wrong manner.
What about turkey gear? None of us could have predicted the impact of the development that Hevi-Shot has had on turkey hunting. It did not just happen but took years of development and some disappointment along the way before it became an “overnight” success.
Who knows what some innovative mind is working on today that will change the way we look at the guns, chokes or shotshells of tomorrow. That new development may revolutionize the way we shoot and hunt and become the next part of the evolution revolution.