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Turkey Hunting with a Muzzleloader

     One of the more popular uses for the muzzleloading shotgun is spring turkey hunting.  Colorado is not known for its turkey hunting, but there is a population of turkeys along the foothills of Colorado just west of Denver.  There is also plenty of public land along the foothills.  So, I decided (perhaps naively) to give turkey hunting a try.  How hard can it be to kill a turkey?   

Turkey Hunting during the Muzzle Loading Era

     The first step in the turkey hunting experiment was to do a little research on the methods traditionally employed in turkey hunting when muzzleloading shotguns were in use. 

Henry William Herbert (Frank Forester)

  Henry William Hebert
(April 3, 1807 - May 17, 1858).  Mr. Herbert was an English novelist and writer on sport.  He was educated at Eton College and at Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA in 1830. To escape his debts, he immigrated to the United States, and from 1831 to 1839 taught Greek in a private school in New York City. In 1833 he started the American Monthly Magazine.  In 1834 he published his first novel, The Brothers: a Tale of the Fronde, which was followed by a number of others that achieved popularity. Mr. Herbert is best known for his works on sport, published under the pseudonym of Frank Forester.  Hebert wrote a number of other books intended to provide practical advice and information on game and sport for sportsmen. Based on Herbert’s own experiences and on information compiled from a variety of sources, these were the first works of their kind published in the United States.
Many of early instructional books for sportsmen are silent on the subject of  turkey hunting. The reason for this omission was that the majority of early sports writers (such as Peter Hawker) were British and did not hunt extensively in North America.   The wild turkey is unique to North America.

   The descriptions of habits of wild turkeys which are found in the pre-1860 literature were quite surprising.  The modern wild turkey has a reputation as a wary adversary with excellent sight and hearing.  The sportsmen of the muzzleloading era generally did not share this view of the wild turkey.  The best know early American sportswriter was Henry William Herbert  who wrote under the name of Frank Forester.  (See biography in side bar).  Mr. Herbert was of the view that turkey hunting should not be considered sport.  Herbert wrote:  

Turkey shooting, which alone remains, can, I must maintain it, in spite of the prejudices of my western friends, hardly ever be had under circumstances which constitute it a sport; for the bird will rarely either lie to setters, or flush to spaniels within shot; and to lie under shelter of a covering log, and call it up by imitating the yelp of the hen bird, and then shoot it with a rifle, is, for the reasons I have given above, though an effective way of procuring an admirable species of game, no genuine sport.

The complete manual for young sportsmen: with directions for handling the gun, the rifle, and the rod; the art of shooting on the wing; the breaking, management, and hunting of the dog; the varieties and habits of game; river, lake, and sea fishing, etc., etc., etc by Henry William Herbert (Stringer & Townsend, 1857).

   Not all hunters of the time shared Hebert's dim view of turkey,  For example an interesting article was published  New York " Spirit of the Times and then republished in the the Sporting Review of 184___.  The Spirit of the Times was a New York sporting paper which was regarded as one of the best sporting sources published in America.

The cautiousness of the Wild Turkey is wonderful, excelling that of the deer, or any other game whatever; and nothing but stratagem and the most intimate knowledge of its habits will command success. 

Republished in The Sporting Review (184_) 

    It was clear that turkey hunters in the pre-1860 period were not using what we consider fair chase methods today.  In an Article published in 1836, the Author describes the modes of taking the wild turkey practiced in Virginia at the time Including: (1) trapping in what was called a turkey pen (2) shot over bait where whole flocks are sometimes taken at once and (3) with dogs trained to track turkeys until they fly, and then to tree them.  FIELD SPORTS: Their Utility—Modes of Hunting Deer and Turkeys in Virginia,  American turf register and sporting magazine, Volume 7, February, 1836.  In addition, the practice of shooting turkeys will in the roost by moon light was apparently common place.  Given the manner of hunting, it is not surprising that turkey populations were decimated through out the United States.  I has only been through the efforts of many dedicated sportsman that the wild turkey populations have rebounded.  


Johnson Jones Hooper.  (1815-1862) Mr. Hooper was a well known southwestern humorist and author.  Born in Wilmington, N.C in 1815, he had little formal education and originally worked for the newspaper his father edited. At the age of 20 he began training as a lawyer was admitted to the bar in 1838.   Hooper edited a number of  news papers, published several books and become active politics, all while continuing to practice law.  In early 1861, Hooper was elected secretary to the Southern Congress (later called the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America). He followed the Confederate government to Richmond later that year where he was employed to edit the records of the Provisional Congress. He soon became ill, probably from tuberculosis, and died there in 1862.  An interesting side note is that Hooper dedicates his book to Hebert, whom he had never met.
    The loads used by hunters of the muzzle loading period also came as a surprise to me.   Modern turkey hunters use relatively small shot (4's or 6's) and attempt to shoot the birds in the head and neck.  The use of smaller shot is a relatively modern trend.  Turkey hunters had previously used courser shot and attempted to kill the turkeys with a body shot.  The period books contain a number of references to a specific size of shot referred to as "turkey shot." (See Note 1 below)  While the references to "turkey shot" are not entirely consistent, "turkey shot" appears to have been a small buck shot roughly equivalent to today's Number Four Buckshot (approximately .24 inches in diameter.) 

    The most complete description of the types of loads recommended for turkeys was in a book titled Dog and Gun: A Few Loose Chapters on Shooting By Johnson Jones Hooper.  (See biography in side bar.) Here is Hooper's description of the loads in use for turkey hunting near the end of the muzzle loading era:

For Turkey Shooting, the most successful hunters I know, recommend B or BB shot. The old-fashioned idea of large buckshot is going out of vogue. The turkey has immense vitality, and it really makes little difference with what size of shot you blow a hole through his body, if you leave his back, wings and legs unbroken: he will be very apt to take himself off, out of your reach, to die. For riddling the. head and neck (which can be done at forty to fifty yards with any good gun), the chances are very greatly multiplied by the use of B or BB shot; and either of these sizes will very effectually break a wing or disable the back. As a general thing, in all sorts of shooting, the most common mistake is to use too large pellets; but the disadvantages of doing so are hardly as manifest in any other description of hunting, as in turkey shooting.

Dog and Gun: A Few Loose Chapters on Shooting By Johnson Jones Hooper (C. M. Saxton, Barker & Co., 1860).

    Hooper goes on to recommend the use of Eley Wire Cartridges for use while turkey hunting.  However, he does indicate that he believed that two ounce, 11 gauge cartridge was to heavy to shoot comfortably.  Hooper suggested that Eley (an English company) should consider producing a lighter cartridge for the North American market. (See Note 2 below regarding historical differences in shot sizes)

My Turkey Hunting Loads

    Colorado permits shot sizes no larger than Number 2 for the Spring Turkey Season.    Deciding on the shot size is a balancing act.  Smaller shot sizes will produce greater pattern densities.  However, you can not loose sight of the fact that muzzleloading shotguns will not produce velocities which are comparable to today's turkey loads.  Modern loads will generally produce velocities of well in excess of 1200 feet per second.  In some cases, modern loads will produce velocities of up to 1500 fps. By contrast, 90 grains of black powder produces approximately 1050 feet per second with a 1 1/4 ounce load. 

    In order to compensate for the reduced velocities, conventional wisdom suggests that larger shot sizes should be used.  Assuming that adequate pattern densities could be produced, the larger Number 2 shot would extend the lethal range of the gun by a few yards. However, the smaller shot size give a greater chance of hitting the bird in the head or neck.  Since there was a supply of both Number 2 and Number 4 shot in the garage,  I decided to fire test patterns with both sizes of shot.  In addition, since Johnson Jones Hooper spoke favorably of the Eley Cartridges for turkey hunting, I decided that to use my version of the muzzle loading shot cartridge.   (A prior article discusses the construction of muzzleloading shot cartridges.)

    In order to determine if the shot cartridges were having a positive effect on the pattern densities, a  "loose charge" load was also tested.  The wad column on the "loose charge" pattern consisted of one lubricated felt wads followed by two .70 inch thick mini-nitro cards. This wad combination was selected since it was easier to load through the full choke constriction. 

    In all cases, the load consisted of 90 grains or Schutzen Renacter Powder and 1 1/4 ounces of shot. Testing was conducted at 40 yards.  Here are the pattering results:

    Number 2 Shot (1.25 ounces = total pellets )
Shot Cartridge Pattern    
 Pellet Strikes    
 Loose Charge Pattern
 Pellet Strikes

Number 4 Shot (1.25 ounces = total pellets )
Shot Cartridge Pattern    
 Pellet Strikes    
 Loose Charge Pattern
 Pellet Strikes

     The trip to the patterning board provided a number of important insights:

    First, t
he muzzleloading shot cartridges proved particularly useful when loading tightly choked guns.  My turkey hunting gun is a Pedersoli SxS with one full choke tube and one modified choke tube installed.  The body of the shot cartridge (which includes a concave shaped felt wad and a 20 gauge nitro card) slips easily past the full chokes.  The only wad which must be forced through the choke constriction is the over the shot wad which is flexible enough to pass easily through the chokes.

    Second,  without sights, it is not easy to perfectly center a shot pattern at 40 yards.  From prior experience with round balls, had demonstrated that the barrels of the Pedersoli SxS were not perfectly regulated.  Consequently, it necessary to give some "Kentucy Windage" in order perfectly center the pattern on the intended target. 

    Third, using the Shotgun Insight Software, it is possible to simulate 25 yard patterns. At 25 yards, both the 2s and 4s produced very dense patterns.  Either the 2s or the 4s would clearly produce a lethal shot at 20 yards.  On the other hand, at forty yards neither 2s or 4s produced a dense enough to be confident with a head/neck shot.  At forty yards, it would be questionable as to whether the Number 4 shot would have sufficient energy to penetrate the body of the bird and cause lethal damage.

    Given all of these factors, I settled on a load 1 1/4 ounce load of Number 2 Shot.  My hope was to get the bird within 20-25 yards.  At that range, either the 2s or the 4s would produce very dense patterns.  On the other hand, at longer ranges, the Number 2 Shot would provide better penetration on the body of the bird.  I also felt that the increased penetration would give me a better chance of hitting a vital part of the bird including the back, wing, head and neck if it was necessary to take a shot at 40 yards.

The Actual Turkey Hunting in Colorado 

Up until this point, I had been dealing with familiar issues regarding the muzzleloading shotgun, shot cartridges and shot size.  The actual turkey hunting was a different story.  There are a dizzying array of turkey calls, decoys and other turkey hunting stuff.  After a quick search on Ebay, I purchased an E-Z Strut Starter Kit 
which included a Diaphragm Call,  an Owl Hooter Call, a Yelper Call and a DVD which was appropriately titled "So You Want To Be A Turkey Hunter."  After watching the DVD, I figured that knew enough about turkey hunting and calling to make a respectable first attempt at turkey hunting.

    The opening weekend of the Colorado Turkey Season fell on the same weekend at the Red River Renegades "Shogun Sorrie."  As a result, I did not get into the field until Sunday afternoon on the second weekend of the season.  As my hunting buddy and I were getting ready, a gobbler started calling.  We slipped up the hill, found a good hiding place and started to call.  The Tom Turkey would periodically gobble and even strutted around an opening approximately two hundred yards away.  However, he had hens with him and he was not going to cross the ravine to get to our location.  Since our hunting location was not easily accessible to other hunters, we decided to leave Tom Turkey alone for the time being and try to get to a better calling location on a different day.


Note 1.   The Minutes of the Provincial of Pennsylvania for November 16, 1747 record that 50 pounds of turkey shot was purchased for the Ohio Indians.  

 NOTE 2: When reviewing the old literature is necessary to be careful about units of measurement.  Hooper indicates that B or BB shot was being used by the most successful hunters.  However, latter in the book, Hooper also provides a chart indicating the number of pellets per ounce for the various shot sizes.  Hooper admits that he borrowed the chart from Peter Hawker's book (presumably Instructions to Young Sportsman).  Based on this chart BB shot should contain 58 pellets per ounce.  This compares to the modern BB shot which contains only 50 pellets per ounce (more than a 15% difference).  The B shot of the day would be slightly courser than modern Number 2 shot.