Gun cabinets across the country house thousands of Winchester Model 12s, Remington 870s, and Ithaca Model 37s. In many cases, these guns are family heirlooms, usually Grandpa’s gun. In full choke, all are reputed for the tight patterns they throw — perfect for turkey.
Every season, I pay tribute to my grandfather by taking his Model 12 in 16 gauge hunting at least once during the season. It’s accounted for many pheasants, ducks, and squirrels over the years. Last spring, I decided to add a turkey to the list.
Although there was no doubt the gun could get the job done as far as the pattern was concerned, it went against everything ingrained in my head about turkey guns. The stock and barrel are high gloss and prone to reflecting any glare, and it has only a single brass bead and no rib, sufficient as a sighting device, but not what I’m used to.
Modern thinking is that a turkey gun should be patterned in camouflage with a matte finish and some sort of sighting device. At the very least, it should be matte black. Interchangeable chokes are a given, with some sort of aftermarket choke designed for super tight patterns to boost the pellet count striking a tom’s head.
Beyond the normal challenges of hunting with a vintage gun, was the fact that it’s a 16 gauge. I couldn’t buy 2 3⁄4-inch turkey loads. The only option I could find, outside of heavy field loads, was Kent’s new Bismuth, which is manufactured in 16 gauge. I planned to tip the scales in my favour by hunting from a blind and taking the first legal bird to cross the barrel. I patterned the gun and determined that my maximum range was 35 yards.
Grandpa’s gun in the field
I was greeted opening morning with a damp day and a fine mist. Without modern finishes to protect the gun, I was glad that a blind awaited me at the end of the hike. I staked a half-strut jake in front to bring the bird in close and, when legal shooting time rolled around, unsheathed the Model 12 from the gun sock. Rain was now falling, creating a drumming sound as it hit the taut nylon blind. My first thought looking down the barrel was how bright it was, despite the pre-dawn greyness.With the patter of the rain I was concerned I might not hear birds gobbling, or that they might go quiet in the rain.
While I waited, I wondered if my grandfather had ever seen a wild turkey in Ontario. He was born in 1892, and with the last known wild turkey in Ontario dying in 1909, there was the possibility turkeys were still around. His father could have told him tales of turkey hunting. In fact, the family homestead was almost due south of me, only a concession away. And just another mile south was where my great-great grandfather first settled in Canada in the 1850s. Surely, he had hunted turkeys, I thought.
It was only 20 minutes later that my fear of the rain masking the sound of a fly-down was realized. I was unaware there was a turkey on the ground until I saw a large bird, with a beard nearly dragging on the ground, walking the edge of the treeline towards my decoy.
Staying patient with Grandpa’s gun
I waited until it was behind a tree to put the gun up, then paused again, expecting it to appear on the other side. The alarm putt alerted me that it must have seen my movement, accentuated by the glare on the gun. It kept the tree between my muzzle as it made a beeline away. A week later, I repositioned slightly and set up a portable screen in front of me. I used the same half-strut jake and added a hen. It was a more pleasant morning, but I was still fearful of a bird making me from the glare on the gun.
It wasn’t long before I heard a gobble, and it was close. I kept up the conversation using just a mouth call. When I saw movement to my left, I was careful not to move my head, but watched as a jake went by me, hit the field, and headed towards the decoys. I raised the gun and waited for the bird to line up with the bead, then squeezed the trigger. As I tagged the bird, I thought of this farm and what it would have been like for my grandfather, hunting here a hundred years ago.
Advice for a heritage hunt
Before heading out on your own heritage hunt, here are a few things to consider.
First, look at your options for ammunition. Most, but not all, older guns only shoot 2 3⁄4-inch shells. Check the stamp on the barrel for the specified shell length.
Look into new, alternate metal loads. Bismuth is soft and can be shot through all guns designed to take smokeless powder. Some of the other new products are hard, so do your research before trying them.
Next, look for a way to camouflage the gun. If you’re concerned about using camo tape, use a blind to hide both gun and hunter.
Patterning is a must and, depending on your results, be prepared to adjust your usual maximum range. With a little research and some time in front of a pattern board, most of our heirloom guns are capable of providing a hunt that would have made our forefathers proud.
Originally published in the April 2019 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.