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Shotguns and rifles can be used for turkey hunting in Wyoming.Shotguns and rifles can be used for turkey hunting in Wyoming.

Rifle choice key in Wyoming turkey hunting success

As we all know, Wyoming is a mythical realm situated somewhere between Erewhon and Oz. It is a place of its own mores, laws, and even reality —or more to the point, in the words of a Wyoming rancher, quoted by Annie Proulx, “Reality’s never been of much use out here.”

Yet it’s eccentricities remain, for much if not the most part, cherished emblems of its independence. Which is why so many of us live here.

Take turkey hunting.

The archetypal image of the turkey hunter is one of our Pilgrim fathers in his belt-buckle hat, toting his blunderbuss in search of Thanksgiving dinner (which did include turkey, but also venison, shellfish, and even eels). And while turkeys in the day may have been killed with shotguns, no doubt as many or more were taken with single musket or rifle balls. Certainly that was the weapon of choice for pioneer hunters such as Crockett and Boone.

Mr. Crockett, for instance — who had three rifles, flintlock and percussion, named “Betsy,” after his sister or wife and variously “Beautiful Betsy,” “Old Betsy,” and “Pretty Betsy” — didn’t run back to the cabin for his scattergun when gobblers were afoot. As he’d say, “necessity is not very particular,” and therefore when he spotted a bird, “of the biggest sort,” he “blazed away,” then “shouldered” it up and made his way back to his hunting camp.
One of the peculiarities of Wyoming hunting is that it’s not just shotguns but rifles, from the .17 HMR and .22 WMR rimfires up through centerfires and muzzlloaders, that are legal firearms for hunting wild turkeys. So what makes a good turkey rifle for Wyoming turkeys?

Turkey season’s closed for the spring now, but fall is not all that far off. Making it a good time to consider the options. In the fall, a hunter may be out after big game and come onto turkeys. If he is prudent enough to have a turkey tag in his pocket and the season is open, he should take every advantage of it. But a big-game caliber on a turkey?

Obviously, the head or neck is the cleanest choice, but it may not always be available. If not, it can make a hunter shudder at the thought of what the impact of a heavy, high-velocity bullet will do to a 20-pound bird.

If a head or neck shot does not seem feasible, the next best may be counterintuitive, but some hunters I know have taken gobblers by shooting at the center of the breast. The bullet will create a small entrance wound and will not begin to expand until it is into the body cavity. If there is any major tissue damage, it will be in the back, which is not the best eating part of the bird. Shoot the turkey in the back and the breast will be blown up.

For a dedicated turkey rifle, though, the best choices are going to be in the lower velocity .22- to .25-caliber range, though there can be exceptions to that. High-velocity varmint calibers and bullets are made for explosive expansion on small game and can tear up a turkey. Some rifle calibers to consider, though, along with .44 Remington Magnum and .44 Special, are the old black-powder-cartridge ones even as large as the .44-40 or .38-55 with the heaviest bullets. And here the trade off is more meat for shorter ranges.

But larger calibers, without massive expansion, still leave a large wound channel, so other choices might be the venerable .30-30 or .30-40 Krag. One hunter’s ideal choice for a turkey rifle, though, is a .25-20 which was loaded in the Winchester 1894 and in Marlin cowboy lever actions, with ammo still being produced by Winchester and Remington.

I finally took a gobbler during this spring season.

He was more than respectable, with a 9 1/4-inch beard (trust me, turkey hunters measure turkey beards down to one-eighth or one-sixteenth of an inch, even nanometers if it makes them sound longer) and weighing 14 pounds cleaned and plucked and with the head and feet off.

And I used a rifle, my scoped CZ 527 Lux chambered in the (I believe) classic .22 Hornet.

Nominally high-velocity, the Hornet (like the .220 Swift, one of the few cartridges identifiable by its one-word name), developed in the 1920s, is still slow enough to cause minimal damage. In any case, I hit the bird at the base of the neck and didn’t lose an ounce of edible meat.

­I then shouldered it up and took it to its new roost in the freezer and began looking forward to Thanksgiving.

Tom McIntyre is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.


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