Sporting Scene

Going Small for Gobblers

A new breed of ammo is changing the way we turkey hunt

Photo: Tes Randle Jolly

A wild turkey in full strut.

Tas Gardner is a believer. It defies logic, says the Paris, Tennessee, attorney, but the proof is as solid as the weight of a wild turkey across his shoulders: Small-bore shotguns for wild turkeys—and yes, we’re talking about the diminutive .410—have hunters scrambling to find the new, wildly popular shotguns and shotshells as the spring turkey season approaches.      

Gardner, who recently completed a U.S. Super Slam of killing a wild turkey in all forty-nine states where they exist, says he may never hunt with a 12-gauge again. “My prior experience with a .410 was trying to hunt with my son when he was little,” he recalls, “and it was not always a successful experience. I’m pretty ethical when it comes to the turkey, and a few years ago a .410 really wasn’t an effective tool. But I’m telling you: You ought to see what these new shells can do.”

That’s actually the driving force behind the small-bore craze: a new breed of ammo that utilizes Tungsten Super Shot, or TSS, as the payload. TSS is a tungsten alloy that is about 60 percent denser than traditional lead shot. That means it retains velocity better downrange and hits with much greater energy. That allows shotshell manufacturers to pack shells with more and smaller shot that patterns tightly, a winning formula for a turkey shell. Federal introduced its TSS shot in 2018, and the ammunition gets better and better. One Federal Heavyweight TSS shell in .410 is packed with 294 #9 pellets that carry the approximate ballistic equivalent of #4 shot in lead. With such a load, a properly aimed shot will have no trouble dropping a bird at forty yards and better, previously nearly unthinkable.

Granted, these high-tech shells are spendy. Federal’s .410 offering comes in at $8.60 per shell. Small-batch makers such as Apex Ammunition in Mississippi and Nitro Company in Missouri are a bit less per trigger pull. Those are eyebrow-raising figures, until you realize how few turkey shells a typical hunter needs in a season.

And the benefits far outweigh the costs, hunters say. Recoil is a nonissue. “There’s virtually no recoil,” says Ron Smith, a retired urologist from South Carolina who chases turkeys around the country. “It’s like, poof, and that’s it. Even the sound is sharply reduced.” That makes it much easier to introduce younger hunters to turkey hunting. In the past, smaller shooters struggled with the much heavier shotguns and monstrous turkey loads that once marked the apex of turkey-hunting technology. 

A pair of Federal’s .410 Heavyweight TSS shells.

To sweeten the deal, shotgun manufacturers are building turkey guns that can be remarkably affordable and much lighter than their brawnier kin, which makes them more comfortable to carry on longer hunts. Gardner saw a Yildiz SPZ ME .410-bore over-under on a sporting goods store shelf, “and it was shiny and new, and it winked at me,” he says. “I was smitten.” The fact that it weighed but a wispy five pounds and cost just a hair over five hundred bucks made it harder to turn down. The new-in-2020 Mossberg 500 Turkey pump shotgun in .410 carries a list price of $515 and weighs just six and a half pounds. 

For hunters who’ve been at the turkey game for a while, the easier carry and lessened recoil of the new guns and loads are just gravy on a wild turkey breast. What they most appreciate is how a small-gauge turkey gun demands a new—perhaps an original—approach to hunting. While the TSS loads are very effective, the smaller pattern and shorter range compared with traditional 12-gauge options help put the hunt back in turkey hunting.

Even with a 12-gauge shotgun, Smith says, closing the distance makes for a more satisfying hunt. “I don’t shoot at long range,” Smith explains. “I like to see the spectacle of a gobbler going crazy. And with these new loads, a .410 is lethal at forty yards as long as you put it on him.”

Gardner is on the same team. “To me, turkey hunting means calling a bird in close,” he says. The new loads will do their job if the hunter does his, but they leave less margin for error. “You can’t shoot through a bit of brush or cactus. You’ve got to anticipate where the bird is going to be. That’s what I like the most about these guns—they bring it all up close again.”

 After a lifetime of turkey hunting, he says, “the .410 made my heart beat like crazy again.” Any turkey hunter anywhere knows exactly what he means.