American Hunter Magazine Article on Custom Turkey Guns...
Wilbanks 870-Built by Curtis Wilbanks of Wilbanks Gun Repair. A full-service gunsmith located in Northeast Georgia, Wilbanks is a dedicated turkey man who hunts in nearby states as well as his home state. He performs all kinds of gunsmithing jobs, but his specialty is customizing shotguns for Smokey Mountain turkey hunters. The gun Wilbanks sent us began as a new Remington 870 Express (12-gauge magnum), the no-frills version of the hugely popular pump gun.
His first step was to shorten the 28-inch factory barrel to 23 ¼ inches, after which the muzzle was tapped with choke-tube threads that match the standard Rem-Chokes. Two modifications were made to ensure optimum patterns. A custom .658-inch choke tube was installed, a constriction several times tighter than the standard .693-inch full Rem-Choke. This tube measured three inches long with one inch protruding (for an overall barrel length of 24 ¼ inches) and it is slotted on the end for handy removal. Also, the forcing cone was lengthened from ¼ inch to 1 ½ inches, thereby easing the transfer of the shot charge from the chamber into the barrel and significantly lessening pattern-busting pellet deformation. For camouflage, Wilbanks chose a predominately gray oak-bark scheme for the refitted 870. The original finish was bead-blasted from the barreled action, and then all metal surfaces except the bolt were parkerized in a grainy, dull gray. To match, the stock was artfully hand-pained in a gray, brown, and black bark pattern. The stock job completed by trading the factory buttpad for a softer, top quality pachmayr pad that along with the lengthened forcing cone, took some of the punch out of the heavy three-inch magnum recoil. Finally, this gobbler special was topped with a fluorescent orange front sight bead for better sighting in low light.
The dollar value of Wilbankss' modifications came to $238 (last year's prices). Add that to the approximate retail cost of an 870 Express, about $300, and for a little over $500 one can take to the woods with the most popular pump-action ever made, modified internally and externally for its job.
Traditionally, shotguns have been tested by firing patterns into 30-inch target circles at 40 yards. I have never learned how this formula came into practice, but I presume that it is roughly the distance a gamebird covers during the time it takes shot to travel what is generally considered maximum wingshooting range. In the past, turkey guns have likewise been evaluated b this method, but that didn't seem right to me. A sure killing shot on a wild turkey requires the placement of pellets in the head and/or neck, a target, even when fully extended, that is less than 12 inches. Though the gobbler will most likely be moving his head/neck somewhat, it's hard to imagine him covering 30 inches unless he's flat-out running or flying, and then hunters have to contend with a host of other factors like shooting through brush and leading the target from an awkward, knees-up sitting position. Turkey shooting demands much more precision than wingshooting, and that's exactly why our modern guns are built to pattern so tightly.
For that reason I decided a much smaller standard was called for. NRA's life-size turkey patterning targets-on which I did the bulk of the test shooting-feature a 12-inch inner circle, making it very convenient to choose that measurement for my pattern diameter. Granted, even the most rubbernecked gobbler is probably not so well endowed (eight or nine inches fully extended is probably more like it) but that allows for the typical side-to-side swaying or jerky vertical telescoping of an inquisitive, incoming bird.
Furthermore, I felt that it would be more revealing to do the bulk of my shooting at an average rather than maximum range. The 40 yards used in traditional patterning is close to the accepted recommended maximum for turkey shots, but how many birds are actually killed at that distance (or farther)? In the brushy East where I live shots can occur much closer (inside 15 yards), and many more experienced hunters prefer to let an incoming gobbler close to at least 30 yards. He "average" range of 25 yards was selected for load-by-load patterning with the various 12-gauge, three-inch magnum turkey loads manufactured by Remington, Federal, Winchester, and Active (see Table 1). Patterns were also evaluated at increasing range intervals-15, 25, 3, 45, and 0 yards-with loads that had preformed well in earlier testing and represented a variety of pellet sizes (see Table 2). All patterns were fired from a typical hunting position sitting with arms supported on the knees. Patterns centered too far from the aiming point were refired, but this was seldom necessary.
As the tabular data indicate, (see the results page), our customized turkey guns easily out-patterned the off-the-shelf Remington 11-87SP.
A few additional observations on the pattern testing: At 15 yards, the Wilbanks guns put virtually all pellets from all loads inside the 12-inch target circle. In most cases it was not possible to count every hole because large swatches or target were missing. Rather, at that short range, one could practically measure the patterns, since most pellets clumped together in a spread of six to eight inches across. Obviously hunters who encounter close-in gobblers must take care with shot placement. It would be very possible for the entire pattern to miss the mark, particularly if the bird is moving laterally.
In using the NRA life-sized turkey target I found that it took a minimum of 50 pellets in the 12-inch circle to ensure hits in the vital zone. When patterns thinned more than that, it was possible to shoot around the head/neck target, and that doesn't account for obstructions like intervening brush. At 45 yards the Wilbankss' Custom Shotguns scored comfortably above the 50-pellet minimum; the 11-87, on the other hand, achieved it with some, but not all loads. When it came to 50 yards, however, not even the custom guns were consistently able to reach the minimum level and the factory gun didn't really even come close.
More than anything else, these test firings convinced me of the need for pattern turkey guns and the loads on paper before taking to the woods. In addition to learning a gun's capabilities at various ranges, shooters will be able to note pattern placement, which won't necessarily be perfectly centered with every load.
Space here will not permit details of our hunts with Curtis Wilbankss' fine custom turkey guns. Suffice it to say that they were lugged around in the mountains, rolling hills, and coastal flatlands of a couple of different states, and used to take three gobblers, all clean, one-shot kills. That, of course, is the ultimate test.