Specialty Turkey Guns: Mossberg Gets Our Best Buy Nod
Ithaca’s Turkeyslayer and Remington’s Special Purpose Turkey gun also gain our favor, but at somewhat higher prices.
Long toms—extraordinarily tight-patterning shotguns capable of delivering lethal blows to turkeys and waterfowl at remarkable distances—used to be rarities. Most shooters who encountered such legendary shotguns in our youth remember them as rifle-like firearms that could turn a 5-gallon oil can into a doorscreen at 40 yards.
Over the last 30 years, however, technological advances in barrel manufacturing, specialty choke systems, and quantum leaps forward in shotshell design have improved patterns markedly. It’s gotten to the point where finding a good-patterning turkey shotgun should be relatively easy in this day of computer-driven manufacturing techniques.
Still, there are differences in how manufacturers approach the problem of delivering tight patterns on spring gobblers, and to see which system is best, we recently tested a trio of shotguns designed for the task. One was the $570 Ithaca Gun M37 Turkeyslayer, a variation of the Model 37 pump shotgun that the 117-year-old company has been building since 1937. It actually debuted more than a decade earlier, but Remington Arms gave up on the unique bottom-ejection John Browning design as being unmarketable in the mid-1930s, allowing its central New York neighbor to pick up the patent and run with it. More than a million M37s (they were briefly marketed as M87s from 1987 to 1995) have been sold, and the design, a favorite among left-handed shooters since the ejection port is in the bottom of the receiver rather than in front of their noses, was the inspiration for today’s popular Japanese-made Browning BPS pump.
Next was a Remington model in the Special Purpose line, the Model 870 SPS-T Super Magnum Camo, $569. This gun is virtually identical to the Super Magnum Turkey Camo product, except the SPS-T ships with Extra Full and Super Full turkey chokes. Other models in the Special Purpose line include the RS/TG version, which comes with TruGlo fiber-optic sights and a $569 price tag, and the recently discontinued CL/RD model, which sports a cantilever mount and a Leupold/Gilmore red-dot sight for the princely sum of $889. The latter two guns, like our SPS-T, wear 23-inch tubes.
The winner of a previous turkey test was the pump-action Mossberg Model 835 Ulti-Mag with 24-inch, Ulti-Full Turkey-choked barrel and glow-in-the-dark sights, which we bought for $300 at a Bass Pro Shops retail store. Since we tested the gun in April 2000, we’ve confirmed our judgments of the gun. We liked the feel of the gun, its speed and handling, and especially liked the shot pattern. Its porting softened the recoil of stiff magnum loads, and its sights were excellent. Because of its low price and excellent feature set, we thought it would set a tough standard for the other guns to match.
How We Tested
Turkey hunting consists of shooting stationary or walking birds. Unlike hunting upland birds or waterfowl, the idea is to swat turkeys on the ground, and they are tough to put down.
The feather cover on a turkey’s body is deeply layered and puffed with air, which takes the starch out of shotgun pellets very quickly. The idea is to shoot a turkey gun like a rifle, throwing the center of the pattern on the turkey’s vulnerable head and neck. Since the function of a turkey gun is to throw an extremely dense core in its pattern, factors like length of shot string and consistency over the face of the pattern are irrelevant.
Nevertheless, for the purposes of comparison we shot a standard patterning setup, counting the percentage of pellets in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. Each gun was fired five times at clean patterning sheets and the average counts tabulated.
We also shot patterns at 20 yards to determine where the guns were shooting in relation to point of aim and found that all three were dead-on, which is an exception rather than a rule in this day of mass-produced screw-in choke systems.
The actual testing consisted of firing 20 shots of each load (from a fixed bench) at 30 yards and 20 more at 40 yards at separate turkey head targets. Granted, 20 patterns is not a true measure of a load’s efficiency. It takes a minimum of 50 patterns to get an evaluation accurate to plus or minus 3 percent. But we were testing the guns, not the loads and found that 20 shots were plenty to discern patterning figures. Here’s what we found:
Ithaca Gun M37 Turkeyslayer, $570
Over its long history the Ithaca Gun Company has built everything from pistols and centerfire and rimfire rifles to muzzleloaders, trap guns and autoloading shotguns. But the venerable gun company’s road has been rocky over the last couple of decades. Various incarnations of Ithaca Gun have filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy four times since the early 1970s, with total liquidations occurring in 1986 and 1996.
The latest incarnation of the company was born in the spring of 1996 when a group of Ithaca, New York-based investors purchased the assets and tooling of the defunct Ithaca Acquisition Corporation from the bankruptcy court and formed Ithaca Gun LLC.
The new Ithaca Gun LLC is concentrating its efforts on variations of the M37, one of which is the Turkeyslayer. In this gun, the factory is cutting excessively long forcing cones at both ends of the 22-inch barrel. The barrel is threaded for a Winchoke system and fitted with a 3-inch Cation Tightshot tube with straight rifling that stabilizes the shotcup. The Turkeyslayer is available in Advantage and Realtree camouflage patterns. The gun weighed 7 pounds unloaded and featured a five-shot capacity for 3-inch magnum shotgun shells, with four in the tubular under-barrel magazine and one in the chamber. The Ithaca receiver, milled from solid-steel bar stock, is the thickest-walled in the industry.
The barrel is a threaded half-turn cam lock fit into the receiver. A lug sweated to the bottom of the tube fits over a nipple on the magazine cap that serves to lock it in place. The Turkeyslayer barrels are fitted with adjustable rear rifle sights, the front bead being a fluorescent tube.
Ithaca Gun quality control attempts to send out all Turkeyslayers with trigger pulls between 4 and 7 pounds. The gun we tested broke crisply at 4.5 pounds. The crossbolt safety is located in the rear of the trigger guard.
With the 22-inch barrel, the gun is slightly stock-heavy and not particularly quick to point, but that’s not really a factor since it won’t be used for wingshooting. Turkey guns are designed to be held and aimed like rifles, and the Turkeyslayer fits that bill.
The finish was even and flawless. Even the “Realtree” trademark lettering in the pattern was even and not distorted. The wood-to-metal fit on the Ithaca was typically uneven, but shooters don’t expect tight fit on pumps.
Overall, the gun fired, fed, and ejected flawlessly over the course of the 250-shot test. The test gun liked Federal No. 5 and No. 6 loads the best on the preliminary patterning board, throwing 91 percent patterns (averaging 310 of 340 pellets in the 30-inch circle). It threw good core-density patterns with virtually every 2-ounce load. The best 30- and 40-yard turkey patterns came with Winchester No. 5 and Federal No. 6 shot.
But the gun really like Winchester’s high-velocity turkey loads. The Ithaca Turkeyslayer patterned the reduced payload at 100 percent with both No. 5 and No. 6 pellets and was markedly more efficient in terms of core-pattern density than any of the 2-ounce loads tested.
Remington 870 Express Special Purpose SPS-T Super Magnum Camo, $569
The SPS-T ships with Extra Full and Super Full turkey chokes, and with the extended turkey chokes in place, the gun measured 44.5 inches in overall length.
The Remington’s magazine held three 3.5-inch shells, four 3-inch shells or four 2.75-inch shells. The Remington Super Magnum had a Mossy Oak Break-Up camo finish covering the synthetic stock and pressed-in checkering. The buttstock had a black rubber recoil pad with black spacer. All exposed metal surfaces including the bolt, trigger guard, part of the slide, and the extended choke tube were finished in matte black. The trigger guard was made of aluminum alloy.
We considered the Remington’s non-reflective camo finish to be well-suited for turkey hunting. We couldn’t find any structural or cosmetic shortcomings, and we noted the metal fit was above average. Most moving parts had only a small amount of play. The forend had a moderate amount of side-to-side play. Weighing 7.25 pounds, the shorter Super Magnum handled faster than other Remington 870s we’ve tested. The gun came to the shooter’s face comfortably, though some of our shooters would have preferred less than 1.5 inches of drop at the comb and 2.5 inches of drop at the heel. The stock didn’t show any cast, which we would have liked. Obviously, Remington set the gun up so that both righties and lefties could use it. Most shooters said the pistol grip was too thin, but it and the forend afforded a secure grasp when the gun bucked with the big 3.5-inch loads. Since the gun is fairly light and since the action doesn’t bleed away any gas, shooters were pounded by the magnum ammunition. Wearing cold-weather clothing helped some, and the short LOP still allowed us to get the gun up without snags. All of the Remington’s controls worked smoothly. A right-handed shooter could disengage the cross-bolt safety at the rear of the trigger guard with his trigger finger, but he had to shift his grip and use his thumb to engage it. Likewise, to reach and depress the action-release lever at the left front of the trigger guard, shooters had to move their firing hands forward. The trigger had a 0.2-inch-wide face with square edges and released cleanly at 5 pounds.
Loaded and ready, the Remington fed and fired flawlessly with 2.75-inch, 3-inch and 3.5-inch ammunition we tried. The 870 Super Magnum’s sights consisted of two beads perched on a ventilated barrel rib. The top of the rib was covered in camo, which prevented glare. The supplied Extra Full and Super chokes shot 90-percent-plus patterns with some loads.
Mossberg Model 835 Ulti-Mag, $300
When we tested this $300 gun last year, it was our first pick for turkey hunting. The ported barrel would let us shoot even the hottest, most pellet-filled loads with relative comfort, and the sights—which broke, unfortunately,—gave an excellent picture in the dimmest light.
To recap those results, we noted the Mossberg pump was solidly made. The mechanism worked smoothly and well. The forend had twin action bars extending to the bolt, and the twin extractors did a good job of clearing the chamber. This gun would handle just about any 12-gauge shell you could find, from 2.75-inch target loads up to 3.5-inch Roman candles. The 25-inch barrel was fitted with a ventilated rib, and some of the best fixed sights we’ve seen.
The sights were fiber optics that gathered all the available light and displayed to the shooter’s eye a prominent green front bead and two red beads bracketing that in any and all ambient light. Unfortunately, the sights were not adjustable for either windage or elevation. Also, during initial testing, the rear sight either blew off the gun or fell off when the gun was bumped.
The rear sight was held onto the gun by a dovetail in the bottom of its plastic base, and the two red eyes passed through small holes in the mount’s plastic base that in turn prevented the sight from sliding forward off the dovetail. The very thin ring of plastic surrounding the left dot broke and permitted the entire sight to move forward until it fell off the base. Later, we simply glued the sight back on and fixed the problem.
The action had a sliding tang-mounted safety that worked very well. It was handy to the shooter, ambidextrous, and very fast in operation. The action was of aluminum alloy, as was the trigger guard. The trigger was steel as was the magazine tube. The entire gun was covered in camouflage. The “checkering” was roughened areas on pistol grip and forend, which didn’t offer much stickiness to a bare hand, but seemed to help a gloved hand get a grip. The buttpad was solid black rubber, quite hard, not rounded at the top, but reasonably well fitted to the stock. The butt stock had a QD sling swivel stud. The front of the barrel nut was drilled and tapped for another stud, which was supplied with the gun.
The barrel porting consisted of 16 holes drilled in the upper surface of the barrel some 6 inches back of the muzzle. It seemed to help considerably in recoil taming. Muzzle jump was noticeably less with this gun. The Mossberg also had a major capacity advantage, where this is legal, in that it holds six shells with the magazine plug removed.
All the gun’s controls were easily manipulated while we were wearing gloves. The Mossberg had a great recoil advantage from its ported barrel, and that, combined with the slick action, permitted very fast follow-up shots. The handling was relatively fast, in spite of the gun’s muzzle heaviness. However, the length of pull at 14.5 inches was too long for most shooter’s arms.
The trigger pull was just over 6 pounds with very little creep. We could live with this pull, but would prefer it a bit lighter.
As you would expect from its Extra-Full “Ulti” choke, the Mossberg Turkey lived up to its name. Its glowing sights gave a fine sight picture, and we routinely counted 17 to 20 pellets in the target’s head and neck area on a turkey target at 40 yards. We would like some way to adjust the sights on the Mossberg, but there were no provisions for doing so.
Gun Tests Recommends
Mossberg 835 Ulti-Mag, $300. Best Buy. All three of these guns will do a great job of putting pellets on a tom, but the Mossberg does it more cheaply than the others.
Remington 870 Express Special Purpose SPS-T Super Magnum Camo, $569. Buy it. This gun has a proven track record of functional durability in the field, and the special turkey model is a slick, if pricey, incarnation of the brand.
Ithaca Gun M37 Turkeyslayer, $570. Buy it. Even though the Ithaca Turkeyslayer is a very high-priced pump gun, we feel that its performance, feel, and looks make it a good choice as a specialty gobbler shotgun.
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