February 15, 2023
In today’s world, most of the turkey hunters you see on television, social media platforms like YouTube, and other digital mediums are all shooting spring toms with either a red-dot reflex sight or a scope mounted to their shotgun. Used properly, a red dot is an invaluable tool that makes killing a longbeard pretty damn simple—just settle that ball of fire on the wattles and squeeze the trigger. However, mounting an optic does not automatically make your turkey gun of choice more accurate. Potentially, it can. But optics can also make you overconfident and extend your range beyond the lethal capabilities of the load you’re shooting. So, do you really need a optic on your turkey shotgun? Let’s find out.
Shotguns Are Not Rifles
Clearly, you know that a 12-gauge shotgun is not the same as bolt-action rifle chambered in .308, but too many hunters think their semi-auto, pump, or break-action shotgun has rifle-like precision when they top it with an optic. That’s not the case if you're shooting bird shot. Having patterned dozens (maybe hundreds) of shotguns, I know every shotshell pattern is different, even when it’s the same load from the same gun. So, when I hear a turkey hunter say they can just point that red dot at a turkey and it will deliver a kill shot, I cringe.
Because a shotshell produces many projectiles versus the single bullet fired from a rifle, it’s actually quite a bit more difficult to be precise with a shotgun the farther the target gets from the shooter’s position. I’ve shot lead and tungsten super shot (TSS) turkey loads well past 40 yards with an optic and without. At a certain distance, the laws of physics take over and your red-dot sight is rendered obsolete. If you keep shots to reasonable distances an optic is beneficial, but you have to stay within those parameters. Go beyond them and you risk a clean miss, or worse yet, crippling the bird.
Ranging A Turkey Through A Reflex Sight
In the turkey woods, a red dot can be ideal. Due to the landscape (trees, bushes, and overgrowth), it’s a safe bet that shot is likely going to be inside 40 yards (or closer) and so a properly sighted in optic is best. You still do need to pattern your gun with the optic mounted to optimize the effectiveness of the payload you intend to hunt with. But on the edges of massive ag fields or in large meadows, virtually anywhere you can see a turkey coming from a long distance, I don’t like using a red-dot optic.
First, once you’re on the gun and looking at a turkey through an optic, you can lose a sense of how far away that bird is from you, especially in the minutes before and just after sunrise when it’s still dark and visibility isn’t great. Second, when you don’t know the actual yardage of a bird, the optic can make you overconfident in your ability to kill a tom. The gap in payload performance from 30 to 40 yards can be immense depending on your gun, choke, and shotshell combination. And no optic is going to make up for that.
Last season, I was hunting Merriam’s out West with a red-dot optic mounted to my shotgun. A bird flew down from the roost into a large, open field sunken between two mountain ranges. I could see him strutting in from hundreds of yards away. With my gun mounted, I waited for the tom to get “close.” I had mentally marked off a few brush piles in front of me as points where I thought the bird was in range. Once he passed those markers, I fired. He flopped backwards, but then regained his composure and started running. A second shot was needed to dispatch him. Another tom from the opposite direction came in a few minutes later and my buddy killed it at 10 yards with open sights. I stood up and paced off my dead bird—it was over 50 steps.
Luckily, I was shooting TSS. Had it been lead, I don’t know if that bird would have died. It would have depended on what shotshell I was using. There are some lead offerings that pattern well enough to kill that bird, but many others that could not. The point is, if I was just using the bead on the end of my barrel to aim, that longbeard would have had to walk at least another 20 yards before I killed it. And that shot would have been far more lethal.
Some Shotguns Are More Accurate Without an Optic
The way a shotgun fits you is far more critical to how accurate you can be with it than any other type of firearm. When you add an optic to a shotgun, it takes some of that fit away because you have to take your cheek slightly off the comb. Your face is still touching the stock, but your head is higher, which changes where the shotgun will pattern. You can create a better fit by adding some padding to the comb, but still, you are not looking down the rib of the shotgun like you would shooting clays, ducks or pheasants.
To shoot an optimal pattern with an optic, you must make windage and elevation adjustments. Sometimes you can get similar accuracy with a red-dot or scope, but some guns simply shoot better when you mount them the way shotguns were meant to be shouldered. There aren’t specific guns that have this characteristic because all of us shooters are different shapes and sizes. But I have shot guns—the Remington 870, Beretta A300 and A400 series, and Mossberg SA series all come to mind—that I was more precise with on the pattern board just using the bead.