It’s the sound we all live for as turkey hunters–the gobble of a Tom in search of a hen.
Then there’s the sight of a gobbler strutting and drumming into range. There’s just nothing better in life… unless we’re talking hunting turkeys with handguns instead of shotguns.
Now that right there is awesome.
I know what you’re thinking–handgun hunting requires a significantly closer range and firing with greater precision than a shotgun.
Those things add a layer of challenge to the hunt because, hey, there is a reason we get all kitted up in head-to-toe camo including a face mask and gloves during wild turkey season.
Turkeys have phenomenal eyesight; they see approximately three times better than you, and yes they will absolutely see you coming or fidgeting. Their vision is monocular but they cope easily by turning their heads and their peripheral vision is way better than ours.
We camo up and hold as close to preternaturally still as possible so they won’t see us coming because if they spot us, they are gone.
So how do we get it done with a handgun?
Not only is it doable, but it’s also ridiculously fun.
Here are a few tips and tricks for getting up close and personal with a big Tom next turkey season.
First, a side note on speed. How fast can they move? A determined turkey can take flight–briefly–at speeds up to 55 miles per hour (for real).
If for some reason they’re grounded they can still run away from you at 25 miles per hour. Suffice to say, you really don’t want to be spotted.
Are you up for a challenge? Read on.
Table of Contents
Choosing a handgun specifically for hunting requires taking various factors into consideration.
Perhaps most importantly, you must select a gun you’re comfortable shooting. There are a ton of options out there from revolvers to single-shot pistols to bolt pistols.
When you grab a handgun for hunting, choose one with an action you’re either already familiar with or one you’re willing and able to spend time training with. After all, our goal as hunters is always an ethical kill through solid shot placement.
Caliber is debated when it comes to which one to use on a turkey.
.223 Remington and above are good rifle cartridge choices as are handgun cartridges such as 10mm and .44 Magnum.
In my experience, the smaller handgun cartridges like 9mm result in poor penetration and far too narrow a permanent cavity meaning the bird runs off and may or may not be found (and may or may not be dead).
There are always exceptions when someone actually manages to drop a turkey with a smaller caliber but when hunting you should supremely confident in your chosen caliber. It can and should deliver a one-shot kill with proper placement.
Yes, you can kill a turkey with a handgun and a single shot fired. That means larger, not smaller, although if you go too big–like the time I used a 7mm-08–your bullet is definitely going to destroy the meat.
To preserve meat find a happy medium and remember, ethics always trump the cool factor of saying you shot a turkey with a diminutive caliber. “But muh 9mm/45 ACP” is not a valid argument for hunting with those calibers.
Barrel length matters, too. There’s a reason handguns made specifically for hunting have longer barrels (it’s ballistics, okay?).
Running out into the woods with your compact pistol is not exactly what we call A Good Idea.
Whatever you use needs to be substantial enough to get it done quickly and efficiently. No Bueno calibers include .22 LR, .380 ACP, 9mm, and .45 ACP–basically any caliber that isn’t big enough or fast enough for single-shot use.
Ammo Choices (This One’s Simpler)
Ammunition selection is the same as it would be for any hunt. Choose proven hunting rounds, not FMJs.
In fact, if you ever use FMJs to hunt just get out right now. Barnes VOR-TX is an example of a fantastic hunting line. VOR-TX bullets have excellent weight retention, double-diameter expansion, and superior accuracy.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
Those are all features you should expect from your hunting ammunition. Over the years Barnes has proven itself to me on a wide variety of game, including turkeys.
Keep in mind turkeys have softer tissue and a bullet is highly unlikely to have a chance to expand like it would striking a more solid object. That’s just one of many reasons you need a bigger caliber capable of producing a much bigger wound cavity.
One more time for the cheap seats: do not use tiny calibers to hunt. Your 9mm is not a hunting gun. Yes, a bolt pistol is technically a handgun. And yes, a Desert Eagle gets the job done in spades.
Consider using a scope or red dot for handgun hunting turkeys.
Sure, it’s possible to have a successful hunt without one but the odds tip in your favor when you use an optics. Even better there are all kinds of options on the market for handguns.
There’s the Leupold FX-II Handgun 4x28mm, a reliable model for revolvers that nails a broad field of vision, clarity, and durability.
Then there’s the Leupold VX-3 Handgun 2.5-8x32mm which I’ve used on bolt pistols hunting turkeys.
High-magnification scopes are not necessary for hunting turkeys but do make sure it is suited to your caliber, has a readily visible reticle or dot, and doesn’t hinder your field of vision.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Firing a few shots down-range is not remotely sufficient to prepare you for a handgun hunt–or any hunt.
Those guys who hit the range the day before a hunt and sling a couple of rounds down-range then saunter off as though they’ve fulfilled their training requirements for the year are nothing but a joke.
Practice with your handgun and load it with the ammunition you will hunt with. Starting from the bench is totally fine; once your optic is zeroed, work on groups and consistent accuracy.
Once you nail down reliable performance from the bench start shooting like you’re going to during the hunt. That might mean shooting stick–yes, you can and should use sticks with handguns–or it might just mean firing from a seated or prone position.
Stability is vital and so is shooting at a variety of distances. Before you hit the woods you have to be familiar with your gun’s drift and drop at various ranges to ensure a clean kill.
Something I freaking love for hunt prep: Birchwood Casey’s line of hunting targets. They’re absolutely perfect for training to handgun hunt.
Best of all the Birchwood Casey Pregame 12×18 Turkey Targets are full-color and reactive; when you shoot the paper turkey the holes show up ringed by contrasting colors so you can see exactly where your shots hit.
That can make it easier to visualize and assess shot placement from a distance while giving you an admittedly flat wild turkey to practice on.
Placement Matters (Big Time)
Shot placement with turkeys is a bit different using a handgun than with a shotgun. When you’re out with a shotgun loaded with magnum turkey loads you just aim at their head and neck and it’s all over but the field dressing.
With handguns, though, you need to be more precise. Yes, the head and neck remain the wild turkey’s most vulnerable area and you can certainly aim for where the neck meets the feathers.
However, due to their quick, jerky movements, you are going to be better off aiming somewhere a bit more stationary.
One option is to aim right above a leg through the wing, a mid-body shot that usually preserves the breast meat.
If the turkey is facing away you can take a shot mid-body where the wings meet on their back but this placement is pretty likely to damage breast meat. Be patient and wait until they turn so you can take a broadside mid-body shot to get the most meat out of your bird.
Bottom line: you can basically aim at the middle of their body. The angle and caliber decide what meat will be damaged by the bullet and how effective your shot will be, so plan accordingly.
Once again, no tiny calibers. A narrow through-and-through hole isn’t going to drop your turkey it’s just going to wound them.
The Hunt is On
Treat handgun hunting turkeys just like any hunt. You’re going to need the same camo, scent control, stillness, and silence. Okay, so you might need an extra dose of stillness to drop a turkey with a handgun.
Get in place, don’t move, and call. When that longbeard comes into range, take your time. Handguns require patience and a smooth trigger press, roll, or squeeze–whatever you want to call it, just make it good.
The moment will come when you have a clear shot and good placement and your turkey is going to go down. It’s a fairly epic moment.
Disclaimer: it is your responsibility to be familiar with the handgun hunting laws wherever you’re hitting the woods and fields. Not every state or county allows handgun hunting turkeys. Following the law is up to you, so check it out.
There’s nothing quite like turkey hunting with handguns. It’s a challenge, one I highly recommend. Go find a handgun and start prepping for turkey season and your first handgun turkey.
The turkey woods will never be the same. And if you aren’t a hunter yet, well, this is a badass way to get started.
Ever hunted a turkey with a handgun? What did you use? Tell us about it in the comments. Need an optic for your turkey hunting handgun? Hit up our list of the Best Pistol Red Dots.