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Their Aim is True
When John Bengel gives the word, 15 men stop joking around long enough to squeeze the triggers on their shotguns as they take careful aim at a target 20 yards downrange. After they shoot, the friendly ribbing resumes. It doesn’t take much on this mild winter evening; laughter fills the air under the tin roof that covers the shooting bench.
Welcome to the Ashland Turkey Shoot, a weekly event where groups of shooters gather to test their guns and their jokes in a friendly competition. Of course, when it’s shooting time, competition comes first.
“We have a lot of fun, but you can bet these guys take it real serious,” says Bengel, manager of the Ashland Turkey Shoot in Ashland, Va.
At one time, a turkey shoot was just that.
“They used to tie turkeys behind a log and the shooter would try to kill the bird with one shot when it poked its head up over the log. If he did, he’d get to take the bird home,” explains Bengel.
Live birds aren’t used anymore. Instead, shooters set their sights on a small piece of paper with a tiny red dot in the center. In some cases, winners do get to take a turkey home, but it’s usually frozen and wrapped in plastic.
The sport has evolved from a way to feed the family at Thanksgiving into a mix of loose-knit gatherings and tightly regulated events. At some, shooters bring their hunting guns with the hope of bringing home a turkey (frozen) or a ham and bragging rights until the next competition. Others pit hardcore shooters against one another with big money on the line. Prizes can top $1,000 for a single round. In those high-dollar matches, participants typically use custom-built guns that can weigh as much as 50 pounds. Lambert, a retired postal worker from Hanover, Va., owns two “outlaw” guns, as the custom match guns are called. He built them himself, starting with a 12-gauge Savage bolt-action shotgun made for shooting slugs at deer. When he was done, however, the gun looked nothing like what you might see in the deer woods. He added a new polished chrome barrel 36 inches long and as big around as a rattlesnake, a custom hand-finished, pistol-grip rifle stock and a polished steel plate to add weight to the gun.
He and most other serious shooters also add a bipod on the front of the gun to help steady it for each shot, additional supports under the butt stock, and a high-power rifle scope to help him zero in on the target. All told, Lambert figures he’s put upwards of $2,500 into each gun, but he’s heard of custom guns costing twice that.
“I won $1,800 once,” he says. “But most matches have payouts of a hundred bucks or so, although I know a guy who won $4,000 once. No one is getting rich. Most of us do it because we enjoy the people and the competition.”
Between the constant ribbing among the 15 men, shooters take aim at a target, fire a single shot at two different targets and then wait for judge Pete Jones to examine the paper under a magnifying glass. After Jones announces a winner, the shooters line up to do it again. On this night, Lambert wins one match, pocketing $100, minus, of course, the $75 he handed over in entry fees.
Shoots are held all over the country and each has slightly different rules, but they follow their own strict guidelines, limiting such things as barrel length, choke diameter and the shotgun shell. Some matches allow scopes, some don’t. They all, however, follow the same general purpose: To see who can shoot a tiny red dot out of the middle of a six-inch bull’s-eye. Jones can only use his judgment to determine close calls and in some cases, multiple shooters knock the tiny red dot out of the bull’s-eye. When that happens, explains Bengel, successful shooters go back to the bench and shoot again.
“They keep shooting until everyone but one guy is eliminated,” he says. “There is only one winner.”
Hang around any group of turkey shoot participants, however, and you won’t sense any disappointment when
someone doesn’t win a round. It’s all about fun, and win or lose, these guys are having a blast, even if there isn’t a turkey anywhere in sight.
Finding a spot
Thousands of turkey shoots are held each year, says Ohio gunsmith and turkey shoot fanatic Denny Tubbs. Most take place in the fall, but they’ve grown in popularity so much it’s not out of the question to find one on any Friday or Saturday behind a rural fire department or a local civic club. To find one, visit Tubbs’ website, www.turkeyshoot.net, which includes scheduled shoots all over the country.