Frontier Turkey Shoots

By Larry B. Schuknecht

During the opening up and settlement of the State of New York (and all along the Eastern seaboard and mid Atlantic States) in the late 18th Century and on into the last quarter of the 19th Century an informal competition developed which pitted skilled riflemen against each other which involved shooting at the head of a live Turkey at varying ranges of 100 feet to 100 yards or 30 to 40 rods for a price per shot paid to the owner of the Turkey. The Turkey would be tied to the far side of an object such as a stump or log over which just his head and neck would show as a target, or a box would be put over the turkey with a hole in the top just large enough to allow his head and neck to appear.

Narratives of the pioneer Turkey Shoots appear in Literature which will be cited and Art depicting them will be shown. The well known book "The Pioneers" by James Fenimore Cooper in Chapter 18 tells the fictional story of a Christmas Turkey Shoot taking place in 1793, the main characters-Natty Bumpo (Leaterstocking) on the right loading his rifle and Billy Kirby on the left in the red shirt. The following painting by Tompkins H. Matteson shows that fictional event. The leatherstocking had just made the killing shot after Billy Kirby and the youth pointing to the bird had missed.

In 1838 the artist Charles Deas painted another version of the event leaving out the main characters but focusing on the Freeman Abraham Freeborn (Brom) who owned the Turkey and shows his anxiety over the possible loss of the Turkey to the shot.

Above-a woodcut of another such event taking place in Pennsylvania, date and artist unknown.

The image below shows a Turkey Shoot in Albany, N.Y. and was painted by Willliam Walcutt in 1855

Below is a story of a Turkey Shoot found in John S. Minard's book-Recollections of the Log School House Period, and sketches of Life and Customs in Pioneer Days printed in Cuba, N.Y. in 1905.

The following item appeared in the Sept. 28, 1916 edition of the Arms and the Man.

As will be seen in the previous views the early matches were all shot from the off hand position (Slang of the time-"where you stood on your hind legs and shot like a man"). Eventually the competitions evolved wherein the shooters used a rest which consisted of a plank with one end elevated by a sawhorse or box. The following artworks show the later matches.

The image below was painted by John Whetton Ehninger in 1874.

The following image is from Harper's weekly dated Jan. 17, 1874

Other references to Turkey Shoots-

Uncle Lisha's Shop-Life in a corner of Yankee Land by Rowland E. Robinson-1888 (available as a download in Google Books)

The Kentucky Rifle by Captain John G. W. Dillon-1924 (page 54& Plate 64)

The Muzzle Loading Cap Lock Rifle by Ned H. Roberts-(page 117)

Here I diverge from the specific topic of Turkey Shoots to the subject of Militia Muskets-the Swiss Army Knife of the Pioneer guns.

In the Pioneer days of New York State all able bodied white male citizens between the ages of 18 and 45 were required to perform Militia Duty. All the officers of each local brigade or battalion were required to rendezvous two days in succession in June, July or August for Drill. A general gathering of all of the local Militia members together for "General training", parade and inspection happened once a year. The members reported with whatever arms they had. Often this was an all purpose Flintlock or Percussion smooth bore long gun , full stocked, of musket bore (69 caliber) which would shoot a round ball or shot and was commonly used by settlers to put meat on the table, defend their property or for the Militia duty. These long guns are now lumped together as a type called the Militia Musket. This title suggests a specified use to a then general purpose arm. The following image is of "The Bird Hunter" by A. B. Frost (1851-1928) and shows how a plain full stocked Militia Musket was an all purpose weapon for the first settlers.