In our view, Ithaca’s $549.95 pump-action scattergun outperforms the bolt-action Savage 210 MasterShot.
They were called “long toms”— extraordinarily tight-patterning shotguns capable of delivering lethal blows to turkeys and waterfowl at remarkable distances. Who among us didn’t encounter at least one legendary “long tom” shotgun in our youth? In decades past there always seemed to be one guy who, by some quirk of manufacture, had a tight-patterning barrel that could turn a 5-gallon oil can into doorscreen at 40 yards. But a tight-patterning gun was an exception rather than the rule in those days. 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, the process isn’t foolproof, as we found out in a comparison of two new-for-1997 shotguns designed specifically for turkey hunters.
The Ithaca Gun M37 Turkeyslayer, $549.95, and the $440 Savage 210F bolt-action turkey special come from diverse and oft-troubled bloodlines. The Ithaca Turkeyslayer is 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.
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.
Savage, known primarily for its rifle line, has a similarly long and somewhat checkered history, starting in 1895 in Utica, New York. It got into the shotgun business in 1920 when it bought the J. Stevens Company of Massachusetts, which 11 years earlier had introduced the world’s first 12-gauge repeating shotgun—another John Browning design. Savage also bought the assets of the A.H. Fox shotgun company in 1929, the country’s foremost builder of double-barreled shotguns.
After a series of ownership changes that started in 1963, the Westfield, Massachusetts-based company got caught in the industry-wide recession in the early 1990s and filed for Chapter 11 under the bankruptcy law. But its restructuring has been nothing short of a phenomenal success, and today the company is thriving with its bolt-action rifle and shotgun lines.
With their financial demons at bay, the companies should be able to focus on product, we decided, so we set up a head-to-head comparison of patterning, function, feel, features, and aesthetics using the Ithaca Gun M37 Turkeyslayer and Savage 210F bolt-action turkey model shotgun.
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 both 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 provided by Quaker Boy Game Calls. 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. We used 3-inch 2-ounce loads of copper-plated, buffered numbers 4, 5, and 6 shot from Remington, Winchester, and Federal as well as the nickel-plated versions provided by Activ.
After all the 2-ounce loads had been tested, we obtained a sampling of Winchester’s new high-velocity turkey loads and found them to be superior to anything else tested. The new 13/4-ounce loads come only in Nos. 5 and 6 shot, but the reduced payload, redesigned shotcup and attendant higher velocities were much more consistent and invariably had much denser core patterns than any other load.
The number of pellets that each gun put into the “kill zone” on the turkey targets was counted and averaged.
The new Ithaca Gun LLC is concentrating its efforts totally on variations of the M37, with the Turkeyslayer its first new-product introduction. 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 four Advantage and Realtree camouflage patterns, the coating applied by Tarjac, Inc., a franchisee of Immersion Graphics. The gun we tested wore a Realtree X-Tra Brown livery. Actually, the barrel of the gun we tested had not yet been coated and wore the Camoseal paint job formerly offered by Ithaca Gun.
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 the company’s fluorescent Raybar 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. Immersion Graphics’ dipping process varies slightly from that of its chief competitor, ColorWorks. The latter’s patterns sometimes are distorted when applied to awkward sections of a firearm or other implement.
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 whole test was skewed somewhat when the new Winchester high-velocity loads became available. 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.
Savage 210F MasterShot
Introduced this year, the Savage turkey gun is an adaptation of the company’s 1996 rifled-barrel slug shotgun. The 210 turkey gun has a 24-inch smoothbore barrel fitted with a screw-in Remchoke-style choke system and Improved Cylinder, Modified, and Full-choke tubes. The synthetic stock is coated in an Advantage camouflage finish, but the barrel and steel work is left in its dull blued finish. The MasterShot is a 12-gauge version of the company’s long-standing 110 series bolt-action rifles and is a far cry from the cumbersome bolt shotguns produced by Savage under the Stevens name (1933-1981), which like the Mossberg and Marlin shotgun bolts used just the bolt handle as the locking lever.
Although it’s definitely overkill, considering the low chamber pressures produced by shotshells (about a quarter that of centerfire rifle cartridges), the MasterShot’s bolt features three front locking lugs and a 60-degree bolt rotation. The extractor is a slender, hook-like affair that rotates with the bolt head and is housed in a slot just above the bottom locking lug. Extraction is theoretically via inertia, with a blade contacting the case rim though a slot in the bolt head as the bolt reaches the last half-inch of travel.
The barrel is threaded to the receiver and held by a locking collar like on the 110 rifle. The receiver ring is well-vented. The action and stock are mated via two screws, one threading into the bottom surface of the recoil lug, the other just ahead of the trigger guard bow. The safety, a thumb-slide button, was easy to find and use. It is located on the receiver tang that rides the top of the stock’s pistol grip.
The 7.5-pound Savage 210 does not use a detachable clip. Instead, it featured a two-shot integral box magazine that juts from the bottom of the forearm. Thus, the gun must be loaded from the top, which is cumbersome given the bulkiness of shotgun shells.
Considering the innovation found elsewhere in the gun, the sights are remarkably primitive, in our estimation. The rear wing sight is nonadjustable, and it is used in tandem with a front bead. Also, the coating of the stock and not the steel portions of the gun is similarly puzzling.
Although Savage has apparently worked on the ejection problems it encountered with its rifled barrel slug gun in 1996, the problem did crop up five times over the 250-shot test. Compared to the previous year’s product, however, the problem went from being a fatal flaw to a mere nuisance.
The trigger, which is adjustable by a qualified gunsmith, broke at a shade over 5 pounds with just a little creep. The gun, essentially a beefed-up rifle, felt and aimed very well, in our opinion.
The Savage, for all its potential, was a disappointing performer in our eyes. The barrel was a run-of-the-mill production shotgun barrel, not a specialty tube that one would expect from a firearm labeled “turkey special.” While the Full-choke tube threw a satisfactory pattern by normal standards (nearly 80 percent with the most efficient loads at 40 yards), we’ve come to expect far better performance from specialty turkey guns.
The standardized patterning (30-inch circle at 40 yards) saw the Savage average 79 percent (268 of 340 pellets) with the best performing load, which was Remington’s 2-ounce No. 5 shot. Actually, all of the 2-ounce loads performed fairly consistently in the no-frills Savage barrel, but none was truly outstanding, we thought.
Winchester’s high-velocity load was the exception. The gun’s pattern improved to very respectable 85 percent with the new Olin loads, and both the 13/4-ounce payloads in No. 5 and No. 6 shot showed substantially improved pattern densities in the gun.
Field Tests Recommends
We thought he Ithaca Turkey-slayer’s performance was definitely superior to that of the Savage, patterning better with virtually every load. The custom-style barrel boring by Ithaca and the semi-custom Cation Tightshot extra-Full choke tube had a profound effect on the density and consistency of the patterns compared to the nondescript Savage’s conventional Full choke–tubed barrel. The Turkeyslayer’s sighting system was more comfortable and efficient than the austere wing and bead on the Savage. Even though the barrel wasn’t finished on the Ithaca we tested, those on dealer shelves are, while Savage chooses to paint only part of its guns—a decision which makes no sense to us. Even though the $549.95 Ithaca Turkeyslayer is a very high-priced pump gun, we feel that its performance, feel, and looks make it a better choice as a specialty gobbler shotgun.
The $440 Savage 210 was dependable, comfortable, and performed up to conventional Full-choke standards. But in our view, it is not as good a turkey gun as the Ithaca.