When our forefathers first stepped foot onto this soil we now call home, they had plenty of reasons to be a good shot. Marksmanship was one of the most valuable traits for settlers to possess and oftentimes proved to be the line between life and death. In order to protect themselves from wily Native Americans and provide precious sustenance through hunting, colonists transformed themselves into sharpshooters and maintained their newfound, critical skills through practice. Shooting competitions, dubbed “rifle frolics” and “turkey shoots,” became popular in America at the turn of the eighteenth century. These events rose out of the necessity to perfect the art of marksmanship; friendly tournaments provided constructive practice for settlers, as well as an opportunity to build invaluable neighborly relationships and a close-knit community.
The earliest turkey shoots were just that, the shooting of turkeys. Settlers would wrangle a wild turkey and tie one scaly leg to a tree stump, leaving the bird mobile but with a short leash. When the unsuspecting victim curiously raised his head above the log, he revealed himself to an intimidating line-up of predators. The first marksman to shoot the tiny, mobile target of the turkey’s skull won the fowl as his prize.
Today turkey shoots represent a much different type of gathering than their historical counterpart. At the time of turkey shoots’ origins in America, it was a male-dominated competition intended to improve marksmanship; today the competitions center around family and community. The shooting of actual turkeys expired long ago—their heads replaced with paper targets—but the shoot-out remains a tradition across America.
Perhaps nowhere is the tradition of turkey shoots still so efficacious as in the low country of South Carolina. In Beaufort and surrounding counties, turkey shoots are an autumnal institution, sponsored by countless clubs and organizations as sure-footed fundraisers. In the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when community events flourish, turkey shoots dominate the low country landscape. With a few dollars and a good eye, anyone can participate, despite age, skill, or even gun ownership.
The parking lots of low country turkey shoots are haphazardly filled, pick-up trucks crunching the gravel alongside mini-vans. Burley men decked in camouflage walk hand-in-hand with their daughters, whose pigtails flail haphazardly against their winter coats, while mothers carry tureens full of fresh-baked casseroles and biscuits, jugs of sweet tea and hot cocoa, which will quickly make the rounds, passed between friends and neighbors.
The shoots often take place at night, gathered around crackling fires, bundled against the first frosts of the season. When it comes time for the shooting, every likely and unlikely player steps forward: old alongside young, women alongside men. Modern turkey shoots do not discriminate regarding sex or age, or even talent. Most of the modern tournaments are set-up to be more a matter of luck than skill, affording even the most inexperienced participant a chance at victory. And even though live turkeys are no longer a part of the shoot, the name retains its integrity: frozen turkeys are usually rewarded to the victors. In keeping with the holiday spirit, the sponsoring clubs usually donate the majority of the proceeds to local charities.
Many South Carolinians reminisce fondly on their time spent at turkey shoots. Personal myths abound surrounding the Southern tradition: trunks full of gobbling turkeys surrendered as a prize and tales of young girls borrowing loaned rifles and wiping out the competition. But in all of these legends, one thing remains constant: community. In an age where technology abounds and relationships are often fleeting, turkey shoots represent the growth of a historic tradition into a modern landscape. Marksmanship may no longer be an indispensable attribute, but the importance of community is as significant today as it was centuries ago.
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