Few things in the natural world will get your blood pumping and adrenaline running like the gobble of a big tom turkey responding to your call. And few things will make your blood run cold like watching him approach and realizing you’re not totally certain where your shotgun shoots. Don’t get caught unprepared this spring turkey season; set aside a handful of shells and go pattern that shotgun.
Even if you’re intimately familiar with your shotgun and how it functions, if you use the same gun for turkey hunting as you use for pursuing other game, patterning remains crucial. With the addition of a super-full turkey choke—which generates a much tighter pattern than those used for waterfowl or pheasants—and the use of turkey-hunting loads, your trusty scattergun may behave very differently.
What rounds should I use?
Modern turkey loads can be pricey—some premium brands running more than five bucks a round—but it’s worth it to pattern your turkey shotgun using the shells with which you intend to hunt. Although ammo scarcity might make this a challenge of late, if possible, try a few different turkey loads while at the range. You may see significantly different performance and pattern densities among even similar loads.
For superior range, it’s tough to beat ultra-dense tungsten pellets, though they’ll cost a great deal more than other loads on the shelf. Not looking to drop huge coin on ammo? I wouldn’t hesitate to use copper- or nickel-plated shot—or even old-school lead shot, where legal—for knocking down a gobbler. Shot sizes between #4 and #6, or a blend of pellets in that range, are conventionally used.
Although larger shot like #4s may gain you a few more yards of effective range than smaller pellets, there will obviously be fewer of them in each shell, meaning your pattern will be less dense. Finding the right load is a matter of thorough testing; there are no guarantees that premium shells will always outperform more conventional or affordable ammo in your gun.
Set up the shot
Start by buying or printing out some turkey-size targets and mounting them at approximately 15-20 yards. As with sighting in a rifle, you want to take any unnecessary variables out of the equation, so use a rest or steady sticks to support your shot. With turkeys, headshots are the order of the day: They ensure a quick and humane kill with little or no meat loss. But the actual size of the turkey’s head and neck in relation to the rest of its body makes it a fairly small target. Aim for the middle of the neck to ensure the highest concentration of pellets will strike this zone.
Modern turkey loads can boost your effective range to nearly 50 yards, but you should start close and pattern in 10-yard increments until you’ve reached the maximum range you can confidently take down a turkey in the field.
Assess your pattern
After taking a shot on the target, assess the pattern and density of the pellets. Some hunters insist on counting pellet holes—100 holes in a 10″ diameter, at least 20 pellets in the head and neck area, etc.—to assess their shotgun’s maximum effective range. Although this thoroughness is commendable, in my view, it’s ultimately excessive. Instead, in the simplest terms, are you consistently putting enough pellets into the head and neck to ensure a kill?
As the range to your target increases, so too will the distance between pellets in your pattern. You’ll know you’ve reached your maximum effective range when your pattern has become too loose—with large gaps between each pellet—to ensure a clean kill. You can’t count on a couple of lucky pellets to take down a bird as tough as a turkey, and you don’t want the meat destroyed by numerous errant hits to the body. Depending on your load, your choke, your sights, and your proficiency, you may find that you’re only getting quality hits at 30 yards or less. That’s OK! Now you know that you’ll need to call a bird into that range before taking a shot.
Be sure to mark on each target the yardage, type of choke you used, and the load you’re shooting. Don’t rely on your memory to keep it all straight. You may want to review those targets later, as the season nears.