Modern Ammo: Are You Getting The Best Results

You can grab just about any ol' shotgun, stuff just about any ol' shells in it and go turkey hunting. When a gobbler happens by at 25 yards or so, you can wave the barrel of your duck/pheasant/quail gun in his general direction, pull the trigger and clobber him.
Like Elvis said, "It ain't no big thing."

No, I suppose it ain't, but who would want to do it that way? To me, half the fun of turkey hunting is fine-tuning a shotgun so it shoots with precision. At close range, I want to know that my fist-sized pattern will hit exactly where I'm aiming. At 40 yards, I want to be confident that at least a dozen pellets are going to bust up his head and put him down instantly.
And if I mess up by misjudging the distance and shoot farther than that, I want to know that my carefully chosen gun/choke/shell combo will redeem me. I'll bet you do, too.

Manufacturers understand us, and they're doing all they can to take the scatter out of scattergunning by creating choke tubes and ammo tailored to turkey hunting. We want our shotguns to shoot like rifles, and by gosh, that's what we've got - at least, that's what we've been promised. Advancements such as ultra-tight choke tubes and expensive shotshells filled with tungsten-alloy pellets are only as good as you make them.

Finding the best turkey killing recipe takes some experimentation. Here are some considerations to help you put together the most efficient shotgun possible.

Bigger Really is Better

As I alluded to earlier, if you shoot all your turkeys at 25 yards or closer, shotshell payload and pellet size are irrelevant. But because the most successful turkey hunter is the one who can make the most of the shot he's been dealt, that often means a longer poke. And that means you want as much energy hitting the turkey as possible.

If you shoot lead, strive to find a load of No. 5s that patterns well in your shotgun. A No. 5 pellet fired at 1,300 feet per second carries 3.6 foot-pounds of energy at 40 yards. A No. 6 pellet delivers only 2.3 foot-pounds at the same distance. It's difficult to believe a pellet that is only 1/100 inch larger in diameter (.12 inch for a No. 5 vs. .11 inch for a No. 6) could deliver one-third more energy, but that's the way it is.

Can you put a bunch more holes in a piece of paper with a load of No. 6s? Of course. A 1¾-ounce load has nearly 25 percent more pellets than the same-weight load of No. 5s (about 390 pellets vs. 300). Although pattern density is certainly important, penetration is what kills.
Carrying this logic further, a No. 4 pellet fired at 1,300 fps strikes with an impressive 4.5 foot-pounds at 40 yards. That's bad medicine for turkeys. Unfortunately, there are only 238 No. 4 pellets in a 1¾-ounce load, and this is where pattern density can be an issue.

With That Said  

So, what is "good" pattern density? The simplest formula is to count pellets in a 10-inch-diameter circle at a given distance. The magic number is 100. When you find the range at which you can no longer put 100 pellets within that 10-inch circle, you've found your maximum range.

Because we have such excellent guns, shells and choke tubes today, finding a combination that puts 100 pellets in the circle at 40 yards is not much of a trick.

However, it's just as important that your shotgun is throwing a fairly even pattern within that circle. Shoot at the center of a big piece of blank paper. You should be able to easily identify the core of the pattern. Use that as your center point, and draw a 10-inch circle around it. Now assess what's going on within the circle. If there are clusters of pellets in some areas and big gaps in others, it doesn't really matter what the pellet count is; it won't be a reliable turkey killer. If that's the case, you need to try a different choke or shell.

Shooting at turkey-head targets is fun, but because no two patterns are exactly the same, analyzing performance by counting holes in the oddly shaped head-and-neck area of such targets isn't really a consistent way to measure. Use these targets to build confidence after you've found your favorite shell-and-choke combination and then adjusted your sights or scope.

Try a Longer Barrel 

Go watch a still-target shotgun competition, and observe the barrel lengths of the competitors' shotguns. Those guns don't look like the turkey guns on the rack at your local sporting goods store, do they?

Without going into the technical details, and recognizing that there's an exception to every rule, longer barrels tend to throw better patterns. Think of it like this: Your shotshell holds a few hundred pellets, all of which are fighting to exit the barrel at once. A longer barrel gives them more time to settle into the shot column and, therefore, exit with less chaos.

Shorter barrels on turkey guns exist for only one good reason: They make your gun lighter and more maneuverable. How important is that? I rate it as nice but not really necessary. I remember when a 26-inch barrel was considered short on any shotgun. Waterfowlers routinely used 30- and 32-inch barrels. Today, 26-inch barrels are common on waterfowl and upland guns but have gotten a reputation as being "too long" for turkey guns.

Can you shoot good patterns with a short-barreled turkey gun? Sure. But your chances of finding a shotshell that "likes" your barrel and choke combination increases when you use a longer barrel.

Point of Impact 

As you tinker with various gun/choke/load combinations, remember that whenever you change a component, it might change the point of impact. Sometimes that change is barely noticeable; other times, it's huge.

In an extreme example of this, I once had the point of impact move sideways by nearly a foot at 25 yards just by changing choke tubes. Maybe the tube was a bit out of round, causing it to pull the shot charge. Interestingly, it delivered decent patterns, but without adjustable sights it would have been hard to hit anything with it.

I've also found that two types of shells from the same manufacturer can have a difference in the point of impact of several inches higher or lower. Why? Who knows? Just be aware of it when you're sighting in.

These are good reasons to do all of your initial patterning on 3-by-3-foot or larger sheets of paper. Shoot, assess, count holes, and do all the other busy work needed to find the best pattern. With that out of the way, then - and only then - should you worry about fine-tuning your sights.

Is Downsizing Good? 

The 3½-inch shotshell is an awesome invention that has been the demise of countless thousands of turkeys that might otherwise have lived to gobble another day. If you have a gun and choke combination that likes the big shells, good for you. But if you just aren't getting the incredible patterns you expected after trying various versions of 3½-inch shells, try downsizing.

Fact is, sometimes a 3-inch shell just shoots better than its big brother. Remember, a 3½-inch shell doesn't shoot farther. Fired at the same velocity, its pellets don't hit any harder than those fired from a shorter shell. There are simply more pellets in the shell.

So, use your 10-inch circle math again. If you find a certain 3-inch shell shoots better in your super/ultra/wonder-mag turkey gun, that's the one you should use.

New Standard in Ammo  

Shotshells loaded with heavier-than-lead" pellets have become the rule rather than the exception in turkey loads today. These offerings include Winchester's Supreme Elite Xtended Range, Federal's Heavyweight Mag-Shok, Remington's Wingmaster HD loads and Environ-Metal's Hevi-Shot and Hevi-13.

What's important to know before you plunk down $20 to $40 for a 10-round box of these miracle shells is that although they offer advantages over lead shells, there are vast differences in the way they perform. For simplicity, all these brands can be called tungsten-alloy shells. Original Hevi-Shot, for example, is comprised of tungsten, iron and nickel. The others are some variation of that recipe, and some include a fourth metal. All are much harder than lead.
In general, you will find it easier to shoot tighter patterns with these shells, and best, because these pellets are denser than lead, they hit with more energy. But that's where the similarities end. Each company's tungsten-alloy shells perform a bit differently.

Here are a few examples:

Hevi-Shot is so incredibly hard that if you use too much choke constriction, your patterns will likely get worse. A super-tight choke (a .655-inch diameter choke in a Remington barrel with a .729-inch bore, for example) that shoots well with lead loads will probably produce gappy patterns with Hevi-Shot. When Remington loaded Hevi-Shot in its Premier line several years ago, the company also produced a Hevi-Shot tube with a .675-inch diameter. By turkey-choke standards, that's not terribly tight. But my old 870 loved it, and would put 130 to 150 No. 6 pellets in a 10-inch circle at 40 yards.

I've found Winchester's Xtended Range shells, however, like a lot of constriction. I have a Mossberg 935 that was shooting the 3½-inch, No. 6 shells through a .695-inch tube with good but not great results. (Mossberg turkey guns are overbored to 10-gauge dimensions, so .695-inch would be considered "turkey tight" constriction in this gun.)

I had tried several manufacturers' .695- and .705-inch tungsten-alloy tubes without seeing much improvement. I consulted with Charlie Boswell from Kick's choke tubes, and he sent me a .680-inch tube to try. I predicted a disaster, but just the opposite happened: The average for a five-shot group was a blistering 201 pellets in a 10-inch circle at 40 yards. This remains my top-performing turkey recipe.

Federal takes a unique approach to its turkey loads. It advertises its Heavyweight pellets as being 30 percent more dense than lead. To put as many pellets on target as possible, Federal loads its turkey shells with an extra-thick Flitecontrol wad designed to stay with the pellets as long as possible instead of falling away soon after exiting the barrel. For this reason, ported choke tubes designed to strip the wad away tend to hurt Heavyweight patterns.

Federal also made news a couple of years ago when it introduced Heavyweight shells loaded with No. 7 shot. Sounds silly, until you consider that the dense nature of Heavyweight pellets gives them the oomph of a pellet at least a couple sizes bigger. Time will tell if this new (for turkeys) pellet size catches on.

These are just a few examples of the idiosyncrasies you encounter when trying to work up a turkey-killing load with what has become the new ammo standard. The topic of tungsten-alloy turkey loads is a magazine article (or several) unto itself, so I'll stop here. The most important point is that all heavier-than-lead products are not created equal. Before you make assumptions and spend your money on the newest magic shell, do your research, and compare notes with other hunters.