Get those Turkey Guns Patterned & Ready
Updated: Feb 24
Shotshell innovations such as Federal’s Tungsten Super Shot and Winchester’s Longbeard XR are making turkey hunters more lethal at greater distances. Finding the right shotgun load and choke tube combination to product the most reliable patterns can be increasingly complicated.
Forty yards was the long-accepted distance deemed acceptable for shooting at a turkey. Anything beyond was too susceptible to shot patterns falling apart and causing a miss or, worse, a wounding. Today, modern, super-tight choke tubes paired with shotshells filled with pellets made from materials denser than lead boost potential. How far is too far is something you figure out by thoroughly patterning your shotgun and understanding the kinetic limits of the shot you’re using.
Instead of pointing and swinging on a flying gamebird, you aim a turkey shotgun like a rifle. This means you need to pattern tighter. Instead of counting pellets in 30-inch-diamter circle, you assess shot pattern density in a core 10-inch-diameter circle.
Get several sheets or more of poster board or paper measuring at least 3 feet square. You want to see fully where the shot is actually hitting compared to your point-of-aim. Small sheets of paper won’t allow that. Use a marker or colored tape to create easy-to-see aim points at the target’s center. Draw 10-inch diameter circles around these center marks.
Many people now use red dot optics or fiber optic field sights for turkey guns. Some people stick to a favorite bird gun with a bead, but it’s easy to miss inside of 20 yards with some of the new shotgun loads paired with ultra-tight chokes. The pattern is just too small at close range. Using optics that let you better aim your shotgun like a rifle will minimize misses.
If you use a red dot or similar optic, make sure it’s zeroed before you start shooting expensive turkey loads. Install your preferred choke tube and then fire cheap birdshot to get things close to the mark. You then fine-tune the final elevation and windage with your preferred turkey loads.
Set the target 30 or 40 yards away and shoot from a stable, padded rest or shooting bench, using the ammo
you will hunt with. After each shot, examine the target to figure out where the pattern is centered. Draw a new 10-inch circle around the center of where the shot pattern is the densest. Compare it to your original 10-inch circle and then tweak your optics, moving the aiming point to the center of the new circle. Repeat shooting until you’re sure the gun is fully zeroed.
If you’re still shooting with a bead at the end of a barrel or vented rib, good luck. You’ll have to figure out if you need to adjust your aimpoint, your ammo choice, your choke tube or all three to get reliable performance.
Once you have at least three shots with well-centered patterns, count the number of pellet hits inside each 10-inch circle. Add them together and divide by the number of targets shot. This will give you the average total pellets in the kill zone. If you know approximately how many pellets are loaded into each shell, you can then calculate which percentage of the total load is on target.
The “right” number of pellets inside the 10-inch circle will vary, influenced by shot size, choke constriction and shotshell innovations. The key is knowing how big a turkey ‘s head and neck really is and then making sure your pattern has no gaping holes. This is when you can add some of your fancy, turkey silhouette targets for better graphic assessment.
If you really want to figure out the maximum range that you can confidently take a shot, simply repeat the process at 50 yards or longer. Eventually, you’ll see the pattern fall apart. And keep in mind that some pellets can begin losing a lot of velocity past 50 yards.
Good hunting and be safe out there.