April 14, 2021
A pair of big Merriam’s gobblers quietly ambled down the old logging road.
"Here they come," I whispered to my wife, Cheryl. We’d been soft-calling the birds for more than an hour, and they finally decided to come find that seductive hen that was playing hard to get.
When we set up, I’d used my range-finder to take readings around us, mentally marking rocks and tree trunks at 40 yards. If the birds stepped inside that distance they’d be in trouble. I knew that because I’d spent hours testing different load and choke tube combinations until I’d found the magic mix that produced a tight, even pattern out to 50 steps. And because Cheryl is a deadly shot on gobblers.
Big, wild turkeys are tough. To put one down on the spot, you have to hit the brain and/or spinal column with multiple pellets that retain enough kinetic energy.
The best way to ensure that you’ll hammer the bird when you take a shot is to pattern your shotgun at the range to determine the best load-and-choke combo for it.
The performance of an individual shotgun can vary significantly from one shotshell load to another, even when both loads are high-quality products. A load that may be best for your buddy’s gun might not work well in yours. Changing one aspect of the gun—the choke tube or the barrel, for example—can affect a load’s performance. Shot material, wad desgin and pellet size are other factors that can play a role in performance variations from one load to the next. Until you test, you won’t know what works best for your gun.
What you are looking for is a shotshell that delivers a dense, uniform pattern at the distances you’ll use it to kill turkeys—and, obviously, the center of the pattern should be where your gun’s sighting system is aiming when you pull the trigger. Also, you will want to make sure that the pattern is wide enough to be effective on shorter shots at a turkey that may be moving, as well as tight enough on longer shots so that the turkey stays down when you shoot him.
BEFORE YOU SHOOT
Given the price of shotshells and choke tubes, and the volume of each on the market these days, it’s possible to spend a significant amount of money doing exhaustive testing. But it’s not necessary that you empty your savings account to find a good, effective turkey load for your gun.
Start with your favorite gun the and fullest choke you already have. You’ll want to try a few different shells, and the most cost-effective way to do that is to test with a couple buddies so you can split the cost. It’s unlikely that you will test every load and every choke on the market—that would take an unrealistic amount of time and money. But a tight budget does not have to be the enemy of finding a better pattern.
Another thing that will streamline the process is to take careful notes on how each combination performs at varying distances. Keep the targets that show the best patterns—notes attached—so you can quickly refer back to them in coming seasons. The goal is to find the one load/choke combination that performs best so you never have to go through the patterning process again.
Finally, shooting a heavy-recoiling turkey shotgun over and over again will hammer your shoulder and rattle your brain unmercifully. To mitigate that, use a recoil-absorbing rest like the Caldwell Lead Sled or Champion Premium Shooting Rest. A heavy-duty rest will last the rest of your hunting life and will be handy any time you sight in a rifle or pattern a shotgun in the future. If you don’t have a recoil-absorbing rest, plan to spread your patterning efforts over multiple sessions.
1. Gather Your Gear: This includes the usual range gear—eye and ear protection, cleaning equipment, targets, etc.—and as many different loads and choke tubes as your budget allows. Plus your shotgun, of course.
2. Get Solid: Shoot from a bench or table and use a solid rest. If you don’t have a Lead Sled or similar, use sandbags so you can get your sights where they need to be. Consider padding your shoulder with towels, a soft gun case or whatever else might help absorb the recoil. This isn’t a tough-guy competition.
3. Use the Right Targets: I use an inexpensive rifle target with a low-recoiling trap load to make sure my sights are on, realizing that turkey loads will impact a bit differently and my sights will have to be adjusted as the process continues. Once the pattern is centered to the shotgun’s point of aim, I do my serious pattern testing using head-and-neck gobbler targets that show the spine and brain. Birchwood-Casey, Primos, Champion, Hunters Specialties and TruGlo all make good ones, or you can download turkey targets for free from the internet.
4. Shoot More Than Once: You should shoot each load multiple times to confirm your pattern. Be prepared to adjust your sights if the pattern’s center is way off during the testing process.
5. Shoot at Multiple Distances: Shoot each load/choke tube combination at 20 and 40 yards. Study each target carefully, looking for point-of-impact changes, holes developing in the pattern and whethe the pattern suddenly falls apart. I’m always amazed at how a pattern that is super-tight and consistent at 20 yards can sometimes mysteriously open way up at 40 yards.
6. Winnow the Field: As the process evolves, you’ll be able to eliminate several load/choke combinations. When I find the ones that pattern best at 20 yards, I shoot them again at longer ranges to see which ones stay tight and even enough to hunt with. This will also give you an idea of a load/choke combo’s maximum effective range.
7. Keep an Open Mind: Don’t go into pattern testing with preconceived notions about results. The proof is in the pudding, so let the actual testing determine the right load/choke combination for you.
8. Take Notes: During the patterning process, record the results of each combination tested. File them away for future reference. I save my best targets with notes taped to the target face so I can quickly refer to what works best for a particular shotgun before each hunting season begins.
9. Have Patience: Depending on how many load/choke combinations you’re testing, the process can require two or three range sessions. But it will all be worth it because once you’ve settled on the right combination for your shotgun and hunting style, you’ll be good to go for many seasons to come.
At the end of the day, you’re looking for the load/choke tube combination that produces the tightest, most even pattern at both close and long range and allows you to hunt with confidence. That doesn’t necessarily mean the winners will be the newest, most hyped or most expensive shotshells and choke tube in your test.