How does a turkey hunter go about making sure their shotgun is properly setup to deliver a lethal dose of shotshell pellets to the noggin and neck of a longbeard?
By properly sighting in the shotgun and finding the perfect combination of turkey load and choke for reasonable shooting distances.
To start off with, you'll need to find a safe place to shoot your shotgun, most likely an outdoor gun range with a safe backdrop that will allow you to shoot without endangering any person or building in the area. Whether it is a gun range or simply a piece of land on the back forty, be sure you can shoot without endangering or annoying the neighbors.
Next, you'll need the right equipment, supplies including shooting safety glasses, hearing protection, a Marks-A-Lot pen, a staple gun and staples, some duct tape, some butcher’s paper (for patterning), a selection of turkey targets (I prefer the VisiColor turkey targets by Champion), your shotgun, a choke or two and a variety of turkey specialty loads.
I might point out at this point that you'll never – I repeat, NEVER – want to head out to the shooting range to sight in your turkey hunting shotgun without a shoulder-saving shooting rest, such as a Lead Sled. Trust me on this point, shooting multiple turkey loads without this equipment – even with a 20 gauge – can even make the tough guys cry “uncle.”
While on the subject of equipment, you'll also need some wooden stakes and/or boxes and/or shooting frames to put up paper and the turkey targets.
Now it's time to get down to business and figure out what your scattergun will do, starting off with shooting at a 1-inch square or similar-size dot drawn in the center of a 4-feet-by-4-feet sheet of butcher’s paper.
To properly sight in your turkey shotgun, you'll need a safe place to shoot, eye and hearing protection, some basic supplies, some butcher’s paper (for full pattern views) and a selection of paper turkey-head targets. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
Distance wise, choose somewhere between 20 and 40 yards. It’s good to start at 20 and back up from there.
What's this for? To see if the gun patterns the shell properly and consistently hits the paper at or very near the aiming point. Typically you’d like to see the aim point in the center of the pellet-hole distribution, which should be in the shape of a circle.
If it doesn't – meaning the aim point is high, low, left or right in the circle of pellet holes – then you'll need to adjusting your open sights (if possible), red-dot or shotgun scope accordingly. If you can't make adjustments, see a gunsmith for help.
The bottom line here is to simply sight-in the shotgun before going on to see what it will do with a variety of shotgun turkey shell loads and/or choke combinations.
Once sighted in to your liking, then you will want to fire a few different turkey hunting shotshell loads through the gun at paper turkey-head targets. These shotshells should be comprised of different brands, various shot sizes from #4 to #7, differing powder loads and a mixture of shot materials (plain lead, HEVI-Shot, copper plated lead, etc.).
Set the turkey-head targets up at 20, 30, 40 and/or even 50 yard distances before shooting the various types of shells through your shotgun and choke tube combination(s) to find the optimum configuration.
The pain of sighting-in a turkey hunting shotgun before the season begins is forgotten when a hunter bags a big spring longbeard. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
Editor’s Note: It’s also a good idea to test fire a few rounds at less than 20 yards. Hunt turkeys long enough and there will be a time when a gobbler comes in at a very close range, maybe five or six yards. Understanding how your gun-choke-ammo setup shoots at close range will negate guesswork for when the time comes.
As you conduct test shots, mark on the various targets the pertinent shooting data so you can remember and analyze what's best for you and your turkey gun. Also pay close attention pattern densities; you may find additional sight adjustments are needed if there’s consistently a higher pellet-hole density just off target when shooting at longer distances.
Also keep in mind that the longer the shot distance, the more the pellets will be losing energy as they arrive on target downrange. While some might say modern turkey loads allow for killing shots out to extreme distances (60 to 80 yards), in general, even with today's loads, you'll want to restrict your shooting range to around 45 yards with most 12-gauge loads.
Also keep in mind larger shot sizes (#4) will retain energy better downrange, but the tradeoff is the pattern on paper will be quite a bit more on the sparse side of things (less dense because there are less pellets).
Reducing the shot size (#5, #6 or even #7) will certainly increase the density of the pattern downrange, but these smaller, lighter pellets (assuming the pellets are of the same material, such as lead) also will begin to lose their energy faster than larger shot.
What you're looking for in this sighting-in exercise, which will admittedly take some time at the range during what can be a somewhat tedious process, is to discover the best blend of pattern density, knockdown power and shooting range.
The goal of sighting in a turkey hunting shotgun is to find the best option(s) available for a hunter to quickly and humanely dispatch a gobbler to the dinner table. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
It may take a while to find the perfect mix that produces multiple hits in the turkey's vital area – the neck and brain area – but once you do, such work is worth its weight in gobbler-getting gold.
Editor’s Note: Most all modern-day turkey loads will deliver knockout blows inside of 40 yards when used with an extra-full turkey choke tube. Conducting this exercise at 40 yards and longer distances is where results can vary in a big way. One shot may put five or six pellets in the vitals while the next shot only has one. Shooting multiple times with different turkey shotshell loads and different choke tubes will slowly reveal the best combination for your shotgun.
When finished, you'll be able to confidently settle in on a turkey hunting shotshell brand, a preferred shot size, a preferred choke and a solid understanding of the best distances to shoot your gun at a spring longbeard.
And with all of that, you'll have a pocketful of confidence when you head into the springtime turkey woods, certain that when you squeeze the trigger, a loudmouthed gobbler is going to get an invitation to the dinner table.