Turkey loads from Federal Premium, Winchester and Hevi-Shot show the explosive evolution of the companies' flagship turkey shells.
Back in 1978, I found myself at first light calling an Easter gobbler in southern Minnesota during the first ever turkey season held in the state. Only 420 permits were issued and I was lucky, especially with the big gobbler strutting along at 30 yards with a harem of six hens.
Using a Remington 870 Wingmaster and a stiff duck load of Federal 3-inch 1 7/8-ounce of copper-plated No. 5 lead took one of 94 birds killed that historic season.
In those early days of turkey hunting we didn't have turkey loads or guns. Equipment was very basic, and even turkey-hunting clothing was made up mostly of old government-issue leftovers that were dated around the time of the second World War.
Save for a few Southern states, the whole idea of gunning gobblers was largely learn-as-you-go.
Things didn't change much over the next few years, but by the mid-1980s, there emerged a pattern among the ammunition manufactures indicating that specialized turkey loads were coming of age.
Remington had developed Duplex Loads that carried three different hard lead shot sizes, Federal had pressed advanced duck load technology toward premium level 3-inch magnums, and Winchester was well on the way toward the famous black lead.
However, the major advancements in turkey loads over the following decade were the introduction of the 3.5-inch 12-gauge magnum and tungsten-based pellet composition. Tungsten was a superior heavy metal, and could push kinetic energy to double the effectiveness of black lead shot.
With the introduction of tungsten as a pellet material came a rash of new companies like Environ-Metal (Hevi-Shot) and Kent Cartridge. Not to be outdone, the heavyweights in ammunition manufacturing got into the game, and soon everyone was offering a turkey-busting load that could reach a gobbler on a space station.
I tested the first "Heavy Weight" tungsten composition blended turkey load using the new Federal one-piece stabilized FliteControl wad system in the fall of 2002 on the open prairie near Buffalo, S.D., where I crushed a pair of toms at a range of 60-plus yards.
The guns also changed to specialized turkey choked shotguns with sights or scopes, and the loads were so effective that I also used them on adult coyotes when called inside 70 yards.
Today, because of the advancements in companies offering very different ammunition, as well as an upgrade in guns and sights, hunters have never had it so good in terms of firepower packed into a cardboard box.
Winchester: Shot-Lok Brilliance
The current turkey load offered by Winchester is Long Beard XR in both a 1,050 fps Magnum and high-velocity 1,200 fps load.
Long Beard XR is interesting because it draws on a technology used for ultra-long-range goose loads back in the 1980s, when a hot wax mix was dropped over the payload of shot, which was then installed into a one-piece plastic wad.
This "welding" of sorts clustered pellets, and added velocity and energy to the moving pellet mass, greatly increasing range and kinetic energy.
Winchester must have been doing their research because Long Beard XR loads make use of a basic slurry rosin mix that is based on a hard candy material.
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This blend tends to carry the payload as a mass to about 10 yards beyond the muzzle (noted by real-time testing), increasing pellet speed and power.
Winchester offers a complete system on their website called Pattern Board, where hunters can pick any Winchester turkey load, match it to a choke constriction, and get a fair idea "virtually" of how the pattern will look at any range desired. The program is quite accurate.
For those who tend to maintain tight-shooting ranges around the basic 40-yard shot, Winchester also offers the Double X line of turkey loads, all the way down to .410, which is pretty effective for younger hunters out to around 20 yards, showing that with today's advanced engineering, even the little .410 can pack a punch if used correctly.
Environ-metal: The blender
When a new company called Environ-Metal Inc. was founded a few years back, it was all about developing a shot-shell load with tungsten shot. The density level of this pellet material outperforms black lead by almost double in terms of effective energy and velocity down range.
The end product to all this was the Magnum Blend tungsten turkey load. Today, this triple pellet-size (5, 6, 7) load is still a current top-of-the-line offering by the company.
Along with this effective turkey load, Hevi-Shot also introduced Hevi-13 as a high-density payload system. The number 13 stands for its density level based on the periodic table of elements, and at the time was one of the most dangerous pellet materials that could be shot through a shotgun barrel.
However, with tungsten came not only advancements in down-range ballistic performance, but also a massive increase in the price of a shot shells. When these loads reached about $4 each, even Environ-Metal Inc., a tungsten-based company, started to take a hard look at the cost.
Today, Hevi-Shot produces Triple Beard, which is not only a new turkey load, but is retrofitted in the lead-shot loads of the past. Triple Beard retains the "speed ball" design, a system that uses a soft fiber ball installed at the base of the wad to reduce pellet deformation during ignition setback.
By using speed ball, Hevi-Shot is thinking outside the box, and in effect has designed a new price-point turkey load in lead that can get the job done.
Pattern testing has indicated that at 40 yards the 12-gauge triple-pellet payload of No. 5s, No. 6s and No. 7s in a 1 3/4-ounce payload, moving at 1,300 fps, will drill a three-shot average numbering 47 pellets from a Benelli Super Black Eagle II, and Hevi-Shot turkey choke with a constriction of .667.
However, when using a Mossberg Ulti-Mag with .667 choke constriction, the patterns fell off to almost nothing. The problem was over-constriction and a load that didn't like the back-bored .775 bore system at all.
Due to the number of new loads that make use of multiple payload pellet sizes in both lead and tungsten blends, gaining an exact pellet contact percentage can be a bit rough against pattern boards.
Best guess observed hit count on head neck target shooting is a workable performance indicator in most cases. However, shooting patterns with state-of-the-art ammunition inside 35 yards often results in a nasty ragged hole on the target measuring anywhere from 2 to 5 inches in size.
This kind of reaction against a pattern board shows that the load has a lot more range and energy for harvesting game. Unfortunately, Triple Beard has some issues with over-bore barrels and ultra-tight choke constrictions, so hunters really need to take the time to conduct pattern testing prior to hunting, as different guns and chokes will often yield varying results downrange.
Federal Premium: Dense 9-shot
Federal Premium has taken a whole fresh look at turkey loads for the 2018 spring turkey season. The key to the approach by Federal Premium regarding this new direction in load development makes use of TSS tungsten iron, which up to now was only offered to handloaders in bulk quantities.
This high-density product (18 grams per cubic centimeter) is one of the heaviest materials in terms of individual pellet density that can be fired from a smooth bore. While the final packaging and other marketing materials were still in development during testing, I was able to obtain some of the first finished loads.
Live-fire testing of the new ammunition involved two loads. The first being a new 3-inch 12-gauge Heavyweight No. 9 TSS with FliteControl FLEX wad system, along with a 410 TSS No. 9 shot load.
With a pellet density of 18, this shot comes within just two points of doubling the density of pure black lead shot. In other words, a No. 9 pellet will do the work of a No. 5 lead-shot pellet, but with a much greater pattern-filling pellet count. (The pellet density on target was much like a handful of black pepper)
Testing the No. 9 pellets in the new 3-inch 12-gauge turkey load variant indicated that penetration in ballistic gelatin at 40 yards was 2.5 times the penetration depth as that of standard lead shot of the same pellet size.
It required a No. 5 plated lead-shot pellet to get close to the penetration of the No. 9 TSS product. Federal TSS is without question one of the deadliest payloads ever put in a factory-loaded shotshell.
Being a real fan of the .410, I found it totally fascinating to see that at 30 yards the 3-inch 410 load of No. 9 shot destroyed a Birchwood Casey head and neck gobbler target with a total clustered up pellet contact count of 54 hits from a Browning BPS with the Invector Plus full choke.
When pushed back to 40 yards, the same gun/load returned an average of 27 pellet hits using a three-shot average, which stays with many standard lead-shot turkey loads.
With the 3-inch 12 gauge in TSS No. 9 shot, the results at 40 yards were flat out nuts to watch. When the pattern board was hit, the stakes pulled loose from the ground. The pellet count was 56 hits, but I had actually missed to the left, and the main mass of shot left the upper left corner shot totally away.
The load was awesome to the point that Federal is including TSS shot in its 3rd Degree load, along with the FliteControl FLEX wad.
Heavyweight TSS loads will be available in both No. 9 and No. 7 sizes, and Federal Premium will still be producing its budget-price Grand Slam load, with the FliteControl wad, featuring copper-plated lead.
The technology of turkey loads has soared. Who knows what the future holds?