How to Pattern Your Turkey Shotgun

You sure you want to take a shot at that turkey? Not all shotguns, shotshells and shooters are created equal.

How to Pattern Your Turkey Shotgun

Photo courtesy of Howard Communications

No ethical hunter would buy a new .30-06, slap a scope on it, buy bullets and take the combination afield without first sighting it in. However, each year, scores of shotguns find their way into the turkey woods, their owner/operator ignorant of how that particular firearm performs when the trigger is pulled.

We owe it to ourselves as hunters to be completely familiar with all of our gear. And, first and foremost, we owe it to the resource.

Patterning takes time, effort, money and commitment, but when that longbeard steps out of the scrub oak at 36 steps and drops out of strut it’s worth it. Every round. Every bit of recoil. It’s all worth it.

SHOTGUNS

Do you need a so-called turkey shotgun in order to kill a turkey? If you’re looking for a reason to buy a new firearm, the answer is yes. The truth of the matter, though, is you don’t. Any shotgun is capable of killing a turkey. However, it’s important to remember that every gun has its limitations.


Today, as we’ve done for years now, my wife, Julie, and I carry one of three shotguns into the Spring woods. These include:


  • Remington M870 Youth Model 20 gauge with a 20-inch barrel, Red Dot scope and Hunter’s Specialties Undertaker choke tube. Ammunition: Winchester Xtended Range 3-inch No. 5 shot.
  • Beretta AL390 Silver Mallard 12 gauge with a 24-inch barrel, Burris Speed Bead and Beretta Extra-Full turkey choke. Ammunition: Winchester High Velocity 1 3/4-ounce No. 5 lead.
  • Knight TK-2000 muzzleloading shotgun with fiber-optic (iron) sights and Knight Extra-Full choke tube. Ammunition: 90 grains of Triple Seven powder, Ballistic Products steel shot wad and 1 3/4 ounces of No. 7 Hevi-Shot pellets.

The above shotguns, with the exception of the TK-2000, are lightweight and well-balanced. The TK-2000 is neither of these. However, what it lacks in comfort, it more than makes up for in lethality. All three shotguns are reliable, durable, accurate and extremely consistent in their on-target performance. Each, too, can be easily and inexpensively customized in terms of stocks, slings, sights, paint schemes and other variables.

CHOKE TUBES

Quality choke tubes are expensive, running from $40 to $100 or more. So how do you afford to try a dozen at the range? Well, you don’t. You start with the tubes that came with your shotgun. Perhaps surprising, the Modified, Full or Extra-Full tubes that came with that shotgun might just prove to be the one that performs best. But maybe not. I’d suggest searching the internet to see which tubes come highly recommended and which might be best avoided. Remember, though, every shotgun is different. Two seemingly identical Berettas with seemingly identical choke tubes may very well shoot differently; sometimes, radically differently. With choke tubes, it’s often a matter of making the very best guess as to which one.

AMMUNITION

Ammunition is the least-expensive variable in the equation. Let’s start with shot size, the most common being No. 4 through No. 6, with No. 5, I’d venture to say, the most popular. With No. 5, you have a higher pellet count, and thus increased pattern density, than you would with No. 4. And with No. 5 shot, you have higher kinetic energy than with No. 6 shot.

PatternTurkey
Turkey loads, such as Winchester Long Beard XR, have improved thanks to developments in shot, wads and buffers, but patterning is still necessary. (Photo courtesy of Winchester)

Lead is fine; in fact, lead works wonderfully. I shoot non-toxics because I obtained shotshells like Xtended Range (discontinued) and Hevi-Shot when they were still affordable; I still have plenty of them. Plus, they’re what I patterned our shotguns with and they work incredibly well. That said, lead (where legal) works, especially modern lead shotshells that move fast, hit hard and incorporate innovative wad designs.


SIGHTS

My rule on shotguns used for turkey hunting and sights is simple. If you’re going to turn a shotgun into the equivalent of a centerfire rifle, then you’re going to have to replace that traditional single front bead with something more conducive to accurate shooting. Iron sights, fiber optics, Red Dot, Holosight, glass-filled scope; I don’t care what it is, as long as it can be adjusted and you shoot it well.

STEPS AND TIPS

  • Step 1: Gather the shotgun (or shotguns), choke tubes, and ammunition. Experiment with both 2 3/4- and 3-inch shotshells, in shot sizes from No. 4 to No. 6. You’ll also need targets, cardboard backing and a target stand. I use two types of targets: one, a simple 30-inch piece of white butcher paper with a large black dot (aiming point) in the center, and Birchwood Casey’s Shoot-N-C turkey targets. Finally, a gun vise, sandbag or other gun rest, hearing and eye protection, plus a shoulder-saver pad like the PAST Recoil Pad.
  • Step 2: With the butcher-paper target at a measured 30 yards and your shotgun in a secure rest (as though sighting in your deer rifle) begin shooting combinations of ammunition and choke tubes. What you’re looking for is pattern density and consistency, as in which combination of shot charge, shot size, hull length, velocity and choke tube delivers a dense, uniform pattern with every shot.
  • Step 3: It’s very likely that this consistently dense portion of the pattern with Combination ‘A’ isn’t on target. Rather, it’s six inches right and five inches low, let’s say. Now, adjust the sights using this densest part of the pattern as you would a rifle bullet.
  • Step 4: Once you’ve determined a consistent producer and adjust your sights, if necessary, fire several rounds at distances from 15 to 50 yards to determine how this combination performs at short, middle and long distances. The distance where the pattern falls apart, or is no longer consistently dense, determines that combination’s maximum effective range.

This step gives you time, also, to practice judging distance. What is 30 yards? What does 45 yards look like? How does 45 yards look different standing versus seated? Patterning, like a precise centerfire rifle zero, counts for little if the range is a wild guess.

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