May 08, 2023
Turkey hunters often disagree about what delivers the best results on birds. The gauge question is the easiest to answer. A 12-gauge shotshell contains more shot than a 16- or 20-gauge, or a .410-bore, and the more shot you throw at a turkey, the better your chances of killing it. That, as they say, is pretty much settled science. But when it comes to the best shotgun loads and chokes for killing turkeys, things quickly get cloudy ... and complicated.
Following the gauge logic, you could argue that small shot is better than large shot. This is because when shells with the same weight payload are compared, the shell with the smallest shot size will contain the most shot. A single No. 7 lead shot pellet is .10 inch in diameter and weighs about 1.53 grains. A single lead pellet of No. 5 shot will be .12 inch in diameter and weigh about 2.57 grains. With a 1 3/4-ounce payload, you’ll have about 500 pellets of No. 7 shot and about 300 pellets of No. 5 shot. You could say there’s a 66 percent greater chance of hitting and killing the turkey with the No. 7 shot.
However, it’s not all about the number of pellets. Let’s assume both loads are traveling at the same velocity. Since both payloads weigh the same—1 3/4 ounces—the total energy on target would be the same for each. But for that to occur, every pellet must hit the turkey.
That’s not going to happen, so we must compute the energy for individual pellets. A single No. 7 lead pellet at 900 fps will have only 2.8 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. A single No. 5 lead pellet will have 4.6 foot-pounds. Neither is very much, but—surprisingly—at 25 yards it’s enough for both to pierce a turkey’s small brain.
Let’s look at it more practically. Assume that at 25 yards your shotgun will put 10 No. 5 lead pellets into a 2-inch circle, which is about the size of a turkey’s head. Returning to our mathematical guess, the No. 7 shot load should put 66 percent more—or 16 pellets—into that 2-inch circle. The 10 No. 5 pellets will deliver about 46 foot-pounds of kinetic energy to the turkey’s head, and the 16 No. 7 pellets will hit with about 45 foot-pounds. This would suggest that all turkey loads are about the same, at least regarding how hard they hit. But it gets more complicated.
A single pellet of No. 7 TSS shot weighs 2.36 grains, which is substantially more than a single pellet of No. 7 lead shot. This means that a single pellet of No. 7 TSS will hit almost as hard as a single pellet of No. 5 lead shot, and would suggest that No. 7 TSS is better than No. 7 lead, right?
Well, maybe. Because TSS pellets weigh more, there are less of them in that 1 3/4-ounce payload. There will be about 324 No. 7 TSS pellets in a 1 3/4-ounce payload as compared to about 500 No. 7 lead pellets. TSS shot is heavier and hits harder, but when like payloads and pellet sizes are compared, there’s fewer TSS pellets available to hit the target. Of course, since 324 No. 7 TSS pellets take up less room than 500 No. 7 lead pellets, you could go with a heavier payload in the same size shell.
To further complicate things, let’s look at penetration potential. Penetration is dictated by velocity, weight and the diameter of the pellet. Given the same velocity, a No. 7 TSS pellet will penetrate deeper than a No. 7 lead pellet because it weighs more, and a No. 7 TSS pellet will penetrate deeper than a No. 5 lead pellet because it weighs about the same but is smaller in diameter.
You might kill your turkeys just fine with lead shot—and many do—but if you talk to any experienced turkey hunter, they’ll tell you TSS shot kills turkeys deader.
Of course, we’re just scratching the surface of this conundrum. We haven’t even talked about copper-plated lead pellets, and ammo makers offer turkey loads with various sizes of TSS. Federal’s 3rd Degree 12-gauge turkey load has a 2-ounce payload of No. 5 copper-plated lead, No. 6 FliteStopper lead and No. 7 TSS! How does that compare to straight No. 7 lead or No. 7 TSS? I have no idea. It surely sounds wicked, but to make any practical assumption, the pattern from your shotgun must be brought into play.
Chokes work by constricting the shot column as it exits the barrel. A standard full choke, which is generally the least restrictive used for turkeys, constricts the shot into an exit diameter of about .685 inch. Mossberg’s XX Full choke tube has an opening of about .670. By comparison, one of my Carlson aftermarket choke tubes is even more restrictive at about .660. More restriction typically means tighter patterns, but that’s not always the case because shotguns are, well, shotguns and sometimes seem to have a mind of their own.
Look at the two side-by-side targets in the image below and you can see that the Carlson choke tube provides a tighter pattern. And that ragged hole in the center is what modern turkey hunters lust for in their patterns. But is it better?
Well sure it is, but only if that hole centers the turkey’s head or neck. The pattern from the Mossberg XX Full choke covers about twice as much area, with reasonably consistent shot distribution. This gives you some room for error if you shoot poorly or if the turkey moves.
PATTERNS AND SUCH
What can you do with all this knowledge? Get a collection of turkey loads and start patterning and zeroing your shotgun. Will McGuire, a West Virginia game warden and the best turkey hunter I know, suggests this should be done at 40 yards. He likes to see—as an absolute minimum—at least 50 pellets inside a 10-inch circle, but he prefers double and even four times that many.
Counting pellets is a pain in the neck, about as much as shooting a bunch of different turkey loads is a pain in the shoulder. I do it differently. I take a lid from a bottle that’s about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and try to place it anywhere in the densest 10-inch area of the pattern so that it does not cover a pellet hole. When I reach the distance where I cannot cover a hole, that’s my maximum range.
The final step is to then adjust the shotgun’s sight so that the center of that dense portion of the pattern hits where you’re aiming. When you do this, you’ll have a near equal amount of shot in each quadrant of your target. Yeah, you might have to count the holes to be sure, but you can do that while you’re taking pain medication and icing your shoulder. No, it’s not rocket science, but no one ever said it was easy.