Decades ago, conventional wisdom ruled turkey hunting: Don’t yelp to a roosted gobbler, don’t call too much in general, and never shoot at a turkey farther than 40 steps.
Times have changed.
Modern turkey nuts enjoy many innovations, including pop-up blinds, ultra-realistic decoys and YouTube calling videos.
But the greatest advancements might involve shooting. Modern shotguns, chokes and shotshells have combined to dramatically increase the effective range at which hunters can kill gobblers. In fact, when viewing social media images of ultra-dense patterns or hearing claims of long-distance shots, many folks wonder if 60 yards has become the new turkey-shooting benchmark.
Experts agree that, given the right equipment, hunters can increase their effective turkey killing range. However, they caution that shooters must take the correct steps to reach that level.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Rewind 30 or so years, when turkeys and turkey hunting were expanding and increasing across much of the country. Hunters typically toted general-purpose shotguns loaded with heavy upland shotshells or heavier-payload variants. Chokes ranged from fixed-barrel full chokes to early tubes that were essentially extra-full constrictions. And sights were pretty much restricted to a rib and bead. Naturally, hunters quickly realized that 40 yards was a good general guideline for the effective range of most gun, load and choke combos.
Fast-forward to 2019. Knowledge about shotshell ballistics has increased, and manufacturing techniques have progressed exponentially, letting turkey hunters fine-tune their guns into killing machines.
“Precision-made chokes really started to grab the attention of turkey hunters when they saw the types of patterns their off-the-shelf shotguns could throw using premium ammunition and a well-made choke tube,” said Clark Bush, a turkey hunter and competition still-target shooter who operates allaboutshooting.com. “The patterns were so much better than they had been just a few years before that demand for premium choke tubes often exceeded supply from major companies. That lack of product allowed many smaller companies to step in with their chokes and become well known in their own right.”
Meanwhile, as early precision choke tubes caught on, gun makers began producing turkey-specific shotguns with better sighting options, including scopes and red-dots. Likewise, shotshell manufacturers began making turkey-specific loads. Most of those offerings featured lead shot, but as heavier-than-lead options — most of which were tungsten-based — became available, hunters and manufacturers quickly realized they could attain another rung of performance.
“Hevi-Shot changed everything,” Bush said. “It had more retained energy than lead at 40 yards and patterned much tighter than traditional lead loads. It also spurred the big three — Winchester, Remington and Federal — to produce their own versions of heavier-than-lead shotshells.”
The shotshell revolution might have hit its zenith recently, as reloaders began experimenting with tungsten super shot, or TSS, which has a density of about 18 grams per cubic centimeter, compared to about 11 for lead and 12 for Hevi-Shot. The increased density retains velocity, and the hardness prevents pellet deformation, which improves pattern efficiency and penetration. Further, a smaller TSS pellet will deliver the same amount of energy of much larger lead shot.
“A No. 9 Heavyweight TSS pellet carries at least as much penetration energy as a No. 5 lead pellet at all ranges,” said Dan Compton, product line manager for shotshells with Federal Premium Ammunition, which offers several commercial TSS loads. “This means you can greatly increase the pellet count of a payload by using a smaller shot size but penetrate as much or more because of the increased density. Overall pattern densities are increased, so there are more hits on the target.”
So, 21st century turkey hunters have it all: turkey-specific shotguns with multiple sighting options, coupled with precision CNC-manufactured chokes in every constriction and a broad selection of premium lead and heavier-than-lead shotshells. But the question remains: How do you use that gear to increase your effective turkey killing range?
PUTTING EVERYTHING TOGETHER
Bush said hunters won’t find any shortcuts to attaining thick patterns at longer distances. Basically, you must experiment with various gun, choke and load combinations to see what works.
“I shoot a number of different turkey guns, and the only way that I have found to judge the performance of a particular gun, choke and shotshell is to take those ingredients to the range and see how they perform,” he said.
Some general patterning guidelines apply. You want at least 100 pellet hits within a 10-inch circle, and the farthest distance at which you achieve that is your maximum effective range. Most modern choke and shotshell combinations will produce far better patterns at 40 yards or farther, but 100 hits in a 10-inch circle is a good starting point.
Chokes with tighter constrictions usually produce tighter patterns. That doesn’t always hold true, however, as chokes that are too tight for a specific load can create fliers or holes that decrease pattern performance. Generally, smaller shot sizes work best with tighter chokes. Larger shot, such as No. 4 lead, often performs better with chokes that are somewhat looser. Heavier-than-lead loads also typically perform better with moderately tight chokes. However, because TSS loads often feature much smaller shot, such as No. 9s, you can choke those loads down more.
Choke tubes sometimes come with cryptic designations, such as “turkey full.” It’s better to know the actual constriction of a tube when testing it. For example, a .655-constriction 12-gauge choke is quite tight, whereas a .675 tube — the standard for years with heavier-than-lead shot — is considered moderate.
Don’t just take the choke constriction at face value, though. Some shotguns have larger bore sizes, such as .742 inch in 12-gauge compared to the standard .729 inch.
What’s important is the actual amount of choke constriction: the choke’s inside diameter subtracted from the bore diameter. That is, a .660-constriction tube chokes a standard .729-inch 12-gauge barrel by .069 inch but tightens a .742-bore-diameter 12-gauge by a whopping .08 inch. For comparison, .05 inch of constriction is typically considered super-full.
Bottom line: If your shotgun has a larger-than-standard bore diameter, you might consider backing off the choke constriction a bit.
With all that in mind, hit the range, and run several types of shotshells through various choke tubes. That can be expensive if you go solo, so consider banding together with some buddies and sharing the cost of those tubes and loads. After a few rounds, some great combinations should emerge, and you’ll likely find some solid long-range medicine.
One caveat: A combination that throws good long-range patterns usually shoots incredibly tight at close ranges. It’s tough to cheat physics, but hunters can compensate for tight patterns by aiming lower — below the wattles or the upper chest — at birds that suddenly appear 15 to 20 steps away. Or, consider using a double-barreled shotgun with one tightly choked barrel for long shots and an open choke for close work.
A QUESTION OF RANGE
But what of the assertion that 60 yards is the new 40? Veteran hunters agree that having a gun, choke and load capable of killing a turkey at 60 steps doesn’t give hunters a green light to try.
“There is a big difference in shooting at paper targets and shooting at live turkeys,” Bush said. “Normally, paper targets don’t duck just as you pull the trigger. A live turkey can be a very unpredictable target. He also deserves the respect that we as hunters should give to any wild game. The head and neck of a turkey comprise the kill zone, and that kill zone is very small at 40 yards, let alone any distance beyond that. Even if the tools that we use are capable of killing a turkey at ranges beyond 40 yards, that does not mean the shooter has the ability to use those tools at that distance. We as hunters must always ask ourselves if the shot we are taking will cleanly and humanely kill the turkey.”
And J.J. Reich, of Federal Premium, said even TSS shooters must use common sense in the woods.“Extreme long-range shots would require a lot of practice and good sighting systems or optics,” he said. “It’s best to stick to the ranges such as 50 yards and closer for most hunters’ skills.”
Let’s acknowledge, though, that hunters sometimes misjudge distances and shoot at birds farther than they might realize. In such cases, long-range combinations help deliver lethal patterns. Also, they refine and improve patterns and energy at standard turkey hunting distances, making sure every shot results in a swift, clean kill. No one can argue with that.