Pattern Your Shotgun For Turkey Hunting Success

Experiment with different chokes and shot sizes to optimize success in the turkey woods.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | February 1, 2006

If I were a newcomer into the turkey-hunting world, my head would explode with all the choices I had when it came to picking out a gun and then trying to find the best loads to produce the most effective pattern on that gun.

If your gun doesn’t produce a good pattern out to 40 yards, you’re wasting your time. Think about how many times you go turkey hunting before you finally get that bird into range — you WMA hunters know exactly what I’m talking about. So, when that bird is finally standing there at 30 steps, you really don’t want to miss. Why not increase your odds of hitting that bird? By taking some time and playing with different chokes and shot sizes, your turkey gun will be optimized for success when that longbeard makes it into range.

Before we get in to the patterning of your gun, I want to go over a little information on picking out a turkey gun. For those of you new to turkey hunting, or if you’re ready to upgrade in the scattergun department, you’ll want to find the right gun for you before making the purchase.

The first turkey I killed was from the end of an old 12-gauge single-barrel shotgun. It was the only gun I had at the time, and I had it patterned at 35 yards and believed it to be a sufficient all-around turkey gun. It was simple and easy. However, after I pulled the trigger on my first gobbler, I realized it wasn’t the turkey gun for me.

Another tom came over and pounced right on top of my flopping bird. I tried to reload, but the second bird quickly turned and headed for the next county. So, even with the happiness of killing my first turkey I had already begun to think about finding a better gun.

The moral of the story is to keep looking for a gun that suits all your needs as a turkey hunter. Everyone has their own idea of what the perfect turkey gun should be and their own reasons for buying a particular one. It is important to understand what makes a true “grade A” turkey gun and what it takes to create it.

The first thing a lot of hunters think about when buying a new gun is the distance a gun can shoot. Personally, I believe there’s too much emphasis on that, especially when considering that 60 percent of all the turkeys I have killed were 35 yards or closer.

However, I will say that distance is important, but equally important when looking to buy a shotgun is comfort and durability.

Before buying the gun you’ll need to consider your style of hunting. If you are one who likes to cover a lot of ground, you might not want to choose one of those heavy 10-gauge guns. While a 10-lb. plus gun may not sound like much at the start of a hunt, it can become quite a burden to tote after a few hours. Also, some birds come in from the side and you’ll have to hold the gun freehand. Doing this for several minutes is almost impossible with a heavy gun.

You should also consider gun length. In the earlier days of turkey hunting before choke tubes were common most folks used guns with barrels exceeding 30 inches. The thought was that the longer barrels yielded greater patterns at greater distances. Today experts believe that the shorter barrels combined with a custom choke will produce tighter and faster results than yesterday’s long-barreled turkey gun.

Also, the shorter the barrel the more flex you have to set up in more concealed locations due to the lesser amount of area needed to swing on a bird if necessary.

I am often asked, “What makes a good turkey gun?” I personally feel that the 12 gauge is the best all-around turkey gun because it encompasses all the ingredients I look for. It hits hard like a 10 gauge, but it’s not as heavy and it consistently delivers a good pattern density at a farther distance than a 16 or 20 gauge.

I also look for a gun that is consistently lethal out to 40 yards. I mentioned earlier that a good turkey gun should have a balance of several factors, but I think it should, above all, yield a good pattern. I’m not speaking primarily about distance either. I am speaking more of pattern density.

Once you choose your gun, it’s time to figure out what to do to make it the best it can be. Most turkey guns on the market today are equipped to accept screw-in chokes. The market has exploded in recent years with these, and the list of manufacturers is a long one.

I have experience with several, including Hastings, Rhino, Mad, Winchester, Gobbling Thunder and Comp-N-Choke. Everyone has their personal preference on chokes, so it’s important to try a few before you lock down on one. No matter how good I think a choke is, I find myself trying new ones because I’ve got to be sure I’m getting the most out of my gun.

The best choke for the money I’ve ever owned is a Hastings. I have been pleased with the others mentioned as well, but for the past five years I’ve been using the Mad choke.

I have tried all these aforementioned chokes in my gun and have enjoyed good results with each. For the past two years I have toyed with the idea of changing over to a Winchester Extra Long Extra Full choke. My wife and my oldest son both use this choke, and I am very impressed with the results. It has a very dense and round pattern and seems to shoot a wider variety of loads consistently well.

What I look for in a pattern is 85 to 90 percent shot density in an 18-inch circle at 40 yards. Having 85 to 90 percent of your shot pattern evenly dispersed inside an 18-inch circle means there’s no way for a turkey head and neck to escape.

Furthermore, if you achieve this type density at 40 yards you will most likely have a little insurance as well. For instance, if you think a bird is standing at 38 yards and he happens to be at 45 yards, you’ll still get him. Only shooting and really getting to know your gun will tell you what kind of insurance policy you have.

When you make it to the gun range, set your target up at 40 yards. You’ll want to tape your target to the middle of a bigger piece of paper to see the gun’s entire pattern. I’ve had luck with a three-foot by three-foot piece of poster board. This will let you see if your pattern is not centered or if your choke is well rounded. If your pattern is hitting off-center and your gun is equipped with adjustable sights, this problem can easily be corrected. If you don’t have adjustable sights you might consider changing chokes or having your choke evened out by a reputable gunsmith. You should consider doing likewise if your pattern isn’t round.

Here again, some chokes are simply not going to perform well in some guns. A choke that produces a dynamite pattern in one gun may have a loose pattern in your buddy’s gun. Even trying different chokes from the same company could produce mixed results. It can be a somewhat complex ordeal. The only way to be sure which choke is best for your gun is to try different ones. It can be a little costly, but I’ll pay some money for the confidence of knowing that a bird at 40 steps is as good as fried.

While experimenting with brands of chokes, pay close attention to the parallel diameter of the choke.

Parallel diameter in a choke defines the size of your pattern. The higher the parallel diameter the wider the pattern. In many on-the-market chokes, a .690 parallel diameter is considered a full choke. I personally have had the best results with a .660 to .665 parallel-diameter choke.

In today’s choke-tube market, you really want to pay close attention to the types of chokes that come with your gun. Only a decade ago when you bought a gun with an extra-full turkey choke you weren’t really getting much more than a regular full choke tube. What many companies were doing were building a choke tube with just a .689 parallel diameter, so a tighter pattern was not even noticeable.

Today’s definition of an extra-full turkey choke is much tighter than a full choke. Some will tell you that a tighter pattern is better, but in my opinion a choke that’s too tight is not a good thing. Compressing that shot too much will cause your success to suffer. Oftentimes these tight chokes will cause the shot to leave the barrel in a Frisbee-like fashion. This will result in holes in your pattern. In other words you may have a great cluster of pellets hit one area and then another great cluster of pellet six inches away, and nearly no pellets in between. Also, it’s easy to miss when you have a pattern that’s too tight. For me I wouldn’t go below a choke with a parallel diameter of .655.

When you’re playing with different chokes on your gun, go ahead and buy a variety of different shotgun shells. Here again we have a flooded market.

All the major shot-shell manufacturers offer their brand of turkey loads, and all of them will perform well, provided they are matched with the right gun and choke. As is the case with chokes, the only way to determine the best brand and load for your gun is to experiment with different ones. Shooting multiple rounds of magnum turkey loads is an unenviable chore but one that must be done if you are to reach your goal.

My two sons and I joined a couple of good friends in a patterning session just prior to last turkey season and decided to try some new loads and chokes. We had a total of eight guns and 11 different chokes. We all tried a variety of chokes and loads in our guns.

We decided to try some new loads that had just hit the market in addition to the loads we had been shooting. We had Remington Hevi-Shot, Winchester High Velocity, Federal Flight Control, and Federal Heavyweight Flight Control. Our shot sizes were fours and sixes.

I had been content with Winchester High Velocity No. 6 shot in the three-inch shell for the past five years, but when the Federal Flight Control and Heavyweight Flight Control shells hit the market, I was curious enough to give them a try.

I was excited to see that the Federal Heavyweight flew as fast as the Winchester High Velocity at 1,300 FPS. I thought that a heavyweight shell that flew that fast with flight control might very well be the one that fulfilled my vision of the perfect pattern. After shooting this shell through several different chokes in three of my guns, I wasn’t exactly sold on it. I also shot the other shells through different chokes and three different guns and decided I still had the best choke and shot for my gun. I didn’t change a thing.

However, just because my choke and my shot selection is right for my gun doesn’t mean it’ll produce equal results in your gun. I can’t emphasis enough that every gun is different, so don’t forget to keep trying different chokes until you’re happy.

The patterns we shot with the new shells didn’t show me enough to change over. I was a little disappointed after all that shooting but was satisfied with my decision to stay with the Winchester High Velocity No. 6 shot. In fact, I was a little relieved that the Heavyweight shot didn’t overly impress me. If they had I suppose I’d be paying nearly three times what I normally pay for a box of turkey loads.

For years I had used No. 4 shot because I believed it provided strong penetrating power than No. 6s. I was convinced by Joe Morales of Rhino chokes to give the, then new, Winchester High velocity No. 6s a try. I argued penetration with him, but he won out in assuring me that the No. 6s would do the job. It took a couple of years to shoot a bird at a considerable distance to prove the point. I finally shot a gobbler at 40 yards and saw firsthand the penetrating power of the Winchester shells. I made a terrible shot on this turkey but upon cleaning the bird I noticed that not only had some of the shot penetrated breast feathers, sponge and meat, it had also penetrated the gobbler’s breast bone and had broken it completely in two. That’s a hard hit at 40 yards.

If what you’re using is working, I wouldn’t change a thing. However, by keeping an open mind about new chokes and shots on the market, you may keep fine-tuning your turkey gun until you get it just right. I’ve always said that going into the turkey woods with a gun you have complete confidence in is just as important as carrying your calls.

Turkey season starts in less than two months. Start “Patterning For Success” today.

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