Turkey Shotgun Patterning Data

Five types of ammo through five chokes—more than 100 shells fired.

Dan Suiter | February 1, 2024

Turkey hunters are among the most passionate about enhancing and protecting the resource—wild turkeys. Every turkey hunter should pattern their shotgun, but even for those who have, the author’s extensive research is eye-opening and informative.

I missed the first turkey I ever shot at. It was 1995, and it would be another eight years before I killed my first one. Turkeys are merciless teachers. I’d come home and complain to my wife and tell her I was quitting and was going to sell my gun. She’d just laugh and ask what time I was getting up the next morning.

“Four o’clock,” I’d tell her.

Those eight years made me a better, more appreciative hunter as I’m on the cusp of entering my fourth decade of turkey hunting. Turkey hunting is a pursuit where you get better with experience because your woodmanship and decision-making gets better. It’s not all about calling. Although some get close, no one truly masters turkey hunting. There will always be a turkey that’ll whip your butt. Been there, done that and wasted half a season on a single gobbler—and he won. The turkey gods (and experienced turkey hunters) chuckle at cocky turkey hunters because we know that they’re bigger liars than fishermen.

Why Pattern Your Gun For Turkeys? You’ve worked hard and spent a lot of time in the woods to get a gobbler close. So, when the time comes you owe it to yourself, and the turkey, to kill it cleanly. Crippling one is unacceptable. The longbeard that you’ve gotten close enough to shoot at represents hundreds of turkey eggs that never got to that stage. In the Southeast turkey decline is real. Ask any hardcore turkey hunter or biologist who studies the topic. Properties that manage for wildlife may produce huntable numbers locally, but in most of the Southeast turkey numbers have declined over the past several decades. Bottom line—you need to make your shot count by knowing what your set up can (and cannot) do.

What I Did To Pattern My Gun: I recently purchased a new 12-gauge Benelli SBE III and put a red dot sight on it. I then patterned five different types of 3-inch ammunition through five different chokes. I shot three rounds of each ammo type through each choke at 40 yards onto a 10 1/2 square foot piece of tar paper in order to catch the whole pattern. A 20-inch diameter ring was then placed over the tar paper in a manner that captured, visually, the majority of the pattern, and the ring was then marked with a pencil. The number of pellet holes inside the ring was counted. I chose ammo that was as close to 2 ounces of No. 6 shot as possible (my preferred ammo type). Details on ammo and choke are in Table 1. By the end of this project I had shot about 100 3-inch magnum shells and counted more than 32,000 pellet holes in tar paper.

What I Learned: Ammo type was very important. Among all five chokes and both Winchester ammo types, there was an average of 320 to 365 pellets inside the 20-inch circle, and there was little difference between these two ammo types for any choke (Table 2). Excluding the Kick’s choke/Hevi-18 TSS ammo combination (average of 311 pellets), no other choke/ammo combination placed an average of more than 299 pellets in the 20-inch circle.

When combining all chokes, the average number of pellets between the two Winchester ammo types (Table 2, Column Averages) was separated by just one pellet—345 pellets for Winchester 1 7/8 and 344 pellets for Winchester 1 3/4. The average number of pellets for Hevi-18 TSS, HeviBlend, and FedGSlam was 297, 274 and 213.

I defined pattern tightness as the percentage of pellets, in a shotgun shell, that were inside the 20-inch circle (Table 3). This number was calculated by dividing the number of pellets inside the 20-inch circle by the average number of pellets in the shell. To determine the number of pellets in a shell I opened three shells of each ammo type and counted the pellets (Table 1). Both types of Winchester ammo and the Hevi-18 TSS patterned tightly through each of the five chokes. Among all five chokes Winchester 1 7/8 placed 75.6% to 86.2% of pellets in the 20-inch circle; Winchester 1 3/4 placed 78.9% to 83.7%; and Hevi-18 TSS placed 81.7% to 88.6%. No other choke/ammo combination placed more than 63.1% of pellets in the 20-inch circle. When combining all chokes (Table 3, Column Averages), Winchester 1 7/8, Winchester 1 3/4, and Hevi-18 TSS placed 81.6%, 81.0%, and 84.5% of their pellets inside the 20-inch circle. HeviBlend and FedGSlam never exceeded 60%.

Choke was not very important. The choke constrictions I used (660 to 687) had little impact on the average number of pellets placed inside the 20-inch circle—with one exception. The Kick’s choke placed a greater average number of pellets in the 20-inch circle than the other four chokes in four of the five ammo types (Table 2).

Look at the Row Averages in Table 2. These are the average number of pellets inside the 20-inch circle from 15 rounds (three rounds of each of the five types of ammo) shot through each choke. Four of the five averages are separated by just two pellets (290 to 292). Again, the Kick’s choke was the outlier and placed an average of 307 pellets in the circle. Think about this for a second—I shot the same 15 rounds through each choke and the average number of pellets in the 20-inch circle for four of the five chokes was separated by just two pellets!

More evidence that choke was not all that important is provided by looking at the Row Averages of Table 3. Again, when combining all types of ammo (15 rounds) the average pattern tightness of four of the five chokes was separated by just one-half of one percent (71.8% to 72.3%). Once again, the Kick’s choke was the best at an overall average pattern tightness of 76.2%.

Thoughts on TSS: Hevi-18 TSS No. 7 shotgun shells patterned the tightest of all five ammo types, but there were fewer pellets inside the 20-inch Hevi-18 circle compared to either Winchester ammo. Why? It’s because of the weight of TSS. One No. 7 TSS pellet weighs 161 milligrams while a Winchester No. 6 pellet weighs 125 milligrams (I weighed individual pellets). A No. 7 pellet is smaller than a No. 6 pellet, but it weighs 29% MORE! There are fewer TSS pellets inside the 20-inch circle because there are about 73 fewer pellets in the shell to begin with when compared to either Winchester ammo (Table 1). It takes fewer pellets, of a heavy pellet, to make up two total ounces of shot. There are fewer pellets in the No. 7 TSS round even though the TSS pellets are smaller and the TSS load (2 ounces.) is greater than either Winchester load (1 7/8 and 1 3/4 ounces).

The advantage of TSS is that it buys hunters a little yardage because TSS pellets are heavier than non-TSS pellets of roughly the same size. For example, a No. 7 TSS pellet is 36 milligrams heavier than a No. 6 copper-plated lead pellet (Table 1). The energy of a flying pellet (called kinetic energy) is a function of its weight and speed, and energy upon arrival determines killing potential—ability to penetrate a turkey’s skull or the vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord—the “kill zone” of a turkey. For fast-moving, heavy objects (No. 7 TSS) the energy dissipates more slowly than for pellets that weigh less so that the energy required by a pellet to penetrate bone is likely to be sufficient at further distances for the heavier pellet.

Limitations To TSS: Even though Hevi-18 No. 7 TSS patterns really tightly (84.5%) at 40 yards, there are about 21% fewer pellets in the shell (compared to Winchester ammo) and at distances greater than 40 yards the pellets continue to scatter (pattern tightness declines) so that there will be fewer pellets, each with less energy (they’re also slowing down), in the kill zone. To immobilize a turkey you must put pellets in the soft, neurological tissue of the brain or spinal cord, and both are protected by bone. For these reasons I would not recommend that you shoot at turkeys at exceedingly long distances, with any ammo type, because of the increased chance of landing non-lethal pellets—i.e., pellets that land but don’t penetrate bone.

If you shoot at a turkey and he flies away, that doesn’t necessarily mean you missed. At long distances there’s still a chance that you landed non-lethal pellets (especially with No. 9s) that might get infected, blind the turkey, or cause blood loss—all conditions that will kill him days or weeks later. There are 253 more pellets in a No. 9 TSS round compared to a No. 7 TSS round (Table 1), but because they weigh almost half of what a No. 7 TSS pellet weighs they carry roughly half the energy at the same distance. Just because you can put holes in a piece of paper with TSS from a really long distance does not mean that same shot is sufficient to immobilize a 20-lb. turkey at that distance. If in doubt show trigger discipline, let him walk, and hunt him another day.

Thoughts On Choke: The reason we purchase a turkey full choke is that we assume it will pattern more tightly than the standard full choke that came with our gun, thereby increasing our chances of landing multiple fatal pellets when we shoot at a turkey. In my study, I saw few differences in the performance of the five chokes, with the exception of the Kick’s 660 (see the Row Averages in Tables 2 and 3). My Standard Full choke (687) performed about as well as two of the other 660 chokes and the 665 choke.

Pattern Your Gun: It’s important that you catch the whole pattern when you shoot your gun by shooting onto a large (3×4 foot) target from 40 yards. Don’t judge anything you’re evaluating (ammo, choke or gun) by just the number of pellets that land on a small sheet of paper. You can only make legitimate comparisons by looking at the number of pellet holes inside a circle—say 10- or 20-inch diameter. The process is fun, and you’ll be amazed at the differences you find. Happy hunting.

About the Author: Dan Suiter is the Orkin Professor of Urban Entomology at the University of Georgia. He grew up hunting ducks on Lake Okeechobee. He shot his first wild game (a male hooded merganser) when he was 7 years old in the cypress ponds along Beeline Highway near the Corbett Area WMA in Palm Beach county, Fla. This article is Dan’s first contribution to GON.

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