As a turkey hunter, it is the responsibility of the hunter to make an ethical shot for the swiftest kill. The most important thing every turkey hunter should know before entering the woods is the performance of their shotgun, choke and ammunition combination. The only way to know this is to pattern that shotgun before the hunt.
Importance of a Dense Shot Pattern
The goal of every turkey hunter is to have a shotgun pattern that will place the most pellets within the kill range. By placing the density of the shot within a ten-inch center shot, there exists the highest probability, if not a guarantee, of killing a turkey. Several factors come into play when trying to obtain the ultimate shot pattern for a turkey hunting shotgun.
Understanding Choke Constriction
The standard 12-gauge shotgun bore diameter ranges from .725 to .745 inches in diameter depending on the manufacturer. In earlier days, shotgun bores were constricted by the manufacturer of the gun with a smaller bore diameter; commonly called a fixed choke. More modern day guns are designed to use interchangeable choke systems. Typically they are: Skeet (SKT), Cylinder (CYL), Improved Cylinder (IC), Modified (MOD), Full (F) and Extra-Full (XF). There are also a variety of specialty chokes for steel shot, Hevi-Shot, Tungsten, predator chokes designed for large shot pellet and even high-quality choke tubes designed to reduce gun barrel stress and withstand a high number of consecutive shots for competitive shooting sports.
Interchangeable chokes give a hunter an advantage by constricting the shotgun bore to change the shot pattern and extend the range of that shot. Whereas with an open choke or an improperly constricted choke, a shotgun may only have a 25-30 yard range because of the rapid spread of the shot and loss of energy. When the perfect constriction is used, the effectiveness can easily be doubled or more as the shot is held together longer before the pattern spreads. Chokes designed for turkey hunting shotguns can range from .680 to .650 constrictions.
When considering a choke for a turkey shotgun, it helps to remember that choke constriction is measured in increments of .005 of an inch, in other words, five thousandths of an inch. It may be easier to remember the larger the number, the bigger the diameter resulting in less constriction. An extremely tight choke can have a negative effect by adversely distorting the pattern quality. This is the result of the constriction causing the pellets to collide harshly, especially lead or softer pellets, which results in deformed pellets and erratic flight.
Test the Shotgun Pattern
For most turkey hunters, the typical method of patterning a shotgun has been hanging up an 8.5”x11” paper target with a printed turkey head, ranging off 30-yards, and then taking a freehand shot at that target only to be satisfied with at least half a dozen or more pellets in the neck bone, nerves, or head that would result in a real world lethal shot. This works reasonably fair, especially for a shotgun that shoots near to or the true center. The shotgun that doesn’t shoot true center needs more fine-tuning for an optimal pattern. It is critical to know a shotgun’s center shot. Very few shotguns come right out of the box or off the shelf shooting true center.
Testing the shotgun’s true center and the pattern of the ammo and choke combo can be done in one initial shot for an evaluation. As with any range time, use protective hearing, protective eyewear and treat the shotgun as if it were loaded at all times. Only put one shell in before each shot. It is imperative to shoot the shotgun off of a solid gun rest or bench and to use ranged yardage; don’t guess at the yardage. Use a piece of paper that is approximately 30”x30” and place an aim point the center with a mark or crosshair sticker. The standard for testing the performance of the combination of choke tube and ammo downrange has been 70% of the shot in a 30” circle at 40 yards. The goal is to obtain the proper constriction for the densest shot pattern without a lot of stray pellets.
With the 12-gauge Beretta A400 Xtreme test shotgun, using a JEBs .655 choke, shooting Winchester Long Beard XR 3.5”, 2-ounce, #6 shot – the target displayed 90% of the shot in a 20” circle and 55-60% of the shot in the 10” circle at an accurately measured 40 yard distance. Prior to employing the method of patterning a shotgun described within this article, this same shotgun with a .680 specialty choke, custom made by another manufacturer specifically for the ammo used, resulted in approximately 55% of the shot in a 20” circle with less than 25% in the 10” circle. I am sure you would agree that the odds are much more admirable with only losing about 36 pellets outside the 20” circle at 40 yards.
The best method for analyzing a shotgun’s true pattern is to shoot off of the solid rest at the center mark on the 30”x30” paper, placing the “X” so that it is floating just above the top of your bead on your barrel, or correctly for whatever sight system you are using for the particular shotgun being used. It is important to make sure you are looking flat down the rail of the shotgun to make sure the elevation is true.
After making the shot, view the shot pattern on the paper. Locate the densest area of the shot and use a Tupperware lid or some other 10” round template to draw a circle around the densest area of the shot with a Sharpie. At this point don’t be too concerned about how far off the 10” circle is from being the center of the “X” mark.
Take the Sharpie or marker and count the number of shots by marking them as you count. Note the amount of shot in the 10” ring. Then proceed to draw a 20” ring around the 10” circle. Continue the count of those beads within the 20” ring. Note the amount of shot in the 20” ring.
It is not important to count any shot outside of the 20” ring because the approximate pellet count per shot shell is known and simple subtraction can give us that number. You can find a great reference of the different shot count per type of shot shell by multiplying the ounce of your shot by the figure in this table. For instance:
- A 2-ounce #6 lead shot shell has approximately 225 pellets per ounce, a total of approximately 450 pellets.
- A 2-ounce #5 lead shot shell has approximately 170 pellets per ounce, a total of approximately 340 pellets.
Improving Shot Density
One of the most misunderstood perceptions of choke constriction is: “tighter chokes are always more effective,” but for a shotgun being used for turkey hunting, this is not the case. It is too easy to buy a tightly constricted choke or a specialty choke for turkey hunting labeled for a particular shotgun, screw it into the barrel of the shotgun and rely on it to be an effective pattern for an ethical kill. The issue is that the choke can actually be too constricted for the shot being used. This causes the pellets to collide harshly upon exiting the barrel, deforming the pellets, resulting in an erratic shot pattern.
The most effective way to improve the density of a shot pattern is to find the suitable choke and ammo combination for your shotgun. The pattern can change considerably between shot size and brand with the same choke. Finding the perfect constriction often takes trying a couple different specialty chokes of different constrictions with varying brand and size ammo. This can get expensive, but usually, if you find a good, reputable choke company, they will allow you to return a choke for a different constriction if you feel you do not have the correct choke. It can also be helpful to ask around on social media or forums of those that may shoot the same shotgun as to what choke and shot combination they use and ask about its performance. Of course, keep in mind that rarely the same brand shotguns will shoot the same pattern even with the identical set up, but it is a great starting place.
Centering the Shot
Once satisfied with the density of the shot in a 10” and 20” circle, it is essential to center the shot to get the ultimate pattern. There are several ways to center the shot of that particular shotgun that is not shooting center. The easiest and cheapest method is the Kentucky Windage method—remembering to shoot high, low, left or right of true center. However, for many reasons, this is not suggested and usually a final straw for those that simply do not know how or don’t want to spend the money to remedy the issue. The most economical way to actually get a shotgun to shoot true center is to add a Front and Rear Sight Set such as that of a HiViz Four-In-One Front and Rear Shotgun Sight Set that consists of a front fiber optic LitePipe and a fully adjustable two-dot rear sight. The adjustable windage and elevation can easily be adjusted to correct the shotgun’s center shot.
A more expensive approach is to add a scope to the shotgun that is specifically made for shotguns such as the LeupoldVX-2 1-4x20mm scope. There really are not many cons with this type scope except you have to get accustomed to quickly acquiring your target in the field of view if you are looking at the target over your gun and not through the scope. Condensation can also build up in the scope lens on particularly humid mornings.
A red dot aiming system is another scope system that can offer low light capabilities, but it is a little more expensive. Red dot sights such as the Aimpoint Micro H-1 are the perfect turkey hunting shotgun sights and offer a range of brightness on the floating red dot reticle. The eye relief is a lot more flexible with this style aiming system versus a scope. There are only a few cons with this type system: parts can break, the battery can die in the field and/or the glass can fog up on the ocular and objection lenses. As with a scope, this type system is very accurate but requires a little tweaking.
If you do not want to rely on a scope or red dot sight, a permanent, yet adjustable repair would be Gunsmithing. There are several methods a gunsmith can use to fit a gun to a shooter and tweaking the fit for the shot to shoot center. A few of these methods are the twisting of the stock, adding a comb, or torquing the shotgun barrel to make up the difference in the windage.
Shotgun chokes may be the most misunderstood concept when it comes to turkey hunting. The key to any successful turkey hunt is calling a bird within shooting range and having a shotgun that can deliver the ultimate pattern, resulting in a good kill shot, regardless if that turkey bobbled its head 3-5 inches either direction. This success is achieved by ensuring your shotgun has a dense pattern and considerable kinetic energy within the shooter’s comfortable range. Taking it a step further by making sure the shot is the true center from your turkey hunting shotgun can be the difference between a missed bird and a bagged bird.
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