Patterning a Shotgun for a Successful Turkey Hunt

News & Tips: Patterning a Shotgun for a Successful Turkey Hunt...

Shotgun PatterningA lot of turkey hunters think that to have a successful turkey hunt they must learn how to call superbly and that's all they focus on. In my turkey seminars, I teach that calling is about 10 percent of the puzzle. You also have to learn strategy, camo, decoys and many other details if you want to be successful. Calling is actually only a small part of ensuring that you have a successful turkey hunt. There are many champion callers that can call but they aren't good hunters.

With that being said, a big ingredient in being a successful hunter — and one many hunters overlook — patterning your shotgun.

Gun manufacturers will lead you to believe that you have to buy a turkey gun to be successful, but with the chokes now on the market, I'm not convinced that is the case. I got an SRM Terror Choke and it performed unbelievably. Even my youngest daughter looked at a target I shot and asked, "Dad, you don't want that many BBs in him do you?" With one load I had 132 BBs above the beard.


After settling on a gun and choke, you need to pick out a shell that will pattern good out of it. Test three to four different loads because they will vary in how they perform in your gun. Turkeys are a tough bird so you want to make sure you get the best shell. For our testing, turkey fanatic Ben Doherty helped me out.

The bad deal is that if you're shooting some of the expensive turkey loads, they can run up a bill. They run from $1-$5 per shell so you don't want to shoot too many of them. But still, if you go through all the time, trouble and expense of going hunting, it's a small investment to do so.

If you test a lot of different manufacturers, like we did for this article, then you ought to buy a Caldwell Lead Sled. If you don't, after shooting a few of the 2 1/4 ounce shells, you'll be flinching. Also to reduce flinching, I wear double ear protection. I wore a pair of foam ear plugs plus a set of earmuffs. I didn't in this test but in a hunting setting I wear ear protection with built in hearing device so I can hear turkeys off in the distance that no one else can hear.

Turkey Targets

After you have purchased three to four different turkey loads you'll need to buy some turkey targets. You need to shoot at different distances and determine your pattern by counting how many BBs hit in the kill zone.

I used Birchwood Casey and Quaker Boy targets for this test. The BC targets are cool in that when the BB punctures the target it turns it a fluorescent yellow where it hits. This makes it super easy to count hits. The Quaker Boy targets are cool in that they have slots in the lower right corner to document yardage, shot size and all of the particulars, but due to the natural color of the target it can be somewhat hard to see the hits.

Do you have to buy store-bought targets? No, you can get a large piece of cardboard and draw the upper two-thirds of a turkey on it. If you are artistically challenged, lay a turkey decoy on the cardboard and trace its image. I like to color the head red so it's visible at 40 yards.

Taking a Shot

You want to aim 5 inches below the head. That way if you're high, you'll hit the head. If you're low, you'll still be in the kill zone. With the super tight turkey chokes on the market, it's easy to miss one if he's too close.

Shoot and then go count how many BBs hit in the head/neck area. I'm sure there is a socially accepted number you want to obtain, but I don't know what that is. The more the better. If you only got a few in the kill zone, you can circle them with a pen and shoot the same target again but more than likely you'll only get one shot per target.

Shotgun Patterning
When trying to count hits on a target, try using a notepad and slide it down the head while counting.

If you're getting a high concentration of hits, it can get a little confusing trying to count holes. Here is what works best for me: I start at the head and cover it with a notepad. I slide the pad down the head and count hits as I go. It is also easier for me to count by two's.

Remember, the goal right now isn't to sight in your gun. You're just trying to determine which shell shoots best in your gun. So you may want to consider shooting the target, then getting a piece of cardboard and cut out the pattern of a turkeys head/neck. Lay this over the thickest part of the pattern and count the hits.

Here's why I say do this: On this test I noticed once or twice the count was a little thicker to the left of the turkey. It's not really fair to say a certain load didn't perform as well when really it might have been due to us pulling to the left a little or our gun's sight being off a little. For this test you're just trying to determine the best load, not where your gun is hitting.

After you've decided which shell to use, you should shoot a target at 20, 30, 40 and 50 yards. That way you will know how effective you will be at each varying range. It might surprise you if you have a really tight choke as to how easy it is to miss one if it is really close. It will make you slow down, aim better and aim at a body part.

Speaking of which, if you haven't turkey hunted before, it will hit you as somewhat weird. In most bird hunting you're leading them and making body shots, right? On turkeys, though, you actually aim at a body part — their head. But then when you think about it, their head is about the size of a dove so it's not like you're aiming at a hummingbird's head or something small.

Shotgun Accessories

Some of the turkey loads will have up to 2 1/4 ounces of shot so they will kick. I shot one once and my shotgun about flipped out of my hands. So if it doesn't scare off young hunters and women, you ought to have them shoot 3-inch mag's in a 20 gauge. You might also look at putting a recoil pad on their gun. I've used LimbSaver butt pads on my rifles with good success but talk to your Bass Pro Shop expert and see what they recommend.

If you do a lot of hiking in your quest for longbeards, you may want to look at putting a sling on your shotgun. They slightly bounce when walking (which the manufacturers refer to as recoil) to take the shock off your shoulder, which the leather slings don't.

The Test

They have drastically improved the turkey loads. Now they have mixed loads using 5, 6 and 7 shot, mixed shapes of BBs, some going with as much as 2 1/4 ounce of shot and 3 1/2-inch magnums, which we used to not have. This has made it a whole lot easier to flatten a turkey.

The guns used for this test were a:

  • Mossberg 12-gauge Modified 3-inch

  • Remington 870 12 gauge 3-inch with a SRM Terror Choke .655

  • Winchester SX3 3.5 inch with a SRM Terror Choke .655

For shells we shot:

  • Hevi-Shot Magnum Blend, 5, 6 and 7 shot with 2-ounce, 3-inch magazine

  • Hevi-Shot, 6 shot with 2-ounce, 3-inch mag

  • Hevi-Shot, 5, 6 and 7 shot with 2 1/4-ounce, 3 1/2-inch mag

  • Hornaday Heavy Magnum Turkey Nickel Shothsells, 5 shot, with 1 1/2-ounce, 3-inch mag

  • Kent 5 shot, with 2-ounce, 3-inch mag

They have drastically improved the turkey loads. Now they have mixed loads using 5, 6 and 7 shot, mixed shapes of BBs, some going with as much as 2 1/4 ounce of shot and 3 1/2-inch magnums, which we used to not have. This has made it a whole lot easier to flatten a turkey.

In looking at the chart below, you will notice that the Hevi-Shot performed very well with the tighter chokes, but in the modified choke, as a general rule, there wasn't as big of a difference. Also, remember, with all things being equal, smaller shot will result in a higher number of hits due to more BBs.

As you can see on the chart, I shot one Hornady shell and got a hit rate of 7 with a modified choke on the 870. I then put on the Terror Choke and it jumped up to 26 for a 371 percent increase. So chokes make a big difference.

So what is the best sized shot? According to whom you talk to, 50 years ago many would have told you 2 shot. Now, most will say somewhere between 4-6 shot. Some companies give a blend hoping for  the best of all worlds. With larger shot you get a good wallop, but with smaller shot you get a better pattern.

Click here to see a larger view of the Shotgun BB Count chart below

shotgun bb count chart
As you would imagine as the yardage increased, the BB count decreased. I started out with a modified choke on the 870, but after seeing the performance of the SRM Terror Choke in the Winchester, I put one in the 870 and then continued the test. You can see how it improved the next Hornady shot by nearly four fold. Although, the Hornady did perform better in the Mossberg with a modified choke at 30 yards. (All guns were 12 guages.)