Designing a shotgun can be as easy or as difficult as you like. There are so many options when it comes to shell size, shot size, shot composition, chokes, shotgun make/model, bore and barrel length that trying each and every combination would be almost impossible. We all want the densest patterns at the longest ranges, but finding that shell and choke combo that gives you the best possible pattern is way out of the reach of the average person. The following gives you a rundown of how I approach the shotgun pattern for turkey hunting, but the principles can be applied to any ballistic endeavor.
First, determine what your constants will be. I wish I could buy a new weapon for every season and scenario I could imagine, but that’s not reasonable. Determine which shotgun you’ll be using – a 12 gauge is pretty standard and a 20 will be fine. If you want to use a smaller gauge, there will be more considerations and potential costs involved to get the results you want. Once you’ve chosen your shotgun, determine what your targets are, and then start with the variables.
Determine your goals. Again, if you want the best pattern in the world, you will need a lot of money and a lot of time. If your goal is to have a consistent pattern over a reasonable range while minimizing the chance of injuring or losing an animal you are hunting, then you are in luck.
Think about the area you will be hunting in, how thick the ground is, and what kind of
distance, you will most likely be presented with a shot. If the ground is very thick and visibility is less than 30 yards from the ground, almost any traditional lead turkey load will work. If you want to extend your range a bit more, consider a higher density shot like Tungsten or TSS. The denser material allows the use of a smaller shot size, which translates to more shots per payload.
This season I wanted to find a shell and choke combo for my Franchi Affinity that would give me dense patterns up to 45 yards. I hunt a lot of big fields and the big toms tend to hang around the 40 yard marker. I picked up a Federal TSS No. 7 3-inch 12-gauge case. The density of TSS is nearly 50 percent heavier than lead, allowing the use of smaller shot that still carries the lower-range energy of the largest lead shot. A smaller shot means higher pattern density and a higher chance of a clean kill. I had a few boxes of shells from various manufacturers and size/pellet material left over from past seasons, so I was able to compare how the new stuff stacked up against shells I’d used in the past.
Now, with your chosen shotgun and cartridge, choose a choke. Some shotguns come with a factory-filled, extra-filled, or turkey choke; if you already have one, start there. If you want to buy a choke, figure out your budget first, and then try to cut it down from there. There are many options, luckily most of them work very well. Carlson, TruGlo, Kicks, Patternmaster are all good products, although results vary gun to gun, load to load. Many choke manufacturers make chokes for specific turkey loads, these are usually an excellent choice.
I bought a Carlson TSS choke. It was reasonably priced and I have had good experience with Carlson chokes in the past.
Now try your combo. Set up a large target (approximately 30 inches by 30 inches) in the range you want to pattern and see what happens. Aim at the center of the paper and fire a round. Use a marker pen and note the scope, shell, and choke used. Pull out the paper and draw a 10-inch circle around the densest part of the pattern, then count the number of shots inside that circle. Repeat the process with new paper and different shells if you are testing multiple.
Generally speaking, you want at least 100 pellets in that 10-inch circle. The more the better. If your best pattern gives you less than 100 on the 10-inch circle, it’s time to change one variable at a time. Change choke or shell, but do not change both at the same time. Changing more than one variable will not allow you to determine if the new shell or choke is an improvement. If you change the choke, run through the same projectiles at the same distances, if you change the projectiles, try them through the same choke. You’ll eventually find a combo that works with your weapon and suits your goals.
I tried three different loads through the Franchi Affinity with the Carlson choke. Lead charge No. 5 placed no more than 100 shot in a 10-inch ring at 45 yards. The densest pattern came from the shell with the highest pellet count, which is not surprising. After counting over 170 shot in the 10-inch ring at 45 yards, I was done making patterns. Finding a dense pattern that would work at 45 yards was the goal, I found it quickly and didn’t feel the need to push the range any further. In all, I fired six rounds from three different shell manufacturers through one choke. Both high-end tungsten/TSS shells had a higher pattern density than their lead counterpart.
The rule of diminishing returns applies here: it will take a lot of money and time to find that pattern that gives you the latest return percentages. I’ve had a lot of experience with this in manual loading, getting a load to generate sub MOA pools isn’t difficult or time consuming, but trying to shrink that pool further is resource intensive. At the end of the day, a turkey won’t know the difference between getting hit in the head with 10 or 12 shots.
Go with reasonable expectations and you’ll find them pretty quickly. I can’t stress this enough. We’re all obsessed with how to be better hunters, and the gear we choose to wear is one of the few variables we have complete control over, but don’t let it be the only facet of your focus. Get the pattern you’re happy with, in the range you’re comfortable with, and spend your time exploring and learning about the animal you’re going after. Knowing where the birds are will benefit you more than finding a pattern that stretches 60 yards. No pattern, no matter how dense, is going to kill a turkey if there are no turkeys around.
Notes and tips
If you’re using a smaller gauge shotgun, you’ll have less pellets in each shell, so you may need to decrease the range until you find a pattern you’re happy with.
Bring in some cheap target loadouts to see how your weapon traces before you send the turkey loadouts down. If you are using a red dot or scope, using target loads will help you get down to paper and get close to zero without the high price tag and pain.
Take your time and don’t underestimate the kickback of turkey loads. Heavy turkey loads will take a toll on your shoulder and your ability to aim. Use a break and take breaks – developing a flinch will affect your shotgun just as much as it does when firing a rifle.