Lethal Shot Sizes for Gobblers
“Whatever patterns best in your shotgun!” is usually the response when a hunter asks what shot size he should use for turkeys. Most turkey hunters assume there isn’t much difference in using the standard shot sizes for turkeys; fours, fives, sixes and even 7-1/2’s. They are all popular and they all work, so it really doesn’t matter which size you use. That is, unless you want to maximize the potential range of your turkey gun. Then shot size becomes critical.
If “patterns best” means putting the most pellets into your pattern, we should all hunt turkeys with tiny number nine shot because there are certainly more pellets in the pattern. The problem is they don’t penetrate a turkey’s head very well. We could, on the other hand, hunt turkeys with buckshot, as a single pellet will surely punch right on through a turkey skull. The problem is a shotshell contains only about a dozen pellets and most likely none of them would hit the little skull.
There must be a “just right” combination of pellet size and pellet energy to be lethal and to have enough of them to guarantee a few of those lethal hits.
We buy a 12-gauge magnum turkey gun, and most of them are about the same. We add an aftermarket turkey choke, and most of them are about the same. We buy a box of turkey loads, and they are mostly about the same. We choose our shot size, four, five, six, or perhaps even 7-1/2, and they are very much NOT the same.
By choosing larger and larger pellets to get more punch at longer distances you get fewer and fewer pellets in the shell to guarantee hits. ‘Point of diminishing returns’ is a term that relates to gaining and loosing at the same time, as is the turkey shot size predicament.
We typically call our gobblers in so close that any of the above turkey loads will work. It’s only when that boss gobbler hangs up that we wish we had done more homework at the patterning board.
Get the Most from Your Shotgun
The first step in getting the most from a turkey gun is to know what size shot it takes to penetrate a turkey’s skull or break their spine at various ranges.
How far down range will 6’s penetrate well? 4’s? 5’s, 7-1/2’s? There are no exact numbers. Hard lead shot penetrates better than the soft lead shot usually found in inexpensive shotshells. Copper or nickel plated lead shot penetrates better than hard lead shot. Steel shot is light for its size, loses energy quickly with range and doesn’t penetrate very well. The new Hevi-Shot, heavier even than lead for its size, penetrates extremely well. Higher velocity loads help penetration a bit, but lose more than they gain because that extra velocity doesn’t pattern as tightly.
Plated lead shot is still popular in turkey ammunition and is less expensive than “the hard stuff”. I know of a few hunters who use 7-1/2’s and limit themselves to thirty-five yards and have not lost a bird. I’ve heard of hunters who have lost birds with plated lead 6’s at 50 yards, so I use 40 or maybe 45-yards as a maximum. Plain old lead 4’s once killed ducks at beyond 60 yards, so I assume plated 4’s will penetrate a turkey’s skull at that distance. Five’s are fine at 50 to 55-yards.
When we consider the advantages of the added punch from the larger pellets, we often miss the fact that there are considerably fewer of them in each shotshell. They may have the energy for long range, but are no good if the pattern is too thin to guarantee a few lethal hits. While there are 450 pellets in a 2-ounce load of sixes, there are only 270 of the number four pellets. You are losing 40% of your pellet count to get that extra punch.
There are so few number four pellets that a distinct possibility exists that many shotguns will not throw a lethally dense pattern beyond 35 yards. We know that sixes will penetrate well out to 40+ yards, and there are 180 more of them in the shotshell and in the pattern.
All those extra number six pellets will give us a lethally dense pattern all the way out to 50-yards, but no, we don’t have an effective range of 50-yards because the number six pellet runs out of energy at 40 to 45-yards. But yes, switching from number four shot to number six shot does increase our maximum guaranteed effective range from 35 out to 40-yards.
Number Five Shot
What about number five shot? There are 340 of them in a 2-ounce shotshell and they’re lethal out to 50-yards. It’s possible and perhaps likely that number five shot will provide a lethally dense pattern out to 45-yards and have plenty of penetrating energy at that range. Fours run out of pattern density at 35-yards and sixes run out of energy at 45-yards, making fives the best choice for that tight patterning shotgun and choke carrying both energy and density out to 50-yards.
Hevi-Shot began as a substitute for steel shot for waterfowl, but it was soon found that it is ideal for Turkey as well. The small, denser (heavier) than lead pellets give up their energy more slowly than lead pellets, (and much more slowly than steel pellets).
The main reason shotgun patterns spread with distance is that a majority of the pellets get severely squashed as 10,000 PSI pushes them down the barrel. These badly misshapen pellets begin odd spins and act like a pitcher’s curveball. They may fly quite straight and stay in a nice tight pattern for a while but, just like the pitcher’s curveball, when the curve breaks, the pattern spreads quickly. While hard Hevi-Shot pellets can appear a bit misshapen before they’re shot, they exit the barrel in much better shape than lead pellets.
Traditional shotgun patterns are measured as an even pellet distribution in a thirty inch diameter circle at forty yards, where 70-percent of the pellets going into that circle was considered a full choke. Today’s turkey loads not only throw patterns of 90-percent or better, but they have dense centers. A better guide to judge turkey patterns is to measure the hits in a fifteen inch diameter core circle instead of 30. I lay a 30” Plexiglas doughnut having a 15” hole over the patterning paper to find the densest center.
No pattern has perfectly even distribution when you start marking individual pellet hits. There are always a few little globs of pellets and a few small areas with few hits. To prove a pattern effective, bend a coat hanger into the shape of the head and neck of a gobbler and move that coat hanger around in the fifteen inch center of your pattern. Assure yourself that there are NO places in that circle where the turkey would not have been well hit. It takes 60 or more evenly spaced hits in the circle to do that.
If you were to shoot a little bit beyond that guaranteed lethal pattern, you’ll likely kill 9 out of 10 turkeys you shoot at. A little bit farther away and the holes in the pattern are larger and more numerous, and you’d likely kill 8/10, and so on. This reminds us of the “Golden Pellet” idea that it takes but one lucky pellet in the head kill a turkey. I prefer to know my maximum guaranteed range.
Hevi-Shot, or at least high-density shot is proving the most effective for turkeys, and there’s little reason to use larger than #6 shot, as it is lethal to 60-yards.
Before your gobbler comes into view, measure with a rangefinder a maximum range perimeter of rocks or trees. When he steps inside your circle, there’s no question, he’s yours. You can always let him come a little closer.
How do you know your shotgun’s maximum range? Taking one or even two shots at turkey head targets and looking for a few pellets in the head and neck just isn’t enough. Shotgun patterns just aren’t uniform enough for that, and a few lucky pellets can give you a false sense of effectiveness.
You’ll need a 4×4-foot blank paper, mark an X in the center, and the first shot should be at 25 or 30-yards to insure the shotgun is hitting center. On another paper at, perhaps 40-yards, again shoot for center. Draw a 15-inch diameter circle around the densest shot area.
Bend a coat hanger into the shape of the outline of the lethal area of a gobbler’s head and neck. Pass that coat hanger around inside that 15” circle and insure that nowhere in that circle would the gobbler have survived. Work your way back to find your maximum range. When you begin to see “holes” in the pattern where the turkey would have survived, you are beyond your maximum guaranteed lethal range. When you think you have found it, shoot a few more test targets to be sure.
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