Here's a look back a dozen years ago to Don Stear's feature article, "Turkey Gun Patterning Made Easy." Published in the spring of 2006, the advice remains good for when you dial in your timeworn shotgun again and certainly if you buy a new one soon, even if your season is over for this year.
Shots at wild turkeys are hard-earned. Don't blow your golden opportunity because you didn't take the time to pattern your gun.
If you are planning to start hunting gobblers this spring, or have hunted them before and not yet patterned your shotgun, you owe it to yourself and to the birds to take ample time and do it. It's actually a fairly simple process and one that can turn "the one that got away" into "the one that didn't."
Assuming you have a shotgun already, you will need to round up the basic mechanical components: shells, choke tube(s), target material, eye and ear protection.
Obviously you need them, but which ones? There is no answer at this point. That's why you're going through the patterning process. Recommendations from your buddies may help in giving you a starting point, but never set your mind on one particular brand or load until the patterns have been shot.
Loads have gotten so powerful these days and the selection is endless. Choose the right kind for your gun and chances are you'll be able to stuff a gobbler's beard into your next spent shell as a keepsake.
A turkey load may work good for one guy's gun but not be worth shooting at crows from another. Even shotguns of the identical make and model may not shoot the same load with equal results. As a rule of thumb, round up as many different buffered, copper or nickel-plated loads as you can afford to buy in No. 5 and No. 6 shot (don't completely rule out No. 4 shot, but don't bank on the kind of density you'll see from the smaller shot).
The new "high-velocity" loads from various makers have a bit lighter shot charge containing fewer pellets, but seem to pattern more densely than the heavy shot charges with more pellets. Again, not a rule, merely a suggestion. Also, somewhat newer to the scene are the various "heavier-than-lead" alloy shotshells. Although all of them are two or more times the price of a lead turkey load, they all are capable of producing fantastic patterns in the right setup. Do not overlook them. If it's in your budget, they are definitely worth the time to try. But be advised, not all turkey chokes are compatible with these harder shot pellets. To avoid a possibly dangerous situation, it's always best to check with the manufacturer of your particular choke tube before firing any of these rounds through it.
When sighting in, and deciding on which loads pattern best from your gun and choke combo, do yourself a huge favor and use the most solid rest money can buy.
A good way to try a lot of different loads is to split the cost of each 10-pack of shells with a couple friends. That way you're not in the poorhouse. You also don't get stuck with a bunch of shells that ended up not working well in your gun. Three shots with each load should give enough of an indication to let you weed out the poorer performing ones. Also don't let your ego spoil your better judgment. Just because you have a shotgun that allows it doesn't mean you are forced to shoot the 3 1/2-inch shell. Try them, sure! But sometimes a 3-incher will pattern more densely. Once in awhile, so will a 2 3/4-inch load. Also, many times, a shell with a 2-ounce payload will put more pellets on target than a 2 1/4-ounce load. In fact, that example is true of a couple guns I personally own. Just be sure to leave your mind and your options open.
Some guns have a fixed choke and don't accept tubes. In these guns, your best results will come from a barrel choked "modified" or "full." For guns with screw-in choke tube systems, your best bet is an aftermarket, extended tube. I have yet to find a tube that comes from the gun manufacturer that will shoot with the aftermarket tubes. Talk with someone at the choke manufacturer. They'll be glad to assist you in choosing the tube that should be your most logical starting point. There are a bunch of quality tubes out there so talk with several tube-makers, and then make your choice. Remember, (and it's not necessary to be as finicky about this as I am) the tube you buy is a starting point. Tweaking (i.e. buying another tube) may be needed to get the optimum pattern for you.
Again, it helps to pattern with buddies that may have other brands of tubes that will fit your thread pattern. Screw in a different one and try it. Tighter is not always better. A good place to start for a 12 gauge – try a tube in the .660 inch-.665 inch diameter range. If you're shooting 3 1/2-inch shells and/or a back-bored gun, try a .670 inch. Shorter-barreled guns like the popular Remington 870 can usually use a bit more constriction like a .655 inch. Again, all experienced suggestions, but not necessarily what will be the optimal choice for your gun. You won't know until you try.
Turkey-head targets are a given. You can buy them anywhere – or even download them and print them off the web. You will also need some larger stuff to shoot at, too. Blank newsprint works well, as do the sides of larger cardboard boxes.
I like something at least 2 feet x 2 feet . America's favorite mega-store sells rolled 30 inch brown paper and 24 inch rolled white "project paper" over by the stationary and shipping supply aisle that does the job. A couple of dollars will get you all you'll need.
Safety is top priority. Take something for your ears – muffs, roll-up plugs, both, whatever. Don't end up like me – well on my way to hearing impairment at age 39. Safety glasses are always a good idea too, especially when you or anyone nearby is shooting with a ported choke tube. And take something for your shoulder. Shotguns kick! Benched and sand-bagged turkey shotguns really kick! I'm too cheap to buy a Lead Sled or a PAST pad, so I take an 8-inch wide strip of carpet padding about 18 inch long and fold it in half twice, then wrap it up in duct-tape. Just stick the "sissy pad" between the butt of the shotgun and your shoulder. It works wonders.
The Simple Patterning System
Okay, so we've pretty much rounded up the essentials. You're going to need a place you can shoot at least 40 yards with a safe backstop. Farther is better because it never hurts to see what really happens to a pattern at 55-60-65 yards. It will help you understand why you shouldn't shoot at a turkey that far. Also have a good, solid rest. Use a bench and sandbags, card table and pillows, folding chair and bales of hay, whatever gets it done for you.
Start out at 15 or 20 yards. Put up your big, blank target and draw, with a marker, a two-inch bull's eye in the center. Load three el-cheapo, low-brass shells into your gun. Squeeze three well-aimed shots at the one target. Now check it out and determine where your favorite gun is hitting – left, right, high, low – if you have an adjustable sighting setup (scope, red-dot, iron sight), this is where you make the big adjustment to the point-of-impact. Adjust so that the bull's eye is well toward the top of the densest part of the pattern. I like to sight in, placing the densest part of the pattern to impact mid-way up on a turkey's neck. This will leave the top half of the pattern still on the bird's head with very few flying harmlessly high. The bottom half will be low in the neck.
A good pattern will have at least 20 pellets in the vital head and neck area. Don't count the liners!
And ALWAYS remember to take a couple final shots from a "butt-on-the-ground" position like you would be if you were actually hunting.
Now take another of the big blank targets and tape a turkey-target in the center. Place it at 30 yards for 20 gauges and 12 gauges choked less than "full," 35 yards for 12s with full-choke or tighter and 10 gauges. Fire one of each of the turkey loads you wish to evaluate, each at a fresh turkey target. Label each used target as to the gun, load and choke tube used, as well as the distance, date, etc. for comparison later.
Eliminate the poorer patterning loads and move back five yards to re-pattern the "keepers." There should be, at this distance, one or two loads that appear to outperform the rest by a good margin. There isn't really a "magic number" for head/neck hits, but I like to see a minimum of 20 pellets solidly in there (no "line-cutters" allowed!). If that number of hits comes at 35 yards, consider that your maximum effective range. If it's 30 yards, so be it. If it's 40 yards, great! Just remember that it takes a certain amount of pellet energy (approximately 2.5 ft./lbs. per pellet) to penetrate turkey head and neck bone.
For No. 6 shot, the maximum distance at which that energy remains is 40 to 42 yards. No. 5 shot will gain you a couple yards and No. 4 a couple more, but only if the pattern density is there. It may well take several shots of each "keeper" load to clearly see which one consistently prints more hits. There may only be an average difference of a pellet or two between them. Whichever comes out on top, that's your load! Stick with it. And always remember to take a couple final shots from a "butt-on-the-ground" position like you would be if you were actually hunting. You want to be absolutely certain that your point-of-impact remains the same in an actual field scenario.
Hopefully this will get you started if you've never patterned a shotgun before. Maybe there was something here you hadn't thought of even if you have patterned before. Like I said earlier, it is not a difficult process at all. And it is, actually, not very time-consuming, either. What it is, though, is a good reason to get out of the house and spend an afternoon swapping lies and patterning guns with some good hunting buddies. It will help you fill the downtime between deer season and the coming spring. And, most of all, it will give you the ultimate confidence that your gun can and will seal the deal when the opportunity presents itself.