By Wade Truong, @elevatedwild
Patterning a shotgun can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be. There are so many options when it comes to shell size, pellet size, pellet composition, chokes, shotgun make/model, gauge, and barrel length that testing each and every single combination would be close to impossible. We all want the densest patterns at the longest ranges, but finding that combination of shell and choke that gives you the absolute best pattern possible is far outside the means of the average person. The following gives you an outline of how I approach patterning shotguns for turkey hunting, but the principles can be applied to any ballistic endeavor.
Determine what your constants will be. I wish I could buy a new gun for every single season and scenario I could imagine, but that's not reasonable. Determine what shotgun you will use, a 12 gauge is pretty standard and a 20 will be fine. If you want to use a smaller bore, there will be more considerations and potential costs involved in getting the results you want. Once you have your shotgun picked out, determine what your goals are, then start into the variables.
Determine your goals. Again, if you want the best pattern in the world, you'll need some deep pockets and a lot of time. If your goal is to have a consistent pattern at a reasonable range and minimize the likelihood that you wound or lose an animal you're hunting, then you're in luck.
Think about the area you will be hunting, how thick the terrain is, and what kind of
distance you will most likely be presented with a shot. If the terrain is super thick, and visibility is less than 30 yards from the ground, then almost any traditional lead turkey load will do the trick. If you want to push your range a little further, consider a higher density shot such as tungsten, =or TSS. The denser material allows the use of a smaller shot size, which translates to more shot per payload.
This season I wanted to find a shell and choke combo for my Franchi affinity that would give me dense patterns out to 45 yards. I hunt a lot of large fields and the big toms tend to hang up right around the 40-yard marker. I picked up a box of 12 gauge 3” Federal TSS #7. The density of the TSS is almost 50% heavier than lead, which allows for use of smaller shot that still carries the downrange energy of larger lead shot. Smaller shot means increased pattern density and a higher likelihood of a clean kill. I had a few boxes of shells from various makers and pellet size/material left over from the past few seasons, so I was able to compare how the new stuff stacked up against the shells I had used in the past.
Now, with the shotgun and shell picked out, pick a choke. Some shotguns come with a factory full, extra full or turkey choke- if you already have one, then start there. If you want to purchase a choke, figure out your budget first, then try to narrow them down from there. There are a lot of options, fortunately, most of them work very well. Carlson, Truglo, Kicks, Patternmaster, all make good products, although the results vary gun to gun, load to load. Many choke manufacturers make chokes for specific turkey loads, these are usually a great choice.
I purchased a Carlson TSS choke, it was reasonably priced and I've had a good experience with Carlson chokes in the past.
Now test your combo. Set up a large target (~30”x30”) at the range you want to pattern at and see what happens. Aim for the center of the paper and fire one round. Use a sharpie and note the range, shell and choke used. Pull the paper and draw a 10” 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 multiples.
Generally speaking, you want at least 100 pellets in that 10” circle. The more the merrier. If your best pattern is giving you less than 100 in the 10” circle it's time to change one variable at a time. Change either the choke or the shell, but don't change both at the same time. Changing more than one variable will not allow you to determine whether the new shell or choke is an improvement. If you change the choke, run through the same shells at the same distances, if changing shells test them through the same choke. You will eventually find a combo that works
with your gun and satisfies your goals.
I tested 3 different loads through the Franchi affinity with the Carlson choke. The #5 lead load did not put over 100 pellets in a 10” ring at 45 yards. The densest pattern came from the shell with the highest pellet count, which is no surprise. After counting 170+ pellets in the 10” ring at 45 yards, I was done patterning. Finding a dense pattern that would perform out to 45 yards was the goal, I found it quickly and felt no need to push the range any further. In total, I fired 6 rounds from 3 different shell manufacturers through one choke. Both the high-end tungsten/TSS
shells had a higher pattern density than their lead counterpart.
The rule of diminishing returns applies here- it will cost a lot of money and time to find that one pattern that gets you the last few percentages of performance. I've had a lot of experience with this in handloading, getting a load to yield sub MOA groups is not hard or time-consuming, but trying to shrink that group further takes a lot of resources. At the end of the day, a turkey will not know the difference between getting hit in the head with 10 vs 12 shots.
Go in with reasonable expectations, and you will find them fairly quickly. I can not stress this enough. We all obsess on how to be better hunters, and the gear we choose to use is one of the few variables we have complete control over, but don't let it be the sole facet of your focus. Get the pattern you are happy with, at the range you are comfortable with, and spend your time scouting and learning about the animal you are going to pursue. Knowing where the birds are is going to benefit you more than finding a pattern that will reach out to 60 yards. No pattern, however dense, is going to kill a turkey if there aren't any turkeys around.
A couple of notes/tips:
If you’re using a smaller bore shotgun, you'll have fewer pellets in each shell, so you might have to decrease the range until you find a pattern that you are happy with.
Bring some cheap target loads to see how your gun patterns before sending the turkey loads downrange. If you’re using a red dot or scope, using the target loads will help you get on the paper and get close to zero without the high price tag and pain.
Take your time and don't underestimate the recoil from turkey loads. Heavy turkey loads will take a toll on your shoulder and your ability to aim. Use a rest, and take breaks- developing a flinch will affect your shotgunning as much as it does when shooting a rifle.