Notes on Patterning Turkey Loads

By Randy Wakeman

It has been estimated, which is about as close as you can really get, that it takes about 2.5 foot lbs. of energy to penetrate a turkey's head and neck with your pellet reliably. Looking at lead shotshell ballistics, a 1315 fps load of No. 6 shot has 2.5 foot lbs. of energy at 40 yards. Beyond that, it drops of to 1.7 foot pounds at 60 yards.

Number 5 shot, on the other hand, launched at the same velocity (1315 fps) retains 3.5 foot pounds of energy at 40 yards, and still retains the "needed" 2.5 foot lbs. of energy at 60 yards. Common sense suggests that #5 shot is a more reliably lethal pellet past 40 yards.

Naturally, the lethality of a pellet moots itself if we don't have enough pattern density to insure a 100% chance of three pellets in the turkey head. To insure that, we'd like to need to see around 20 pellets in a turkey target head along with good pellet density above, below, to the left, and to the right of the turkey target to address head movement, wind drift, and movement of the turkey head as the shot is fired. We also want density above and below, to cover the turkeys that are not at the range we are patterning at. So far, so what?

Well, finding a suitable turkey load should not be particularly esoteric. Ad-brags suggest that 18,000,000 holes are better than twenty in a turkey head, but that is only wishful thinking. It only takes one pellet in the right place to kill a turkey, and our 20 pellet approximate goal insures more than that. 100% lethality is as good as it gets, and no turkey can get much deader than completely dead. It reads like a boring concept constructed to sell nothing, and it is. It is the spectacularly boring concept of "adequacy." Either a load and pattern is perfectly adequate for our application, or it is not, it's as simple as that.

The basics of patterning for a more or less stationary target like a turkey (more stationary than a mallard, certainly) is to pattern at the distances we intent to hunt at, using a very large sheet of butcher paper to capture enough of our shot cloud. If our gun is not shooting to point of aim, we need to make some stock or sighting adjustments so that it does.

Next is a little choke and shotshell experimentation, using hard shot at a minimum, nickel plated shot being better yet (Fiocchi), and plated and buffered loads (Federal) sometimes being noticeably better. Testing a few Carlson's choke tubes (they are as good as the best, and better than the rest) starting at least a .040 in. constriction and going incrementally tighter until patterns cease to improve is a reasonable approach.

Our patterns automatically tend to look better at 40 yards using #6 shot vs. #5 shot, assuming the same payload just because we have quite a few more pellets to work with. No. 6 shot has about 222 pellets to the ounce while No. 5 shot has about 171 pellets to the ounce.

Out to 40 yards, #6 shot is "perfectly adequate." Beyond that, #5 shot is "perfectly adequate" until our pattern density decays to the point where we are no longer convinced of a 100% chance of lethality. That's about all there is to it. "Happy Thanksgiving!"

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Copyright 2006 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.