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Ammo - get the most of your shot- choosing a turkey load

get the most of your shot

choosing a turkey load

Brad Fitzpatrick

Turkeys are tough and wary, so it’s critical to have the right turkey load and get the most out of your shot. Here’s a primer on picking the right shell for your gobbler gun.


Turkey hunting is a real challenge, and wary old gobblers very rarely make things easy. These clever birds can hang up out of range, spot even the most miniscule movements, and will bolt away at the first sign of danger. And while it’s impossible to control what a gobbler will do, you can control your choice of shotgun shells to maximize your range and effectiveness for a quick, clean kill.

Turkey shells have evolved over the past two decades, and today’s turkey loads are more efficient and more lethal. How have shotgun companies accomplished this? To understand how shotshells have improved, we must first understand how a shotgun shell is constructed and what happens when you pull the trigger. Modern shotgun shells have durable plastic hulls that hold the components together. The base of the shell is brass, and in the center of the brass is a primer. When you pull the trigger on a shotgun, the firing pin inside the gun strikes the primer in the center of the base. That primer strike causes an ignition, and that ignition lights the powder inside the shell. The powder burns and forms gases that push the contents of the shell down the barrel. Those contents include a plastic wad, which is a cup that holds the pellets, and the pellets themselves. The amount of constriction at the end of the barrel (called a choke or choke tube) causes variations in the width of the pellet pattern—a more open choke like a cylinder or improved cylinder allows the pellets to open more, creating a wider pattern. A tight choke like a full or extra full tube causes the pattern to be tighter. If you watch a slow-motion video of shotgun shells exiting a barrel, the “shot string” (group of pellets) looks like a swarm of bees coming out of the muzzle.

Ammunition companies have developed ways to create better turkey loads by changing the characteristics of their shotshell loads to maximize effectiveness on turkeys. Many of these companies offer turkey-specific loads that utilize hard coated shot (oftentimes coated in copper or nickel) that is surrounded by buffer in the shell. “Buffered” shot rests in a special medium, which looks a little like plastic snow. The purpose of this buffer is to prevent the shot pellets from slamming into one another when the payload (the string of shot pellets) is exiting the shotgun. That slamming can cause pellet deformation—the pellets are no longer round and, as a result, they no longer fly straight, veering off and away from center so that they don’t strike the intended target.

The construction of turkey loads varies from one manufacturer to another, and there isn’t one particular formula that works best all of the time. For instance, let’s take a look a look at two of the most successful and popular turkey loads available today, Hornady’s Heavy Magnum Turkey and Federal’s Third Degree. Both loads are effective and efficient gobbler stoppers, but they are constructed very differently. The Hornady load is available in #4, #5, or #6 shot and the lead pellets are coated in nickel so they have a hard surface. As shot size increases in number it decreases in diameter, so #4 shot is larger than #5, and #5 is larger than #6. At equal velocities larger shot has more mass and, as a result, holds more kinetic energy, but smaller shot offers more pellets and actually penetrates deeper thanks to its smaller surface area, but #4, #5 and #6 shot are all effective at reasonable distances with accurate shot placement. Federal went a different direction with their new 3rd Degree load, which actually contains three different types of shot in one shell. The shot column in the Federal load is comprised of twenty percent #6 FLITESTOPPER lead pellets for wide, effective patterns at close range (more turkeys are missed at close range than you’d imagine because of very tight patterns), forty percent copper-plated #5 shot for mid-range performance, and forty percent HEAVYWEIGHT shot for dense, high-energy patterns at long range. Both brands are available in 20 and 12 gauge, and both come in 3-inch or 3-1/2-inch (12 gauge) loads, and both come with specially-designed wads that are optimized for turkey hunting.

Which one works for you? That depends. One of the first things you’ll need to do is pattern your turkey gun to determine which load and which choke is best. Turkey loads have become more lethal and more effective, but various guns shoot different loads better or worse than others. For this reason, you must head to the range and pattern your gun. There are several companies that make different turkey targets that will show you where your pellets are striking, but if you don’t have that you can draw a 12-inch diameter circle on an old pizza box with an aiming point (dark dot) in the middle. Shoot a few pizza boxes and you’ll not only understand where you should be aiming (turkey hunting is one of the few instances where you actually “aim” a shotgun rather than just pointing and shooting) and will tell you how dense your patterns are. Generally speaking, tighter chokes offer better long-range performance. But I don’t think that an extra full choke tube is always the answer. Sure, very tight constriction has been the norm for years, and tight chokes generally (but not always) produce better results at long range. These tight patterns, though, may cause you to miss a bird at medium range. I prefer a full or even modified choke, and Hornady’s Heavy Magnum Turkey load uses a VersaTite wad that actually works quite well with improved cylinder and modified chokes. Three-inch loads give more payload than 2-3/4-inch shells, and that’s why they’re so popular. 3-1/2 offers even more punch, but recoil is very heavy and I tend to stick with lighter kicking but equally lethal three-inch loads.