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How To Pattern a Turkey Gun

By Kevin Michalowski

Photo by Steve Smith
You don’t need sand bags or a fancy rifle rest. In the field you will be shooting off your knee. A simple rested position off the bench will give you “real world” accuracy.
Photo by Steve Smith

Some turkey hunters spend big dollars on the finest accessories money can buy, only to come up short at the end of the season.

After these guys return empty-handed, the discussion inevitably turns to all the things that went wrong. The camo was bad. The call got wet. Hens got in the way. Strangely, few hunters ever talk about shot pattern density after the hunt.

Even more alarming is that some hunters never talk about pattern density before the hunt. Just because a shotgun is blasting 2 ounces of copper-plated lead in the general direction of a gobbler doesn’t mean enough of those pellets will strike the kill zone.

The only way to be confident that your turkey gun is effective is to test it. Put up a patterning board, buy a bunch of turkey targets and shoot until your shoulder is sore. Only then will you know how your gun and load perform at normal turkey hunting distances.

Photo by Steve Smith
Photo by Steve Smith

Each spring, I put together a range bag containing everything I need for a morning’s patterning. In that bag, you’ll find:
* Ammunition in different hull lengths, shot sizes and charges
* A couple of choke tubes
* Muff-style hearing protection, plus disposable ear plugs for anyone else
* Screwdrivers for making adjustments
* A cleaning kit
* Shoot-N-C turkey targets from Birchwood-Casey
* Full-size turkey targets from Quaker Boy

Some days, I’ll pack a lunch. Other days, I can test a couple of loads and be done in less than an hour. But the key is to make sure you have everything you’ll need. It’s much easier to stay at the range until you’re finished.

The actual patterning process is quite simple. Here is a breakdown.

1) Using a Shoot-N-C target, accurately measure out 30 yards, and place the target stand at that point.

2) Decide on a shotshell-choke combination to try first. Don your hearing protection and shooting glasses. From a rested position, aim at the dot and fire. What you’re looking for at this step is the center of the pattern. Where is the heaviest concentration of pellets located? If it’s dead center, you might want to stay with that load and choke combination. If it is off, try a different load with the same choke.

3) Once you find a shotshell-choke combo that hits where you are aiming, replace the target. Fire three rounds, changing the target between each round, and look for hits in the head and spinal column, nothing else.

Here’s where it gets personal. Some hunters want four to five vital hits (brain/spinal column), and some demand 10. You can be really confident of killing a bird if you average six.

4) Now you can move your target farther out to see at what point you start to get fewer than six hits per round. Once you get there, consider that your maximum range. This usually happens somewhere between 40 and 50 yards. And even though everyone has heard about the guy who killed a turkey at 65 yards, don’t try it. Chances are too great that a wounded bird will get away.

5) You might also want to try a shot or two at really close range. What if a turkey sneaks within 15 yards? It’s good to know what will happen at that range, too. Your pattern stays really small, and you could miss. Confidence comes from having seen the results on a target.

What about those other chokes and loads? If, out of curiosity or lack of confidence or some other reason you want to start mixing and matching to test other combinations, go ahead. But remember to take notes. Write down which load does best with which choke tube and at what range. The confidence this builds will let you know exactly how your gun/load/choke will perform under all circumstances.

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Today!Some shooters are surprised when a shotgun’s pattern doesn’t strike the point of aim. The reasons behind this “inaccuracy” are varied. The gun may not fit. You might have the wrong shotshell-choke combination. Or it may be your fault. Go shoot a bunch of 3 1/2-inch high-velocity turkey loads, and you’ll quickly learn what recoil and flinching can do to your accuracy.

If you find aiming to be a problem with your shotgun, a relatively easy remedy might be to employ some other type of sighting device than the bead. A scope or iron sights, or perhaps even a red dot or HOLOsight system, adds a whole new dimension to your patterning. With any of these, you essentially sight-in the shotgun as you would any similarly equipped centerfire rifle. Instead of adjusting the sights to correspond with a single projectile, you’ll move the crosshairs or red dot into alignment with the densest portion of your pattern.

And that’s all there is to patterning. Time at the range is an investment in confidence in the woods.

Patterning Tips

Several things can throw your pattern off at the range. If you plan ahead and focus on good, accurate shooting, you can squelch accuracy problems before they start. Here are a few things to look for.

Shooting position: Have someone watch you when you shoot. Is your head down on the stock? Are you seeing only the bead, or do you notice some of the rib? Is the buttstock in the crease of your shoulder?

Gun fit: Are you using the same shotgun you carry in the duck marsh in October and November? If so, that gun might be too short. The reason is that in spring you are wearing light clothing. If the gun is too short, shots will consistently be high.

Read More Stories From GunHunter Magazine Test for flinching: Have a buddy load three rounds, one of them a dummy. See how you really react when you pull the trigger. Yes, that gun kicks. But if you flinch and miss, you are getting kicked for nothing.

Reprinted from the December 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine

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