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Turkey Hunter's First Commandment: Thou Shalt Pattern Thy Gun

Story by Ken Piper

PhotoVeteran turkey chasers and newcomers to the sport have been quick to snap up the customized shotguns made for turkey hunting. They practice calling and then head to the woods in search of a big ol' Tom. Before the first moment of legal shooting time, though, they've already committed a huge turkey hunting mistake.

"If you're not patterning your turkey gun, it's like going into the woods and deer hunting without sighting in your rifle," said Mike Larsen of Federal Ammunition. "You wouldn't think of putting a scope on your rifle and going deer hunting without shooting it, but that's really what turkey hunters do all the time."

Larsen's comparison to rifle hunting is on target.

Modern turkey guns have been designed to do one thing: shoot tight patterns. Toss in special new turkey loads and after-market turkey choke tubes and the margin for error disappears -- especially when aiming at a target as small as a turkey's head and when products don't perform as well as advertisements might claim.

"Today's modern turkey shotguns should be thoroughly patterned at various ranges and with as many load/choke tube combinations that a hunter can reasonably obtain," said Eddie Stevenson, Remington Arms Company press relations specialist. "Turkey shotguns have evolved from the 30-inch fixed-choke versions of yesteryear to well-tuned machines designed specifically to deliver the dense, tight patterns that enable ethical hunters to maximize their effective range."
While turkey shotgun patterning is similar to rifle sighting-in, there are several important differences.

PhotoFirst, you'll want to try different load/choke combinations. Second, it's important to test different distances.

If you are lucky, your new turkey shotgun will shoot a dense, centered pattern. But that isn't always the case.

"When you pattern your turkey gun, you're looking for two things," Larsen said. "First, where does it shoot? Every turkey gun is not going to shoot centered patterns right out of the box. You have to know where to aim, and quite often it's not going to be right at the turkey's head.

"Second, you need to determine which load works best in your gun. Different shot sizes and loads will outperform others from gun to gun. You need to find out the best load for your gun, and the only way to do that is to shoot it with those different loads."

Turkey enthusiasts should take a page from the rifle hunters' book. Shoot your gun from a bench rest, complete with sand bags.

You'll need many turkey patterning targets such as those made by Quaker Boy. These targets feature a colored gobbler, detailing vital neck bones and skull. They also feature a 10-inch circle around the bird to better track patterns.

Next you'll need a selection of shells. The new turkey loads aren't cheap. The Federal Premium High Energy Turkey shells cost around $8 per box of 10. Considering that ideally you'd like to test 4s, 5s and 6s in both 3-inch and 3.5-inch, you could wrap up $50 in shells without even blinking. Sharing shells with a buddy can be a big help. Split the cost of the shells and you'll be able to test more combinations. If you're really pinching pennies (and who isn't?), maybe skip a shot size in each of the shell lengths, or decide on 3-inch or 3.5-inch shells ahead of time. A lot of hunters simply don't like the kick of the 3.5-inch shells and have good success with 3-inchers.

Keep in mind, too, that you're going to need some time to do this shooting. Unlike rifle sighting in which you can take multiple shots at one target, you must replace the target after each shot while sighting in your turkey gun. Have plenty of staples in the staple gun, and give yourself several hours to do the job.

First, don't be ashamed to slip a "sissy pad" between your shoulder and the gun. A little ribbing isn't nearly as bad as the day-after pain of multiple shots with a 3.5-inch 12-gauge turkey load. An extra sand bag did the trick for me.

Start at 25 yards and shoot two shots from each load. Write any pertinent information on the target either before or after the shot, including shell size, shot size, ounce load, distance and choke used. If you have additional choke tubes, try each load from each tube.

Shoot again in increasing 5-yard increments until you no longer have an acceptable number of hits in the kill zone. Quaker Boy recommends at least 5 killing hits (BBs in the vitals) for an acceptable distance.

Some truthful friends have told me of turkeys killed in their tracks at distances of up to 50 yards. Well, my Remington 870 SPS-T 12-gauge with Remington's new Ventilator after-market choke tube produced acceptable kill shots out to 35 yards. Beyond that, I'd most likely be wounding turkeys -- something even more frustrating than not seeing birds at all. Within 35 yards, I'm pleased with my results and know to aim just below the turkey's head.

My 870 SPS-T liked the Federal Premium High Energy Turkey load in 3.5-inch, No. 6 shot. I had more than 52 good hits at 25 yards and more than 20 at 35 yards.

If you have a dense, centered pattern and you've determined the best load for your gun, congratulations. Practice your calling and get ready to locate birds. But what if -- and it's common -- your best patterns are not centered?

"We recommend the addition of adjustable sights to any turkey gun that does not shoot exactly to point-of-aim," Remington's Stevenson said. "Some of our most popular new turkey guns come already equipped with adjustable fiber-optic sights. Most shotguns will be adequate right out of the box, but why not use sights to maximize the number of pellets that strike the kill zone?"

If your turkey shotgun does not have factory-installed, adjustable sights, there are several options: aim to compensate for your gun, or purchase after-market adjustable sights.

TruGlo makes the Gobble Dot series of fiber-optic shotgun sights that include several adjustable models. Many hunters prefer after-market sights even if their guns shoot dead on, but they're a must if your patterns need to be centered.

The fiber-optic option makes zeroing in on the target easy and quick. I shot several shots without the Gobble Dot and several after I put them on the gun. The TruGlo sights made finding the target and aligning the gun a breeze. Visit TruGlo's website at for more information on their turkey sights.

Another option is to add a turkey scope to your shotgun. There are several models available, some without magnification. These scopes are short and don't add a tremendous amount of weight to the gun. The advantages are that you can adjust your scope until you have perfectly-centered patterns. Also, scope users have less of a tendency to shoot over turkeys (the most common reason for a miss).

The disadvantages are the same experienced by deer hunters who use scopes -- fogging (external) and moisture can keep you from seeing through the scope. Bug Repellant, common in the spring turkey woods, must not come in contact with your scope glass.

If you have centered patterns but are still not happy with your kill hits, consider an after-market choke tube. I can't stress enough the importance of a tight choke tube for good patterns.

For more information on Remington's Ventilator tube, visit their accessories page at

For information on TruGlo's Strut Stopper turkey choke, visit their page at

Hunters Specialties' Undertaker tubes are popular with the economy-conscious turkey chaser. Visit for more information.

Keep in mind that patterning your turkey gun has nothing to do with skill or experience. It's all about determining the capabilities of the equipment. On the other hand, even the most precisely tuned gun/shot combination won't help if you make a poor choice and take shots beyond your gun's capabilities. We owe it to ourselves and the birds to know our limits and take our shots accordingly.

Ken Piper

By Ed Moody @ Thursday, August 14, 2008 2:57 PM
Piper is right on target with this article. I'd like to add one more suggestion. Instead of using professionally made targets (expensive), use 12 inch paper plates. Fold a fist, tracing the outline of the wrist and fist onto the target. Use only one trget per shot, plcing the infotrmation concerning distance, shot size, and choke tube used. Then, when all shooting is done, compare each target to determine which setup had the best pattern at what distance. Then make your selection. Perhaps, during opening week, the best selection will be more open choke, switching to a tiighter choke when the birds become educated, thus more difficult to draw in real close. After shooting the bird takes to a strong wing, don't run after it in oursuit - this is dangerous. A heart attack can occur or another, less accurate hunter may take a pot-shot at the flying bird. Pellets may strike the pursuer in the face.

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