elieve it or not, there was a time when the most powerful shotgun loads consisted of an ounce or so of pure (or nearly so) lead shot over maximum powder charges in high–brass shells that were 2¾″ or 3″ in length. These loads were almost always “aimed” at waterfowl, and it was considered standard procedure to use maximum loads of lead shot for ducks and geese.
Efforts to phase out lead shot began in the 1970s when it was suggested spent pellets ingested by waterfowl were fatal to birds who put them in place of gravel in their gizzards (the gravel helps these birds digest their food). Several years of testing of steel shot loads was followed by a nationwide ban on lead shot for all waterfowl hunting in 1991. Canada instituted a complete ban on the use of lead shot in 1999, after earlier banning its use near certain bodies of water and in national wildlife areas.
Because lead shot was no longer acceptable for waterfowl hunting, steel and various non–toxic shot substitutes began to show up on the market. At the same time, wild turkey hunting came to the fore as a separate entity, a sport that has grown exponentially nationwide, spawning a new generation of specialty shotguns and loads designed to down a big tom with a single shot out to 70 yards and more. Today’s lead, tungsten and other non–toxic turkey loads are extremely effective, offering tight patterns of hard shot traveling at 1,200+ feet per second. You can literally hear these shot loads hitting longbeards at 30 yards!
Truth be told, these new–generation turkey shells are not necessarily fun to shoot, with many a bloody nose, black eye or bruised cheek from having taken one too many shots. These shells are meant to knock big–boned birds stone dead, and most perform as marketed. Just don’t take a case of them on your next dove or quail hunt — few hunters could survive a beating like that!
Only the most avid turkey hunter will fire more than five rounds per season. In my state, the legal limit is three gobblers per season, leaving seven shells out of an expensive box of ten sitting on a shelf somewhere. After more than 20 years of avid turkey hunting, I found my own ammunition shelves stuffed with half–filled boxes of magnum loads of steel, tungsten, Hevi–Shot and various other turkey loads in No. 4, 5 and 6 pellets. It was more than I could possibly use in 20 more years of hunting. I decided to find other appropriate uses for these hard– hitting specialty loads.
My first thought was these high–velocity charges could be just the ticket for tree–top squirrels. In early fall, it’s common to find squirrels working on hickory nuts at the very tops of the trees. In this country, the “top” could well be 40 yards or more up, a long shot at a small target hidden by dense foliage. This is where a Full–choked turkey load can be worth its weight in gold.
It’s possible to spend an hour or more directly below a hickory–husking gray and never see any part of the squirrel. That’s how thick the leaves are way up there at the top. Trying to thread the needle with a .17 or .22–caliber rifle is next to impossible simply because no vital part of the target is exposed for long. But, with binoculars and a bit of patience, you can figure out where the squirrel is, and then a magnum load of turkey shot can save the day. Squirrels are tough, tenacious animals for their size, and many are lost when poorly hit with a rimfire slug or timid charge of ordinary bird shot. When centered with a 3″ magnum turkey load, few squirrels are lost. These loads hit with an audible slap, and the biggest squirrels come down hard, without so much as a kick in protest.
Among the most challenging shotgunning targets are the various predators — foxes, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons and the like. Tough as these animals are, they are no match for a modern turkey load. Before such cartridges were readily available, I remember wishing ammunition manufacturers would come up with something more devastating than the high–brass duck loads of the time. I spent decades hunting winter predators with shotguns and, sad to say, lost several valuable hides (bobcats were worth $300 at the time) to the relatively puny magnum loads available during that period. Since then, I’ve not lost one coyote or fox to a No. 5 turkey load. Several bobcats (tough animals to kill, especially using shot loads) dropped without a twitch when hit with a 3″ maximum load of tungsten or Hevi–Shot. The ounce–plus charge of heavy shot traveling at 1,200+ f.p.s. hits with such authority the animal simply is done in by the tremendous force of shock delivered by the dense pattern, yet the hide seems pristine (except when viewed from the skin side).
In no way should turkey loads be considered miracle loads. Big–boned, meaty predators are easy to take at distances under 45 yards, but it would be foolish to try to stretch it beyond that. I know for a fact turkeys can be taken with one shot at longer distances, but when you are talking about animals wearing fur, thick skin and heavy muscle, the potential for crippling is not worth it. Any predator caller worth the title can tease his quarry in a few yards closer. I’ve had coyotes come in so close I had to let them run off a few yards before attempting a shot. Anything less than 10 yards away will be obliterated by a turkey load, and heavy damage to pelts will seriously cut their value. Be patient, wait for a good broadside shot, and put most of your pattern in the head and neck area.
One of the first shotgun varmint hunters I ever knew was a Connecticut potato and tobacco farmer named Henry Maturo. Typical of small–time farmers in the 1960s, Henry was a hands–on kind of boss. One summer as a pre–teen I was working as a day laborer irrigating potatoes, and Henry came by and asked me to do him a favor. Apparently, a large groundhog had taken up residence in a stone wall adjacent to a potato field and was wreaking havoc on several rows of prized Russets. My job, if I wanted it, would be to sit in the field with the boss’ shotgun and dispatch the rodent when it came out to plunder more potatoes.
I jumped at the chance, of course, and enjoyed spending the afternoon under a shady oak while my brothers labored in the muddy fields. “Now, this is the way to earn $1 an hour!” I thought. My new position included the one–time use of a pristine L.C. Smith double–barreled shotgun and two paper shotshells, both 2¾″ long and loaded with No. 6 shot. I would have two chances to down the potato thief, and the boss was expecting no less than a successful end to his thievery.
Late in the afternoon, I sat staring at the stone wall when suddenly, staring back at me, there was the groundhog. It had somehow climbed up on the wall and was eyeing the succulent potato patch. Just as quickly, he was gone. I got the gun up and aimed it at the little tractor path that separated the wall from the field. Sure enough, a few seconds later the groundhog emerged from the roadside grass, headed for the potatoes. I whistled sharply and when he stood up for a look, I touched off the right–hand (Modified) barrel. The groundhog leaped skyward and began creeping toward the stone wall. I put the bead under his shoulder and fired again. A cloud of dust enveloped the groundhog and his tail lifted skyward, a sure sign of an expired woodchuck. Not a minute later, the boss showed up in his dented old Ford pickup, and the first thing he said was, “I hope you got him. Those shells are expensive!”
That was one of many hundreds of groundhogs I’ve taken with shotguns, but I can’t say all of them were killed as quickly. Even the most powerful duck loads of the period weren’t enough medicine for the average 5–pound groundhog, an animal every bit as tough to kill as a gray squirrel. I made up for the shortfall by getting closer to my targets or simply not shooting if they were over 35 yards away. Then came the turkey load. With a Full–choked 30″ barrel on a borrowed Marlin Goose Gun, no garden groundhog was safe from my 3″ serving of No. 4 shot.
The growth in turkey hunting came right around the time I was involved with the state organic farmer’s association. By virtue of my interest in guns and hunting, I was elected to deal with the not surprising influx of groundhogs that developed a taste for naturally grown produce. Because most of the small farms were near homes, in neighborhoods or otherwise in close proximity to people and livestock, the only real choice for eliminating rogue groundhogs was the shotgun.
There was a school of thought that favored shooting the animal with low–brass shells and letting it dive into its hole to die later, but that seemed unnecessarily cruel to me. I preferred to see my quarry expire instantly, with no doubt about its fate. When the new turkey loads hit the shelves, I was the first to buy a box and, just like that, the number of nuisance complaints from fellow farmers dwindled. In time, my visits were short, sweet and to the point — one shot and gone, thanks to the new high–velocity heavy shot loads.
Guns & Loads
The variety of nuisance game that can be dealt with using turkey loads is limited only by where you live and what’s available. Possums, nutria, beavers (considered nuisance animals in some states), skunks and other pests are on the list as well. All of these are ideal targets for turkey loads and guns. The list of turkey guns runs the gamut from single–barreled hammer guns, doubles and bolt–action models to high–end semi–autos, pumps and over/unders. Having hunted with them all and shot them at the range and in the field, I’d say stick with the heaviest models and go with guns that come with a variety of chokes. Lightweight, single–shot turkey blasters are great to carry and maintain, but they kick like mules — really no fun to shoot more than once. Properly chambered doubles and over/unders, while relatively costly, do a great job at the patterning board and have the added benefit of coming with multiple fitted chokes.
Most hunters opt for the traditional semi–auto or pump models, and there’s no reason to shy away from them. Again, I’d recommend going with the heavier models due to the pounding they (and you) will receive from repeatedly shooting heavy turkey loads.
When choosing a turkey–load shotgun, spend some time examining things like the trigger guard — is it big and open enough to keep your fingers from being cut or bruised with each shot? And the pistol grip — does your thumb knuckle end up touching your nose before you shoot? If so, don’t choose that gun — you will eventually suffer a bloody nose or split lip when you shoot too quickly or are not in perfect shooting form when you pull the trigger. This I know from experience!
If you are looking at a pump gun, make sure the forearm is long enough and designed to fit your hand properly. Some guns have a short, sharp–edged forearm that can cut your palm into so much sandwich meat if your hand is not consciously set well forward with a solid grip. Be sure to check the drop at heel and comb, too. Too sharp a drop can mean the stock will not stay snugly in your shoulder, and that means some serious bruising is on the way.
Most companies that manufacture shotshells for turkey hunting offer a variety of shot and load combinations that include lead, steel, tungsten, Hevi–Shot and other alloys. Here's a sampling of manufacturers and their offerings.
Winchester: 12 and 20–gauge shells in 2¾″, 3″ and 3½″, 1–5/16–ounce to 2¼ ounces of No. 4, 5 or 6 shot in its Supreme Elite Extended Range Hi–Density shells, Supreme High–Velocity and Supreme Double–X Magnum loads. Shells are sold in boxes of 10.
Remington: Premier High Velocity, Magnum, Duplex and Nitro turkey loads in 2¾″ and 3½″ 10, 12 and 20–gauge shells. Loads range from 1¼ to 2¼ ounces of shot in boxes of 10.
Federal: Mag–Shok Heavyweight loads in 12 gauge only in 2¾″, 3″ and 3½″ shells. Shot loads range from 1–5/8 to 2 ounces of Heavyweight shot, which is one–third denser than lead, in boxes of 10.
Fiocchi: Nickel–plated lead shot in No. 4, 5 and 6 pellets, 12 gauge only.
Hevi–Shot: Hevi–13 turkey loads provide the ultimate mix of buffered, moly–coated shot in No. 5, 6 and 7 in 12 and 20 gauge in 3″ and 3½″ shells in boxes of 5 shells.
Kent: Ultimate Diamond Shot turkey loads are offered in 12 and 20 gauge in 2¾″ and 3″ shells. Options vary from 1¼ to 2¼–ounce charges of No. 4, 5 or 6 shot in boxes of 10.
In a nutshell, if your shotgun doesn’t fit, don’t shoot turkey loads with it! Needless to say, these loads are not meant for beginners, the shy or easily intimidated. They kick hard, make a big bang and do considerable damage downrange. There are many shotgun configurations out there, but they don’t all fit me, and they won’t all fit you. Pick and choose among your favorites, and select the one that fits best and shoots most accurately for you with the least discomfort.
Of the many guns I’ve shot over the years using turkey loads, the most comfortable have been a Thompson/Center Encore single–shot, a 12–gauge Browning Citori over/under and a Winchester Model 1300 pump–action 12–gauge shotgun designed for waterfowling. The single worst shotgun I ever met was a 10–gauge single–barreled hammer gun that had an unfinished stock, a vicious drop at heel and a 30″ tube. No one I ever met wanted to shoot that gun more than once!
There is a good deal of competition between shotshell manufacturers within the turkey hunting realm. Most offer magnum loads with maximum charges of shot and powder, usually in No. 2, 4, 5 or 6 shot. There are some variations, but these are considered the basics, and any of them will down a boss tom at 40 yards. So, of course, will they take care of most non–game animals, varmints or vermin up to about 50 pounds. With larger creatures (like deer, bear and hogs), it is best to consider slugs or buckshot if you plan to stick with a shotgun.
In states where hogs and other game on public land must be hunted with so–called “small game loads” (usually shotshells up to No. 2 shot) turkey loads are the only way to go. Even then, only close–up head shots should be considered. These loads are generally devastating on most smaller game, but they do not perform miracles when asked to perform beyond their capabilities. If you aren’t sure, don’t shoot. But once you do start shooting, finish the job as quickly and cleanly as you can.
So, don’t feel restricted to using turkey loads only on turkeys. Expand your horizons and your enjoyment by finding new targets for these loads. I’ve touched on some, and I’m sure you’ll find more.