04/16/10 — Marsh: Testing shotguns the key to turkey success

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Marsh: Testing shotguns the key to turkey success

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on April 16, 2010 1:46 PM

Many hunters simply buy the latest shotgun ammo promising tight patterns for turkeys and head for the woods without checking the performance of the ammunition in their shotgun. This can be a big mistake, especially when what may be the only opportunity of the season vanishes into the forest canopy on flapping wings or disappears like the roadrunner cartoon character being chased by his nemesis, the coyote.

Each shotgun, barrel, choke, and ammunition combination performs differently. Something as seemingly simple as replacing a choke tube marked "Full" with another marked "Turkey Full" or may be considered a good thing. But only shooting test patterns at a range of 40 yards will discover whether the combination will cleanly kill a turkey at the same range.

Over the years, I've found that a few screw-in choke tubes place their patterns off-center, a fact quickly discovered at the firing range. However, it takes several shots with each load/choke combination to fine tune a hunting armament package into a reliable gobbler-getter.

I've killed many turkeys and some of them were farther away than 40 yards due to miscalculation on my part. But what I've discovered is that whether using No. 4, 5, or 6 lead shot, or one of the super-polymer or tungsten alloy turkey loads in equivalent energy shot sizes, sometimes an inadequate number of pellets strike the head and neck vertebrae of a turkey target at that range. Even an apparently perfectly placed pattern at 40 yards can allow a gobbler to escape a small percentage of the time when nothing is between the hunter and his game but thin air. But as the range is reduced, the odds increase.

Factor in mitigating functions, such as the hunter being in a rather strained shooting position (the legendary "pretzel position"), with his back against a tree with a big knot between his shoulders, his gun craned as far as he can turn to his weak side and that his is sitting, almost laying, on the ground and having trouble getting his cheek properly positioned on the stock for sighting along the rib or seeing through a scope, and things get pretty dicey. Stick a few twigs and leaves between hunter and gobbler to dissipate energy or completely dislodge a vital few pellets on their way to such a tiny target zone and everything becomes even longer in the odds than the gobbler is in the beard and spur department.

I've been testing a Mossberg 930, with which I took four gobblers in two states last year. A cursory pattern session then showed the 12-gauge shotgun digested one of my favorite turkey loads, a 3-inch, 1 7/8-ounce Remington Nitro Turkey round containing No. 5 hard, lead shot with plastic buffering material, just as well as my formerly favorite shotgun, a Remington 11-87 that now has most of its bluing worn off so it shines like a mirror. The Mossberg's camo finish is kind of cool looking. But in reality, if a gobbler sees any gun motion or any other movement, he's going to be gone before the trigger trips the load. All he should ever have the chance to spot is the hole in the end of the barrel and if he sees see that move, he's still going to be gone before the pellets turn him into the guest of honor at a turkey dinner.

I tried several turkey chokes in the Mossberg, some of which cost as much as $40. But none outperformed the standard full choke consistently enough to make me add their two-inches-outside-the-bore length to my already too-long-to-move-around-much-in-a-tent-blind gun barrel.

What makes me believe the vagaries of turkey pattern testing are really voodoo, is the odd time, perhaps once in 10 or once in 20 rounds, when the best gun/load combo I can put together fails to put a proper pellet count into a gobbler's vital zone target at 40 yards. Thus must be spawned legends of armor-plated turkeys, when in reality, wind gust, canted gun, twig or leaf, or simply that once-in-a-blue-moon, slightly off-target clump of pellets is responsible for the "miss."

Most of my gobblers have hit the ground at a range of between 30 and 35 yards. I've learned by dejected trial and serious error that honed hunting skills can overcome the witch-doctor impact of the happenstance pattern. If you and your shotgun are up to the task, getting the bird somewhat closer than 40 yards virtually guarantees success. But only by bruising your shoulder while putting pellets into pattern paper are you going to discover the talismanic range at which you have that 100-percent chance of checking in your gobbler to the Commission's turkey harvest check-in line or website. A gobbler is never too close to shoot. But he can certainly be too far away. Only pattern testing tells you for sure how far is too far.