When shooting at large game such as Elk, Bear, Deer, Pigs, etc., we are taught to aim at the boiler room (where the heart and lungs are). We are taught to never take headshots because it’s too small of a target. Every hunter has heard horror stories about wounding an animal in the head or neck and not recovering it. Contrarily, the area containing the heart and lungs is a large target, the weapons we use can easily penetrate the rib cage or shoulder, and it is all but a guaranteed kill if we connect.
Turkey hunting, however, throws this advice on its head (literally). Hunting turkey, we cannot legally use anything larger than #4 shot. Most hunters choose #5or #6 shot. Significantly smaller than a BB, these lead pellets are not able to penetrate inches of wing, feathers, and muscle to hit a turkey in the heart or lungs.
So we aim for the head on a turkey.
A quick note about the shotgun shell. It contains powder, the wad, the cup, and the shot. The cup is what holds the shot together so that it does not immediately spread apart when fired. The cup will typically fall away from the shot somewhere around 20yds from the gun.
Choke Tube: Screws into the end of A smoothbore shotgun constricting the bore in order to affect the pattern of shot after it leaves the gun. As a general rule, the tighter the choke, the farther the shot will travel before becoming separated.
A typical shot at a turkey is going to be about 25-40 yards out. At this range, the shotshell will have started to open up and the cloud of shot will be separating.
By the time the shot reaches the turkey at 30-40yds the amount of pellets that will potentially hit the turkey’s head is pretty low. Due to this, it is a good idea to test out the shotgun with the shell we will use to hunt, the choke we will have in the shotgun, and the distance(s) we anticipate shooting the bird at. This is called Patterning your shotgun and here are the steps to do it:
- For turkey, we will typically be using the full choke that came with our gun or an aftermarket choke that is even more constrictive than full. If you go this route read all instructions from the aftermarket choke tube, the gun’s manual, and the box of shells to make sure they are all compatible together.
- Using either #4, #5, or #6 birdshot (or #7,#8,#9 TSS) you want to pattern each type of shell, choke tube, and gun you will be using to hunt. You do not want to get a good pattern with Winchester #6 and your Mossberg and then last second switch to an unpatterned Beretta with Federal #5. We are going for no surprises here.
- Print or purchase a turkey head target. I recommend this free one. It is lifesize and has the vital zone illustrated.
- Use a fresh target for each shot.
- Go to 25 yards and shoot the target. Do this 3 times (with a fresh target each time). You want to be aiming at the wattle of the turkey (where the skin of the head meets the feathers).
- Count the number of pellets inside the turkey’s vital zone. Average this number out from the 3 targets.
- Now go out to 40 yards and again shoot one shell at 3 fresh targets. Count the pellets in the vital zone on each one of these and average the number.
- This gives you your shotgun’s pattern at two typical turkey distances with a particular Shell-Choke Tube-Gun combination.
- A good pattern will have 3-5 (or more) pellets in the upper spinal cord or brain of the turkey. Furthermore, you want 20-25 pellets in the general waddle area.
- If the selected shell does not have enough pellets in the vital zone, consider using a smaller size of shot (switching from #4 to #5, for example). This will mean there are more overall pellets inside the shell.
I will be hunting with an extra full turkey choke and using Federal 3rd-degree shells in 3″ 12 gauge this year. Before I do, I will be hitting the range to pattern my gun. Turkeys are tough birds to locate or get close to, but even tougher to kill. Their thick layer of feathers works like a natural armor. Pattern your shell, choke, and gun at several distances and aim for the head. Good luck and stay safe!