Long-range turkey shooting has always been controversial, but yesteryear's "40-yard maximum" rule isn't cast in concrete. The limitations of old chokes and shotshells have been lifted by impressive new chokes and loads that can deliver dense, hard-hitting patterns at amazing distances.
I'm not advocating anyone routinely try to topple turkeys from 70 yards, but I urge every turkey hunter to build a gun/choke/shell combination that produces consistent, dense patterns at whatever maximum range they feel comfortable. Test drive a variety of chokes and shells, and while doing this, keep in mind that a tight pattern at 50 yards will practically be a single projectile at 15 yards. A charge of pellets this tightly bunched could sail harmlessly past a turkey's head if you don't aim as precisely as if you were shooting a bullet.
At the same time, consider pattern spread at extreme ranges and its potential for collateral damage. Just because a particular load/shell combination consistently puts 9-12 pellets in the head/neck region of a tom at long range doesn't mean it won't simultaneously throw 300 pellets well off that mark. And one or more of those has the potential to kill or wound other turkeys standing near your targeted tom. And don't forget that pellets drop downrange and drift in the wind just like rifle bullets, only more so. You need experience shooting beyond 40 yards to do it correctly.
Discretion is an important part of responsible turkey shooting at any distance.
GETTING ALL CHOKED UP
A choke is a constriction near the muzzle of a shotgun barrel that works something like a nozzle on a garden hose. By narrowing the barrel opening, the choke squeezes the shell's cluster of pellets into a narrower space, minimizing their spread downrange. This seems to be as much art or voodoo as science, because chokes of the same shape and constriction don't produce the same results with every shotgun. This is why it's important to test and experiment. An extra-full choke constriction on one gun might perform more like a light full choke on another. And too much choke can blow patterns rather than tighten them.
But what's a full choke versus an extra-full choke? There is no absolute industry standard, so measuring the degree of constriction is the best way to achieve consistency. The bore of a 12 gauge is supposed to be .729 inches in diameter. Many are made slightly larger (called over-bored) to reduce felt recoil slightly and decrease pellet deformation by providing extra room for pellets during their flight down the barrel. But, regardless of average barrel diameter, choke restrictions can be measured and rated by how much they constrict that diameter. A cylinder choke adds no restriction; an improved cylinder tightens the barrel opening by 0.005 inch; modified constricts it by 0.020 inch; full squeezes it down by 0.030 inch.
Extra-full choke starts getting us into long-range turkey performance by putting 0.040-inch constriction in a choke, and so-called "turkey chokes" tighten things down 0.045 inch. And things keep getting tighter from there, with some tubes constricting as much as 0.090 inch.
Tightening a choke isn't without its risks. Pellets need to squeeze through that smaller door, and large, hard pellets have trouble doing this. Water-fowlers discovered this when they fired hard, steel-shot BBs through some older guns with soft steel barrels. Those barrels bulged near the choke constriction, and a few split open. Tight turkey chokes often come with warnings to use specific types of shot only. A tight choke suitable for lead loads could be dangerous with steel or tungsten loads. Pay attention.
Some choke makers hype longer, gradual choke constrictions to minimize sudden pressures and pellet deformation. Some are ported to minimize barrel jump and/or felt recoil, and some include internal straight rifling to negate wad spin, while others advertise ports or slots designed to slow down or strip away wads for a smoother release of the shot charge. Any and all of these features can help—or hurt—downrange performance depending on the ammunition. Shop carefully.
FIND A GOOD MATE
Turkey shotshells have gotten so specialized that not all chokes perform well with all shells. This is where we hunters really need to pay attention and experiment. In addition to choosing among lead, copper-plated lead, steel, tungsten and Bismuth shot, we have to choose the right wads—and more. The right choke with the wrong ammo can ruin downrange performance.
Federal's Mag-Shok turkey loads with Flite-Control wads, for instance, don't perform well when fired through chokes with ports, rifling grooves or other features that grab the wad. Flite-Control wads are designed to stay with the shot charge and deliver a gradual, controlled release of the pellets farther downrange than traditional wads for 30 percent tighter downrange patterns over traditional loads. You need to buy and shoot chokes specifically designed for optimum performance with Flite-Control wads to gain the long-range performance benefits of their tungsten-based shot.
Winchester's hot new Long Beard XR turkey loads are designed to work perfectly with most chokes. They get their extreme-range performance not from a new wad, but from Shot-Lok encapsulated pellets. This new technology is a first. Winchester pours a liquid into the shot cup, then pours in the load of lead pellets. Each pellet is coated and the spaces between them are filled. The liquid hardens, so the entire shot column is tied together. Doesn't this mean you'll be sending a slug downrange? No, because upon ignition the resin breaks into tiny particles that continue to buffer the pellets, minimizing the crushing, distorting forces exerted on the bottom-most pellets by the mass of shot atop them. The result is rounder pellets that fly straighter, resulting in remarkably tight patterns much farther downrange than many shooters can believe.
Winchester is touting Long Beard XR as a legitimate 60-yard load in the right guns with the right chokes, but tests by many gun writers, including NAH Online Editor Josh Dahlke, have recorded 12-pellet hits on turkey targets (head and neck) at 70 yards. Long Beard XR loads are made with Nos. 6, 5 and 4 shot. Due to the declining energy of lighter pellets beyond 50 yards, I'd recommend No. 5 shot for 50- to 60-yard shots and No. 4s for anything beyond 60 yards.
Anyone who's shot Winchester's Hi-Density Xtended Range turkey shells, which are also capable of effective 70-yard performance, might wonder why the Long Beard XR loads were created. Cost is the answer. The tungsten pellets used in those Hi- Density shells have gotten so expensive that Winchester has discontinued them. The new Long Beard XRs will be sold in 3-inch and 3½-inch 12 gauge with 13/4-ounce and 2-ounce payloads respectively. Muzzle velocity averages around 1,200 fps. The cost for a box of 10 shells should be about $5 more than Winchester's Double X loads.
Remington keeps prices down and performance up by combining hard, copper-plated lead pellets with buffering to protect pellets from deformation during ignition forces. At 1,300 fps, their Hi-Velocity loads carry a bit more energy downrange than slower loads, enabling shooters to stick with smaller pellets such as No. 5 beyond 50 yards, increasing the potential for more hits.
Hevi-Shot Hevi-Metal Turkey Loads get their downrange performance via tungsten, nickel and iron alloy pellets that are 20 percent more dense than lead. At launch speeds as high as 1,450 fps, these irregularly shaped pellets carry so much energy that No. 6 shot remains effective well beyond 50 yards. The greater number of No. 6 pellets in a given charge should increase pellets on target, but only testing with your gun and choke will reveal this.
Hornady's Heavy Magnum Turkey loads owe their long-range performance to the thickest nickel plating in the business, according to Hornady. The hard nickel coating minimizes deformation of the underlying lead pellets for truer flight and denser patterns downrange. The VersaTite wad in these shells is designed to strip cleanly from the shot charge in flight with minimum disruption. The 1,300 fps muzzle velocity of the 12 gauge load increases downrange energy of all pellets. Hornady claims lethal results to 50 yards, but your mileage might vary.
The good news about all turkey loads and chokes is that nearly any can produce the kinds of patterns you need for your style of hunting. Sometimes the load makes the difference, sometimes the choke. The trick is trying various combinations of chokes, shells and shot types and sizes to determine how well and consistently your gun will shoot. Once you know your effective range, you can proceed to hunt judiciously and ethically within it.