Shotgun Science and Killing Turkeys

Lets get scientific. Shotgun shooters are probably the antithesis of “scientific,” but some science is in order, particularly if you want to kill a turkey with a shotgun.

by Richard Mann

Shotguns shoot non-expanding pellets. These pellets make holes in stuff, and for them to kill a turkey they need to hit the right spot and have enough energy to penetrate.

Simple, right?

Maybe no so much.

Let’s compare two 12 gauge turkey loads: No. 4 and No. 6 shot. Now, a shotgun shell that is loaded with No. 4 shot will contain fewer pellets than one containing No. 6 shot. This is because No. 6 shot is smaller than No. 4 shot and they can fit more No. 6 shot into the shell than No.4 shot. It’s science, but its simple science. Its simple science that impacts getting hits on the turkey.

Arguments abound about the best shot size for turkeys. What matters most: hits, penetration or energy?

The more pellets you throw at a turkey, the better chance you have of hitting it. Not only do you have a better chance of hitting it, you have a better chance of hitting it more often. To illustrate this I took a bunch of 5-inch targets and placed them at 35 yards. I then fired six, 2.75-inch shot shells at six of the targets. Three shells were loaded with No. 4 shot and three with No. 6.

On average, there were 15 hits on each of the targets shot with the No. 4 shells and 31 hits on the targets shot with the No. 6 shells. The clear advantage was to the No. 6 shells. But, can No. 6 shot penetrate deep enough?

To find out, I shot blocks of 10 percent ordnance gelatin with both loads. What I discovered was that the No. 4 shot penetrated about 20 percent deeper than the No. 6 shot. However, the No. 6 shot penetrated—on average—about 4.5 inches. Winner: No. 4 shot because it penetrated deeper. (You might not know this, but every pellet from a shotgun blast does not penetrate to the same depth. There can be several inches of variation in penetration from pellet to pellet.)

Choosing the best turkey load can be a complicated endeavor.

But what about energy? Does it matter how hard we smack a turkey with a load of shot? I’m not sure it does; a pellet in the brain means a dead turkey. However, you might miss the brain, and gobblers have a way of losing feathers to a shotgun blast and then running off to never be seen again.

Each pellet of No. 4 shot hits with 6.88 foot-pounds of energy. Each pellet of No. 6 shot hit with 3.77 foot-pounds. The advantage seems to go to the No. 4 shot but, this is not a one-pellet question; we have to look at the average number of hits on the 5-inch target to get a cumulative energy total. Looking at it this way, the load of No. 4 shot delivered 103.20 foot-pounds of energy with its 15 hits. The load of No. 6 shot, with its 31 hits, delivered 116.87 foot- pounds.

Testing turkey loads in ordnance gelatin revealed some things you might not know.

Winner, winner, chicken (turkey) dinner. It would appear that in this case the No. 6 shot is the way to go. More hits, enough penetration and more energy. But, we have a problem: As the distance to target increases, energy drops and No. 6 shot—because it’s lighter—loses energy faster. At 40 yards the No. 4 load might be better, but if—and only if—you were able to get enough hits.

Simple science, right?

What all this proves is not very much. You see with a shotgun that you never really know where any of those pellets are going to hit. No wonder some game departments only allow shotguns for turkey hunting … they’re protecting their flock.

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