Modern Turkey Loads

A few facts about modern turkey loads

Forward by Grant Carmichael

Every Spring, turkey hunters breakout their best turkey hunting shotgun to check the pattern and make sure things are in working order.  Patterning a shotgun for turkey hunting is as much necessary as it is fun – you need to be confident in your gun and its effective range.  As Jamey explains, modern turkey loads like the new heavier-than-lead (HTL) turkey shotgun loads are more expensive than their lead counterparts.  However, do your homework, and the results will show the best turkey shotgun patterns are found in the HTL loads due to the higher shot count and thier resistance to flyers.  For these reasons, I shoot HTL turkey loads out of my shotgun! – Grant

Indian Creek Chokes
In recent years many turkey hunters have decided to make the switch from shooting lead shot to one of the heavier-than-lead alternatives in their best turkey hunting shotgun. Others are wondering “what’s the big deal and why would anyone want to quit shooting turkeys with good old lead 5′s?” Well at some point everyone who made the switch has asked that question as well so it seems that this would be a good topic to look at a little deeper.

The decision to switch has been easy for some and difficult for others, myself included, and it could do us all some good to take a look at some factors that could contribute us to making that decision.

Let’s look at shot history

Lead shot has been around for a long time and has been the standard shot used for most small game hunting for everything from doves, quail, rabbits and squirrels and even larger game such as geese and turkeys. Lead shot is reasonably inexpensive and readily available in most sporting goods outlets and with its heavy weight it has proven to be an excellent shot material…it does however have some problems. Several years ago lead shot was outlawed for waterfowl hunting when it was discovered that the excess shot was being ingested by waterfowl while they were feeding and ultimately was causing damage to the breeding success of waterfowl. Its standard non-toxic replacement has been steel shot which is harder and considerably lighter than lead which therefore means it can’t be shot safely through some older shotguns and has a lesser killing range.

Ever since steel shot came on the market, there has been an effort to develop better alternatives which would perform as good as or better than lead and still be non-toxic to waterfowl and over time we have seen shot such as Bismuth, Hevi-Shot, Federal Heavy Weight, and Tungsten (commonly called TSS) come onto the market. Several of these have proven to be deadly in turkey hunting loads as well.

turkey shotguns for hunting

Material properties

Steel shot weighs about 7.5 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc) and is harder than lead.

Lead shot weighs about 10.6 g/cc and is a relatively soft metal, deforms easily and is reasonably gentle on a gun barrel.

Hevi-Shot weighs about 12 g/cc and is a mixture of tungsten, nickel and steel and is a much harder metal than lead. It can damage the inside of the barrel of a shotgun and therefore must be loaded with thicker shot wads for more barrel protection.

Hevi-13 weighs about 13g/cc but is otherwise similar to regular Hevi-Shot.

Federal Heavy Weight weighs about 15.2 g/cc and has a higher percentage of tungsten in the metal which makes it heavier than the previously mentioned materials.

TSS weighs about 18 g/cc and has the highest percentage of tungsten of any shot available today and is therefore the heaviest shot currently available. It is an extremely hard material and requires even more precautions than the others to protect the shotgun from damage.

Loaded properly, any of these materials can be used for many years of turkey hunting without causing any shotgun damage.

Performance Comparisons

It is generally accepted that steel shot should not be used for turkey hunting.

Lead shot has proven to be a good turkey load and the most common shot size is probably #5. This shot size has enough energy and penetration to kill a turkey cleanly out beyond 30 yards as long as the pattern density is adequate.

Hevi-Shot #6 performs a little better than a lead # 5 and since the pellets are smaller it is possible to have more of them in the shell which makes the pattern denser as well.

Hevi-13 #7 performs about the same as lead #5 and Hevi-Shot #6. Smaller shot again allows it to have a denser pattern than the previously mentioned loads.

Federal HW #7 pellets perform even better still and if it were available in #8 shot it would actually be similar to those mentioned above. The Federal shell however uses an unusual shot wad that many shotguns do not shoot well. This shell/wad requires a more open choke and works best with non-ported chokes. Some shotguns will shoot this shell wonderfully while others never seem to work well with it.

TSS #9 performs similar or better than all of the previous shells mentioned and with the extremely small shot size it is possible to shoot extremely dense patterns out to 40 yds and beyond.

Hevi Shot Turkey Loads

Killing Power

Let’s face it, to kill a turkey with a shotgun two things are necessary; a dense enough pattern to place shot pellets in the “kill zone” of the head and neck, and pellets that carry enough energy to penetrate bone and into the vitals once they arrive on target.

With all other factors being equal, hard shot pellets will pattern more evenly than softer pellets due to the soft material being more easily deformed under the intense pressure it undergoes when the shot is fired. This is caused both by the initial compression on combustion and also by the shot being squeezed as it passes through the choke. When a pellet deforms it tends to fly erratically rather than straight and this can cause “flyers” and also cause the pattern to “open up” quickly as it travels downrange. Harder shot patterns open up also but at a lesser rate.

Pellet energy can be determined by formulas but it boils down to a combination of pellet weight and speed.

Penetration is based on energy but also takes into consideration pellet diameter. As an example, if you were to take a pencil and “stab” yourself with the eraser end and then do the same thing using the same force with the pointed end, which end do you think would penetrate deeper? It is not too difficult to see that a small pellet will penetrate better than a larger one even if they both have the exact same amount of energy.

Since speed plays an important factor in energy it should also be pointed out that a large lead pellet and a small tungsten pellet that may have equal energy as they leave the shotgun will not still have equal energy at 40 yds due to the fact that the larger pellet has more wind resistance and slows down more quickly than the smaller pellet. This can be demonstrated by throwing a BB and a ping-pong ball together and see which one slows down the quickest as they travel.

Cost

It is no surprise that once we go higher up the ladder than lead shot, we also go up in cost. I recently priced some 12ga turkey loads in lead, Hevi-shot, Hevi-13, Federal HW and TSS and here are the results with the prices averaged from several retailers.

  • Lead #5 1-3/4oz shot – $1.70 per shell – 296 pellets
  • Hevi #6 2oz shot – $5.00 per shell – 414 pellets
  • Hevi-13 #7 2oz shot – $5.60 per shell – 508 pellets
  • Fed HW #7 1-5/8oz shot – $5.00 per shell – 353 pellets
  • TSS #9 2oz shot – 7.19 per shell – 717 pellets
  • 20ga TSS #9 1-7/16oz shot – $5.18 per shell – 515 pellets

The last two are my actual costs for loading my TSS shells with no labor cost applied.

As you can see, other than with the lead shot, the cost per turkey shell really is pretty equal overall and I am spending about the same to kill a turkey with my little 20ga as others would to kill him with a big 12ga shotgun.

Conclusion

I have heard folks often state that the reason they keep shooting lead at turkeys is because of the cost. I submit to you that although I spend more money than I care to admit hunting the wild turkey, the amount I spend on my ammo doesn’t even scratch the surface of the overall expense. In fact my shell cost is likely one of my lowest expenses in turkey hunting and I can’t see any reason shell cost alone should cause someone to continue shooting lead.

Each of the pellets discussed, from lead to TSS, will kill turkeys within their limits and it is not my intention to convince anyone to switch loads but rather to better understand the differences between pellets so you can make an educated decision when choosing your turkey ammunition.

Ultimately I believe we as turkey hunters have an obligation to do everything in our power to cleanly kill every turkey we shoot at without wounding him and letting him get away to die later. No matter which type of load you choose I encourage you to practice shooting and pattern your gun so that you know exactly what it is capable of and then hunt within that capability.

Remember, a good rule to follow is to not shoot at a turkey further than your gun can reliably put 100 pellets inside a 10″ circle. That may be 30 yards for some and 45 for others but you won’t know unless you pattern your gun.
For reference, my 20ga consistently places 170 pellets in a 10″ circle at 40 yards using Federal HW #7 shells and 300+ using my TSS #9 hand loads. I get well fewer than 100 using lead #5 and my acceptable range using lead would be only around 25 yards but that is why I don’t hunt with lead.

Please note that some states have outdated laws that are based on lead shot and restrict turkey hunting to size 7 shot or even larger so you should consider that before heading out to hunt with TSS 9 shells.

By Jamey Rex for Grand Slam network

Discuss the article on the forum

Eastern Wild Turkey

Afternoon Turkey Hunting Tactics

I believe it’s safe to say that most turkey hunters live for the morning hunt. The gobbling at the break of day removes any question marks as to whether a gobbler is around. Excitement, enthusiasm, and adrenalin are at peak readings. The decision making process begins and an approach is applied to a given situation. This usually involves the typical form of closing in on the bird, setting, up, calling, and pointing your gun in the direction of the gobbling. You have an idea of where to be, where the bird is, and that its time to work the bird. Aggressive tactics such as trolling around trying to strike a bird and covering lots of ground often yields a positive outcome and puts you in a similar set up situation. Birds gobble and their location is known. It takes some of the guess work out of it.  Again, mornings generally provide faster and hotter action making it the preferred time to turkey hunt.

The problem with mornings is they fade away and turn into afternoon and afternoon turkey hunting doesn’t always provide the same scenarios. In fact gobbling, success of aggressive tactics, and even our energy levels, fades with it. The pace of the activity dial turns down for a few hours and then tweaks back up later in the day.

I started turkey hunting afternoons 20 years ago not because I wanted to but because I was two hours away from home hunting on the Flint River and had nothing else to do once the morning hunt was over. The others that hunted our lease at that time were out of the woods by mid morning at the latest but I decided it was better to spend the afternoon in the woods even if I were napping where at least there was a chance of killing a bird. I did not know how to go about it but learned. What I soon realized was that I averaged an afternoon bird almost every year and in some cases would not have gotten a limit without that
effort.

Afternoon Turkey Hunts can be Productive

Turkey can be taken at any time of the day as long as you’re in the field and vary your approaches. Self discipline and a larger dose of patience comes into play and just what the approach entails depends on the time of day, terrain features, hunting pressure, and to an extent what part of the country you’re in. For example out west in Montana we may stay on the move most of the day looking for Merriams. In Texas when hunting Rios it’s more of a blended style of hunting involving trolling and staying with a set up for longer periods of time along with sequential calling. It’s the same in New Mexico partly because it’s physically demanding but also because staying with a set up in the right location can be very productive, especially late in the day.

afternoon turkey hunt south Georgia
South Georgia mid afternoon turkey hunt on April 10, 2012

Generally speaking, afternoon turkey hunting tactics for Easterns requires a more passive and patient mindset especially during the mid afternoon. For me it’s required a toned down approach and picking good set up locations based on scouting and knowledge of the property.

Mid Afternoon Trolling

No two turkey hunters are the same and many prefer to stay aggressive. The slower paced “sit and wait” style of hunting doesn’t work for everyone. I’ll respect anyone’s approach but I’m willing to do whatever it takes on any given day when it comes to putting a turkey on the ground as long as it’s rewarding and works for me personally. My program is to always adjust to conditions at hand and plan an approach based on conclusions drawn on a particular day. If birds are vocal I’ll stay more aggressive. If they appear to have gone quiet I turn the dial down.

I have not had a lot of luck moving and calling during the middle of the day when hunting turkey in the Southeast and as a result I slow down and move less. In fact I’ve concluded that I do more damage and probably bump birds that I‘m not even aware of when doing this. I believe you can easily contribute to the “pressure factor” if you don’t recognize that a particular style of aggressive hunting is not working at certain times or on a given day. You can wear a good property out in a hurry if you don’t at least make an effort to put thought in the pressure you’re applying.

If I do troll it’s more of a slow motion advance. I will move from location to location stopping for short periods of time and cutting as hard and loud as I can to try and shock a bird into gobbling. I may cut on a glass call, wait a
couple minutes and then do the same thing on a box call. I will use a crow call at times as well as pay attention to real crows if they appear to be harassing something. I’ll then continue moving forward. I may spend 15-30 minutes in an area that I have reason to feel good about before continuing. This assumes you have a large enough tract to keep moving on. Smaller tracts may require that you set up for a long motionless afternoon.

Successful afternoon hunting requires good scouting.

Having the right set up in my view is as important as good calling and is one of the keys to bringing a gobbler into range any time of day. Knowing the right
ground to commit time to and what bird habits are on afternoon hunts are crucial for many reasons. First of all you’ve got to be confident in a spot to have the patience to hang with it. Also the gobbler is less likely to gobble and announce his location during the middle of the afternoon so being in the right location with proper concealment and minimal movement is a must. It comes down to previous scouting, bird encounters, and your ability to read the sign and land you’re on. Even how you approach the location comes into play.

When I set up on morning hunts or on gobbling birds in the woods, I may set up in thicker terrain or just over a rise with the idea of making the gobbler have
reason to keep looking for me. I’ll rarely set up in wide open places because my experience is a gobbler that can see a long ways will just stand and gobble and not come in. Many so called hang ups are due to bad set ups. I compromise visibility distance because I have an idea of which way he’ll come in from and my guns pointed in the right direction.

On afternoon hunts, especially if I’m in the woods and not a field I’ll try to find a happy medium. I want to see further because I’m expecting the bird to come in quiet and show up unannounced. I still want him to have reason to come looking but I want to have a better view as well.

Logging roads that have turkey sign such as drag marks, dusting bowls, droppings, or tracks all add up to define a potential kill zone.

afternoon turkey hunt Idaho
Late afternoon Idaho Merriam taken by Wesley Phelps on May 21, 2012

I’ll try and find the right tree, shade, and pile up anything that will help me blend in and hide movement. Trimming and stacking limbs, piling logs, and sometimes pulling a piece of camo netting from Abature Outpost I carry in my vest works well. When I hunted in the river swamp, palmettos were great to cut and stick in the ground around me. I brush in my back sides so if he shows up behind me I’m not busted before I have a clue he’s around. Psyching out butt pain from sitting so you don’t move is important. I wear a vest because it offers padding both underneath and behind me which allows me to sit motionless for longer periods at a time.

Field Hunting

Open areas such as pastures and fields are great places to find birds and can be especially good on rainy days. When approaching fields I use cover and terrain to slip up to view the field. I may not cut or call with a turkey call as I approach but will blast them with a crow call in an effort to shock one into sounding off. I’m not counting on this as a for sure way of knowing they’re there as gobblers sometime seem to have gone deaf for periods of time and don’t gobble at anything. But it is a way to attempt to find him without worrying about him starting towards me quietly while continuing to move towards the field. The last thing I won’t is to call and cause the bird to focus in my direction or start approaching me quietly or bump into him when I’m out of position. My preference is to sneak up close enough to glass the field with a plan of maneuvering around and setting up if I see birds.

If none are there but I know it’s a good spot and it’s just a matter of time, I’ll dig in by making a “make shift” blind, try to stay in shadows, and commit to a position for varying periods of time. If visibility and cover provides I like to back off a field 10-15 yards so that a bird has reason to search for me. It also helps with getting hens by un-spooked and if a gobbler approaches tight down the edge, I can move and get away with it compared to actually sitting right on the field.

If you’re using decoys set them up 10-15 yards out into the field (20-25 yards away from you) and often times if you snooze that’s where the gobbler will be when you wake up.

Anyone that’s hunted field birds knows how tough and stubborn they can be. You can spend hours just watching a bird that feeds and shows little interest. Once a gobblers in the field I call soft and very little unless he was responding to other calling I was doing which I would then continue. It depends on how he reacts. If he’s feeding and not interested I play it “safe” although I have had luck pulling birds across fields with fighting purrs as well.

I also start looking for a way to move around on him if he shows patterns of moving back and forth and hanging on one side of the field. If I see a way to move around and re position I’ll go for it. Just calling from a different location sometimes makes a difference. So even if I can’t make a big move, a short move of 20-50 yards towards him can make a difference. Just know that often on a field that is known to be used by birds you can bump others by trying this. It’s a judgment call and often based on hunches. Sometimes it’s due to impatience.

Calling Sequence

Generally, I’ll usually go through a calling sequence every 10-15 minutes starting soft and easy with clucks and soft yelps. I’ll then work up to more aggressive calls. Opinions vary on this and I agree that you’re probably safer
by keeping it soft and easy and calling every 15-20 minutes but it’s not always about being safe for me and I like to call. I want any bird within 250 yards to know I’m there. I’ve had good luck though the years by not being afraid to crank and let birds know some odd ball loudmouth hen is in the woods while all the other self respecting hens are just purring and minding their own business. The exception is if I really believe birds are imminent or close in which case I’ll control my tempo and exercise more patience.

I can remember many days where I sat for 2-3 hours going through 10-12 calling sequences, hearing nothing and thinking it’s just not going to happen today only to be startled by a gobbler cutting me off when I called. If this happens, he’s most likely coming in. On other hunts I’ve had gobblers gobble and announce their arrival 10-15 minutes after calling. He heard me and locked in on my position when I called earlier and is letting me know he is close to where he thought the hen should be. Consider this a lucky break but it happens often enough.

On the opposite side I have called from a spot for an hour or so, got up and walked off only to hear a bird gobble from the spot I just left 10 minutes later. Not a good feeling.

Once a bird is in sight it really does vary and it comes down to watching and reading the bird. Taking the gobbler’s temperature factors in to an extent but soft and easy once he’s in tight is the way to go if you have to call again at all. If he’s come because of your previous calling he may continue to wander into your lap. Just watch him and see what he’s going to do on his own. Even scratching on the leaves can coax him on over into range. Often a gobbler during the early to mid afternoon periods seem to have a “take it or leave it” attitude. This gets progressively better as the afternoon goes on and towards late afternoon to evening they can be as hot as in the mornings.

There are other options to consider as well. For example if I hear a bird sound off at longer distances while I’ve been in a set up for a while, I may jump and run towards him but often I give him a few minutes and call again to see if he will gobble again and to see if he was gobbling at me. If it sounds like he’s closed the distance I may stay or move forward depending on terrain and my hunch. He may very well come all the way in but if I can cut some distance off by charging forward and sitting down again and calling it can only help as long as you don’t get busted. It will appear to him as if the hen is coming towards him and may fire him up more.

If I happen to know there’s a distant obstacle such as a creek or fence in the direction he gobbled from then I’m going to make an aggressive move to get to that spot before he does.

Late Afternoons

My experience in afternoons, at least where I’ve hunted Easterns is almost no gobbling occurs until after 5:00. My attitude and enthusiasm picks up accordingly as the day wears on. I may have set up in a particular area for specific reasons for mid day hunts and re locate to put myself in a general roosting area or travel route for late day set ups. I want to be within hearing range of any known roosting locations but not pushing the limit to the point I change their habits if a bird bust me. That’s said; I am not beyond getting in tight on a roost if I’m traveling and I’m running out of time. It depends on how badly I won’t a bird. Many argue against this and I believe it depends on circumstances and properties.

For example in Texas there are places that many birds will roost night after night. To get in tight and cause a scene would change their habits and make them harder to hunt on following days or for future hunters. I avoid pushing too hard there. If there are such placesthat are known on your hunting properties to be consistently holding roosted birds it is a good idea to give them somewhat of a berth so that you’ll know where to get after them on morning hunts at least early in the season.

For public land birds, limited hunting opportunities, or if you are running out of time, I would push in tight on roost areas. Let me put it this way. Most hunters will get as close to a roosted bird in the morning in the dark as they can. So I’m not sure what the real difference in hunting tight in the evening is compared to mornings. You risk busting the bird either way or disturbing a possible pattern. If there’s an argument here I’d say its more in regards to an individual believe about bushwhacking but that’s not what I’m suggesting. I still call and try and pull a bird over. Most Eastern birds I’ve hunted roost in a general area and not in the same tree.
The bottom line is I want to set up where birds have reason to be at certain times of day. Being within ear shot of a roost area or knowing travel routes back to them make sense in terms of trying to kill a bird. This can be done without pushing them out of an area.

For What its worth

Last year I killed all three of my Georgia Easterns and at least one of my two New Mexico birds in the afternoon. Grant killed a mid afternoon NM Merriams at 1:00 while a large group of us were sitting around eating lunch. Wesley killed the Idaho gobbler late in the day and may have killed others in the afternoon, I can’t remember. Jim Bates who has a technique I’ll describe as a “really long morning hunt”. The past two years he has hunted with us in Georgia and Alabama and he goes in before light and we don’t see him again until dark. He knows that you can’t kill em in camp and he always finds a way to put himself in a position to be successful all day long.
Afternoons can be long, hot, buggy, and boring. But they can provide opportunities.

Varied Approaches

It should be noted that the afternoon approaches I’ve discussed here work on morning hunts as well if birds are “quiet”.

I realize no two turkey hunters are alike, we all have our own style, and we all swear by what has worked in the past. Some of us are more fortunate than others when it comes to having the time to hunt and good turkey woods to hunt in. My time is somewhat limited but I have been pretty lucky when it comes to places to hunt.

For me it has been all about being open minded, flexible, and adopting blended tactics. As much as I want to hunt gobbling birds aggressively, I’ve learned to adjust and incorporate approaches that yielded results under many different circumstances in many different parts of the country when birds are quiet or during afternoons. I’m a turkey hunter that respects wildlife, enjoys the woods, and the camaraderie. But I do like to kill turkeys. I will run to a gobbling morning bird but I am willing to sit still for hours in a spot if I believe that’s what it takes on those quiet days or long afternoons.

The key is to learn how to identify through scouting the right locations to commit to, have the confidence and patience to stay with the plan, and be satisfied with a varied style of hunting.

Bobby Parks
Grand Slam Network
Mossy Oak Pro Staff
Ol Tom Field Expert