By: Justin Hunold
Let’s start from the very beginning, it’s the very best place to start. Ben Franklin’s pick for our National Avian Emblem, Thanksgiving Dinner Star, and befuddler of spring hunter the Wild Turkey, they are tough to kill. So, when we are chasing them a lot of the focus has been put on the gun and choke combo, optics, calls, camo and energy drinks. What is the actual thing that does the dispatching though…the ammo. Let’s look at the anatomy of a turkey shell and also what shells you might consider running this year.
What are the components of a shotgun shell? This is interesting because when I started chasing turkeys almost 30 years ago the answer was shoot them with a high brass 3” magnum #4 in a full choke. In all honesty, that hasn’t changed a ton during the ammo shortages of the past few years; plenty of birds were being chased with a similar set up, but Turkey Shells aren’t just beefed up game loads.
Generally if we start at the front of the shell, you will see a crimp. The crimp is what holds all the shot and other components in the shell, you can have folded or rolled. Folded crimps will have a familiar star pattern in the folds. Rolled crimps will have a flat disc facing out with the edged of the rolled shell holding it in place. Either will work just fine, but more and more you see top end turkey loads with rolled crimps. The reason that is the case is the rolled crimp allows for a touch more internal volume for components ie. shot.
Inside the shell you will find the shot, in lead or similar shot 4,5,6’s tend to be the most popular sizes of buffered lead in the shells.A lot of states will limit your shot sizes to those coinciding numbers, shall not be smaller than a 6 or larger than a 4. Often in a turkey load the lead is plated with a harder metal such as copper. Shot will have buffer between it. This helps the pellets not bounce off of each other during flight therefore retaining their roundness and stability.
Those two components are housed in the wad. The wad is simply the plastic cup that holds the shot and buffer in place as it goes down the barrel. The wad sits on top of the powder and the powder sits on top of the primer. All of this is housed in a hull or shell.
Shells come in three sizes for 12 gauges and two for 20 gauge (for our purposes). Both guns will support 2.75” and 3” shells, some 12’s will also take a 3.5” shell as well. Always check the gun for the length of the shell it will take. With that the longer the shell the more total components will fit inside of it, in the form of powder and shot. So a 3.5 inch 12 gauge supports a lot more #6 shot than a 2.75” 20.
So, after that history lesson what makes a Turkey Load different? Generally, turkey shells will have as much shot as possible in each size shell. Where as a 3” #4 duck load might have an ounce and an eighth of shot, a turkey load will likely be filled with more than an ounce and a half of the same size shot.
You don’t need to lead a turkey, so with plated lead shot and more of it being pushed out, velocity on turkey shells is normally slower. It doesn’t need to get there fast, it just all needs to get there and as densely as possible. With a waterfowl load you likely want a large ish pattern that has few gaps, say about 30” , a turkey shell should be delivering all of its shot very tightly. Often that need for a lot of shot delivered in a tight area leads to companies leaning on a high pellet count and high quality buffer to make that happen.
Now we get into the zone of shot composition. What are the pellets made of? This is a lot like our evolution of waterfowl shells articles. The difference is there is almost no non toxic requirements (California withstanding). Meaning lead has dominated Turkey Shells for a long time. But when it comes to shotgun shells for turkey hunting, lead is not your only option. Tungsten, Bismuth and other denser than Lead have made their way over to turkey hunting.
This started a long time ago with the original Heavy Shot, but with the advent of some advancements in turning out higher grade heavier than lead shot and better components there is a real swing to these new options. All forms of TSS or Tungsten Super Slam shot have made their way into retailers and chambers of guns alike. When you may have stepped down to a 6 shot in the past to increase pellet count , you can now shoot a #9 and when that #6 lost it’s steam at 40 yards that TSS in #9 is still plenty lethal at 60 and beyond. But that comes with a price tag. Normally TSS from any manufacturer is going to top $10 a shell. And shot sizes that small aren’t legal in all places.
If you’re a dedicated Turkey hunter and you can constitute the price tag of the TSS shells and proprietary choke that should be used by all means send them down range. They are a devastating combination for spring Toms. Yet, do not discount a great shot shell stuffed with plated #4,5, or 6 shot. More of that will take to the woods than TSS this spring and it has killed mountains of turkeys over the years.
With modern buffer, powder, Shot construction and shapes, and even duplex or combination of all of these shot sizes and materials together turkey loads have never been more potent. And with that, don’t fall into the bigger is best mode of shot shells. More and more folks are shooting heavier than lead options in 20 gauge when putting big strutters on the ground. Often a 3” option will pattern better in a given gun than a 3.5” shell of the same manufacturer and style. But with that there are a lot of people who carry a 12 gauge stoked with 3.5 inches and 2 ounces of hellfire. Cause you can’t kill them too dead. And at the end of the day all of this is about putting those tough Toms on the ground for good. We are lucky hunters to have so many options.