Bob Humphrey photo
By Bob Humphrey
A friend, who was preparing for an upcoming turkey hunt, recently asked what size shells he should shoot. The answer seemed at first so simple, that I actually hesitated, wondering if he was yanking my chain. It was just long enough for me to realize while the choice may seem simple, the reasons for it are anything but.
Once upon a time, there were no such thing as “turkey” loads. We hunted turkeys with the same loads, and guns we used for waterfowl or upland game, both of which were designed to spray a pattern of shot over a broad area, at a moving target.
Then turkey populations took off, popularity in chasing them soared and gun makers started producing dedicated turkey guns, which now had to deliver a large proportion of their pattern to a confined area, at a more or less stationary object. That was accomplished largely by tighter chokes.
Conventional wisdom at the time recommended shot sizes between 7-1/2 and 2, with some state regulations chipping off one or both of the extremes and limiting hunters to 4, 5, or 6. Lead No. 4 loads had plenty of knockdown power, but fewer pellets (170) and thus, a sparser pattern. The smaller 6s had less kinetic energy, but more pellets (280) and a denser pattern, and 5s represented something of a compromise.
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting it had some unintended consequences that would ultimately prove a boon to turkey hunters. The first non-toxic waterfowl shot approved for use was steel, which is much lighter, and thus has considerably less kinetic energy and knock-down power than lead. So someone invented the three-inch magnum. Then someone else reasoned, "If a 3-inch steel load could kill a goose, imagine what a 3-inch lead load could do to a turkey." Later, someone else decided coating that lead with copper will add even more knock-down power.
While the steel shot required more open chokes, lead didn’t. And as the goal of turkey loads is a denser pattern, someone reasoned, if a tight choke is good; a tighter one must be better. Enter the super-full choke. Ammo manufacturers countered with similar bigger is better logic, producing the 3-1/2-inch magnum shell, which now contained either 270 No. 4 pellets or 450 No. 6 pellets.
Meanwhile, waterfowlers were bemoaning the poor knockdown power, decreased effective range and higher crippling rate of steel shot. Ammo makers responded by producing non-toxic alloys with much more down-range energy. Quite by accident, these new loads also produced much tighter patterns than steel, or lead.
All this brings us pretty much up to the present day. If you prefer density, a modern 3-1/2-inch magnum turkey load of No. 6 shot has over 60 percent more pellets than a conventional 2-3/4-inch standard lead shell of the old days. And each one of the approximately 450 No. 6 pellets carries at least as much energy as those old No. 4 lead pellets. And if you still prefer energy over density, the new No. 4 loads now contain almost as many pellets as the old No. 6 loads. If you want to split the difference, they come in No. 5 as well. So it seems, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And if you mind recoil, you can always scale back to 3-inch magnums and still have an effective range nearly double what it was 20 years ago.