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By Ashley Chance, Southeast Regional Coordinator

Shotguns are often used for small game like ducks and squirrel because shooting many small pellets means you are more likely to hit a small target than if you were shooting a single bullet. Not to mention a bullet of almost any size could do a lot of damage to smaller and more delicate animals, destroying the meat you worked so hard to harvest. There are a lot of factors that play into how all of those little pellets look when they leave your barrel and how they look (as a group) when they reach your target. Some of these factors include:

  • Type of shot (steel, lead, tungsten, etc.)
  • Shot size (No. 4, 5 or 6 shot – pellet size inside of the shot shell – 4 would be the biggest in this lineup)
  • Shell length (common lengths are 2.5, 3 and 3.5 inches)
  • Gauge of your gun (common gauges are 10, 12 and 20)
  • Your choke tube (common tubes are: improved cylinder, modified, improved modified, full, extra full and turkey)

I’m focusing mainly on chokes tubes (or “chokes”) here, but all of the above factors should be considered when you’re trying to determine the best way to set your gun up for harvesting a turkey. I would also like to point out that potentially more important than all of these factors is that you have a gun that fits. Not a gun that your husband or father thinks is the right gun for you, but a gun that you actually feel comfortable shouldering and that doesn’t require you to contort yourself unnaturally to see down the sights. I spent too many years trying to harvest small game with a shotgun that was too long for me and could’ve avoided a lot of heartache by getting a gun that fit me appropriately sooner. As a woman it can be a big benefit to have a shotgun that is comparatively light weight, especially if you are carrying it for long periods of time, as is often the case when turkey hunting. The moment you want to take a shot is not the moment when you want your arms to be shaking or cramping so I’d say pump some iron, or buy a gun that you can shoulder repeatedly with ease. Another big thing to pay attention to relative to fit is the length of the stock. Women generally have shorter arms than men so ‘compact’ or shorter stock lengths may provide a better fit. These are not universal rules and may not apply to you, but wise to consider when trying to asses a shotgun.

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OK, back to chokes. All shotguns have a choke tube, some are fixed into the end of the barrel (called a fixed choke) but more commonly today they are easily interchanged by twisting (unthreading) them. If your gun has a fixed choke, the constriction will be printed on the barrel somewhere. Mostly these days this is only the case with .410s. There are also ‘Poly-Chokes’ which are installed by a gunsmith on the end of your gun and can be set to different constrictions by twisting them. But let’s back up a bit, why do chokes even exist? Rifles and some shotguns (that shoot bullets called slugs) have ‘rifled’ barrels. That means that all along the inside of the barrel there are swirling grooves that cause the bullet to be rotating as it exits the gun and thus as it travels towards the target. Having the bullet spin allows it to fly straighter and farther, think about throwing a football. Shotguns designed to shoot shot shells full of pellets do not have rifled barrels. The insides of their barrels are smooth and historically (like pre-1870) were the same inner diameter all the way along their length. This design is nice and simple, but it means that beyond about 30 yards the spread of the shot was hard to predict. There are a lot of scenarios where a hunter can find herself farther than 30 yards from her quarry, and thus chokes were invented. A choke sits inside the tip of your shotgun barrel and constricts the pellets as they leave your gun.

Constricting the pellets allows them to be more tightly grouped for longer distances and carry a greater amount of energy down range.

Really if you just read the line above you’d know pretty much everything you need to about chokes – but we’re going to continue the dive. Chokes can be confusing because they allow you so many options and don’t always have standard names or sizes. The diagram below provides a great visual for understanding the general impact of different chokes on shot spread:

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The typical progression of constriction goes from a cylinder choke, to an improved cylinder, to modified, to improved modified, to full. A cylinder choke is actually doing nothing, no constricting or narrowing of the barrel so it has the largest spread at the shortest distance. Full chokes are the other end of the extreme…but wait there’s more! Many gun manufacturers now make extra full or turkey chokes to get even denser patterns at longer ranges. These specialty chokes can be any diameter the manufacturer chooses in their quest for a specific pattern. In the figure above, you can see that the spread of a full choke at 40 yards is the same as a cylinder choke at 25 yards. That means by just changing out a small tube of metal at the tip of your gun barrel you can shoot things that are 15 yards farther way more effectively!

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This is great news for turkey hunters like me that are still in the ‘beginner’ stage of understanding these birds and don’t have high hopes of getting a shot much closer than 40 yards. However, you need to keep in mind that if you are shooting a highly constrictive choke like a full or turkey your spread is so narrow at close distances that you might miss your mark! When shooting turkeys, you really want to aim for the spot on their neck where the feathers and skin meet. That’s a small target. If your pattern is only 16 inches at 20 yards, it’s not inconceivable that nerves, a muscle cramp, or some other sinister force could cause you to miss. You want to aim at this spot on a turkey because they have thick feathers and heavy wing bones protecting their vital organs (heart and lungs), so shot may not be able to penetrate. By shooting turkeys in the neck you immediately disable their nervous system without ruining any meat. The illustration below gives you a visual of where this place is on a bird.

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Essentially my take home advice is this: find a gun that fits you, then buy a diversity of chokes for it (most guns come with a few out of the box) and practice, practice, practice. Setup targets at every distance you think you could take a shot at (10-50 yards) and see what your pattern looks like with each choke. Practice with the same shot you will be hunting with. Experience is the best teacher but these lessons can be painful if learned in the field – for you and the turkey. Give yourself the upper hand and confidence in your equipment that comes from repetition. Before you buy a choke make sure that it’s compatible with your gun make and model. Manufacturers realized it was more lucrative to make chokes for specific guns than to create universal ones, so not every choke will fit in every shotgun. A general thing to note on shot size is that while larger pellets (No. 4’s) can carry more energy down range, they often don’t pattern well because they clash against each other coming out of the choke and tend to scatter. Smaller pellets pattern better, but are more impacted by cover (twigs and vegetation) between you and the bird. Again, just practice with what you’ll use in the field. This will allow you to critically evaluate the situation you find yourself in and adapt based on your equipment’s capabilities.

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The final thing to note is the penetration power of your pellets. It doesn’t do you any good to shoot a turkey at 60 yards if the pellets are just going to bounce off of him. Below are some benchmarks for effective setups that you can be confident will deliver an ethical kill shot:

If using tungsten shot and a ‘turkey’, ‘extra full’ or other highly constrictive choke:

.410 …40 yards (.410s are illegal for turkey hunting in some states because with traditional loads they are not super effective)

20 gauge…40 yards (lighter weight gun than a 12 gauge with similar effectiveness – when using tungsten loads*)

12 gauge… 40+ yards

10 gauge… 40+ yards (these are generally heavy guns to lug around the woods, thus not often used for turkey)

*Tungsten is 1.5 times denser than lead, so if you are shooting lead this rule doesn’t necessarily hold.

I hope this was helpful, but I’ll admit I didn’t give an answer to the question posed in the title. The reason is that there isn’t a simple answer! There are a lot of resources online about specific ‘after market’ chokes for specific models and brands of guns. I would encourage you to explore those resources relative to your specific gun and decide which choke and shot combination will give you what you want. For turkeys this will most often be the combination that gives you the tightest pattern and most power for the longest distance. If nothing else, I hope this brings clarity to how much variability there is between setups and suggests some starting points for determining what might work best for you.