Turkey Hunting Shotgun Gauge & Shot Size

02/2024

Gone are the days when turkey hunting was a simple affair, a matter of heading into the woods with any shotgun loaded with whatever shells were at hand.

Today, it’s a sophisticated endeavor where strategy and the right turkey hunting gear—including the right shotgun and the right ammunition for the task at hand—define the experience.

At the crux of this evolution is the ammo. Specifically, shotgun shells designed to deliver the performance turkey hunters demand.

Today’s turkey shotgun shells (like the 12 gauge turkey shells above) are a breed apart. Forget your basic birdshot, these shells are engineered for power, designed to deliver a decisive blow at distances that keep the wary birds unaware of your presence.

They’re also packed with features tailored for the turkey hunter: heavy loads for more pellets and greater energy downrange, ensuring that when you aim at that elusive gobbler, you’re equipped to make the shot count.

Note: While the right ammo and gauge selection is critical, don’t forget about choke tubes. They’re key for fine-tuning the pattern and range of your shot, tailoring it to specific hunting environments and distances. Learn more about chokes for turkey hunting here.

Breaking Down Turkey Shells

Heavy Loads

The essence of turkey shells lies in their payload. More shot and heavier loads mean a dense cloud of pellets flying towards your target, increasing the likelihood of a hit that stops a turkey in its tracks.

Material

Once dominated by lead, the world of turkey shells has expanded to include alternatives like tungsten, bismuth, and steel. Tungsten, with its superior density, stands out by enabling hunters to maintain tight patterns over longer distances, ensuring the energy necessary for a clean, ethical kill.

Size

Shot sizes range from #4 to #7, with the choice depending on the need for penetration versus pattern density and the gauge of your shotgun, as different gauges may perform better with specific shot sizes. The goal is clear: to maximize the likelihood of a successful hunt.

Speed

Velocity is a double-edged sword. While faster pellets can reach their target more swiftly, there’s a risk of spreading the pattern too thin. The key is finding a velocity that maintains pattern integrity while ensuring the pellets have enough speed to be effective.

Best Shotgun Gauges for Turkey Hunting

For the experienced turkey hunter, understanding the nuances of shotgun gauges is already second nature. Gauges not only affect the firepower at your disposal but also the size and pattern of the shot spread. For those new to turkey hunting, let’s look at some options in detail:

12 Gauge Shotguns

The 12-gauge is arguably the most versatile shotgun available. Its ability to accommodate a wide variety of shot sizes and types makes it suitable for almost any type of turkey hunting, or hunting nearly any other type of game for that matter.

Diving into the mechanics, the 12-gauge shotgun is a go-to powerhouse with a wide selection of turkey-specific loads. It’s engineered for maximum impact, delivering heavy payloads capable of maintaining tight patterns over extended ranges—an important thing when you’re looking to drop a turkey in its tracks from afar.

The versatility of 12-gauge shotguns makes them a staple in turkey hunting, offering a blend of reach and punch that’s hard to match.

This versatility shines when loaded with #4 or #5 shot, offering a perfect blend of knockdown power and pattern density.

Its popularity also means that ammunition and accessories are widely available, offering hunters flexibility in tailoring their setup to different hunting scenarios.

The 12 gauge is your go-to for maximum impact at varied ranges, ensuring that even at the outer edges of its effective distance, you maintain enough pellet energy to secure a clean harvest.

20 Gauge Shotguns

20-gauge shotguns offer a lightweight alternative, trading some of the 12 gauge’s brute force for more agility and less recoil. It’s a favorite among hunters who are more after stealth and maneuverability than raw power.

The lighter kick and nimble handling make it an excellent choice for extended treks through rugged terrain or for those who prefer a more calculated, close-quarters approach to turkey hunting.

Despite its smaller size, the 20-gauge doesn’t skimp on lethality, especially when loaded with #5 or #6 shot—packing enough punch to take down a turkey with well-placed shots within its effective range.

#4 shot can still be effective for turkey hunting with a 20-gauge shotgun, especially for hunters looking for greater pellet energy and knockdown power at slightly longer ranges.

But when it comes to threading pellets through dense brush or ensuring a dense cloud of lead at typical turkey distances, #5 and #6 shots in a 20-gauge offer the tight patterns and pellet count that can turn a hunt into a surefire success. It’s all about maximizing your hit probability on those vital spots, making every shot count where it matters most.

Whether stalking through dense brush or positioning for shots in muddy or uneven terrain, these shotguns provide adaptability and power needed to address a variety of different scenarios.

.410 Bore Shotguns

Let’s start by saying that a .410 shotgun for turkey hunting is far less practical compared to using larger, traditional gauges like 12 or 20 gauge shotguns. The .410 bore has a smaller shot payload and less power compared to larger gauges, which can result in shorter effective ranges and potentially less lethal shots, especially at longer distances.

And yet, it often comes up in turkey hunting discussions.

Some hunters may choose to use .410 bore shotguns for turkey hunting due to their lighter weight and reduced recoil, but most of them are probably doing it for the increased challenge.

The .410 bore often gets tagged as a “beginner’s gauge,” and there’s a reason for that. But there’s also a respect for it among some experienced hunters and shooters, who appreciate the challenge and precision it demands, since the smaller payload and tighter patterns leave less room for error.

Modern turkey shells loaded with high-density tungsten are shattering the preconceived notions of what’s possible with this bore—delivering compact, lethal patterns and stopping power at distances that used to be off-limits. Loading this bore with #6 or #7 high-density tungsten shot can turn it into a precision instrument capable of kills at surprising distances—in the right hands.

Still, it remains a challenging, niche option that requires a high degree of skill. Using one effectively for hunting turkeys requires sharp shooting skills, lots of patience, and deep knowledge of turkey behavior. But, for hunters looking to make their next turkey hunt a little more interesting and challenging, why not give the .410 a shot?

The Verdict: Choosing Your Gauge

If you’re serious about bagging that turkey and bringing home the bragging rights, you can’t go wrong with a 12 or 20 gauge. These shotguns pack the punch you need to reach out and touch a gobbler at those longer distances where a .410 starts to falter. And with a heap of options for turkey shotgun shells at your disposal, you can dial in your load to match any situation.

It’s about having the right tool for the job, and when it comes to turkey hunting, the 12 and 20 gauges are go-tos for a reason. They’ve got the power, the range, and the versatility to make every hunt a success story. So, while turkey hunting with the .410 might offer a neat challenge, when you’re ready to up your game and make sure that turkey doesn’t walk away—you know which guns to reach for.

Matching Your Equipment & Ammo to The Turkey Hunt

Forest Hunts

In the dense brush of the woods where shadows play, and sight lines are short, your shotgun has to punch through with precision. You need something that’s powerful and precise, able to deliver a tight pattern at shorter distances where a quick reaction is essential.

Recommendation: Go with a 12 or 20-gauge with a barrel length on the shorter side (20+ inches), loaded with a #5 or #6 shot. It’s about threading that shot through the trees, hitting hard when you’ve only got a few yards to make it count.

Open Range / Field Hunts

Out in the open, where the earth meets the sky, you need a boomstick that speaks the language of distance.

Recommendation: The 12-gauge, armed with #4 or #5 shot, is king here. It’s about holding a tight pattern when that gobbler’s a stone’s throw away, ensuring your shot rings true over the longer haul.

Swamp / Marsh Hunts

While turkeys are mainly associated with wooded areas and open fields, they can also be found in wetlands. These areas provide turkeys with ample insects, berries, and other food sources, as well as roosting sites. However, hunting them in this terrain presents its own unique challenges.

Recommendation: Opt for a 12-gauge shotgun with #6 or #7 shot.

While a 20-gauge shotgun can still be effective for hunting turkeys in the marsh, the dense vegetation and limited shooting lanes of swamps and wetlands often require a bit more firepower and penetration power.

The difficulty of moving through wet, dense terrain can also make it harder to approach turkeys without alerting them, and a 12-gauge provides enough range and punch to penetrate while still maintaining a tight enough pattern to ensure a clean shot.

Tip: Also, consider using decoys strategically placed in clearings or along water edges to lure turkeys out of the dense vegetation for a clearer shot opportunity.

Closing Shots

Choosing the right turkey shotgun gauge comes down to personal preference and hunting style.

  • The 12-gauge is the all-rounder—the powerhouse, capable of delivering heavy payloads for a variety of game. Its versatility is unmatched, allowing hunters to use a wide range of ammunition to suit the task at hand. Whether you’re laying down a tight pattern for that distant turkey or spreading shot through thicker brush, the 12-gauge has you covered.
  • The 20-gauge is a lighter alternative that doesn’t sacrifice too much on the firepower front. Don’t be fooled by its size; the 20-gauge can deliver devastating patterns with the right load, making it incredibly effective in both dense woods and open spaces. It’s favored for its manageability and reduced recoil, making it a top pick for hunters who spend long days in the field or need maneuverability over raw power.
  • Using a .410 bore offers a distinct turkey hunting experience but requires greater accuracy and skill, making it a niche option for those who enjoy the challenge of making each shot count.

Each of these has its place, but again… the 12 and 20 gauges are go-tos for a reason.

Of course, choosing your shotgun gauge and ammunition are just part of the equation. Your barrel length, effective range, using the right choke tube, setting up properly, and perfecting your aim are all just as important.

Targeting a turkey’s head and neck means aiming at a small, moving target, often at distances greater than 30 yards. Having the right gauge and the right ammunition is critical—but so is your precision in placing that shot where it counts.

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