WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT TURKEY CHOKES?
By Joe Arterburn
So what’s the big deal about choke tubes? What’s all the talk about having a special choke tube for turkey hunting? Isn’t a choke tube a choke tube? Why would I need one just to shoot a turkey?
Choke tubes are a big deal, a vast improvement for today’s hunters, and with the coming of spring turkey season comes talk about tips, tricks, and the best available gear to improve your chances of success.
And no, all choke tubes are not alike, and yes, having a turkey choke tube can indeed improve your chance of success by making your shotgun better at what it does.
But isn’t the full choke tube that came with your shotgun suitable for killing turkeys? Maybe. Maybe not. And certainly not as suitable as a choke tube designed for turkey hunting.
“Because you want denser patterns for your pellets,” said Scott Carlson, owner of Carlson’s Choke Tubes. “You want to throw a tighter pattern than with a full choke because of what you’re hunting—a turkey—so you’ve got to get pellets in the vital areas to make a clean kill.”
Those interchangeable choke tubes that screw into the end of the barrel constrict the pellets, tightening the cluster of shot as it squeezes through the choke tube, resulting (most of the time) in tighter pellet patterns.
There are probably a dozen or so different constrictions in available choke tubes from cylinder, which is the actual size of the barrel’s interior bore so it really doesn’t constrict the shot at all, to tight turkey tubes.
Here’s a little measurement math for you. A full choke, generally considered standard tight constriction for many hunting uses such as longer distance shots on upland game or waterfowl, is 30 thousandths of an inch (.030) tighter than cylinder bore. It may seem a small amount, but it is actually quite a bit of constriction when you consider all that shot has to squeeze through that narrow tunnel. So, a full choke is .030 of an inch tighter than cylinder and most turkey chokes are another 30 thousandths of an inch tighter than full chokes.
I know, just numbers, right? Fortunately, you don’t have to remember the numbers or do the math; just know there are a range of different chokes and what you should use them for. If you’re hunting pheasants, you’ll want a choke tube that provides a wider pattern to give you more of an effective killing zone on a fast-moving, flying target. With a wider pattern, you don’t have to be exactly dead-center on the bird to kill it cleanly, just get that pattern to intersect with the bird to deliver enough pellets to produce a clean kill.
How many different choke tubes are there? A bunch. Let’s see, let’s start with the widest open, cylinder, then there’s skeet, improved cylinder, then light modified, modified, improved modified, full, and extra full. Then you get into turkey chokes. And that’s not even mentioning rifled choke tubes for shooting slugs.
By being interchangeable, choke tubes allow you to customize your shotgun to the type of hunting you’ll be doing. “Chokes are designed to make it an all-around shotgun so you can use it as a bird gun, a target gun, a turkey gun, and make it effectively shoot the shotshell load you have,” Carlson said. Choke tubes give you the versatility of tailoring a load for the purpose at hand, he said.
In the old days, shotgun barrels had fixed chokes, meaning they came from the manufacturer with a set, built-in constriction, or no constriction. There were no interchangeable screw-in chokes, so if you wanted a different choke configuration, you had to buy a different barrel. For the most part, choices in barrels were limited to cylinder, skeet, improved cylinder, modified, and full.
That began to change in 1959 when Winchester introduced the Model 59 shotgun, an autoloader with interchangeable “Versalite” choke tubes in full, modified, or improved cylinder. Interchangeable chokes didn’t really take off until about 1982 when the idea was revitalized, and by 1985 all major shotgun manufacturers were producing shotguns with threaded barrels to accept choke tubes, Carlson said.
But back to turkey hunting.
“When you’re turkey hunting you are generally hunting at some distance, anywhere from 20 yards to maybe 50 or 55 yards so you want chokes that will throw a dense pattern,” Carlson said. “Turkeys are a lot different than hunting pheasants. They’re a tougher bird and you need to get pellets into their vital areas to kill them cleanly and a tighter choke will allow you to do that, allow you to throw a dense pattern so you put more pellets in the turkey’s head or neck, in his vital areas.”
A turkey’s head and neck are the preferred target areas because they are more exposed and not protected by a thick layer of feathers, as are the heart and internal organ area.
Shotgun ammunition, too, has undergone major improvements over the years, most notably in the last 15 or so years with the development of heavier-than-lead pellets. “Now you have pellets that weigh twice as much as lead so you can shoot smaller pellets, and since they are smaller you can use tighter constricted chokes than you would with size 4, 5, or 6 shot,” Carlson said.
That’s one thing to understand about choke tubes. Tighter is not better in all situations. For instance, if you shoot the larger size 4, 5, or 6 shot through a tightly constricted choke tube it will likely pattern poorly, essentially blowing open the pattern after it is squeezed too tightly through the choke. Smaller shot sizes, like 7½, 8, and 9 can be squeezed tighter simply because they are smaller and can assimilate to a tighter space.
So, with smaller heavier-than-lead pellets fired through a tight turkey choke tube you should be able to kill turkey at long, long ranges, correct?
Well, yes, if you do your homework. Hunters and ammunition companies—and choke tube companies—are reporting never-before-seen long-distance patterning results with hot new loads.
But should you take long-range shots?
“I compare it to deer hunting,” Carlson said. “I’m not afraid to shoot at a deer at 400 yards with my rifle. Some people think I’m nuts, but I’ve done the homework and I know I can shoot a three-inch group at 400 yards. Guys that don’t shoot past 150 or 200 yards think that is unethical but it’s not if you do your homework and you have the right ammunition.”
It’s the same with turkey hunting, he said. Yes, current ammunition and choke tube combinations are capable of producing clean kills at 60 and 70 yards, but you need to do the homework and pattern your shotgun with that ammunition at various distances to learn your true effective range.
“These loads are capable of killing a turkey that far, but the name of the game when turkey hunting is calling that turkey in,” Carlson said. The calling, the stealth and concealment, and heart-pounding feeling when a gobbler comes in are part of the total experience.
Plus, Carlson said, it’s easy to misjudge distance to a turkey, especially in the excitement of a hunt. “How many times have you shot a turkey at what you thought was 40 yards but when you walk out there he was actually at 50?” he asked. “It’s hard to judge when those birds are coming in. They always look closer than they are, so I don’t advocate shooting turkeys at 60 yards. You can, if you do your homework, but a lot of times a turkey is farther than you think when you shoot him, so you’re better off to put more pellets, a denser pattern on him to make sure he doesn’t run off.”
But is there such a thing as a pattern that’s too tight, especially for closer shots?
Some people think so, Carlson said, but that’s not really the case. Depending on the choke you use, even at 20 yards, a shot pattern will spread about 15 to 20 inches, Carlson said. “So if you miss by 15 or 20 inches, it wasn’t the choke or the load’s fault,” he said. “I would say that it’s your fault, that you were shaking.” But, he cautioned, at 10 yards the pattern is no wider than a baseball, something to keep in mind if a turkey pops out of the brush in-your-face close.
Carlson tests shotguns, choke tubes, and shotshells, shooting at patterning targets from 10 to 70 yards, so he’s had plenty of experience with turkey loads.
He said he’s had a change of heart from his old-school turkey hunting days when he shot No. 4 lead shot for turkeys for their knockdown power. With the new heavier-than-lead loads he likes size 6 or smaller, which pack plenty of knockdown power of their own. If he’s shooting lead shot, he’s back to 4s, maybe 5s.
Winchester developed an online Pattern Board to compare their different turkey loads. You enter choice of gauge, choke constriction, shell size, shot size, and distance and you’ll see a comparison of targets shot at that range. It’s a great visual to see how shotshells perform at different distances—and how they stack up against others.
Additional turkey hunting tips and information are available here (huntershandbook.com). Just click on “Hunting” and scroll down and click on “Turkey.”