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The Distance Debate

Advice for the Shooter

There is perhaps no subject that seems to raise the ire of turkey hunters more than a discussion of ethical shooting distances. Many will contend that 40 yards is the absolute maximum distance and others will contend just as loudly that "50 is the new 40" or that clean-kill shots can be made at even greater distances. Who's right?

Let's establish a few "givens" right away. First, we're not shooting a turkey to keep the family from starvation. Second, we hunt because we enjoy it. Third we hunt turkey gobblers because we enjoy hearing them gobble, enjoy watching them strut and want to get them as close as possible so that we can be treated to this spectacular show. Fourth, most of us would not think of shooting a turkey with a rifle, even if that is an option where we hunt because we enjoy the challenge of bringing a gobbler in to shotgun range. Ah, now we've come to the crux of the dilemma, haven't we? What is Shotgun Range?

About 10 years ago, I first became aware of shot being made from tungsten and a mixture of other metals. This was inspired by the U.S. mandate to use non-toxic shot for waterfowl hunting and the general dissatisfaction with the performance of steel shot. The history of that is in reality another story but it's proper to at least discuss very briefly the history of the development of tungsten-based shot products.

Hevi-Shot, one of the pioneers in this innovative tungsten-shot business, came to the attention of turkey hunters at the World Champion Still Target Shoot in Forsyth, Georgia in October of 2000 when a shell using that shot won the competition. Shortly after that event, Remington Arms contracted with Environ-Metal to supply them with shot for their Remington Hevi-Shot shells and the rest, as folks are fond of saying, is history.

Currently, Environ-Metal, Winchester, Federal and Remington all market a version of tungsten-based shotshells, also referred to as HTL (heavier than lead) loads. Each company uses a slightly different formula for its shot, the shot looks different, it has differing weights, each company uses different formulas for powder and they use different types of wads. The common factor is that each of them uses shot that extends the killing range (more retained energy) of shot over the comparable lead shot pellet. How much further is the killing range increased and does that mean that indeed, 50 is the new 40?

In the last 9-10 years I have fired thousands of HTL turkey shells in bench tests, in still target competition and in the field at turkeys. I have used both custom shotguns with scopes and plain old turkey guns to shoot these shells. I've shot a lot of "big paper" and have used various media to test penetration of these loads. I've shot at ranges from 10 yards to 80 yards and many in between. What have I discovered?

First of all, all of the shotshells are capable of killing turkeys at ranges that I am not! A turkey's head and neck area is really a pretty small target, especially when you get any further than 40 yards, even with a scoped shotgun. The excitement of having a turkey in front of your muzzle has a tendency to raise your heartbeat and unsteady even the most seasoned hunter, if that were not the case, how many of us would continue to do it? The combination of a small target and a racing pulse are not really conducive to pin-point accuracy.

There are some who will say, that does not apply to them. They have shot and hunted for years, they have experience in controlling their pulse, they can steady their gun and they have the best quality optics with range-finding capabilities that allow them to accurately judge and allow for any possible distance. Okay, I can't argue with any of that. I've known shooters with nerves of steel and unblinking eyes and seen some displays of almost unbelievable marksmanship. That shooter knows his equipment and knows his abilities.

Spending time at the bench and in the woods and fields that we use to hunt turkeys is one part of the equation and another is each person's ability to use tools that are available. I can drive a car and know the rules of the road but I would not try to drive in a NASCAR race. Enough said about that subject?

If you are one of those shooters (remember now, this is just a decision that you have to make for yourself and no one else) that is willing to spend the time, energy and money at the bench and in turkey shooting positions, to determine just how far your equipment can deliver an effective pattern with enough penetration to cleanly kill a turkey and to determine your ability to "drive" that equipment, go for it! You'll learn a lot about shotshells, chokes and yourself. You may decide that shots in excess of 40 yards are well within your abilities or you may decide to confine shots to a shorter range. Either way, you'll have learned something valuable.

In reality, everyone needs to spend at least some bench time and turkey position shooting time with their equipment. You may not shoot hundreds or even tens of high powered turkey loads, most folks don't but you need to shoot some to see just what works for you.

We should not have "Hail Marys" when we're hunting turkeys. Spending time at the bench with various shotshells & chokes is the only way to really know the capabilities of your own gun and of your ability to use that gun, at various ranges and in various conditions.

The patterns and the penetration of the "combination of ingredients" that you choose and your ability to deliver them effectively, should dictate the shooting distance. You'll have to decide what an ethical distance is for you to shoot and cleanly kill a turkey. Most of the time, it's just you and him to witness the event. Let your conscience and your prior shootings tests be your guide.

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