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With tight turkey patterns, check out your shotgun

The dirty little secret about shotguns is that some don't shoot straight.

Another secret: Most people who own these guns don't realize they don't place shot where they're pointed.

Why not?

Because most shotgun owners don't pattern their weapons.

Shouldering a crooked-shooting shotgun while duck or pheasant hunting often results in misses. But such miscues are rarely attributed to the gun. Instead, the shooters take the blame, figuring they failed to lead the bird correctly, or otherwise miscalculated while tickling the trigger.

Turkey hunting is an altogether different kettle of fish.

Because turkey hunters often outfit their shotguns with full chokes, or extra-full turkey chokes, their shot patterns usually are quite tight. The advantage of tight shot patterns is that when they hit a turkey in the vitals, a clean kill is assured.

But there's a disadvantage, too, to tight patterns: Hunters don't have to be very far off the mark at 20 yards before they miss a turkey altogether.

Such miscues can be difficult for some people to fathom.

How, after all, can a hunter fail to topple a bird the size of a turkey at only 20 yards?

Very easily, it turns out. And it happens frequently.

I first became aware of the problem while hunting turkeys some years ago in the Black Hills. Ron Schara and some friends have a camp out there, and typically 12 to 15 scattergunners are gathered at one time, chasing toms.

Surprisingly, it's not unheard of, I learned, for a hunter to return after a morning's outing to report he missed a shot at a tom, sometimes from less than 20 yards.

Buck fever?

In some instances, perhaps. But a closer look revealed many of these birdless bird seekers had not patterned their shotguns_"patterning," meaning, generally, shooting at targets at varying distances with the same cartridges and chokes to be used during a hunt.

Had this been done, at least some of the South Dakota hunters I met would have realized they were fated to miss.

Interestingly, patterning a shotgun might also reveal it will shoot true with one load, and off the mark with another. Thus the importance of hunting with the same loads used for patterning.

Intent on patterning a couple of shotguns myself, last week I tossed a bunch of 12-gauge turkey loads and an armful of targets into my truck, and headed north.

Relatively few are the public shooting areas where a person can target big turkey cartridges, one after another, at varying distances, without causing a fuss.

But my friend has a makeshift range far from the madding crowds, and that's where I drove.

My goal was simple: I wanted to test a few different loads, running them through two shotguns, one a 12-gauge Winchester semi-auto, alternately outfitted with modified and extra-full turkey chokes, the other a Mossberg 12-gauge pump.

All of my shots were fired from 20 yards.

In short order, I demonstrated anew a couple of things.

One, that of the five different cartridges I used, no two produced the same patterns, even when fired through the same gun.

I also learned the two guns - even when outfitted with extra-full chokes - didn't shoot the same loads the same way.

And I learned first-hand that turkey hunters who don't pattern their guns to ensure enough pellets hit a bird's vitals - meaning its head and neck-run the risk of ending a morning's quest having taken a shot, but not hit anything.

My findings:

-Firing Winchester Supreme Elite 3-inch cartridges, No. 5s, 1½-ounce loads, I put 47 pellets into the head and neck of a turkey target when exhausted through an extra-full turkey choke. Using a modified choke, the number of pellet hits fell to 17.

-Firing Remington Hevi-Shot No. 5s, I had more than 35 pellets in the head and neck area with the Winchester semi-auto. Using the same shot fired through the Mossberg, pellet hits fell to fewer than half that.

-With Winchester Extended Shot 3-inch cartridges, No. 6s, 1¼-ounce loads, the Mossberg fairly peppered the vitals area. The same was true when that load was fired through the semi-auto - except the core of the latter pattern was about 2 inches to the right of where it should have been (this can also be the result of poor cheek placement on the stock).

-I tested two Federal cartridges, 3-inch Federal Premiums, No. 5s, 1 7/8 ounces, and 3½-inch, 2-ounce, No. 6s. Both patterns centered well, and made killing shots. But the longer loads, fired through the Winchester, as expected put far more pellets in the target area than any of the other tested cartridges. (But you have to be deeply into self-loathing to crack off too many of those loads in sequence.)

Throughout the few hours I blasted holes in paper, some patterns emerged.

One was that while using the extra-full turkey choke on the semi-auto, my pellets remained tightly concentrated at 20 yards. They clearly landed, many of them, in the turkey kill zone. But too often the center of the pattern was just to the right of the target's head, rather than on it exactly. Knowing this, I will adjust the gun's sights to make it shoot more exactly where I point (again, this could be the result of poor gun fit, or poor head placement).

Speaking of sights:

The Mossberg was purchased with a couple of barrels, one for wingshooting, one for turkeys. The latter has sights on it, which can be used to pinpoint a target far more exactly than a typical shotgun barrel outfitted with only a bead on its end.

The semi-auto also has sights, which I installed on the barrel after its purchase. Their advantage is that I can aim the gun more exactly. And - if need be - I can adjust the sights to bring the gun more truly in line with my eye and head placement.

Of course, all the patterning in the world can't substitute for good marksmanship. The shooter's obligation is to place the shotgun in the same spot of the shoulder each time it is fired. The head and cheek must also be placed uniformly each time, with the eye cleanly aligned down the barrel.

Only then can a concentration of pellets, no matter the cartridge used, be assured of hitting its target - assuming the gun has been patterned with the same load and choke intended to be used on opening morning.