I’ve missed my share of turkeys over the years but never rolled one over and had it get up and run away crippled. It almost happened once: the first turkey I shot with a muzzleloader fell, ran, then keeled over dead 200 yards away. He had been hit with several pellets in the head and neck, but none had penetrated the brain or spine. Instead of falling over, he bled out. The lesson there is, follow up every shot.
The bigger question, however, is: what does it take to kill a turkey? I asked Winchester engineer Steve Meyer, who dusted off a study done by ballistician Tom Roster several years ago which involved necropsies of shot turkeys. The results were interesting. In terms of penetration, it takes a minimum of 2 foot pounds of energy for a pellet to penetrate a turkey’s skull or neck vertebrae. Surprisingly, many pellets fail to penetrate bone even if they do have more than enough energy. Even big size 4 shot which has far more than 2 foot pounds of energy at any reasonable turkey shooting range can glance off bone. At 35 yards, roughly half of size 6 shot failed to penetrate.
As a rule of thumb, lead 6s are reliable to 35 yards, lead 5s to 45. Lead 4 shot retains enough energy to penetrate vitals far beyond the distance at which the pattern grows too thin to insure enough hits. With tungsten-iron loads like Winchester’s Xtended Range, Federal Heavyweight, Remington Wingmaster HD or Federal Heavyweight patterns will tighten and effective range increase.
The formula Roster eventually worked out was this: 13-4-2. That means when you shoot a turkey — or a turkey target before hunting – you want to see a minimum of 13 hits in the head and neck, which should put four pellets in the brain and spine. If you have chosen your shot size correctly at least two of those will penetrate far enough for a clean kill.