One well-known turkey hunter who wished to remain anonymous once discussed different shotgun loads for gobblers this way: “The only reason I don’t shoot 4-inch shells is because they don’t make them.”
That sentiment is common among certain hunters. The question remains, however, is bigger always better?
Not necessarily. To some degree, the larger, 3½-inch shells give a false sense of security. The bigger shell does not necessarily provide better downrange patterns. Sure, it sends more pellets downrange, but that doesn’t always translate into more dead turkeys. You still have to know what your gun will do and ask yourself if the punishment on the back end is worth the benefit on the other end.
In many guns, a 3-inch shell produces a better and tighter pattern, while in other guns a 3½-inch shell does a better job. Likewise, 2¾-inch shells did a marvelous job for a long time before the advent of the magnum loads. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of lighter loads placed in a gobbler’s central nervous system. A good choke can often do a better job for your accuracy and efficiency over a bigger shell.
Another thing to consider is the size of the shot. Turkey loads in Nos. 4, 5 and 6 can all be very effective. Some of the non-lead shotshells are also effective and efficient. Non-lead shotshells normally come with a significant increase in recoil. Hunters with smaller frames need to be aware before shooting these.
Smaller gauges are also getting a lot of support among turkey hunters, with a 3-inch 20-gauge shell being seen as an alternative to the bigger, 12-gauge loads. They’re perfect for female hunters, youngsters and hunters with small frames, and manufacturers have recognized this and are making it easier to find good 20-gauge turkey loads.
The bottom line is, it really doesn’t matter which you use when you squeeze the trigger. Good shot placement and effective, tight patterns will get the job done.