Truth be told, there's more than one effective, ethical way to kill a turkey. At the end of the day, it's your hunt and your bird, if said bird makes a mistake and you make the most of it. But without a doubt, shotguns rule the roost and they always will — which is why ammo manufacturers frequently strive to impress the scattergunning masses with fancy new shells.
Looking at the historical development of turkey loads, few improvements have been genuinely remarkable. The addition of buffer or coating lead pellets with copper might have been groundbreaking in the day, but in hindsight I'd argue the most impressive turkey shotshell innovations have taken place within the past decade.
Here's a brief history of the two most powerful ammo manufacturers in the turkey hunting world, along with a glance at their latest loads that spell trouble for Tom.
Federal Premium: Turkey Timeline
Let's rewind to 1985. Just 30 miles northwest of St. Paul, in Anoka, Minnesota, Federal Cartridge Co. was already 63 years old and producing shotshells for wingshooters by the droves. In the late 1980s, populations of Meleagris gallopavo — the wild turkey — had just started to reach huntable numbers due to restoration efforts by the National Wild Turkey Federation.
At this time, the idea of hunting the rare bird was still mostly a novelty for American sportsmen. In Federal's home state of Minnesota, the first modern turkey season wasn't opened until 1978. So for Federal, the development and production of turkey-specific shotgun cartridges wasn't yet viable, but that would change quickly.
During this same time period, a medical student at the University of Minnesota named David (aka "Doc") Frederickson developed an obsession with collecting Federal paraphernalia. One thing led to another, Doc got connected with Federal's bigwigs, and soon he became the "unofficial" historian.
Today, visit Doc's home and you'll find two rooms over-flowing with the most complete collection and history of Federal's ammo on record. This makes 73-year-old Doc the man to talk to if you give two hoots about Federal's story.
After a lengthy conversation with Doc and a look at some of his published reference material, I sketched out a condensed timeline of Federal's turkey-load evolution.
The first recognized turkey load from Federal, dubbed "Heavyweight Magnum," surfaced in 1989. Not to be confused with Federal's current tungsten-blend "Heavyweight," the original Heavyweight was simply a copper-plated lead round — its significance being the 2-ounce payload contained in a "magnum" 3-inch shell.
It wasn't until 1994 that Federal first plastered the "Turkey" designation in writing on a 10-round package of "Magnum" turkey loads. From there, the Magnum line spread out to cover 10- and 20-gauge offerings with No. 4-, 5-, and 6-shot options and various payload weights.
Turkey populations exploded throughout the 1990s and so did the popularity of hunting them. With that came increased demand for improved performance and, ultimately, the ability to kill birds at longer distances. More density in pellets translates to more downrange death, so in 1999 Federal adapted the tungsten-iron pellets from its 1998 goose loads for turkey hunters.
The next major advancement came in 2005 with the introduction of the FliteControl wad, designed for a controlled dispersion of pellets to stretch their effective range. Also in 2005 Federal released its Heavyweight pellets, which are astoundingly 35 percent denser than lead.
These new pellets allowed Federal to load No. 7s to achieve energy levels comparable to No. 5s, but with significantly more pellets on target. Dump Heavyweight pellets in a FliteControl wad and suddenly turkey hunters began legitimately crushing gobblers at 50 to 60 yards. The old "40-yard" standard was broken in Federal's camp.
Federal's Latest Load: 3rd Degree
Fast-forward to 2015. Federal has been feeding turkey guns for at least 26 years, but the ambitious ammo manufacturer is still trying to answer the evolving call of turkey hunters. Today, the folks at Federal claim many hunters are clucking for close-range turkey cartridges.
After years of begging for loads that will break beaks at long range, have we really come full circle? Believe it or not, 10-yard kills are a big reason behind Federal's latest turkey shotshell: 3rd Degree.
Federal's 3rd Degree consists of three different pellet types stacked carefully in a FliteControl wad. Cut open the hull of a 3rd Degree cartridge and you'll see the following pellet arrangement by weight, from top to bottom: 20 percent No. 6 Flitestopper lead pellets, 40 percent No. 5 copper-plated lead, followed by 40 percent of Federal's No. 7 Heavyweight pellets at the base of the wad.
No doubt, 3rd Degree wears some sexy marketing makeup, but is it really dressed to kill? Perhaps it was a throwback from the subconscious of Federal's engineers, but the multipellet party isn't a new concept. Federal's Tri-Power copper-plated steel loads date back to 1990 — a combination of three different pellet sizes fashioned to fold geese at a variety of distances.
I had the pleasure of going into Federal's underground factory bedroom to undress 3rd Degree and see just how hot it is. As proven by pattern testing and shooting into ballistic gelatin, the load performs as promised. You'll see 10-yard patterns that are 60 percent larger than comparable lead loads.
This is mainly credited to immediate, wide disbursement of Federal's Saturn-shaped Flitestopper lead pellets — the first to leave your shotgun's barrel. The Heavyweight pellets shine out to 50 yards or more. From near to far, you'll find the copper-plated lead pellets spread throughout your pattern.
Bottom line: If you get your kicks from killing birds up close, you can be confident in the performance of 3rd Degree. This load will give you a slightly better margin for error when trying to put the bead on a bobbing red head at the end of your boots.
If a strutter hangs up at 50 yards or if you simply underestimate the distance of a "sure thing," 3rd Degree will save you from cussing and wounding the king of spring.
Winchester Ammunition: Looking Back
Federal has clearly proven itself as a top competitor in the turkey ammo game, but Winchester Ammunition has been making hard hits in the field even longer.
According to ammunition historian Jon Farrar, the first loaded line of scattergun ammo to bare the Winchester brand was called "Rival," introduced in 1886. This means Native Americans and early European American pioneers were likely roasting turkeys with help from Winchester a full 36 years before Federal was even conceived.
In terms of modern turkey hunting — when birds were transplanted and restored after nearly being wiped off the map — Winchester's 1968 Double X Magnums were probably viewed as the company's first "turkey" loads among discerning hunters.
Brad Criner, Winchester's present-day shotshell product manager, told me the first Winchester cartridge purposely dressed for turkey hunters was its Double X Magnum Turkey Load, born in 1990.
Without tracing Winchester's entire family tree of turkey loads, the company indeed continued to push the envelope throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century. Higher velocities, bigger payloads, and other enhancements were made to Winchester's turkey products to maintain equal shelf space next to Federal and other established brands.
In 2005, Winchester released Xtended Range Hi-Density — a heavier-than-lead load that still retains an obvious cult following among today's breed of turkey hunters who believe "farther is better." Those long-range turkey hunters have clung to Xtended Range shells like they're gold. But it's another famous metal, tungsten, that makes the cartridges stand out.
Winchester's Xtended Range pellets are a blend of tungsten and other metals, making them 10 percent denser than lead pellets. With Xtended Range, Winchester had developed a cartridge that offered consistent lethality out to 50 yards, stretching the limits of its traditional 40-yard lead loads.
But then tungsten prices went up. Significantly. According to inside sources at Winchester, the company couldn't stomach the idea of charging hunters $4 per shell, so the answer was to make magic with lead. Easier said than done. But the Winchester engineers made it happen, and the result was Long Beard XR.
Winchester Long Beard XR: Now Magnum
Long Beard XR was unleashed in 2013. This truly revolutionary cartridge essentially rendered the tungsten-based Xtended Range obsolete. Amazingly, Long Beard XR is nearly identical to Winchester's Double X loads, including its use of copper-plated lead shot. The defining difference is a unique resin called Shot-Lok.
Every respectable turkey load contains some form of buffering agent in its shot column. The purpose of buffering is to shield the pellets from one another during detonation and flight, thereby decreasing pellet deformation — a major issue with soft lead pellets. Maintain a pellet's round shape and it will fly straighter, farther, and with more energy.
Winchester took buffering to the next level in Long Beard XR. Rather than using a granular buffering agent, every Long Beard hull is filled with a liquid pool of Shot-Lok resin as it rolls down the assembly line.
Next, copper-plated lead pellets are added, the Shot-Lok hardens, and all the spaces between the pellets have been effectively sealed. When a hunter sets fire to a load of Long Beard XR, the pellets maintain their roundness and travel downrange in a tight, uniform pattern devoid of infamous "fliers."
Long Beard XR will penetrate deeper than any lead load at 50 yards, and it's fully capable of dropping toms out to 60 yards with tungsten-like penetration. At just $20 per 10-round box, it's half the price of the now extinct Xtended Range.
Just remember, if your turkey gun is choked for long-range shots with Long Beard XR, you'd better not flinch when it's time to take a close bird — the pattern is softball tight. If you do miss a bird up close with Long Beard XR, at least it will be a clean miss.
New for 2015, Winchester is expanding the 12-gauge Long Beard XR line with "magnums" including No. 4-, 5-, and 6-shot options in both 3-inch, 17„8-ounce loads and 31„2-inch, 2 1„8-ounce loads.
Where from here for Winchester? As more turkey hunters flock to low-recoil rounds, delivering Long Beard XR in 20 gauge seems like the next logical move. However, the folks at Winchester aren't making any promises.
What I've failed to mention here are the countless variables that all of us must consider when it's time to tune our turkey guns for our personal styles of killing.
If you refuse to shoot at birds past 20 or 30 yards, screw a full choke on your trusty shotgun and just about any old lead load will do the trick. But start reaching out beyond 30 yards and that's where things get interesting.
Move back to 40 yards and it's your ethical duty to make damned sure you're throwing a reliable pattern. At minimum, this means playing with different shot sizes and choke constrictions to put adequate pellets in a turkey's head and neck.