Published Aug 26, 2022 2:59 PM
Turkey hunters are fanatical about finding the perfect turkey loads. While shotguns haven’t changed too much in the last few decades, loads have evolved dramatically. The advent of highly-effective non-toxic shot such as tungsten and bismuth along with updates to traditional lead shells have pushed the limits of what we can expect from our scatterguns. Today’s turkey hunters are getting away with higher gauges, lighter loads, and farther shot distances.
If you’ve spent any time hunting turkeys, you know that not all shot opportunities are the same. Picking the best turkey load for the job is about more than simply throwing the tightest pattern the farthest—you need to consider the specific situation and how a load will pattern and perform. Wherever you chase birds, and whatever you prefer to chase them with, there are a ton of awesome loads available. Here are the year’s best turkey loads and guidance on how to pick the right one for your needs.
Why It Made the Cut:
Tungsten combined with the FliteControl Flex wad gives Federal TSS a huge advantage at delivering more hits on target at ranges that were previously questionable.
- Extremely dense tungsten shot
- FliteControl Flex wad (not featured in .410 gauge loads)
- High pellet count
- Light recoil
- Tight patterns
Tungsten and bismuth shot have taken the turkey hunting and waterfowling world by storm, and Federal TSS loads are among the best. Non-toxic loads began as an alternative to steel for waterfowl hunters but were quickly recognized for their lethality and long-range performance in the turkey woods. Tungsten is considerably denser than lead, meaning it not only maintains its shape when fired, but also carries more energy farther.
Federal uses an 18 gm/cc density tungsten that is 22% denser than standard tungsten and 56% denser than lead. This extremely dense shot flies farther and hits even harder than standard tungsten, providing deadly accuracy and power at range. Heavyweight tungsten lets you fit more, smaller, harder-hitting pellets into each shell.
The FliteControl Flex wad is a full-length wad that not only ensures proper flight through ported and standard turkey chokes, but also protects your barrel from being damaged by the extremely hard tungsten shot. The dense shot and proprietary wad basically eliminate shot deformation, dramatically reducing flyers and tightening up the pattern so you can put more hits on target at longer ranges. This also allows you to get much more performance out of higher gauges if you prefer to hunt with a lighter-weighing and recoiling shotgun. I personally know several people who have been experimenting with TSS in .410 with deadly results.
The only downside of Federal TSS, and non-lead loads in general, is price. A box of five tungsten shells can go for anywhere between $50 and $100 making them significantly more expensive than their lead counterparts. Turkey hunters don’t usually go through a ton of shells, so once you’re sighted in and patterned, the cost of running TSS is much more manageable. If you demand the absolute best and most lethal turkey load and are willing to pay for it, Federal TSS is in a tier of its own.
Why It Made the Cut:
Winchester’s Long-Beard XR is widely recognized as a turkey killer, providing long-range accuracy and delivering more pellets on target than just about anyone.
- Increased penetration
- High hit percentage at range
- Shot-Lok technology
- Affordable compared to non-toxic
- Long range
- Knockdown power
Ask the best turkey hunters you know what load has bagged them the most birds and Winchester’s Long-Beard XR is sure to be mentioned more than a few times. Empirically and anecdotally, the Long-Beard XR is one of the best lead turkey loads (and best loads, period) on the market.
Featuring Shot-Lok technology, Winchester’s Long Beard XR provides tight shooting patterns, long-range accuracy, and a higher percentage of pellets on target at range. Shot-Lok is basically a liquid resin that is applied to the shot. The resin dries, holding the shot together, but disintegrates upon firing. This protects the shot during in-bore acceleration so pellets maintain their round shape. Because of the Shot-Lok technology, traditional lead shot gains superior flight and lethality, allowing the Long-Beard XR to approach the performance of high-dollar tungsten and bismuth loads at a price that, while not cheap, is still a fraction of the cost of non-toxic options. You can pick up a box of ten shells for around $25, which is anywhere from half to a quarter the cost of something like Federal TSS.
For a 12 gauge, it’s hard to beat the 3” #5, 1 ¾ oz load spitting at 1200 fps. I have personally killed more turkeys with this particular load than any other of the good long-range turkey loads. I’ve seen it drop turkeys at nearly 50 yards with a bead sight out of a stock Mossberg 500. An optic and an aftermarket choke can stretch this load even farther. With the right setup, ethical shots at 60-plus yards are absolutely achievable.
Why It Made the Cut:
This classic lead load has been hammering birds for years and features a specially designed wad and buffered shot for improved flight, patterning, and performance.
- Polymer buffering
- Power Piston wad
- Extra hard lead shot
- Tight pattern
- Widely available
The Remington Nitro Turkey is one of the best and most prolific lead turkey loads on the market. While it might not have the hype of modern tungsten and bismuth loads, Nitro Turkey has killed a LOT of birds over the years. I hunted with Nitro Turkey in a 20 gauge 3” #5, 1-1/4 oz load for most of my childhood and adolescence and have the beards to attest to its effectiveness.
One of the main features of the Nitro Turkey is the patented Power Piston one-piece wad. The Power Piston wad holds the shot and creates an air buffer between the propellant and the shot, protecting it from the explosive forces released when the gun is fired. This is complemented by polymer buffering mixed into the shot that fills in empty space between pellets so the shot comes out of the gun in an extremely tight package without bouncing around during flight. The lead shot Remington uses for the Nitro Turkey is also manufactured to be harder and more consistently round than many traditional lead loads.
The Nitro Turkey’s hard lead shot, wad construction, and polymer buffering ensures longer range, tighter patterns, and greater lethality by reducing shot deformation, so more shot makes it to the target with maximum power. All of the Nitro Turkey loads in both 12 and 20 gauge average between 1185 and 1300 fps.
While there may be niche lead loads out there that are “better,” choosing a budget turkey load can be more cost-effective—and it’s hard to beat the price and performance of the Nitro Turkey for a load you can find at any Walmart or sporting goods store. At roughly $14 for a box of 10 shells, Remington Nitro Turkey is extremely affordable and widely available across the country. If you’re looking for a great lead turkey load that you can find just about anywhere and that won’t break the bank, the Remington Nitro Turkey is an excellent choice.
Why It Made the Cut:
Everything from the high-quality powder, to the minutiae of how the shell is crimped, has been painstakingly hand-crafted, tested, and refined.
- Dense tungsten shot
- Fiber buffering
- Direct to consumer
- Attention to detail
Boss is a relatively new kid on the block, but its non-toxic waterfowl and turkey loads have quickly gained traction as some of the best on the market. Guided by a conservation ethos, Boss strives to make non-toxic loads that are both environmentally friendly and extremely deadly in order to reduce the number of wounded and crippled birds. While best known for its waterfowling loads, Boss has an equally impressive line of Boss Tom turkey loads as well.
What makes Boss different is its attention to detail and its direct-to-consumer business model. Boss Tom loads feature an extremely dense 18g/cc Tungsten and are available in 12, 20, 28, and .410 gauge. The 12 gauge 3” 2 oz, #7 (370 pellets per shell), or #9 (724 pellets per shell) are the perfect loads for most turkey hunting situations. Boss Tom shells feature a full-length wad and fiber buffering, keeping your barrel safe from wear and tear, eliminating shot deformation, and maximizing pattern density and terminal performance.
Boss sells their shotgun shells direct to consumers, making them a little harder to get your hands on but also significantly more affordable than a lot of non-toxic loads. You won’t be able to grab a box off the store shelf in a pinch, but the price saving will help you stock up when it’s time to resupply. At about $45 for a box of 5 shells, and offering free shipping on orders over $100, Boss Tom is pretty reasonably priced compared to other non-toxic loads.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Turkey Load
Before the season starts—and before you stock up on shotshells—there are a few key features to keep in mind when choosing your loads.
Price is a major factor when considering turkey loads. While you’re probably not going through a ton of shells in the course of a season, between sighting in, patterning, and hunting, the cost can add up. Lead loads tend to be significantly less expensive than tungsten and bismuth loads simply due to the cost of the raw materials and manufacturing process. On average, you can expect to spend between $1 to $3 dollars per shell for a lead turkey load, and anywhere from $5 to nearly $20 per shell for some high-end tungsten and other premium non-toxic options.
If you are sensitive to recoil, or hunt with someone who is, you may want to factor that into your decision to pick a specific load. Many variables—such as your body type and the gauge and chambering of the gun—go into the amount of recoil and how you are able to handle it. If you’re not a fan of getting mule-kicked by your turkey gun, picking a higher gauge or a smaller charge and payload may be something to consider. Materials like TSS shot have dramatically increased the range, pattern density, and lethality of modern loads so you can get away with higher gauges and lighter kicking loads.
Environmental and food safety
Lead is an extremely effective projectile, but obviously not something you want to ingest. Hunters may want to consider the food safety and environmental impacts of using lead shot. Not only can lead end up in your food, but it can also remain in wounded and lost animals, killing them and poisoning scavengers that feed on them. Lead shot from target shooting or misses while hunting can also contaminate the soil and water. These concerns may push you towards a non-toxic option like tungsten, steel, or bismuth.
At the end of the day, performance is what matters in a turkey load. Pattern density, effective range, and energy on target are what kill birds. In a perfect world, you’d want to test a variety of loads and see what works best for your gun. There’s also a ton of data available from the manufacturers, outdoor media, and independent enthusiasts to help you pick the best turkey load for you.
Q: Is a 3” or 3.5” shell better?
In theory, a larger shell can hold more shot and a bigger powder charge for increased power and range, but at the cost of increased recoil. In practice, shell length is largely irrelevant, and the powder charge and payload are the numbers to pay attention to. There are plenty of more important factors than the chamber size when it comes to picking the best turkey load (and not all guns are chambered for magnum 3.5” shells). I’ve killed plenty of birds with a 2-¾” load, but for me, a 3” shell is just right.
Q: What is the best shot size for turkey?
When it comes to shot size, the larger the number, the smaller the shot. With lead, anything from #4 to #6 is a perfectly good choice for hunting turkeys. I personally like a #5 shot size. Shot size gets a little more complicated with non-toxic shot due to the weight and density of the shot, but most people recommend a #7 or #9.
Q: How to pattern your turkey loads?
Patterning a turkey load is pretty simple. Set up paper targets at varying ranges and see how the load performs at each range. I personally like to shoot at 10 to 20-yard increments out to roughly 60 yards. It’s best to use targets with the silhouette of a turkey’s head and neck so you have an idea of how many pellets land in the kill zone. If you’re testing out multiple loads, use fresh targets for each range and count how many pellets are on paper, how many are in the kill zone, and measure roughly how tight the pattern is. Note flyers, strange tears from deformed pellets, and if there are large gaps in the pattern. You may want to try different choke tubes as well to see how that affects the pattern at each range. Then simply pick the best performing load and choke combination for your needs.
We’re living through the golden age of turkey loads. There’s never been a time with a greater abundance of awesome options on the market. Between specialized lead and new non-toxic loads, there’s a shell for every hunting scenario and budget. If you prefer lead, or can’t justify a $75 box of TSS, you can’t go wrong with time-tested loads like the Winchester Long-Beard XR or the Remington Nitro Turkey. If you demand the absolute best performance and have the money to spend, non-toxic loads like Federal TSS and Boss Tom tungsten are pushing the limits of scattergun range, accuracy, and lethality. Whatever shotgun you’re rocking, there’s a killer turkey load out there to fit your needs.
For this roundup, I drew on decades of personal turkey hunting experience and the recommendations of some of the deadliest turkey hunters I know in order to pick a handful of the best loads you can find. Loads had to be widely available and have a track record of performance behind them.