3 Specialty turkey loads explained

While we are certainly aware that just about any bore, size of shot, and brand of ammo can successfully take turkeys, there is a reason that specialty loads like those from Hornady, Federal and Winchester are dominating the market.  The innovation, technology, and performance is unequaled in these specialty medicines for gobblers.  While some will argue they’re too expensive or not necessary and they may be right, why compromise when the biggest tom of your life is moving into range?

Hornady Heavy Magnum Turkey

While both Federal and Winchester turkey loads are available in 3.5”, the Hornady offerings are limited to 3” in both 12 and 20 gauges.  Despite that shortcoming, a three-inch specialty round is still more than enough firepower to take any bird strutting his stuff around spring fields.  Hornady’s specialty rounds are all nickel plated lead, and advertised to be the thickest nickel plating in the industry, helping reduce flyers and ensure tighter patterns by minimizing shot deformation, the major cause of far-flung pellets.


Hornady Heavy Magnum Turkey come in 10-round boxes with a retail price of $17.81.

Aside from the increased thickness from the nickel plating, the major innovation in Hornady’s Heavy Magnum Turkey round is their proprietary VersaTite wad design.  Whereas a gun’s choke normally determines the pattern, the winged VersaTite wad opens in such a way that does the shot patterning job itself and then strips cleanly away from the pellets in flight.  Turkey hunters are typically taught to use the tightest chokes possible—say, extra full turkey tubes—but Hornady advises pairing either an improved cylinder or a modified choke with this ammunition.  Theoretically, this results in a shorter shot string that delivers more energy on impact.

Hornady’s Heavy Magnum 12-gauge loads clock at 1300 fps while the 20’s are logged at 1200.   While other turkey rounds are touting sometimes ridiculously long kill-ranges, Hornady labels the Heavy Magnum ammo as cleanly lethal to a reasonable 50 yards, and we have no doubt that would be true.  In addition to 12-gauge offerings in three sizes of shot: #4, #5, or #6, there is also the new 20-gauge 3” round with #5 shot.  All Heavy Magnum Turkey shells come in 10-round boxes with a retail price of $17.81.

Winchester LongBeard XR

Advertised as offering the “tightest patterns and longest shot capability of any traditional turkey load in history” with “twice the pellets in a 10” circle out to 60 yards”, Winchester’s LongBeard XR is designed specifically for knocking down toms at the longest ranges.  Interestingly enough, with LongBeard XR it’s not the type of shot or the design of the wad that does the magic but what Winchester calls its Shot-Lok technology, which is intended to protect the shot during in-bore acceleration.


Winchester LongBeard XR comes 10-rounds boxes from $18.99 for 3” to $22.99 for 3.5″.

Essentially, Shot-Lok is a sort of resin housing that binds the pellets tightly together within the wad, keeping shot tighter and eliminating deformation and flyers. Upon ignition, this “coating” powderizes and becomes a buffer that protects the front of the shot string as it travels down the barrel.  Because the shot is held so tightly together for such an extended period, this, theoretically, makes Longbeard XR the master at ranges of 40, 50, and even 60 yards with an extra full tube.

If you’re thinking a bird might sneak in at 10 to 15 yards, you better make other ammo arrangements. But long distance birds beware—though, when talking extended ranges, it’s more crucial than ever to know exactly how you, your gun, choke and load perform together to make a clean kill.  The Longbeard XR, like any other round, will pattern differently depending upon choke choice, so as always, there’s no substitute for adequate range time and patterning to determine how any load—specialty or not—will disperse on target.

The LongBeard XR line is still dedicated to 12 gauges, not having yet expanded to 20 gauge offerings.  However, its twelve different SKU’s cover everything from 3” to 3.5” shells in 1-3/4”, 1-7/8”, 2”, 2-1/8” and all come with copper-plated lead shot in options of sizes 4, 5, or 6.  The company lists muzzle velocity at 1050 fps.   Like the others, LongBeard XR comes 10-rounds per box and MSR prices are $18.99 for 3” and $22.99 for 3.5.”

Federal Premium 3rd Degree

The science behind Federal Premium’s 3rd Degree turkey ammo is perhaps the most intriguing of all the specialty loads currently on the market.  While others focus on achieving the tightest patterns at the longest ranges, Federal aims to dominate at all distances by packing three shot sizes and spread-patterns in one innovative package.


Federal Premium 3rd Degree Turkey ammunition, cutaway. Note three layers of shot.

Each shell contains, per the name, three degrees or layers of shot and capability.  Forty percent of the shot is #7 Heavyweight and sits at the bottom of the wad for the maximum distance.  The middle forty percent of the shell contains premium #5 lead and presents “dense, deadly patterns” for mid-range hunts.  Finally, the top twenty percent of the round is Flitestopper #6 shot that is designed to “spread quickly to create a forgiving close-range pattern.”

Federal Premium 3rd Degree

A 5-round box of Federal Premium 3rd Degree runs between $21.95-$24.95!

Federal’s FliteControl wad opens much differently than standard wads; it opens from the rear and stays with the shot longer. The effect is that the 3rd Degree’s load pattern has a lot of “forgiveness” designed into it, suitable for taking a tom that snuck at 10 yards or the same tom hanging out at 50+ yards.  Other turkey loads, especially run through an extra full choke, have incredibly small patterns at only 10-15 yards, so for a round to improve upon this and still be deadly at greater distances is quite remarkable.  While Winchester also claims lethal patterns at up to 60 yards, Federal Premium says that “at 50 yards, 3rd Degree puts 69 percent more pellets in a 10-inch circle than standard lead turkey loads.”

The 3rd Degree loads are available in both 12 gauge 3” and 3.5” and new-for-2016 twenty gauge 3” shells.  Innovation comes with a steep price, however, with five-round boxes wearing an MSRP of $21.95-$24.95.


I’m the first to admit that you don’t need specialty turkey ammo to take trophy birds.  But when you have a limited number of days to hunt in a year, you want to maximize chances of success.  And these three companies—Hornady, Federal, and Winchester—have put the research into creating the most effective specialty turkey medicine on the market today, especially when you start talking about extended ranges.  Stay tuned to Guns.com for a complete in-depth pattern and field testing at ranges from 15-60 yards.

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