Shotgun patterning is the process of shooting a shotgun at a target and evaluating the spread of the shot. This information is crucial for determining which choke to use to achieve the optimal shot size for a particular game or shooting scenario. This article will show you how to pattern a shotgun like a pro.
Patterning isn’t complicated, and the process is very similar to sighting in a rifle scope; you’re just looking for a slightly different thing. Though the concept behind patterning isn’t hard to understand, there’s a few tricks to speed the process up and be a little more practical with your measurements.
How Do You Pattern a Shotgun?
To pattern a shotgun, first stabilize the shotgun on a mounting stand. Then shoot on a designated range, making sure your shotgun fits you and you have plenty of rounds in your load of choice. Test the pattern at 20 yards using a choke, firing five shots and measuring the spread on the target. Adjust the choke as desired, then repeat the process at 40 yards.
If you’ve never patterned a shotgun before, there’s no harm in asking a more knowledgeable friend to come out with you and answer your questions. A common question is what distance you should pattern at and why. While 40 yards is considered “standard”, in truth you should be patterning at approximately the distance you intend to be taking targets from while hunting.
The Ideal Pattern
There are a few different schools of thought on this. The truth is that the ideal shotgun pattern will depend on the intended use of the shotgun. A common pattern to aim for is ~50-60% of the pellets to land within an 8-inch circle, and 80-100% of the pellets to land within a 30-inch circle.
If you’re hunting turkey, you may want a tighter pattern. If you’re shooting trap or skeet, you may want a wider pattern that is more spread out. If you are not sure what to go for, then use the above percentages as a place to start or, better yet, ask a more knowledgeable friend who has done what you’re trying to do.
Patterning a shotgun is just one of the many things that can trip up a first time duck, goose, or turkey hunter. Trying to go out hunting by yourself when you’ve never gone before is a recipe for trouble. Find someone you know and like who is into hunting and ask them to take you a few times before you strike out on your own.
Patterning a Shotgun: A Step-by-Step Breakdown
Alright, let’s get into the meat of it. Here are the steps to patterning a shotgun:
Step 1: Preparation
Your goal is to remove as many variables as possible and find out how the ammo you’ll be shooting interacts with the choke you’re using. As such, proper preparation is your best friend here.
Stabilize the Shotgun on a Mounting Stand
You don’t have to do this, but your results will be more accurate if you do. Patterning a shotgun is not the same as range practice – you’re not trying to evaluate your own shooting abilities here. You’re trying to evaluate how the load and choke work together, so use a mounting stand or at least some kind of stabilization to take the human factor out of it if you can.
In my experience, a stable platform is essential for consistent and accurate patterning. A gun vise or buttstop can be used to hold the shotgun steady during the patterning process if you have one, or at minimum you can use a shooting block to prop up the front end and anchor in your shoulder like you would standing.
Shoot On a Designated Range
Ideally, you can do your patterning at a designated shooting range. If there is an outdoor range nearby that is structured such that you can do so, it’s always safer to do this at a range. That said, there are plenty of places out in the wild that are legal to shoot in. Be sure to check your local laws to make sure you’re shooting somewhere that it is legal to shoot.
Even more important than legality, though, is safety. Just because it’s legal to shoot somewhere doesn’t mean it’s safe. Always know what is beyond your target and be 100% sure that there are no people beyond what you’re shooting at. This is always true, and the spread of shotgun blasts creates unique concerns that you need to address.
For that reason, a range is great if you can, and if you can’t, just make sure you’re both legal and safe.
Make Sure Your Shotgun Fits You
This is a step often skipped by beginners. For some reason it just doesn’t occur to them that the shotgun might not be perfectly proportioned for their size. I remember being exactly the same way when I first started learning about guns. The truth is, a well-fitting shotgun will be more comfortable to shoot and produce more consistent results.
I know, I know, a very shocking statement. The good news is that most popular shotgun brands offer some way to adjust the shotgun to make it more comfortable for the shooter. You can purchase thinner or thicker recoil pads to put on the end of the stock and you can use shims to adjust the cheek weld if needed.
You want to go through this process before you pattern your shotgun, for the simple reason that you might not be able to get the gun comfortable for you. Especially if you’re a particularly small or large human, you might not be able to adjust the gun enough for it to work. If that’s the case, why go through all the work to pattern a shotgun that you won’t be able to use effectively anyway?
Get Plenty of Rounds in Your Load of Choice
Patterning often requires shooting multiple rounds, so make sure you have enough ammunition to complete the process. At minimum, I would come prepared with 20 rounds, but it’s smart to bring more just in case.
IMPORTANT: the rounds you pattern with need to be the exact rounds that you plan to use for either hunting or shooting clay pigeons. Using different loads will defeat the purpose of patterning, so you’ll need to decide in advance what load you’ll be using and have those for your patterning session.
Prep Your Target
Your best bet is some kind of butcher paper or packing paper stapled to cardboard, OSB, or some other solid panel that can hold it up for you. Your target needs to be fairly large – you’ll want to be able to draw a 30-inch circle on it from somewhere near the middle, so having a square 35” piece of paper is not a bad idea.
On the center of the paper, draw a circle about 4 inches wide, just so you have something to aim at. The close your shot ends up to the center, the easier a few of the other steps will be, so it’s worth having a visual marking on where the center of the target is.
Step 2: Test at 20 Yards
If you know you’re going to only be aiming at targets that are 40 yards away, you can choose to skip this step. However, I’d recommend doing it anyway because it’s always useful to know how your shots are going to pattern at different distances. You never know if your target is going to end up being closer than you thought.
Choose a Choke
If you don’t know where to start, start with an improved cylinder choke. It doesn’t really matter which choke you start with, unless you didn’t bring enough rounds to get through more than one or two chokes. You need to experiment with different chokes to determine which one produces the pattern you want.
Fire Five Shots
Firing five shots is arbitrary. You could go as many as ten, but definitely don’t go less than three. Five is typically a good balance between getting close to a true “average” but also not taking too much time and ammo.
Every shot is going to deviate from “normal” somewhat, so if you want a useful predictor of how your shots are going to be distributed, you need to give yourself a larger sample size. Make sure to aim at the same spot each time, so that (theoretically), each spread is centered around the same spot.
Measure Spread on Target
After you’ve fired your shots, take a sharpie, a pushpin, a length of string, and a tape measure out to your target. Using just your eyes, figure out roughly where the center of the overall pattern is. Hopefully it’s close to the circle you drew on the center, but if not this will still work.
Insert the pushpin in the center of the pattern and tie the string to it. Measure the string out 15 inches, then hold the string tight as you draw a circle with the sharpie on the target. This gives you your 30-inch measurement that won’t be off just because your shots were off-center.
You can do the same thing to make an 8-inch circle or even a 4-inch circle depending on what you want.
Adjust Choke as Desired
If the pattern is the way you want it, great! You can move on to the next step. If not, swap out for either a tighter or looser choke and repeat these steps until you’re happy with what the spread you have at 20 yards. Make a note of what choke finally gives you the results you want, and also record the brand and other specifications of the ammo you’re using.
Step 3: Test at 40 Yards
Once you’ve done this at 20, now just repeat the process at 40.
Swap the Choke
As a general rule, the choke that gave you the pattern you wanted at 20 yards will almost always give you a wider spread than you want at 40 yards. I try never to use absolutes when writing these articles, but spreads always get wider as you get further out.
So if an improved cylinder worked at 20, try just jumping up to a modified for 40.
Fire Five Shots
After choosing your first choke to test with, you’ll fire five shots at a new target. Do not reuse any of the targets you used during your 20-yard test, since that would completely throw off your test.
Even though the stabilization on the shotgun is important at 20 yards, it’s even more important at 40 yards. If you’re a seasoned shooter you may not be as worried about this, but chances are if you’re a seasoned shooter you don’t need this guide in the first place.
Measure Spread on Target
Take your sharpie, pushpin, string, and tape measure out with you again to the target and draw your circles to see if you’ve got enough impacts inside the circles to satisfy your use case.
Adjust Choke as Desired
If you don’t like what you’re seeing, drop in a different choke and test another five shots on a new target. I’ll talk about this more down below, but be careful about how much you choke down on steel projectiles.
When Should You Pattern a Shotgun?
Generally, shotgun patterning should be done when you’re considering using a new choke, load, or shotgun. It’s also a good idea to pattern your shotgun periodically to ensure it’s still shooting accurately.
That said, patterning is about optimization, not basic functionality. It’s about increasing the chances that you’ll be successful at whatever you’re attempting, but even if you haven’t patterned at all, the shotgun is still going to go bang and fire a bunch of projectiles at whatever you’re pointing it at.
My point is, patterning a shotgun doesn’t change any of the safety rules that apply to using a shotgun for hunting or home defense, it just allows you to tune your shotgun specifically to the purpose you bought it for.
Avoiding Tight Constriction on Steel Pellets
Steel pellets can damage your shotgun depending on how tight of a choke you’re using. Using a full choke on anything #4 or larger can result in grooves being dug into your choke, and can even cause your barrel to bulge at the end.
In somewhat rare cases, the steel pellets can even get lodged in the barrel and refusing to give, causing a catastrophic malfunction. As always, if you don’t know what you’re doing, I would recommend erring on the side of caution.
The distance at which you pattern a shotgun will depend on the intended use of the shotgun. A common distance is 20 yards, but some people may also pattern at 40 yards.
No, you don’t have to pattern a shotgun, but it’s highly recommended if you want to get the most accuracy out of your shotgun. Patterning will help you determine the best choke and load for a particular shooting scenario, improving your accuracy and chances of hitting the target.
This depends on what size of shot you’re talking about, but even #9 shot is going to be traveling with lethal force for a couple hundred feet unless it has to go through something first. Slugs will be lethal much further. A good rule of thumb with firearms is that the projectiles will continue to travel with lethal force long after they become impossible to aim accurately.
Shotgun patterning is an important process for any shooter looking to get the most out of their shotgun. By following the steps outlined in this article, you can pattern your shotgun like a pro and improve your accuracy in the field or on the range. Remember to always practice safe shooting habits and be aware of the limitations of your shotgun and ammunition.
It’s usually smart to pattern your shotgun at both 20 and 40 yards, even if you are only intending to shoot at one or the other. Knowing more about how your firearm will behave in different situations is never a bad thing.
Do you have any tips for those who are looking to pattern their shotguns for the first time? Feel free to add them in the comments or hit me up on twitter @cameroncporter.