If you’ve had a shotgun for awhile but have never taken it hunting, there’s a decent chance you have not yet heard of shotgun patterning.
One of the most important steps in getting ready for a hunting trip is patterning your shotgun. But why do hunters need to do this? In this article, I’ll explain what gun patterning is, how to set up your shotgun for patterning, what good patterns look like, and answer some common questions about shotgun patterning. Read on to learn more.
Why Do Hunters Have to Pattern Their Shotgun?
Patterning your shotgun is an important part of hunting preparation. It ensures that when you pull the trigger and fire your shotgun, the pellets will spread out in a way that’s likely to hit your target. The spread and distribution of the pellets in your shot will vary a lot based on the load and choke combination that you’re using.
By patterning your shotgun before you go hunting, you can ensure that you have the best chance of killing (not wounding) your target when it matters most. Patterning allows you to determine how your chosen load and choke combination will spread out at different distances.
How to Set a Shotgun Up for Patterning
Testing different combinations of shot size and choke constriction lets you find out which one works best for you at different ranges. This knowledge will help you choose the right ammunition for different hunting situations, ensuring that you have the highest chance of making a successful shot when it counts.
Setting up a shotgun for patterning isn’t complicated; all you need is a safe area to shoot in, some targets, and the proper ammunition and chokes for your gun. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to set up your shotgun for patterning:
It’s best to do this at an outdoor range that can accommodate what you’re trying to do, but you can also find a place that has a minimum of 200 yards of guaranteed human-free space. If you can shoot up against a steep hill or cliff, that can be a great way to control your target area. Your main goal in finding a location is to make sure that no accidents can happen.
The targets you’ll need to prep are 30-inch circles with a 4-inch inner circle for evaluation.
Step 1: Determine the Load & Choke Combination
The first step in setting up your shotgun for patterning is determining which load and choke combination you want to test. Generally speaking, larger shot sizes (like buckshot) will get you further out while smaller shot sizes (like birdshot) will spread out a lot faster. This isn’t always true, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
As far as chokes go, there are four main types: cylinder (no constriction), improved cylinder (light constriction), modified (medium constriction), and full (heavy constriction). The more constriction you put on the choke, the tighter the pattern will stay as it travels further out.
There are more levels of choke that fit between the four main ones, so if you’re not getting the exact tightness that you want by jumping through the main ones, you can always see if one of the intermediary chokes will get you what you’re looking for.
Quick note: Be careful when using more constriction with steel projectiles, as things can get dangerous when you try to squish too much steel into too small of a gap.
The whole purpose in patterning a shotgun is to determine how a certain load and choke combination performs when used in your shotgun, so don’t try to pattern using different brands of ammo or different loads in the same test.
Step 2: Set A Target Up at 25 Yards & Test
Once you have chosen a load and choke combination, go ahead and set up a target at 25 yards away from where you will be shooting from. The “standard” test distance is actually at 40 yards, but starting at 25 yards lets you get a quick answer on whether a given load + choke is anywhere near where you want it to be.
The other nice thing about 25 yards is that you don’t have to shoot so many rounds to get a good sense. You can do a single test shot, or perhaps two, and then take results off of that.
What you’ll want to do before you shoot, though, is either buy or make a target with a 30-inch outer circle and a 4-inch inner circle. If the game you’re hunting is going to be shot at around 25 yards, then you’ll want about 80% of your pellets to hit within the 30-inch circle and about 60-65% of them in the 4-inch circle.
That’s not always true, even at 25 yards, but it’s a good rule of thumb to start with. Blasting a turkey is different from trying to knock a quail out of the air, and consequently you want a different shot pattern.
Step 3: Move to 40 Yards
Once you’ve tested the load/choke combination at 25 yards, it’s time to move further back and test it at 40 yards away from the target. Fire five shots at the target from 40 yards away in order to get an idea of how well this combination performs from this distance.
The reason you want to shoot more shots at this range is because you’re introducing more randomness into the equation. At 25 yards, there are only so many places the pellets can go. At 40 yards, there’s more time for gusts of wind to screw things up, and your own imperfections as a shooter will affect your results a lot more.
And there’s another, more frustrating cause of inconsistencies when patterning your shotgun, and that is simply that the load + choke combination you have is inconsistent. If you’ve shot 5-10 rounds and are still getting inexplicably different results, you may consider swapping out the ammo or the choke.
Step 4: Compare Results With What You Want
What you’re trying to accomplish by patterning your shotgun is figuring out what load and choke is going to give you the shot pattern that is most appropriate for the type of hunting you’re going to be doing. Unfortunately, there are simply too many possibilities for me to list out what you should be going for in every situation.
As a general rule, though, the heftier the game that you’re planning on shooting, the more concentrated and focused you want your pattern to be on the middle of the target. Conversely, if you’re shooting something fast like a duck or a quail, you want the pellets to be spread out fairly evenly throughout the 30-inch circle.
What Does Good Shotgun Patterning Look Like?
The word “good” here is subjective. One thing to look for that is true no matter what type of game you’re going to hunt is whether the pattern is roughly symmetrical. If you’re getting patterns where there are consistently more pellets hitting on the right than on the left, or in the bottom right corner than the top left corner, that’s generally not good.
You may want your shots concentrated highly in the center with only a few pellets hitting in the outer parts of the target, and that’s fine, but generally you don’t want lopsided patterns no matter what you’re aiming at.
If there are any large gaps that are inconsistent throughout the target then this could indicate that either a different load/choke combination should be used or else some finer tuning may be required in order to achieve optimal performance.
It may be tempting to ask why anyone would bother with being so meticulous about achieving an exact shot pattern that seems only marginally different from any other pattern. There are a few reasons, but the main one is very simple: respect for the animals you’re hunting and doing your due diligence not to cause them unnecessary pain.
If your shot pattern is ill-adapted to kill the game you’re hunting, then the chances are much greater that you’ll simply end up wounding the animal. If, for example, too many of your pellets are concentrated in a small area and that area happens to miss the bird you’re aiming at, it may not get hit with enough to actually kill it.
Conversely, if you’re hunting something large that needs that concentrated ball of pellets, but you hit it with a wide spread, it’s a much more painful death than it needs to be.
There are other practical effects of this as well – the time and trouble of tracking down a wounded animal that’s trying to get away from you, stray pellets causing unintentional and unnecessary damage around you, etc. But the main one is simply: respect.
At the end of the day you need to know what “good” means for the game you’re going to be hunting, and for that, I’d advise you to just give it a quick Google search and get some images for you to compare against. You’ll be able to easily find reference images for the best patterns for duck, geese, or whatever you’re going to be hunting and at what distances.
Another great way to go about this is to find a friend who is already into hunting who can take you under his or her wing and walk you through doing it for the first time.
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The “standard” distance for patterning shotguns is 40 yards away from the target. Ultimately, it comes down to what you’re hunting and how far away your targets are going to be so feel free to choose whichever one works best for you and your gun/ammunition setup.
The most open type of choke is cylinder (also known as ‘no constriction’), which has no internal restrictions placed on its barrel whatsoever; this allows all pellets fired through it to spread out quickly after leaving its barrel so as not to form any tight clusters at longer ranges (i.e., beyond 25 yards).
The most common types of chokes are cylinder (no constriction), improved cylinder (light constriction), modified (medium constriction), and full (heavy constriction).
Cylinder chokes are best suited for close range shooting while improved cylinder chokes are suited for mid-range shots; modified chokes are more suitable for medium range shots while full chokes are ideal for longer range shots.
Patterning your shotgun before going hunting is an essential step towards ensuring success on your next hunting trip; testing various loads/choke combinations at different distances allows hunters to determine which ones work best for them so they can make sure they always have the best chance possible of killing their targets when they pull the trigger during their hunts.
I’m not personally a shotgun-hunting enthusiast, but I’ve patterned shotguns before and done my fair share of hunting and shooting, so I believe everything I’ve put in this article is accurate and correct, but I’d love to hear additional thoughts by those with more expertise than me in the comments below.
I hope this article has been helpful as you pattern your shotgun!