Patterning Tips For Early-Season Pheasants

A good pheasant shoot can turn unpleasant if you don't pattern your shotgun beforehand and start to miss too many birds. Here's how to prevent that from happening. (October 2007)

Pattern testing at actual shooting distances with actual pheasant loads is the only way to determine how your shotgun will perform in the field.
Photo by Mike Schoonveld.

It's the weekend before deer gun season opens. You better get to the shooting range and get there early to claim your spot. Other shooters, all armed with their favorite deer-boomer will be there as well, tinkering with loads, adjusting their scopes, getting their guns dialed in perfectly for the opening day action.

On the weekend before the pheasant opener, however, the shooting range won't be so crowded. What shotgun shooters are there, are mostly tossing clay targets to whet their shooting skills rather than to fine-tune the scattergun.

There's certainly nothing wrong with a few practice sessions; in fact, the best wingshooters are those hunters who spend plenty of time busting clay birds on a year-round basis. Equally important as good shooting skills is knowing exactly how your shotgun performs on the patterning board with the shotshells you plan to use in the field.


Gun makers learned to put a "choke" in shotgun barrels more than a century ago. As we all know, a choke creates a slight constriction at the muzzle to produce less scatter from the scattergun.

The inside of a 12-gauge shotgun barrel with no choke measures .729 inches. How much "choke" is put at the end of the barrel can be measured two ways. Manufacturers simply measure the amount of constriction. The choke called "improved cylinder" has .01 inches of constriction. The choke called "modified" has .02 inches of constriction and the amount of constriction can continue right on up to super-full choke barrels having .05 inches of constriction.

An alternate way of determining whether a shotgun barrel is a full choke, modified or improved cylinder is to test the pattern on a large sheet of paper tacked on a target holder. A shot is fired at the target from 40 yards and then the real work begins.

The shooter "eyeballs" what he or she considers to be the center of the pattern and then draws a 15-inch radius circle from the center point. The result would be a 30-inch circle with some of the pellet holes inside the circle and others outside.

Using a table that shows how many pellets are in each shotshell (for instance 1 ounce of No. 6 lead shot contains 225 pellets), the tester counts the number of pellet hits inside the circle and then arithmetically determines what percentage of the pellets are within the ring. I've heard of chokes that put almost 90 percent of the pellets inside the 30-inch ring, but a standard full choke delivers about 70 percent. A modified choke delivers 60 percent and an improved cylinder pattern is one where half the pellets strike inside the circle and half outside of the ring.

So why all of this hubbub about chokes and patterns? Full chokes are for long shots, improved cylinders are for short ranges, and all a shooter needs to do is look at the choke stamped on the barrel or on the choke tube screwed into the muzzle to see what he or she is shooting.

Not so fast. Though the old maxim "every shotgun is different" is still somewhat true, the difference between most production guns of the same model these days is very slight. The materials and machining are so uniform that any patterning differences with like guns won't be pronounced. Provided, of course, identical shotshells are being used.

Head down to a well-stocked ammunition emporium and you'll soon have your head spinning when it comes to choosing a box of shotshells. That center aisle display of "pheasant" loads with 1 1/4 ounce of No. 6 shot seems a bargain against the same company's premium loads containing 1 1/4 ounce of No. 6 shot, but with a much steeper price tag. Is there that much difference? Then there are magnum loads and low-recoil loads and extra high-speed loads and on and on.

Each load is different and each load will probably pattern differently. The only way to find out exactly how much difference in performance is to pattern test. What you are likely to learn is the inexpensive shells pattern closer to the 50, 60 or 70 percent standard for improved, modified or full choke. The premium loads will probably pattern about one "choke" or about 10 percent tighter.

Only testing will show what will happen if you switch from lead shot-allowed for pheasants most places--to non-toxic shot required in a few places. In the non-toxic category, don't expect similar performance from all the types of steel shot that's available. Steel won't pattern the same as tungsten/iron, which will be different from bismuth and on and on. Some differences will be slight, others will be pronounced. Only time spent pattern testing will show those differences.


Let's switch gears and discuss what it takes to make a clean kill on a pheasant. Any hunter who has much experience has seen the time when a long shot on a long tail brought the bird down dead. A later examination during the cleaning process revealed a bird with only one pellet strike -- usually in the head or neck. That's not good shooting; that's blind luck.

Shotguns don't kill pheasants by randomly putting a pellet or two into a vital area. That's how rifles work. Shoot a deer in the heart or lungs and follow the blood trail 50, 100 yards or more to where the deer went down.

Shoot a pheasant in the heart or lungs with one pellet and watch it sail to the end of the field before it expires, making for a difficult retrieve, at best. There's a different mechanism involved whenever a shotgun causes that instant, dead-in-the-air kill we are after. It's called blunt-force-trauma. The massive shock to the body causes an instant death.

In the case of a bird the size of a pheasant, that amount of shock comes when it's struck with six or seven shot pellets in the body. Pellets through the feathers don't count. Hits that strike the wings or feet or just graze the skin don't add much. Hit a bird solidly on the body with seven pellets having enough velocity to penetrate halfway through the bird and it's a dead pheasant.


Probably more pheasants are taken with No. 6 shot than all the other sizes combined. A few guys will switch to No. 5s or even 4s or 2s later in the season and probably an equal number rely on No. 7 1/2 shot early in the year. The fact is, the above statement that it takes six or seven solid pellet strikes to instantly kill a pheasa

nt is true almost as much with No. 2 shot as it is with No. 7 1/2 shot. Without getting overly technical about the weight of individual pellets, velocity and foot pounds of energy produced by various shot sizes, suffice it to say, you can stone a pheasant reliably with five or six hits of No. 2 shot just as reliably as with seven or eight hits with No. 7 1/2s.


While it may be interesting to step off 40 yards and blast an oversized piece of paper to learn if your improved or modified choke really shoots improved or modified patterns, knowing that does little toward showing you if your pattern has what it takes to make a clean kill.

Few pheasants are actually killed at 40 yards and fewer still at 50 or 60 yards. Pick a load to test and fire it at the patterning paper at the ranges you normally would touch the trigger on a hard-flying ringneck.

A silhouette of the solid part of a pheasant (discounting the wings, lower legs, feet and feathers) contains about 30 square inches. So, take a 30-square-inch piece of cardboard to the patterning target. (Thirty square inches is a square piece of paper about 5 1/2 inches on a side, a circle about 6 inches in diameter or roughly one-third of this magazine page.)

Now, randomly use the piece of cardboard to trace 30-square-inch areas in various places on the patterning paper. Count the number of pellet hits inside each area and consider any of them with seven or more pellet holes as a dead bird and any of them with five or fewer hits as a probable crippled bird.

The results will amaze you. You'll be surprised at ranges out to 30 yards how often your pattern density, even with open chokes, are ample or even more than adequate. You may discover those cheaper boxes of shells are perfectly adequate. You'll probably discover switching to No. 2 or No. 4 shot for long-range, late-season shooting won't fill the bill unless you switch to magnum loads with heavier shot charges.

The one thing you'll definitely learn is how futile it is to pawn off a missed shot on poor ammunition or improper choke selection. Chances are you should have finished off your patterning session with a practice session busting clay birds.

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