Patterning your shotgun is simple. Think of it as research you can do to obtain valuable information about how your firearm performs with various combinations of chokes, loads and distances. Today's hunters face reduced time afield, fewer shooting opportunities and greater costs. That's why you need to make every shot as productive as possible.
"There are two main purposes why you should pattern your shotgun," said Rob Person, Ph.D., expert bird hunter and coach of the West Point skeet and trap team. "One is to determine whether the gun is placing the shot where you think it is, which is called point-of-impact (POI)."
But don't confuse POI with checking your gun's patterning characteristics. To check POI, you determine where your shotgun shoots by using a pre-drawn bulls-eye and 30-inch circle for a target. But test patterning evaluates your gun's pellet density and distribution regardless of where that pattern hits. "In doing so, says Coach Person, "you may also inadvertently discover an aiming issue, but you should deal with that later.
"The second reason why you should pattern your shotgun is to zero in on the optimum choke and shot combination for your expected waterfowl hunting conditions. To bag a duck, you obviously must place enough pellets in the bird's vital areas. If your shot pattern is too dispersed, you risk missing or crippling birds because of large gaps or 'holes' in the pattern.
"Conversely, if your shot pattern is too narrow, you're more likely to miss the bird entirely since, in other words, you're trying to hit your target with a smaller cloud of pellets. There are several ways to pattern a shotgun, but your ultimate goal is to get an idea of which loads and chokes work best in your shotgun at a given distance."
The first step in patterning your shotgun is to find a remote location with an adequate safe zone behind the target area.
You'll also need large pieces of paper, a target holder, a marker pen, eye and ear protection, and a note pad and pencil. Erect a target holder or "pattern board" that allows you to attach paper sheets.
A simple way to do this is to dig two posts into the ground about four feet apart and affix a 4'x4' backboard made of heavy cardboard or thin plywood. Obtain 40-inch x 40-inch (or wider) sheets of paper. Arts-and-crafts shops, sign shops and paper warehouses will carry 4-foot-wide rolls of paper, which you can precut for ease of handling. Using push tacks or a staple gun, attach a pattern sheet to the backboard.
Next, measure 40 yards from the target to your firing point and mark this spot on the ground. However, if you plan to shoot teal in close over decoys, use 30 yards, and if you're hunting passing geese or sea ducks, you can use 50 yards.
Attach a pattern sheet to the pattern board, and fire one shot at the center of the sheet. Using the same choke and shells, repeat the shot with a fresh paper target two to four more times. Immediately after each test shot, make a note on the target as to what load, choke and distance you used. After shooting, draw a 30-inch-diameter circle using a 15-inch string and pencil to scribe a ring that encompasses the densest portion of each pattern, and then count the pellet strikes inside the circle and average with each target. Of course, you can do the drawing and calculating back home to save time at the range if you wish.
Next, change one variable (distance, load or choke) and repeat the process three to five times making sure to record the details on each target. Experiment with different types of shells, including steel and tungsten, as well as shot sizes and brands. Very soon you will begin to see significant differences in your gun's patterning performance.
"A successful pattern density," said Coach Person, "is determined by target bird size not distance. It doesn't matter if a duck is at 25 yards or 45 yards: the minimum pattern count necessary to kill it is the same. Determine if there enough pellets in the 30-inch circle to hit the vital areas of your target-size bird and which combination of variables is most effective."
Patterning a shotgun is easy and doesn't take too much time, but it will undoubtedly result in more birds bagged and fewer cripples because you've calibrated your shotgun/choke/shot combination for your particular hunting conditions.