Rifle hunters are well versed in the importance of sighting-in, but most smooth-bore hunters have never patterned their shotgun—and that means they have no real idea how it performs. They simply assume any modified choke, for example, shoots the same pattern as any other modified choke, irrespective of the barrel or load, and the same applies to any other size of choke. Nothing could be further from the truth. No, to ensure your shotgun is putting pellets right where you want them at the distance you expect to be shooting, you must match the proper choke to the specific gun and load you’ll be using. And to do this, you need to pattern your gun. Here’s how.
The classic patterning protocol is to shoot a paper target at 40 yards, then count the number of pellets within a 30-inch circle. You then divide that number by the total number of pellets in the load to arrive at a pattern density percentage. If 70 per cent or more of the pellets fall within the circle, your pattern is described as that of a full choke. If it’s 60 to 69 per cent, the pattern is that of a modified choke, while 50 to 59 is improved cylinder—anything less is considered cylinder bore. These numbers reflect the actual downrange pattern of your gun and don’t necessarily match the barrel’s choke designation.
While you can learn a lot from traditional patterning, it’s more practical to pattern each shotgun and load at the distances you expect to be shooting afield. For example, a turkey hunter may want to see a pattern with a load of 1½-ounce, copper-plated #5 shot at 45 yards, while a goose hunter who shoots over decoys will be interested in how 1¼-ounce steel BBs pattern at 35 yards. Remember, don’t expect each load and choke combination to shoot as advertised, because it just isn’t so.
What to look for
When I pattern a particular load, I take three or four shots with each different choke at the distance I expect to be shooting when hunting, changing targets after each round. I don’t bother to count the pellet holes, but instead look at the overall pellet distribution. Not only does this tell me how dense the pattern is, it also shows me where it’s the most dense in relation to the target’s centre aiming point. This will reveal whether your shotgun shoots to the left or the right, or above or below, your aim point. You may be very surprised to learn your shotgun doesn’t necessarily shoot where it’s pointed.
Typically, I want to see the holes evenly spread across a 30-inch circle. However, if I see patterns that are overly dense in the centre with significantly uneven fringes, or if I note clumping of pellets interspersed with voids of no pellet strikes, it’s time to consider changing the choke or load. One manufacturer’s shell will seldom pattern the same as another’s, even when loaded with the same powder and shot charges.
In my experience, smaller pellet sizes tend to pattern more consistently than do larger ones. This can be especially important for goose and turkey hunters using larger shot, often at extended ranges. With steel, the conventional wisdom is to drop down to more open chokes to achieve the most consistent patterns. In reality, that can literally be a hit or miss proposition; pattern your loads to see for yourself which perform best.
Whatever the shooting scenario may be, always pattern the loads you’ll be taking into the field on your hunt. Not only will it help you select the best load-choke combination—it will also put more birds in the bag.