Patterning a Shotgun and Finding The Best Shotgun Choke

Patterning is the shotgunners equivalent to sighting in your rifle. Without a good shotgun pattern you won’t hit a clay pigeon and definitely won’t get some of the faster game birds. Patterning a shotgun is surprisingly easy if you know what you’re doing and only requires a few basic adjustments. The following guide should point you in the right direction and bring you more birds this hunting season.

How to Pattern a Shotgun

Shotgun Patterning Basics?

When you pattern a shotgun you are measuring the percentage of shot that strikes your target at your preferred shooting range. Most of the time I’ll pattern my Browning Citori at 40 yards using a 30 inch circle target. If you typically shoot at closer targets bring it closer and vice versa. All you’re really trying to do is determine the general percentage of shot that hits at a certain distance.

What Percentage of Shot Should Hit at 40 Yards?

When you’re testing hunting guns and loads you really don’t need to bother measuring the exact percentage in a pattern. All you really need is to know whether or not it looks like it will take down a bird. Where you really need to focus on exact percentages is getting into competition.  According to industry standards a full choke should print at 70% of pellets hitting the target at 40 yards with a 30 inch circle, Modified chokes are 60% and Improved Cylinder 50%.

Where Should I Pattern my Gun?

As a general rule you’re going to want to pattern your gun wherever you plan to shoot. If you spend a lot of time shooting at clays you’ll probably want to pattern it at 40 yards. However if you target mostly geese at long-range you’ll probably want a bigger target at a longer distance. It really isn’t difficult to make adjustments. Simply take a big sheet of paper out to your shooting distance and see how it hits. Make sure you use a proper shooting rest to guarantee consistent shots. If you don’t have a traditional shooting rest like the Caldwell lead sled you can use any cheap sandbag shooting rest just to stabilize your shotgun.  Remember your patterning a shotgun it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Judging Impact and Fit

When you start to analyze your patterns you should try and look for similarities. First you’re going to want to look for the point of impact relative to your aiming mark.  Remember that if you’re using a shooting rest fit and human error won’t play into this at all. If you are aiming center of target and always seem to be high into the right that tells you something about your shotgun. The densest part of the pattern should be centered right in the middle of your aiming mark. If your gun shoots far to the left, right or really high you need to see a gunsmith.

Shotgun Shoots a Little High

When I’m talking about patterning high I don’t mean a few inches above the target. Hitting a few inches above the target is actually beneficial to a lot of upland bird hunters. If your shotgun shoots a little bit high you won’t have to cover the bird with your barrel when tracking it. It might take a little getting used to but it will definitely help you track over 30-40 yards.

Testing Your Shotguns Fit

After bench testing your gun you’re going to want to test it on your shoulder. To do this draw an X on a large target and quickly bring up your shotgun and shoot at it like you are aiming at a bird. Without aiming simply mount the gun and shoot as it touches your shoulder (like you would in the field.) Repeat a few times and see if the densest concentration of pellets is centered on the X. If it’s off-center there’s something wrong with your shooting style or shotguns fit.

Judging Shotgun Pattern Effectiveness

Pattern is on Target, but the spread isn’t concentrated

To determine your patterns effectiveness dry circle around the pattern centered around the densest part. You want to find a pattern that has a good balance of center density with moderate spread.

A pattern that’s extremely dense in the center is going to be hard to hit your target while a spread out pattern might not take it down.The key is to find a balance that spread out enough to be effective yet centered so that birds won’t slip past your grasp. Try not to pattern your shotgun to where it’s too centered destroying your meat.

Ideally the pellets should be widely and evenly distributed throughout your circle.It needs to be broad enough to easily hit your target yet concentrated enough to guarantee it goes down. I like to aim for at least five or six pellets spread throughout every area in the 30 inch circle.The easiest way to check your patterns is to use bird silhouette targets which can be bought on amazon or your local sporting good store.  Personally I think they’re a bit to expensive for what they are, so I make my own using cheap poster board and a sharpie.

How to Fix an Uneven Shotgun Pattern

Pattern is on Target and Concentrated Well

Fixing an uneven shotgun pattern is easy if the pattern is centered. The only time you have an issue is if you’re shooting really high or to the left/right. If you’re only issue is that your spread is to dense or spread out all you’ll need to do is change your chokes. Try and change your chokes and loads until you find a combination that works well for you.  Personally I like to use one of Carlson’s 3 Piece Choke Tube Sets for my hunting shotguns, but any set that comes with your shotgun should work fine.

How to adjust the Spread

Adjusting the spread is as simple as swapping out the choke tube.  Simply swap out the choke tube until you find a combination that works for you at your chosen range.  Try to use an open choke when your patterns are too dense and tighter choke whenever your patterns are spread out.  Whenever it seems like you can’t find a choke that works right with your gun switch to the next smallest pellet size.  Going to a larger pellet size will add long range power, but will reduce overall spread.

Can You Use The Same Pattern at Different Distances?

Be careful whenever you need to switch between distances. It might not seem like a lot but the difference between 45 yards and 55 yards will really impact your spread. You are going to be able to use the same choke and ammo combo between 30 and 60 yards. If you pattern at 45 yards,at 35 yards the spread will be center concentrated and look extremely spread out at 60.

I like to find a load that patterns well between 30 and 60 yards with just a quick swap out of chokes.  Just swap out your choke using a universal choke wrench and get back to shooting.



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