What Distance Should Be Used to Pattern a Shotgun?

by Vern Evans

In the world of shotguns there are some large topics of dissension: lead, choke selection, gun fit, and shot size selection to name a few. But one surprisingly controversial topic is the subject of patterning. This is because there are a variety of distances and techniques for patterning a shotgun.  

Here we’ll aim to cut through the controversy and break down three different patterning processes and their applications. 

  1. Patterning for waterfowl and upland birds 
  2. Patterning for clay target games
  3. Patterning for turkeys and coyotes

What Does Patterning a Shotgun Mean?

Put simply, patterning a shotgun is the analysis of the array of pellets from a given shotgun, choke, and load on a target. For most situations a distance of 40 yards should be used to pattern a shotgun. 

Pattern Analysis vs Point of Impact

It’s important to differentiate pattern analysis vs evaluating point of impact. When discussing a shotgun’s pattern, we’re looking at the density and evenness of pellet strikes from a certain range. 

When talking about point of impact, we are evaluating where the core of that pattern hits, relative to our point of aim.

What Makes a Good Pattern?

In general, we want to see a dense volume of pellet strikes at the core of the pattern, which will naturally thin out as they move to the edges. A good pattern does not have major gaps or holes between pellet strikes. 

Many people chirp about pellet counts when patterning and spend hours at the patterning board counting holes. It’s common to count the number of pellet strikes within a 30-inch diameter circle for waterfowl and upland setups and a 10-inch diameter circle for turkey rigs. 

What You need to Pattern a Shotgun

For any patterning work, you’ll want to shoot a sheet of paper or steel measuring at least 48 inches by 48 inches with an aiming dot in the center. A steel patterning board may be used if you’re shooting lead or bismuth ammo, but if you’re shooting steel pellets, make sure to use paper to avoid ricochets.

How to Pattern for Ducks and Upland Birds

Since we shoot ducks and upland birds from the standing position most often, we want to pattern from the standing position as well. But we also want accurate shooting. 

I recommend shooting off sticks or a tripod. This way you can have a proper stance, solid gunmount, cheek weld, and consistent sight picture, plus a solid rest for accurate shooting. This will give you a good baseline from which to work. I recheck my patterning results with an off-hand shot at my ideal engagement distance. 

But what distance should be used for patterning a shotgun for upland birds and waterfowl? That depends on how far you typically shoot at ducks and pheasants. While there are lots of theories and opinions on this, we are going to focus on a 40-yard distance for our kill zone but also pattern out to 50 yards. For most of us, a 40-yard shot at a game bird should be considered a long shot.

For this one, we want to use a 30-inch diameter circle with a dot in the center as our point of aim. Make a good clean shot and then follow these steps.

  1. Evaluate point of impact in relation to point of aim. We want to see the core of the pattern hit where we were aiming, or just slightly high. Some hunters like a 60/40 pattern (meaning about 60 percent of the pellet strikes hit even with or above the aimpoint).
  2. Evaluate the density of pellet strikes.  Generally speaking for mid-sized game birds we want to see about 100 to 120 pellet strikes in a 30-inch circle. For large game birds we want to see about 80 to 100 strikes in a 30-inch circle. Keep in mind, these numbers represent a bit of a reverse sliding scale as shot size changes. All things being equal, the larger pellet size the fewer number of pellets you’ll put inside the 30-inch circle. Generally, the larger the critter, the larger the pellet size. 
  3. Take a picture of your target. 
  4. Shoot again with the identical set up. Compare your results. If they were consistent, take a photo of target number two and shoot once more. However, if your two targets were drastically different, re-evaluate your shooting setup, rest, stance, trigger squeeze, etc.  
  5. Shoot standing, off-hand. Shoot as you would in a hunting scenario to help confirm your results. 

If your point of impact was consistently off in the exercise above, evaluate things like your gun fit and eye alignment. It’s possible to alter the point of impact by adjusting the shims and cast of a shotgun. If your pattern looks too sparse or too dense, you can experiment with different choke and load combinations until you find one that shoots consistent patterns out of your gun.  

Read Next: Best Chokes for Duck Hunting

How to Pattern for Clay Games

Similar to the procedure for bird hunting, we start standing. I want to begin shooting off sticks to remove as much human error as possible. 

For all three main clay games, I like to begin at 40 yards. If I am looking to pattern for handicap trap or sporting clays, I will also stretch this out to 50 yards and perhaps 60, to get an idea of what my load/choke combination is doing at those distances. Skeet is primarily a sub 40-yard game, so I stick close to that distance when patterning for that discipline.

We follow the same shooting protocol as above. We’ll still assess pattern density and look for consistency in point of impact. But based on the individual discipline, the pattern goals deviate somewhat. So, what are we looking for? 

Trap: 70/30 or 80/20

We want to see a higher percentage of pellets above our aimpoint since trap targets trap are typically engaged while the bird is still rising in its flight path. 

Skeet: 60/40 or 50/50

In skeet, targets engaged are rising, crossing/maintaining elevation or dropping, so pattern that is more dead-on with the aim point is ideal. 

Sporting Clays: 50/50

For sporting clays, we continue the trend of equitable distribution. Due to the sheer diversity of target presentations, a 50/50 ratio is usually a good goal. 

In my next story I’ll dig into the details on how to make your point of aim and point of impact align to achieve your patterning goals.

Read Next: Trap Shooting, A Beginner’s Guide

Patterning for Turkey Hunting, Varmints, and Small Game

Since most turkey hunting shots will be from the sitting position, that’s how we’ll pattern. 

For turkey patterning, I like to bracket my distances. What I mean by that is to pick what I think is going to be my ideal harvest range and pattern at that range as well as either side by about 10 yards. For example if I expect my ideal range to be 30 yards, I would pattern at 20, 30, and 40 yards to have solid data. The standard for evaluating turkey targets is to count the number of pellet strikes within a 10-inch circle over the core of the pattern. For consistent kills, you want to put at least 100 pellet strikes inside that 10-inch circle, centered over the gobbler’s neck. If your gun/choke/load combination cannot do this at a given distance, then you know that specific distance is beyond your effective range. A 12 gauge turkey gun with a turkey-specific choke and TSS loads should put at least 100 pellets on target at 50 yards. So if you are shooting this kind of setup it makes sense to shoot at 40, 50, and 60 yards. If you are shooting a sub-gauge or lead loads, it’s wise to pattern at 20, 30, and 40 yards. 

There are a variety of turkey targets out there, which are fine for getting a visual representation of how your pattern might impact a turkey. But you still want to shoot at a larger piece of paper to get a true understanding of your pattern. So if you do shoot a turkey target, staple it over a larger sheet of paper (48 inches by 48 inches is ideal). 

Now that we’ve got our target and distance figured out, follow these steps.

  1. With your hunting ammo, take your shot from a comfy seated position with a solid rest. Aim for the turkey’s neck, not its head. (Read our guide on where to shoot a turkey).
  2. Shoot from the closer distance first.
  3. Assess your pattern. Don’t worry about counting your pellets in your little circle yet, but do look at pellet strike concentration and its relation to your aim point. If you’re not dead on, then we need to do some adjusting. If you are shooting with a red dot sight or adjustable open sights, then simply sight it in just as you would a rifle. If you are shooting with a bead, then you might have to adjust your aim point to get on target.
  4. Now with a dialed in sight or aim point, let’s bracket our distances. Shoot three times (three different targets) at each distance. 
  5. Evaluate your targets at all ranges. If you see a dense smattering of pellet strikes over the turkey’s vitals on all targets, you’re good to go. If not, you either need to decrease your max range or tweak your load/choke combo (and possibly do some more practicing with your turkey gun). 
  6. Take one final shot at 10 yards. This will give you an idea of how tight your pattern is at close range.

The patterning process for varmints and stationary small game is basically the same. Of course you’ll tweak your ammo, choke, and gauge selection.

Final Thoughts on Patterning a Shotgun

Patterning can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. With a basic protocol in place, you can determine where your point of impact is in relation to your point of aim. You will also know how dense of a pattern your gun/load/choke combination will throw at your maximum effective range. Staying within that range will help you kill more birds cleanly.  You can choose to stop there and go afield with the knowledge you have. Or, you can dive into the matrix of variables and what ifs to fine tune your point of impact and pattern. 

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