By Nick Simonson
The natural world, and often our daily lives, revolve around a pattern. The sun rises, travels the sky and sets as we go about our business. Rains fall, things clear, the grasses grow and life flourishes. Winter fades to spring, spring warms into summer, summer slides into the blessed season of fall and hunters begin to get antsy. In these patterns we find ways and times to intercept fish and game and add unique moments to the rhythm of our lives.
However, this time of year there’s another pattern – one that’s often out of the ordinary for many – which provides important insight and gives sportsmen the edge ahead of their favorite season, and that is the process of patterning a shotgun. Whether it’s for early Canada geese in mid-August or pheasants down the road in October, patterning a shotgun and individual shell types will help determine the effective range of a firearm and choke, the payload delivery in each round, and ultimately when to take the best shot at birds in the field; making it an important pre-season ritual for all hunters to add to their routine.
For patterning, there are three primary firearm-related variables to consider before setting out: the shotgun itself, the choke being employed and the shell type being used. A reliable gun which has been used from season to season, and possibly patterned before, should still be tested ahead of hunting to provide a reminder as to the way it disperses shot. In the case of a new shotgun purchase in the last few months, it is imperative to see how the gun patterns.
With many new firearms coming with multiple chokes, and those chokes being interchangeable throughout the year as seasons shift, it is important to understand constriction and shot disbursement of the various options at hand. Pattern a shotgun with all chokes intended to be used – from a skeet choke for woodcock and ruffed grouse at close range in the woods, to an improved or modified choke for pheasants to full or something tighter for waterfowl and turkeys – will help provide an idea of how pellets travel and what the effective range for each is.
Finally, many guns serve double-duty from the lowland marshes to the upland hills. As such, they can fire numerous kinds of shells throughout the season. From large-pelleted non-lead BB shot for waterfowl, to tiny 8 shot for doves, to size 5 for pheasants, knowing how a wide array of ammunition works in a particular gun will help provide a better understanding of the shot cloud and the impact of those projectiles on a moving bird throughout the various hunting seasons this fall.
From a Distance
Once the gun, choke and shell are selected, determining effectiveness at various distances will assist hunters in knowing when to take their best shots and hold off on birds that are too close to let the shot develop, or those that are too far away and would be only wounded or not impacted at all by a shot. The physical variable of distance and its effect on the expansion of a pattern can be seen when shells are fired at various ranges, from 10 to 50 yards, depending on choke and the type of ammunition.
At a gun range or other safe shooting space with a significant backstop of rubber, wood or dirt, hang a chosen patterning target and set up the shot. Targets with large circles, usually 30 inches or so, around the outline of a pheasant, duck or turkey, help hunters key in on the features of their quarry and determine how many pellets hit the vital areas of the bird and provide added realism, but a target with a an orange clay, or a large red dot at the center of the circle will suffice. Firing one shot at one target at a time from each decided distance – 20, 30 or 40 yards, typically – will help determine the effective pattern at those ranges and show how it widens at each.
Start at 20 yards and take a shot, then inspect the target to see where the pellets hit, marking those that connected with the bird silhouette with a red pen and those others inside the circle with a blue pen. Add the two together to find out how many pellets are falling within the 30-inch circle, and compare it against the total pellets in each shell, often listed on the manufacturer’s website. Check the pattern for any gaps, especially at longer ranges. Repeat the process at 30 yards with the same choke and shell type and do so again at 40 yards. It should become evident that the pellets in the circle become fewer and more spread out when the distance from the target is increased, providing suggestions as to the effective range of the combination of gun, choke and shell selected. Moreover, the process will help determine that all is in order ahead of a given hunting season, providing some peace of mind that the hits will count come opening day and ruling out every excuse in the field but user error.
One could spend countless hours studying percentages of hits within a given area of a target, the number of pellets in various sizes required to bring down different birds, and other situational factors affecting the pattern of a particular shotgun. Dozens of books have been written on the topic and internet forums abound with a library’s worth of information, and while that information provides a good read and an option for determining a baseline for shot densities across various feathered game, first-hand experience and knowledge about the firearm in hand is a far greater tool in the field. Take the time now, as the summer pattern works its way into fall, to figure out just how accurate the chosen combination of gun, choke and shell will be in the coming weeks.
Featured Photo: Shell brand, shot size, and choke type are just a few of the factors to consider when patterning a shotgun ahead of the hunting seasons. Simonson Photo.