Why Do Hunters Pattern Their Shotguns?
A Comprehensive Guide
You’re probably wondering why or how hunters pattern their shotguns when they go out hunting. The real question is – how come so few hunters do. Forget about deer hunters – they have their own rifle-related firearm problems. Today, we’re talking shotguns.
Patterning your shotgun is one of the most important things to do if you’re a hunter that’s worth their own slugs. Most hunters just don’t bother, but it makes a great difference when you’re turkey hunting, going after waterfowl, or other upland game. Here’s a quick guide where we’ll talk about why patterning is important, we’ll highlight some methods, and give you crucial details worth knowing.
It might be confusing for some, but it’s a common practice among seasoned hunters to pattern their shotgun, especially when hunting waterfowl with a turkey gun. Simply put, it’s all about knowing and understanding your shot pattern and determining how it works at various distances. Another part of the patterning process is checking shell compatibility. All of these together allow you to have an intuitive and clear grasp of accurately shooting. Every patterning process is different for each shotgun model and gauge, and the reason behind it is how manufacturers design the barrels, not to mention how chokes factor into the equation.
Additionally, patterning lets you understand the importance of your shells and shooting method, and you won’t have to waste your valuable ammo on the wrong game at the wrong distance and angle. Patterning your shotgun requires a lot of trial and error with different cartridges, different distances, and various combinations of aftermarket chokes. It’s better to ‘waste’ that ammo in much-needed experimenting and testing with different shotgun cartridges than letting your waterfowl fly away indefinitely. Game hunters know that there is no optimal range as a rule of thumb. Instead, there are a handful of critical points to understand and adjust based on the situation. Understanding the optimal distance of shooting and using your preferred cartridge types will improve your hunting skills along with the performance of your shotgun.
Most shooters haven’t even heard of it, but patterning your shotgun unlocks a new dimension of aiming and point of aim. Correctly patterning your shotgun reveals how the pellets hit at different ranges. Not only that, but most hunters overlook experimenting with different rounds when trying out different patterns, so it’s important to know your shotgun shells and their grain as well. I recommend that you always go for standard, i.e. even patterns if you’re shooting waterfowl during turkey season or when you’re clay/skeet shooting.
When using a hunting rifle with a .270 caliber, you’ll usually hit the same place with every shot, at a certain distance and angle, but it’s different for shotguns because of obvious reasons. Birdshot and buckshot scatter, and it’s common knowledge that the pellets land in completely random places with each shot. While a bullet from a rifle is precise and almost always hits the same place at a certain distance, shotgun pellets end up in different places, with a different pattern, and a different area of effect. The farther you shoot, the more your pattern breaks down and you can see the gaps between the pellets. It really doesn’t matter if you’re always on target. You see, birds and clay pigeons can easily fly through these gaps, leaving hunters stumped, wondering why their shot didn’t connect. The way to gain control over this is by properly patterning your shotgun.
The most common way to pattern your shotgun is to simply try out different shells and shoot them at various ranges. This, of course, requires rigorous testing through trial and error to see which one works for you best. You’ve probably seen the ballistics and stats. Don’t bother with these details, at least for now. Instead, we’ll focus on ballpark ranges and a standard rule of thumb. Rest assured that you have all the power you need for your targets.
If you shoot at longer ranges, you’ll need more choke to stabilize pattern density. I strongly recommend you use the ¾ or full choke if you’re aiming at a 40-yard range. Keep in mind that as the range gets longer, the pellets in the pattern will decrease. Therefore, you need to focus on how many pellets are left in the pattern that would increase your hit percentage. Your best bet is keeping around 130 pellets as evenly distributed as your rifle can handle. For example, you have 300 pellets in the shotgun shell. If you shoot at thirty yards, you’ll see around 270 pellets in the pattern, which translates into 90% of them landing within the pattern.
To clarify further, if you shoot at 40 yards, the pellets will scatter within a bigger diameter, or from approximately 200 pellets 60% will land, and that’s still enough to land a critical blow to the waterfowl or buck. Simply put, look for well-balanced loads with proven pattern consistency and power. I strongly recommend that you shoot two or three shots at each range from 20 and up to 50 yards with turkey cartridges, and use a cardboard target in the silhouette of a turkey. This allows you to easily see where your pellets land and decide whether it fits your shooting style. A headshot is always a good sign. Remember that every shotgun model shoots differently, and you must always be ready to put it to the test thoroughly before you go hunting.
When hunting, it’s imperative that you always go for the ethical kill and practice humane hunting. There’s no real merit when a hunter is forced to perform mercy kills or when he has to shoot again and prolong the animal’s suffering. A shotgun has the power to make clean kills with a properly modified choke tube and once you’ve tried out different cartridges. Handling these two, along with maintaining proper constriction, will greatly help in patterning.
The load and choke of your patterned shotgun should be similar to what you’ll use when hunting waterfowl. Much like the nozzle of a garden hose, where you can adjust it for the water to spray or jet hose, a shotgun choke tube helps with your pellet patterns. These two components, the type of load and the choke, have a critical role in your shotgun’s POI (point of impact). The POI is calculated based on the difference between the aimed-for line of sight and how much below it the actual shot lands in reality. Always remember to open the cartridge and count the pellets when patterning your shotgun. Although it may feel wasteful, testing out 10 or 15 cartridges when experimenting with different grains and cartridges is just fine. In fact, it’s what patterning is all about.
It’s advised that you use suitable gun chokes with your patterning method. A choke reduces your shotshells’ scattering and tightens or widens the pellets’ distribution where you can go for either round or oval patterns. Whether you like tight patterns or wide, it entirely depends on your shooting style. Not to worry though, contrary to popular belief, the choke doesn’t affect the power of your shot. By using different chokes, you also have the opportunity to try out more cartridges with a different choke. Additionally, older shotgun models have fixed chokes and you can’t do much about that, but new versions of Remington or Mossberg shotguns have adjustable chokes.
It’s very important to keep in mind that the flight of the pellets are also greatly affected by the chokes and patterning. It’s not true that pellets shoot along your aim. Shotguns with shorter barrels, around the 24-inch range, shoot higher than the let’s say, 28-inch barrel shotguns. Additionally, pellets fired from high-comb shotguns move slightly to the left, while low-comb models of the same shotgun move slightly to the right, so keep that in mind. For more accurate patterning, go for the 10 to 15 shot mark and always keep a track record where the shots land with a piece of paper or cardboard targets. If they land lower below the bullseye, just readjust and raise the shotgun a couple of inches higher.
Not patterning your shotgun can cause you to be less aware of your maximum range, which can make it difficult if you are hunting and unsure about the best distance to shoot your target. It will also make it more difficult to identify choke-load combinations which help you shoot your game at a higher hit rate.
This is a good practice to get into at least each hunting season you are more familiar with how your shotgun will perform and it gives you a higher chance of killing your target game. You don’t want to unknowingly fire and waste ammo.
You don’t have to be a seasoned hunter to know about patterning your shotgun. It’s just shotgun 101, once you think about it. Today’s technology allows manufacturers to come up with new and innovative shotgun ammunition. They’re experimenting with ballistics and doing the math as we speak. Still, aiming true is still your end of the deal, and properly patterning your shotgun makes sure the turkey or duck doesn’t pass through your shot due to widely scattered pellets. Remember to practice at the shooting range with these new modifications and shells for clean, ethical, and consistent kills. It’s tedious and hard work at first, and it requires patience and lots of trial and error. However, it’s worth it, as you will definitely feel how your game hunting improves over time.