Patterning your shotgun is a step that is often overlooked or intentionally skipped to save on time and money, however it’s important. By patterning your shotgun before you go hunting you achieve a few different things. First, you get a better understanding of your point of impact compared to your point of aim. Next, you can draw solid conclusions about your effective kill range. This range is something that changes from gun to gun and load to load, so the only way to truly determine lethality and effectiveness at various distances is to get that pattern on paper. Knowing your max range is important, shooting beyond that is unethical and can lead to wounded animals. By patterning your shotgun ahead of time you avoid any gray area and can shoot with confidence knowing exactly how your gun and the load you are shooting will perform. Patterning also allows you to see exactly how a particular load performs with the choke you are using. Although your hunting partner may shoot a certain load and get great results, that does not mean it will perform the same way for you. You have to pattern the shotgun you will be using with several different loads to see which one gives you the best performance.
Point of Aim vs Point of Impact:
Most hunters probably assume that they can shoulder their shotgun, take aim and the payload they dispatch will be thrown squarely at the aim point. However, the truth is that a lot of shotguns don’t shoot straight. By patterning your shotgun, you get a visual confirmation of where your gun is shooting. Start by taking a large sheet of paper, 3 feet x 3 feet or larger, and draw a 6-inch circle in the center of it. Set up that target at 40 yards and take one shot, aiming directly at the circle. Once you fire, go down range and analyze your pattern. Is the core group above, below, left or right of center? Immediately, you’ll know what kind of corrections you need to be making in the field to adjust for this discrepancy. If you are shooting 6 inches low at 40 yards, then you know you need to make your new aim point 6 inches higher. This also very clearly illustrates what kind of pattern you are getting with your load and choke tube combo.
Analyzing, Patterning & Determining Effective Range:
With your point of aim and point of impact established, next staple a turkey head target onto your patterning board and take one shot. Generally, turkey hunters want to aim directly at the wattles, where the skin and feathers meet, and a turkey head target provides this visual and aids in a little pre-hunting shot placement practice. Although you can see the pattern of your load on a plain sheet of paper, the outline of the turkey head and body often gives shooters a greater understanding of the performance of the load. The holes in a turkey target make it easy to see the impact in the kill zone, roughly a 10-inch circle around the head/neck. Looking at and counting the concentration of pellets within that area will allow you to see how effective the pattern will be in the field when used against a real gobbler. Shoot each individual load several times, using a new clean target for every shot and mark each one with the exact gun/load you are using. Repeat with several different loads, marking each target so you can clearly distinguish which load is responsible for the pattern on the target. Then line those targets up to analyze the patterns. Based on those targets, you should be able to tell which shotshell gives you the greatest effectiveness at 40 yards and ultimately, the greatest performance in the field. Are you satisfied with the results? If not, keep working until you are. It’s worth noting that when patterning your shotgun, 40 yards is a standard distance that most firearm companies use as a benchmark. However, every hunter’s situation is unique so use 40 yards as a base line when patterning and then adjust according to the distance that you shoot most of your game. Furthermore, a lot of turkey loads on the market today can push the envelope of lethality out to 60+ yards. Before you go squeezing off 60-yard shots in the field, make sure you shoot that distance when you are patterning so you understand what kind of performance you’ll get at increased distances and whether or not it will be enough to kill a gobbler, not just cripple it.
The Importance of Patterning from a Rest:
The way in which you shoot while patterning makes a difference, it’s important to shoot from a stable rest. I pattern my shotgun from my Herter’s Deluxe Shooting Bench. Or, in lieu of a bench, I use Cabela’s Stack and Shoot Bags to stabilize my gun. It doesn’t matter what you use, just make sure you have a solid, steady rest. Consistency is important when you’re trying to dial in your shotgun, and using a steady rest gives you the advantage of consistency in your shooting form that you can’t get from offhand shooting. You don’t sight your rifle in offhand and you shouldn’t take that tact with your turkey gun, either. You will get the best, most accurate results if you pattern from a controlled environment, shooting from a rest, where you can eliminate as much human error as possible.
Choke tubes are an important part of any shotgunner’s setup. Choke tubes constrict the pattern of pellets and help them hold together, tighter and longer, before spreading. This helps shooters achieve a denser pattern at more extended distances than they could otherwise get with an open choke, or no choke. For turkey hunters, the three most commonly used choke tubes are Modified, Full and Super Full/Extra Full.
- A Modified choke is generally good for mid-range shooting, 30-40 yards. The Modified will have the least amount of constriction of the three here, giving you a mix of accuracy and spread all rolled into one. A Modified choke should deliver around 60% of the pellets in your shotshell into a 30-inch circle at 40 yards.
- A Full choke has a tighter constriction than that of the Modified and is good for 40+ yard shots. The pellets won’t spread as wide as they would with a Modified which in turn holds those pellets together longer at greater distances. Full chokes should deliver around 70% of the total pellets in the shotshell into a 30-inch circle at 40 yards, giving you a greater concentration/density than the Modified will.
- Super Full/ Extra Full chokes are really popular among turkey hunters because of their super tight constrictions that produce incredibly dense patterns. Depending on the choke, you can see up to 75% or more of the pellets in your shotshell delivered into a 30-inch circle at 40 yards.
In essence, the more constriction in your choke tube, the denser the pattern will be and that also translates to greater effectiveness at longer distances. The choke tube you choose will be influenced by the area you are hunting, whether you are shooting in thick timber or vegetation or wide-open flats. Another determining factor is the load you are shooting. All guns pattern a little differently, don’t expect a particular result if you haven’t first tested it at the range and put that pattern on paper. Patterning your shotgun isn’t just about the load you choose, but also how it pairs and performs with the choke you are using. Take the time and test out several different combinations until you get your desired results.
Shoot Smart and Shoot Safe:
This should be a no brainer, but I’d be remiss not to mention the importance of proper eye and ear protection any time you are shooting. There are a lot of different ear protection options out there, including the cheap and effective foam ear plugs. However, I prefer something that still allows me to hear what is going on peripherally, so my personal preference are the Cabela’s S.T.R. 9x Electronic Muffs. They reduce loud noises to safe levels but amplify other sounds. In addition, a good pair of shooting glasses, like my Cabela’s S.T.R. Metal Series Ballistic Shooting Glasses or even sunglasses provide protection to your eyes and shouldn’t be overlooked. Your eyes and ears are too valuable to jeopardize, be smart and use the proper protection.
Time invested now, patterning your shotgun will lead to greater confidence and increased chances of success in the field. Know your shotgun setup, inside and out, before you go afield this spring!
The results won’t lie, put shotshell to paper!