Pattern Your Shotgun, Drop More Birds

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Have you ever patterned your shotgun? You should. Here’s how to do it, and why it will help you hit more birds.

By Phil Bourjaily 

Have you ever patterned your upland shotgun? You should. Quail are small and fast and hard to hit. Patterning your gun/choke/load combination tells you if your gun is up to the job. 
 
Patterning can be an eye-opening experience and put you on the path to dropping more birds.  
 
Patterns are traditionally shot at 40 yards, which is an arbitrary distance, and measured in a 30-inch circle, which is not arbitrary at all, but represents the useful width of a shot pattern. When you pattern test, keep the 30-inch circle but only shoot at the distances at which you expect to shoot birds.  
 
Buy builder’s paper from a home repair store in 36-inch by 140-foot rolls (about $10). Get a Sharpie to record range, choke, load and gun on each sheet, a range finder, a staple gun and some kind of backstop – cardboard, plywood, pallet – on which to staple a 36x36 inch sheet of the paper. 
 
There is more variation from shell to shell than you might realize. You’ll need to shoot several shots with each gun/choke/load combination to get a true picture. Ten patterns are ideal, but tedious. Five works best. You can get by with three. 
 
Most birds fall 20 to 25 yards from the gun. Start there, then move out to 35 yards, and maybe try 45 yards as well to see what “too far” looks like. Tip: shoot one pattern at 10 yards as a reminder that you’ll mangle birds if you shoot them too close. 
 
Make an aiming point in the middle of your paper. After the shot, draw a 30-inch circle, using the densest part of the pattern as the center. Then draw a 20-inch circle inside that. 
 
There’s no need to figure percentages. What you’re looking for is a combination that puts a minimum of 100 pellets in the larger, 30-inch circle. “Even distribution” is a misleading term you hear a lot. There is no such thing as an even pattern. They are all denser in the center, and they all have gaps in them. “Even” means not overly dense in the center at the expense of pellets in the out fringe, but not so open that it’s sparse everywhere. That’s what you’re looking for. 
 
A plucked pheasant from my freezer measured 12-13 inches around in cross section, which translates roughly to a 4.25-inch circle. A quail measures around seven, which roughly translates to a 2.5-3-inch circle. Find a clear plastic drink lid about the size of the bird you’re hunting and move it around your paper. It should cover 5-6 holes in almost any part of the 20-inch core ring and in some places of the 20- to 30-inch ring. If not, you might need to change chokes or ammo.  
 
Generally speaking, the slower and/or larger the shot, the tighter it will pattern, and the faster and smaller the shot, the more open your patterns will be.