Waterfowl Hunting – The Importance of Patterning Your Shotgun

Patterning your shotgun is one of the most essential pre-season tasks, alongside training your hunting dogs and painting your decoys. Doing this demonstrates whether gun, choke and load work together effectively to deliver enough damage on targets.

Patterning a shotgun requires creating a 30-inch circle filled with an even distribution of pellets, with several factors affecting this result; these include:


As part of your preparation for waterfowl hunting, one of the most critical steps is patterning your shotgun. Doing this enables you to assess how well its combination of gun, choke and load performs at different distances, as well as identify whether a different choke or load might be needed. Failing to do this could cause you to miss more birds than if had gone through with it beforehand.

To properly pattern your shotgun, the first step should be a load test on a target that measures at least three feet wide with a circular bullseye in its center. This target should represent how a waterfowl shotgun pattern would spread out when shooting at realistic distances. Once set up, place your gun at its desired distance and aim it toward the center of the circle – firing one single shot as desired (wingshooters usually hold their guns with both hands resting on either the trigger guard or stock).

Once your test pattern is fired, count how many pellets hit inside the circle drawn around the densest part. Divide this number by the total number of pellets in your shell to get your pattern percentage and gain insight into whether your shotgun can reliably hold an acceptable percentage within a 30-inch circle.

Idealy, you should experiment with various brands and loads of ammunition in order to find what best fits your gun. This will enable you to hit birds without missing them due to an inaccurate pattern from your gun. A good rule of thumb would be purchasing two to three boxes of each brand/load before beginning hunting season so you have enough ammunition. If your shotgun still doesn’t pattern accurately after trying various brands and loads, consider hiring a nationally advertised service that specializes in choke tube installation as they will have access to various chokes/brands that could help get it shooting better than before – these services have access to many chokes/brands which could help tune it to shoot better results from within.


A choke is a threaded device attached to the end of your shotgun barrel that serves to regulate shot pattern diameters by restricting their diameters to some degree. Older style shotguns often featured integral chokes while modern versions feature threading on their muzzle ends to accommodate removable choke tubes.

Selecting the proper choke and ammunition combination for your shotgun will produce an even, dense and bird-killing pattern. Repetition is key here – using a controlled pattern plate is ideal for this step – to test gun, chokes and ammunition under different conditions. Keep track of weather information, shell used and any other relevant data to optimize this process.

Once you have established a baseline percentage, repeat this process using different combinations of chokes and loads until an average is established. Varying any one of these components may alter your results significantly so treat each set of tests as unique – for instance using steel shot patterns with improved-cylinder choke tubes will yield far different results than shooting upland loads with lead pellets.

As you test chokes, pay careful attention to their size of circle. If there are gaps or clumps within it that impede your ability to hit targets accurately, that may indicate too-tight chokes for your needs; similarly if there is too much central concentration within its pattern that indicates too dense a choke for your use.

Tight patterns are ideal for hunting quail and woodcock at close ranges; however, at longer distances they become too open. Chokes can help solve these issues by opening up or adding density into fringes of the pattern. Adjustments to gun positioning, aiming and grip also play an integral part in producing accurate patterns that give the best chance for clean kills; with time, practice, the right chokes, it is definitely achievable! Good luck hunting; don’t forget your eye protection as your success will depend upon it!


Hunting pheasants, quail or turkey requires knowledge of how to pattern your shotgun correctly to increase the odds of making clean kill shots. While educated guesses at point-of-impact may work when shooting birds in the field, using an accurate representation of how many pellets will strike and where those pellets hit on your target is much more effective.

Not all patterns are created equal, which is why it is crucial to conduct multiple trials using various guns, choke levels, and loads with one gun. Factors like density of shot pattern variation as well as size of shot size impact how well a particular shotgun performs.

There is a common perception that full choke guns with 70% to 80% pattern density at 40 yards are ideal for upland game hunting, although this may not always be the case. Many hunters have successfully shot game with less dense patterns – even at close ranges up to 91% density!

Patterning a shotgun requires setting up a paper target with a large circle bullseye at the distance you expect to hunt at. At that designated distance, mount and aim your shotgun carefully at this target without moving the gun while firing; do this twice using fresh sheets of paper each time so your pattern remains consistent.

When using a double-barrel gun, it is imperative to pattern each barrel independently. For this to work effectively, two identical targets must be used – apart from being marked by each barrel mark on one target – so as to give an accurate representation of how the barrels work together while also helping identify any areas where your shotgun may not shoot consistently and, thus enabling you to determine whether it suits you or not.

End State

Patterning your shotgun prior to hunting season is always recommended. Not only can this help you select the optimal load and choke combination for your gun, but also allows you to identify any gaps in your pattern which could cause missed birds or wounded game. As many factors come into play when creating patterns – gun, choke, shell and distance all play an integral part – two identical shotguns with identical ammo can often produce different patterns!

A choke is a tube located inside of the barrel that restricts where shot disperses after leaving it. Tighter chokes produce more concentrated patterns while looser ones produce greater spreads.

When firing a shotgun, its pattern creates a cloud of pellets which intersect the target, be it clay or turkey. An optimal pattern would consist of an tightly packed circle containing enough pellets to hit your target at your chosen distance.

For decades, 40 yards has been the standard distance at which most people pattern their shotguns. Although turkeys can be shot from shorter ranges and many upland hunters will pattern closer than this distance, 40 yards remains the benchmark for consistent shooting patterns.

Your hunting style, shotgun type, choke and load will all influence how to test its pattern at different distances to make sure it suits the hunting activity you plan to conduct. A general guideline would be that at 25 yards a minimum of 75% of pellets should strike their intended targets with at least 75% striking the center, while 60-65% should do so from 30 yards out.

When testing patterns, use a target with 30-inch outer circle and 4-inch inner circle (or something similar). Blast away at this target while counting each round to gain an idea of how your gun is performing. Some prefer using a rest when shooting targets but this isn’t necessary unless your hands shake severely.

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