Confidence and Knowledge - Shotgun Basics

by Brad Fenson

Cinque Terre

photo: Brad Fenson

It always amazes me how many shotgun hunters and shooters never take the time to pattern their gun. I’ve done dozens of seminars on the topic and rarely get even a small fraction of shooters to confirm that they’ve patterned the shotgun they’ve been using for years. Big game hunters would never think of taking a new rifle out of the box and simply go hunting with it. Knowing your exact point of impact at a variety of distances is crucial to success in the field or during competition. Shotguns are no different.

Whether you’ve purchased a new shotgun with all the bells and whistles, or plan on hitting the field or target range with your trusty old favourite, knowing what your gun’s pattern looks like at the various distances you intend to shoot is paramount.

If you intend on shooting both steel and lead shot, patterning your gun with the various shotshell loads and choke options is easy.

Pattern Boards

Shoot pattern boards or targets at five-metre intervals from 20 to 60 metres to see what the pellets are doing, and what percentage are placed in the effective pattern of your gun. Most patterning targets are printed in the U.S. and have a 0.762 metres (30-inch) diameter circle as the critical zone. The goal is to fill the circle with evenly spaced pellets to make sure you get the best performance and pattern.

Make Your Own

Making your patterning targets is easy. You’ll need a sheet of paper measuring at least one metre square. In the centre of the paper, or cardboard, draw a small circle that is big enough to see as your target or aiming point at the range. Tie a piece of string to a felt marker and measure 15 inches (approximately 36 cm) and place a push tack through the string. The tack is inserted into the centre of the aiming point and extending the string 15 inches from the centre will allow you to use the marker to draw a circle around your aiming point. You’ll create a 30-inch circle with an aiming point in the centre. When you shoot the target, you’ll be able to count the number of pellets that pattern within the marker line.

Brown packing paper will work, but newsprint roll ends are ideal if you can locate them. Make sure to take a recycle bag with you to ease with clean up. Cardboard will also work, but you’ll need a lot of sheets to try a variety of loads and distances.

Pattern Board

photo: Brad Fenson

Effective Pattern

Count the total number of pellet holes inside the circle then count the total number of pellet holes outside the circle. Take a marker and dot the holes as you count them for better accuracy. Add the two numbers together for a total pellet count. If you divide the number of pellets that shot inside the circle by the total number of pellets on the target board you can then multiply the sum by 100 to get the percent of the effective pattern.

Example: you shoot a load of steel BB at your target, and there are 65 pellet holes in the inside the circle and five pellet holes outside for a total pellet count of 70.

65 divided by 70 = .928 x 100 = 92.8% effective pattern

It is best to shoot at least three patterns with the same make and pellet size of shotshells. That is, if you’re trying a 3-inch No. 2 steel load, shoot at least three to check for consistency. If the pellets are clustered and not spreading properly, you may have to go to a more open choke. Most steel will shoot well through a modified choke, and if your patterns are inconsistent, or not grouping properly, you’ll want to try an improved cylinder or skeet choke. Every gun will pattern differently so try a variety of shotshell manufacturers. I find it beneficial to pattern guns with several hunting buddies so we can split up boxes of shotshells and try many different loads. I have a pump gun that shoots Winchester most consistently, but my over and under will pattern consistently no matter which ammunition I wish to shoot. It is amazing what you can find out with a little time on the range.

Steel Equals More Pellets

Steel shot can make an impenetrable wall to birds when patterned properly. Steel loads have bigger wads than with lead, which allow more pellets to be put in each shell. The extra room helps increase the total weight for the load. The big 3-inch lead magnums we shot in the past were 1 5/8 or even 1 7/8 ounce. The big steel magnums usually run around 1 1/8 ounces. Steel is lighter material than conventional lead shot, but you make up for it with bigger pellets and more of them. More pellets per shell mean better patterns in most guns that have been patterned for optimal performance.

Shot Size

Shot size plays a significant role in the density of your pattern. A 1 1/8-ounce load of steel BBs will contain about 70 pellets. The same load with No. 2 shot will have a total count of 141 pellets. If you were to go to No. 3 steel shot, the pellet count rises again to 178. Balancing weight, energy, and pellet size allows you to shoot the most efficient pellets depending on what you are hunting. 

If you’ve taken up turkey hunting, it is especially important to pattern your shotgun. There are turkey pattern targets that have a turkey head and neck printed on it, with the aiming point at the base of the neck. The image is the actual size of a live turkey and will provide a true picture of how to centre your pattern on the head and neck for a quick, clean kill. Most turkey hunters will shoot a full or extra full choke that produces an extremely tight pattern with lead shot. The tight pattern requires careful aim, as it is more like shooting a rifle than a normal shotgun pattern. With a tight pattern, it can be easy to miss, making patterning much more important.


There are a variety of aftermarket chokes that can increase your effective pattern. Briley is a well-known choke maker that has been around for years, offering a wide variety of options. Specialty chokes have become more popular in recent years and brands like Carlson’s offer options to tighten patterns at greater distances, or open patterns quickly at short distances. Manufacturers offer improved cylinder chokes for close range, modified chokes for mid range and decoyed birds, and full chokes for long-range pass shooting. The unique choke tubes allow pellets to provide optimum patterns of the proper density in most shotguns. Hunter’s Specialties also has their line of Undertaker choke tubes for turkey and waterfowl hunters. All aftermarket chokes are made to fit specific shotguns and can be ordered for your favourite smoothbore.

Do It Right

Shooting rests can help you minimize the number of rounds it takes to pattern a gun and reduce the recoil for proven accuracy. I use a Caldwell Lead Sled with my shotgun the same way I would if sighting in one of my rifles. The Lead Sled holds a shotgun firmly in place and allows you to dial in the windage and elevation shooter error in your tests. The sled also reduces recoil by up to 98 percent simply by weighting down the frame with bags of lead shot or other dense material. Using the Lead Sled will give you a true picture of what your shotgun is doing and save you from the heavy recoil of magnum loads.

Proof in Patterns

Unless you have patterned your gun and shot some clays at different ranges, you simply can’t know how your gun or shotshell is performing. The time spent getting to know your shotgun will pay for itself with confidence and success in the field.

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