Patterning Your Shotgun for Bird Hunting

Updated on July 13, 2022

Patterning your shotgun is something that every bird hunter should do but many don’t. Here are some tips and tricks on how to properly pattern your shotgun. Patterning your shotgun is the best way to set yourself up for the best results on your next hunt.

What is a Shotgun Choke?

To understand how to pattern your gun you should first understand what chokes are and how they work. Choke tubes are muzzle inserts for your shotgun that tighten down the diameter at the end of your barrel slightly in order to increase the concentration of pellets at range. There are 4 main types of choke tubes that are most commonly used for hunting, cylinder, improved cylinder, modified, and full. Cylinder chokes are open chokes, meaning they do not constrict the diameter of the barrel. This gives you the widest spread at close range. Improved cylinder and modified chokes slightly choke down the barrel to give you a tighter shot radius, the modified choke slightly more so than the improved cylinder. The full choke is the tightest choke for your shotgun giving you the most range.

Man Aiming a Shotgun in the Air

What are Different Shotgun Shell Loads?

Another thing that plays into patterning is the shell load that you use. The load refers to the size of the pellets loaded in your shotgun shell and this will affect your patterning but the shot that you use must be catered to the type of game you’re hunting. #9 and #8 ½ shot are the smallest pellet size loads you will usually be able to find and are mostly used for hunting varmints or snakes and not typically used for game birds. #8, #7 ½, and #7 shot are the loads most commonly used for small game and bird hunting. If you are planning on patterning your shotgun for hunting dove or quail these are the loads that I would recommend experimenting with. Birdshot #6, #5, and #4 are typically the loads used for larger birds such as pheasants and ducks and are more effective at long range. These should be the loads you experiment with if you’re patterning your gun for duck, pheasant, or turkey. #3, #2, and #1 shot are at the larger end of the spectrum. If you plan to hunt geese or larger ducks with far shots these would be my recommended loads. There are other loads you can find for your shotgun and depending on what your application is you may find a load that fits your needs more.

Patterning Your Shotgun

To pattern your shotgun you will essentially need to test how your gun performs with different combinations of load and chokes at certain ranges. Start by putting the choke that you plan to use into your shotgun, if you hunt with a side by side or an over under put in both chokes you intend to hunt with. Get 2 large pieces of paper for each of your barrels about 40”x40” or larger. If you intend to pattern more than 1 combination of choke and ammunition then have more targets for those combinations as well. Mark the center of the paper so that you have something to aim for and measure out 40 yards. You can pattern at shorter distances if you know that the shots you will be taking will be closer but 40 yards is the traditional distance. Take 2 shots with each barrel at blank pieces of paper with the choke and ammunition you plan to hunt with. Once you take down the paper mark what you estimate to be the center of the impact zone. Using your mark of the center draw a 30” circle around your shot. Do this for all of your shots then compare the number of pellet impacts inside of the circle to the number of pellets inside of the shell that you fired. If a majority of the pellets impacted within the circle you drew on both shots then your shotgun is optimized for the distance you tested at. You can do this for any combination of shell load and choke to find out what will give you the best outcome for your next hunt.

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