We’ve all been there. The birds are well in range, we swing through to the goose’s beak and smash the trigger, already mentally moving on to the next bird…but the bird doesn’t drop. Your faith in your gun, load and choke is rattled, and you can’t seem to get it back in the next few opportunities. Selecting the proper load/choke combination for your style of hunting is important.
Most waterfowlers understand this, but not many actually spend the time to properly “pattern” their guns, a term that gets badly abused in the realm of duck and goose hunting. Often our definition of how a gun patterns is based on a handful of shots taken in the field each fall.
The problem with shotgun patterning in the field is that there are far too many variables to get an accurate assessment of your gun’s performance and to really understand how your gun functions with different chokes and loads.
Before you set out this fall, perform these three simple patterning tests that will help you better understand how your shotgun behaves. And you’ll kill more birds when the season opens.
Choose Your Load
There’s a long-held notion that bigger shot equates to more killing power. This seems logical, but isn’t always true.
Shot selection is critical, and many shooters simply follow the old maxim that bigger birds means bigger shot. That works to a degree, but Tim Brandt of Federal Premium points out that increasing shot size is not always the best answer to taking more birds.
“Larger shot size means less pellets and less room for error,” says Brandt. “Plus, smaller shot penetrates better.”
Small shot will penetrate deeper into game because it has less surface area, but because each shot pellet has less mass, pellets do not transfer as much kinetic energy to the target. Finding the right balance of shot size, velocity, and energy requires a great deal of testing, and some loads pattern better than others in individual shotguns.
Finding the right load requires testing different shells and looking for pattern consistency at a wide range of distances. The trend toward larger shot seems to be reversing as more and more hunters realize the value of smaller shot, and many hunters are shocked to find that they might kill more birds if they reduce the size of the pellets they’re firing.
Kelly Haydel of Haydel Game Calls prefers 4 or 6 shot on smaller ducks, because he finds that these loads kill birds cleanly and don’t damage meat. Selecting the proper size shot is always a balancing act, since the larger shot size produces more kinetic energy with less pellets, but reduces penetration. Kinetic energy values and shot penetration are only a concern if you actually hit the target.
Before the season begins, pattern your loads on a poster board with an 18-inch diameter circle drawn in the center. This circle represents the size of most waterfowl, and an even pattern maximizes your chances for a clean kill. It’s important to test each load at a range appropriate for the choke you are using, since patterning loads from too close or too far will yield inaccurate results.
Shotguns don’t all shoot to the same point of impact, and stock length and angle, rib height, and gun mount can all change the position of maximum pattern density in relation to the aiming point. On any shotgun, determining pattern elevation is critical to maximizing your gun’s potential and killing more birds.
To accomplish this, draw an 18-inch circle on another piece of poster board, but this time draw a horizontal line directly through the center of your target. This line will divide the pattern into “above the bead” and “below the bead” sections. By firing from a secure rest at a moderate range (between 20 and 30 yards), you can quickly determine where your gun is patterning.
Most factory guns have about a 60/40 shot ratio, which means that 60 percent of the pattern will be above the horizon line, while 40 percent will fall below. This is largely a matter of preference; some shooters prefer a 70/30 ratio, while other shooters (particularly swing-through skeet shooters) prefer a 50/50 balance so that they simply have to focus on driving the bead through the center of the kill zone.
Until a few years ago, the primary options for shooters who didn’t like the elevation of their shotgun’s pattern were to either have the gun restocked or to learn to live with the existing pattern. Today, many shotguns come with stock spacers that allow the shooter to manipulate pattern elevation. The Browning Maxus that I used for this test comes with multiple spacers that adjust the stock angle, effectively acting as elevation adjustments on traditional rifle sights.
Most guns that include spacers also allow the gun to be cast on or off for right or left-handed shooting. The ability to adjust the angle of the stock adds an important level of versatility to a gun. I personally prefer a high pattern elevation (70/30), and having a shotgun that is adjustable allows me to achieve this without major modification.
Have you ever sat in a duck blind with a perpetual choke changer? The guy who has a half-dozen different aftermarket tubes, and with each miss or crippled bird wants to make a change? Part of the reason for this choke-swapping compulsion is a poor understanding of how each choke tube patterns with a specific load at varying ranges.
With the same 18-inch poster boards, begin firing your shotgun at the target in five-yard increments from 15 yards to maximum range, which is determined when your choke tube begins to show a loss of pattern integrity. Each choke/load combination has a minimum and maximum effective range, and it’s important to understand your limitations on both ends of the spectrum.
That’s not to say a full choke won’t kill a duck at five yards, but if you’re firing on small ducks pitching into decoys at 50 feet with that choke, you’re probably either missing ducks or blowing them to inedible bits, neither of which is acceptable. Signs that you are too close to the target include clustered shot patterns, overlapping pellet holes, and marks or tears left by the wad striking the target surface.
I found my gun, when loaded with Remington Hi-Speed Steel 3-inch, 11⁄8-ounce loads with an improved cylinder choke tube, had a minimum effective range of 15 yards. At 20 and 25 yards, the pattern looked good and remained evenly spread across the kill zone. At 30 yards, however, that particular choke/load combination began to show signs of range limitation, which included wide gaps in the pattern and equal numbers of pellets outside and inside the kill zone.
At just under 30 yards, the pattern reached its effective limit. However, most of my ducks are shot within that range on pond edges and narrow rivers in southern Ohio. With a modified choke, the minimum range was 20 yards and the maxi about 45. With a full choke, I could shoot out to more than fifty yards, but not less than 25 to 30.
Armed with this information I’m better prepared to kill more ducks. There’s a rangefinder in my blind bag, and I try to pick an object at my maximum range. At my favorite duck blind on the Little Miami River, there’s a tree stump almost exactly 30 yards from the blind. Once the ducks are inside that, they’ll fall from the sky if I do my part, and if they don’t, I won’t have to dig out a wrench and begin the never-ending cycle of choke-tube roulette.
I know how far my gun will shoot because I’ve tested it, and if the birds aren’t falling it’s not the fault of my shotgun. Before season arrives this year, plan on performing these tests. That way when you go in the field you’ll have a better understanding of what your gun can and can’t do.