March 04, 2023
By Scott Haugen
How to Properly Pattern Your Shotgun
Put your loads to paper prior to a hunt to be far more deadly this season.
Last fall I was hunting ducks and geese on a small farm pond. A lone honker came skidding into the decoys at 25 yards and I knew it was dinner. But it didn’t come together as I envisioned, in a clean, one-shot kill.
My first shot busted the left wing of the goose. It landed and was swimming near some floating honker decoys at 30 yards. My two follow-up shots didn’t touch it’s head or neck. Rather than sticking in the same loads I’d just shot, I grabbed my standby Browning Wicked Wing, 3-inch 2 shot. The goose was engulfed in a mist, and when it cleared, the bird was stone dead.
After 47 years of waterfowl hunting, I learned a lesson: Don’t trust a load just because it’s supposed to be something special. The first three shots I fired at that goose were a hyped-up new bismuth load. I also reaffirmed my own belief that it’s important to pattern a load before hunting with it, which I failed to do.
Putting Your Pattern to Paper
Patterning loads on paper reveals a precise pellet count. Doing so at 30 yards is standard and I also like shooting at 50 yards to know what to expect on followup shots. Try different brands and shot sizes, even chokes, to see what performs best in your gun.
Last year’s shotgun shell shortage was unlike anything most of us had experienced. To get by, we snatched any shells we could find. We learned a lot about what it was like shooting different brands of loads in a range of shot sizes. Or did we?
Others thought it was their gun, while some changed chokes, frustrated with the missing. Most guys I hunt with are great shots, and their misses were uncharacteristic.
On a hunt in Texas last January, I used my phone to record a buddy shooting decoying redheads. He crippled a drake then proceeded to miss it on the water with his two followup shots. Another buddy killed it with ease.
My friend who missed was shooting a load he’d never before used, and no, he did not pattern it prior to the hunt. Played at regular speed on my phone, the video showed a sparse pattern. But when we scrubbed through the video frame by frame, we saw some of the size 2 shot hitting the water 10 feet from the barrel, while other pellets soared out to 100 yards. At 30 yards the pattern was wide enough to cover a Volkswagen, bumper to bumper.
In this day and age of many hunters recording shots on their cell phones, try and capture some of those finishing shots on water and study the pattern. Download it on to a big computer at home and look closely at the pattern, frame by frame. It will reveal a lot about the loads you’re shooting.
Load It Up
My preferred shell is Browning Ammunition Wicked Wing. I like shooting size 4 shot for decoying ducks, size 2 and BBs for geese. If shooting ducks on windy days, I’ll back up the 4s with 2 shot to cut the wind and finish off birds that can quickly gain distance. Wicked Wing is fast, holds a tight pattern, has impressive penetrating power without ripping meat apart, and it shoots to perfection in my Browning Maxus II with their factory full choke.
The second most impressive shell I’ve shot in my gun is Federal Premium Speed-Shok. It’s a very close second to my beloved Browning loads. Last season I shot nine brands of shotgun shells. A few others caught my attention, some, not so much.
Keep in mind that as the season progresses, feather density continues to build in waterfowl. An early season September honker is easier to knock down than a December bird. While some hunters like going to larger size shot for geese late in the season, like BBB, I stick with 2 shot backed up with BB and shoot for the head and neck. I’d rather have more pellets with a chance to kill a bird, than try and drive bigger and fewer pellets through tightly packed feathers on a body shot and risk a cripple.
A Little Extra
I’ve used extra-full chokes on late goose season hunts, as well as when chasing snow geese. While fancy chokes look cool sticking out the barrel, be sure to switch them out when shooting ducks over decoys. Chances are, if you can even hit a duck with this hyper choke at 25 yards, there won’t be much edible meat left.
When you shoot a specific load, traveling at a certain speed, you learn what to expect. This kind of familiarity comes with patterning loads to understand their performance and gaining as much hunting experience as possible.
Last season a buddy who is one of the best shots I’ve seen, said it best, after shooting 23 shells he’d never before used to get his seven ducks. “I’d rather shoot a different gun and choke than change shells!” Up to that point, he was averaging about 10 shells per limit, with shells he was used to shooting at ducks over decoys.