How to pattern your shotgun for greater accuracy
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
So you purchased a shotgun for your favorite wing and clays sports, but now you can't hit anything with it. What's up with that?
Of course, the problem could be you. Sloppy technique, lack of focus, eye issues, bad habits — the list can be pretty extensive. Or it could be your shotgun. Getting to the bottom of the problem involves a process of elimination, and the best place to start is with the shotgun.
The number-one exercise in determining the accuracy and fit of your shotgun is a practice called "patterning." Although the shotgun is designed for moving targets, patterning a shotgun involves actually shooting it like a rifle at a stationary target.
The objective of patterning a shotgun is to determine the correctness of the barrels, proper choke selection, distribution of the pellet stream and fit against your body.
There are a few things you'll need to pattern a shotgun. The first is a target. It can be something as simple as a large piece of butcher paper with a 30-inch circle drawn on it quartered by a few lines like crosshairs. The alternative is a proper target for patterning that has a picture of a clay target in the bull's-eye with concentric circles and a horizontal line.
A shotgun game target like this one depicting a duck in flight (left) helps you pattern your shotgun for maximum penetration of vital organs for a clean, ethical kill. This target from Outers (center) uses a clay target pattern to establish overall pattern density. The Speedwell target (right) would be more helpful if you drew a horizontal line through the middle for improved pattern recognition.
Next, you want a solid place to shoot. It could be a picnic table or a portable, adjustable rest used by rifle marksmen. You want to do everything possible to stabilize the shotgun in order to help eliminate any variables such as unwanted body movement and flinching — unintentional fluctuations that can impact where the pellet stream hits the target.
In terms of choke selections, use the tightest constrictions available for restricted shotgun pellet distribution. Although you may not use the tightest choke (e.g., full) in your everyday shooting, the point here is accurate measurement.
Some experts recommend slicing open the shotgun shell and counting the number of pellets. Personally, I don't think that's necessary because you're looking for a proportional distribution of pellets not necessarily based on total pellet count.
The general recommended distance between you and the target is 25-40 yards for most clays sports, so 30 yards is a good compromise for both wing and clay shooting.
One thing to bear in mind is that different shotgun sports necessitate particular pellet distribution and density. For example, trap shooting requires that some 60-70 percent of the pellets hit the target above the mid-horizontal line. For sporting clays, that density might be 50-60 percent. For wingshooting, some hunters prefer a 50 percent pellet distribution.
It's always best to use factory loads instead of shells you've reloaded yourself in order to achieve some level of shotshell consistency in your patterns.
With your shotgun securely mounted at the correct distance to the target, squeeze the trigger as though shooting a handgun. Fire one barrel at a time if you have an over/under or side by side.
You may want to check the pellet distribution between the individual barrel tests. If so, make absolutely sure your shotgun is unloaded when you walk down range to inspect the target. And never have someone stand near the target when you're firing to check on the target for you. You must follow basic shotgun safety of having people stand behind you at all times during patterning.
Don't skimp on targets as you try to understand your shotgun pattern. It may take 10 more shots to figure out where the shotgun shoots. Replace each target after you fire the top and bottom barrels for an over/under or side by side, or two shots with a semi-auto shotgun.
Marking the targets with a Sharpie or other bold pen can help you keep track of the results. For example, you may want to write the date and sequence on a corner of the target.
Once you've realized some consistent patterns, it's time to determine whether your shotgun needs to be altered for a better fit. Some shotguns have an adjustable comb, and this is an opportune time to experiment with different placements and re-pattern the shotgun with a new setting. Likewise, if the shotgun has an adjustable recoil pad.
Semi-auto shotguns typically come with a shim kit that lets you adjust cast and elevation by inserting them between the receiver and stock. Some people will use temporary materials like Moleskin to build a comb or shims to insert between a fixed recoil pad and the butt stock with the intention of either getting a new, fitted stock or modifying the existing one.
Patterning is one of the most overlooked methods to determine the accuracy of your shotgun as well as its fit. If you continue to experience problems hitting targets after a patterning session, you may want to consider taking lessons from a qualified shotgun instructor.
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