photo of mourning doves

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PHOTOGRAPHS OF SHOT in flight are about as rare as credible photos of Bigfoot. This is the real, unretouched deal, taken by Capt. Jeff Coats (, who guides for geese and ducks on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Judging by the density of this pattern and how precisely it’s centered on the surf scoter (which was 25 to 30 yards from the shooter when Coats took the photo), there’s no question about what happened to the duck milliseconds after the camera shutter closed. Still, we can learn a lot about shotgunning by taking a close look at this image.


There are 100Hevi-Shot No. 2 pellets, fired from a 3½-inch 12-gauge load, in the estimated 30-inch circle I drew around the densest part of this pattern (I used the scoter for scale; they average 19 inches long from beak to tail). Fifteen of them are about to hit the duck, and five solid hits is usually enough to kill cleanly.

I counted 131 pellets in the entire picture, which according to Hevi-Shot is the approximate number in their 3½-inch No. 2 loads. A hundred pellets out of 131 in the 30-inch circle is a 76 percent pattern. Ideally, the choke-and-load combination you choose should print around 70 to 75 percent in the 30-inch circle at the range where you expect to hit birds. If the pattern is tighter than that, you may have an overly dense center and not enough pellets on the pattern’s edge, which means you’ll tear up birds if you center them or miss them if you’re a bit off.


Pellets are randomly distributed after the shot, so all patterns have gaps in them. The “evenly distributed pattern” that shooters obsess over is elusive, if not actually mythical. This example has a couple of big gaps in it; even so, if you put the duck anywhere inside the 30-inch circle, multiple pellets will hit it. What kills in the field doesn’t always look good on paper.

Generally, the fewer pellets in a load, the more empty spaces your pattern will have, and too many spaces means you will cripple birds that you should be killing. If your patterns consistently show more than three or four 4-inch gaps, try switching to a smaller shot size, a heavier payload, or a different choke.


Pellets that veer out of the main pattern are called flyers. The uncropped photo showed several; one in the upper right hand corner was 4 feet from the pattern’s center. How did the pellet wind up so far away? It might have stuck in the wad briefly, either by itself or by “bridging” with other pellets, and when it finally freed itself from the wad, it angled in a different direction. Or perhaps it caromed off another pellet like a billiard ball, maybe even getting dented in the process, making it flare like a Wiffle ball as it encountered air resistance upon exiting the muzzle. However it got where it is, it’s out of the main pattern and way off target. Flyers are most common with lead shot, especially with cheap ammo. You’ll get fewer flyers if you shoot premium shells containing hard, buffered shot.


Some of the pellets look bigger and blurrier than the others because they’re out of focus—they’re trailing behind the main swarm, and they will continue to fall farther and farther behind. By the time this pattern gets out past 40 yards, it may be up to 6 feet long; a lead load can string out to 12 feet or more.

This dispersal makes a pattern slightly less efficient on long, crossing shots. Here’s why: A duck can move half a foot or so in the time it takes the entire shot string to pass it at 40-plus yards. That means the duck flying at 90 degrees to the pattern could evade trailing pellets. For close-range, quartering, and going-away birds, shot stringing doesn’t matter. At long range, shoot tighter chokes and, when using lead, premium loads to keep stringing at a minimum.