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Patterning your shotgun is the only way to learn its effective range. Testing your gun with different choke and loads can increase your hitting percentages by helping you find the ideal pattern spread for the type of shooting you will be doing. Patterning helps you make clean kills and teaches you the maximum range of your shotgun. But what distance should be used to pattern a shotgun?

Shoot your patterns at meaningful yardages. Sticking with only the default 40-yard distance used in most tests won’t give you all the information you need to make the best choice of choke and load. Pattern testing also shows you the maximum range for your gun.

Why Patterning Distance Matters

Traditionally, patterns have been shot at 40 yards, a range likely chosen because it once was considered the maximum effective range of a shotgun. Forty yards is still a useful benchmark when deciding what distance should be used to pattern a shotgun. However, patterns at 40 yards don’t tell the whole story of what happens when shoot a particular shell through a particular choke in a given gun. That’s especially true if your target isn’t flying by at a measured 40 yards.

Patterns change throughout their flight from the muzzle to the target and beyond. Shotgun pellets emerge from the muzzle as almost a solid slug, held inside the shot cup. As the payload encounters air resistance, the pellets separate from the shot cup. The pellets themselves then run into air resistance and begin to spread. Patterns open up from the front, as the pellets in the lead have to fight the air and get pushed off course, while those behind get a free ride as they draft behind the leading pellets, and fly straighter longer. The farther the pattern flies downrange, the more it opens, and the more pellets it loses as air resistance forces pellets off course. The pattern a gun shoots at 20 yards is much different than the pattern it shoots at 30, 40, or beyond.

Your goal in choosing chokes and loads is to find the combination that puts the optimum pattern spread on target at the distance you’ll be shooting. 

How to Pattern

Like thumbprints and snowflakes, no two patterns are exactly alike. The number of hits a particular choke/load/gun combination puts on a target can vary greatly even between shells from the same box. Adobe Stock / Natalia

You will need paper, a backstop, a staple gun, a marker, and, if you’re serious about distance-patterning, a range-finder. The paper should be at least 36 inches wide, to ensure you get the whole 30-inch pattern on paper even if your aim is slightly off. If you’re testing turkey loads, you can get by with a smaller piece of paper, as you’ll be evaluating pellets in a 10-inch circle.

Like thumbprints and snowflakes, no two patterns are exactly alike. The number of hits a particular choke/load/gun combination puts on target can vary greatly even between shells from the same box. Therefore, you should shoot at least three patterns with each combination at a given range. Better yet, shoot 10 patterns so you can record an accurate average.

Measure the distance to the backstop with your rangefinder. Put up your paper and make an aiming spot on it with your marker. Shoot, then write the details of gun, choke, load and range on the paper, put up a fresh sheet and repeat.  

Once you get all your paper home, use the densest part of the center as the center of your circle and mark 20- and 30-inch circles (or just 30 if you prefer). A marker on a string makes a good improvised compass. Count the holes, and take an average of all the patterns you shot at that distance.

What to Look for in a Pattern

We evaluate patterns in a 30-inch circle because 30 inches is roughly the maximum size of an effective shot pattern. What you will usually see is a pattern core about 15-20 inches in diameter that contains the densest part of the pattern, and a pattern fringe in that outer 20- to 30-inch ring that begins to thin out. Outside of that 30-inch diameter, patterns become too sparse to hit with reliability. A good pattern has that dense core, and also a fringe containing enough pellets to provide some margin for error if you don’t hit the target with the center of the shot cloud.

Patterns can be too center-dense, giving you overkill that can tear up birds in the middle. At the same time, that pattern will have fewer pellets in the fringes, reducing your margin for error if you don’t put that center directly on target. 

Consider this: a 30-inch circle contains 706 square inches. Reduce that circle to 25 inches with a tighter choke, and now you only have 490 square inches of coverage to work with. It’s a big difference. Tight doesn’t always make right. But, wide-open patterns aren’t always the answer, either. Patterns can also be too sparse all over. You may shoot straight but your pattern won’t put enough hits on the target.

Gaps are part of any pattern. “Even distribution” does not mean one pellet per every square inch of the 30-inch circle. “Even” means a pattern that’s not overly center-dense, nor too sparse on the fringes. That’s what you’re looking for: a broad, easy-to-hit-with swarm that still puts enough pellets on target to break a clay or cleanly kill a bird.

You can cut out a silhouette of a bird or a target to hold over parts of the pattern to see how many pellets would strike it, or, you can refer to the CONSEP tables often found in hunting regulation booklets. They include recommended numbers of pellet strikes in a 30-inch circle for various game birds.

What Distance Should Be Used to Pattern a Shotgun?

Trap and skeet present consistent targets so you know exactly what range to shoot your clays. Adobe Stock / Rionegro

Upland Hunting

Most upland birds are shot within 30 yards of the gun. Some thick-cover species, like grouse and woodcock, are shot closer to 20 yards than to 30. Likewise, hunters shooting over pointing dogs often get closer shots than do hunters with flushing dogs. It makes sense to pattern your upland gun at 25-30 yards. It’s important, too, though, to check out that same combination at longer ranges for wild flushes or second shots. Of course, if you’re shooting a double gun, you’ll have to do double the amount of patterning.

Dove Hunting

Mourning doves are small enough that when they appear to be in range, they are often close. Pattern your dove gun at 25 yards, especially if you shoot them over a spinning wing decoy. White-winged doves typically fly higher and don’t decoy, meaning your shots may come at 30 or even 35 yards or more. Your pattern testing should reflect that.

Waterfowl Hunting

Waterfowl hunting in flooded timber means very close shots, often inside 20 yards. Over decoys in the marsh or a field, the distance of your first shot at ducks or geese might be 25 yards, whereas pass shooting distances can extend out to 50 yards. If you’re shooting a single-barrel gun, it might be wise to pattern for second shots, as flaring ducks can quickly put distance on your shot.

Turkey Hunting

For guns grouped with turkey chokes and high-performance ammo, 50 yards is the new 40, and that’s a good distance to test your gear. If you screw in a factory full choke and shoot standard lead loads, however, confine your patterns to 40 yards.

Clay Targets

Trap and skeet present consistent targets so you know exactly what range to shoot your clays. For skeet, patterning at 25 yards makes sense. For 16-yard trap, test your gun at 35 or 40 yards. Sporting clays presents targets at all distances. You’ll either have to do a lot of pattern work if you’re a choke-changer, or pattern one all-around constriction at several distances from 20 yards to 50.

What Distance Should Be Used to Pattern a Shotgun With Buckshot?

Testing buckshot is different than patterning shells for flying targets. You still should draw a 30-inch circle, but your real concern is a 10- to 12-inch vital zone. Because there are so few pellets in a load of buck, a pattern that is lethal at 40 yards may be worthless by 50 or even 45. As always, shoot at the range you will take your shots. If you’re using the gun for home defense, the value of patterning is to show you that you have to be on target at across-the-room distances. Buckshot patterns inside 10 yards are fist-sized at best.

Patterning at Shorter and Longer Distances

Regardless of the distance at which you think you’ll shoot your game or your targets, shoot some patterns at longer and shorter ranges as well. When determining what distance should be used to pattern a shotgun, you need to know what happens if you miscalculate the range, or you have to take a followup shot. Shoot some patterns 10 yards beyond your designated distance. You might see a pattern that holds together and still offers a clean-killing potential. Or, you might see a pattern that would do nothing but wound. If that pattern still looks good 10 yards beyond the target, try pushing a little farther. 

By the same token, try some pattern at shorter ranges with your chosen choke and load. You’ll see, especially with turkey loads, just how small a pattern spread you’re working with up close.