Patterning For Waterfowl


I have been hunting for many years but I have never patterned any of my shotguns. I want to pattern a Remington 870 and a Browning Gold, using 3-in. Magnum steel loads. I need to pattern both guns for 3’s, 2’s and BB, at least. (I’m primarily a duck and goose hunter.) (I have never been on a trap or skeet range.)

My questions are:

1. At what range should I pattern the guns? (I will be using a modified (for steel) choke in each gun.)

2. What should I look for on the targets (what percentage of the shot in what size circle)?

3. What is the minimum number of rounds that will give me a reasonable result. (From the little bit I know about statistical sampling I would find it difficult to believe that one round is enough!)

I typically shoot birds at ranges between 25 and 40 yards.

Thank You,


Dear Larry,

There is a ton of stuff written on this, but I might as well add my compost to the heap.

First of all, I would pattern at least 3 of each shell/choke/distance combination. More is better (as it is with everything else in life), but three is a nice compromise between statistical reality and crushing boredom.

I would pattern the shells at the longest distance at which they would normally be used. 40 yards is a realistic and humane hunting limit and is also the common distance for patterning.

Since you have already decided which choke you will use, that part is out of the equation.

Normal patterning is done at a measured 40 yards from the muzzle. First, cut apart three of each different test shell and count the pellets. You need this number. Then pin up a piece of paper at least 36″ square (red resin flooring paper from the builder supply store is cheap and ideal). Make an aiming point mark in the center. Fire one shot carefully aimed at the center. Do this with all your shell/choke combinations- one sheet each.

Take the papers home. To measure performance, “eyeball” the center of the pattern. You will find this easiest by looking at the back of the red resin paper because the pellet hits make little “volcanoes”. Now, using a wooden yardstick for a compass with two holes drilled in it 15″ apart (you might also use a string and two pencils, but I find the yardstick handier), scribe a 30″ circle around the area that contains the most pellets. This may or may not coincide with your aiming point on the front of the paper. Not all guns shoot to point of aim. Your goal is to scribe the 30″ circle so as to encompass the largest number of pellets possible.

When counting pellet holes, I find it easiest to dab each hole with a Magic Marker. Watch out though, it goes through the paper and will stain the table underneath. Once you have the number of pellets inside the circle counted, simply divide that number by the number of pellets contained in the shell to give you your pattern percentage.

How much pattern percentage do you want? The simple answer is that you want all you can get at 40 yards. 100% is just dreaming, but I wouldn’t settle for anything less than 75%. 80-85% would be very nice indeed. This is a Full choke performance and is ideal for waterfowl taken at 40 yards. A Modified pattern of 60% would be very nice for decoying birds at 30 yards.

Best regards,

Bruce Buck
Shotgun Report’s Technoid
(Often in error, never in doubt.)

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