You wouldn’t go afield without zeroing your rifle, so don’t neglect those shotguns, either. The offseason is an ideal time to go back to basics, tuning up shotguns for upcoming hunts, days on the clay course, and all-around success. In the past, we covered the basics of shotgun chokes. The next progression to getting the most from your shotgun lies with one simple, albeit oft-overlooked, range task—patterning. Here’s a breakdown of the what’s, why’s, and how’s of shotgun patterning. 

What is Patterning?

Put simply, patterning a shotgun means firing it from a prescribed distance at a target. Most often, using a basic paper target works well, though hunters may opt for animal patterns. The goal is to visualize the shot spread on the target--or pattern--along with the point of aim versus the center of impact. Results can vary wildly depending upon choke constriction, distance, shot size, and ammunition used. Whether you have a gun with interchangeable tubes or a fixed choke, patterning is key to knowing the gun. 

shotgun pattern diagram
At it's most basic level patterning is understanding how your shotgun and choke are working together to hit your intended target. (Photo:

Why Should I Pattern My Shotgun?

To be a both ethical and confident, a shotgun hunter must pattern their hunting gun--no exceptions. One cannot assume that a full choke will put out a consistent pattern at, say, 40 yards. One brand of Full choke may pattern very well out to 60 yards, while another may only have an effective range of 30 yards. Some may hit high, others, low. Knowing this ahead of time is paramount. 

Mossberg choke tube and duck
The extended, ported Mossberg AccuChoke that comes with the 940 Pro Waterfowl shotgun is a fine choice for duck hunters, but might not be right for home defense. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/

Taking a longer shot with the wrong choke could result in wounded game, and nobody wants that. In the reverse, that same hunter—or clay shooter—would not want to use a Full choke at 10 yards. The pattern would be so tight that it would be difficult to hit the target at all. 

The key is finding and using the ideal choke that is at once dense enough to do the job, but with a wide enough shot string to maximize the impact potential. Though the matter is not life and death, the same holds true for target shooters and even home defenders. Want to break more clays?
Turkey target with federal ammo
Turkey pattern shot at 40-yards with Federal Premium TSS loads and the Savage 220. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/

Hit the patterning board and know exactly how your sporting gun shoots and how to best engage the target. The same applies to home defense shotguns. The patterning board reveals whether a Cylinder, Improved Cylinder, or even a Modified choke works best for the given situation. Becoming a confident and consistent shooter begins at the patterning board. 

How to Pattern Shotguns

While you can start with a factory target, we often use white freezer paper, especially when we plan to do high-volume shooting. Add a center dot—roughly three inches-- for simplicity, and outer rings if you wish for more detail and measuring points. It should go without saying, but always pattern in a safe area and be sure your range and backstop allows for patterning shotguns, which can tear up the target holder. 

While it’s beneficial to fire how you intend to shoot in the field--whether standing or sitting-- using a rest is fine too, especially if you’re worried about flinching or missing the mark. Hold dead center and fire with your chosen choke and ammo combination. If your gun is a double barrel, always pattern both barrels, as the variances can be surprising. 

Use a rangefinder to verify distances, or measure them with a tape—don’t guess. For sub-gauges like .410, start at 20-25 yards. For larger bores like the 12-gauge, 40-yards is the norm. Fire one shot and then replace the target with a fresh one. 

Related: Shotgun Chokes 101 - All Basics from Birds to Clays

Analyze the Results

Ideally, you want to analyze the pellets landing within a 30-inch circle surrounding the bullseye. This is an oversimplification and can get intensely more technical, but the more Full (tight) the choke, the more pellets we should see in that circle. In adverse, a Cylinder choke will likely show only 40-50 percent of its pellets in that same target, indicating its ideal use at closer ranges. 

To determine the impact point versus the aiming point, shooters can draw a second 30-inch circle around the densest part of the actual pattern. The overlap will tell whether your pattern is dead-on, or some combination of high, low, left, or right--often expressed in percentages. 

Pattern test of shotgun
Patterning reveals a major difference between only 10 yards with the 40 and 50-yard targets for the MOD choke. Knowing this with your chosen setup is important not only for hunters, but sporting shooters as well. Imagine how easily a clay target could slip. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/

During our patterning session, we learned that our rig was hitting high consistently, as well as slightly left. While we’ll verify again on a less windy day, this is important information. It allows me to shoot how I prefer, floating the bird, which allows me to see the whole target, be it bird or clay. The higher pattern is then right on the money. If we hadn’t patterned the shotgun, we may have shot over the top each time. 

We can take this one step further, especially when discussing sporting guns. Some sporting scatterguns may be built with differing points of impact, depending on the sport. For instance, a dedicated Skeet gun will shoot much differently than one built for Trap. 

pattern test of shotgun
Difference between #7.5 shot and #2 shot at 40 yards through the same MOD choke. Without patterning, we wouldn't have known this particular combination is consistently hitting high and left. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/

We could delve into far greater detail regarding pellet counts within the target at a certain distance and dividing that against the total number of pellets in the starting shell. Yet, it needn’t get that complex for our purposes here, nor for yours at home. Basically, you want to see a fairly uniform pattern around the bullseye and radiating outward, dense enough to complete the task at hand.

You do not want to see large holes in the pattern, as shooters could easily picture a clay target or duck escaping through that gap. While we always like to pattern with several different types of ammunition, always use what you plan to shoot on the hunt, clays course, or defense situation. 

The Pattern for Success

Not only will the patterning process allow you to note any issues or discrepancies in your shotgun and chokes but will allow the necessary adjustments to point of aim, gun fitment, or other controllable variables. Change chokes, ammo types, shot sizes, or distances until you’re both comfortable and confident. Whether buying a shotgun, getting to know the one you already have, or preparing for the big hunt or clay competition, success begins at the patterning board.