Does your shotgun shoot straight? Does it shoot too tightly to hit the game you’re after? Are your patterns too sparse to kill cleanly? There’s only one way to find out: blast holes in large pieces of paper. A tedious chore under ideal conditions and a paper chase on a gusty day, patterning is still essential homework that must be done. Fooling with flapping sheets of paper, taking aim, and punching holes is no fun—homework rarely is. But, when the final exam comes in the form of a greenhead over your decoys, a turkey dropping at 40 yards, or a quail buzzing into the brush, it’s good to know that your shotgun throws enough pellets to fill in the blanks.
**Step One: Verify Point of Impact **
Screw in a tight choke and shoot two to three aimed shots from a rest (we want to take gun fit out of this equation) at the same sheet of paper from 25 yards. The center of your pattern should have obliterated the aiming point, or a spot 1 or 2 inches above it. Don’t worry if you are off target by a couple of inches, but if the point of impact is far from the point of aim, try a few different choke tubes to see if you have a bad tube. If not, send the gun back to the factory.
**Step Two: Check Your Pattern **
Practical patterning takes place at whatever range you typically shoot your birds. Staple a 40-inch square sheet of paper to a backstop, retreat the appropriate distance, and shoot. Label the target with gun, choke, load, and distance, put up another piece of paper, trudge back to your gun and shoot at least two more.
At home, draw a 30-inch circle on your sheet with the densest cluster of pellets at the center. You don’t have to count the holes; look for a pattern with enough pellets to put four or more hits on the vitals of the species you’ll be hunting. Pay closer attention to the 20-inch center, which is the reliable killing and target-smashing part of any pattern. You can make life-size cardboard outlines of game birds and trace around them on the sheet or simply eyeball the pattern. There will be gaps. There is no such thing as a perfectly even pattern with one pellet strike in every square inch of the circle; shot charges cluster pellets more tightly in the center and spatter them randomly around the edges. If the pattern has many, many gaps in it where only one or two pellets strike the bird, you’ll need smaller shot, a heavier shot load or a tighter choke. Patterns that are overly dense in the center and weak on the fringes indicate you’re using too tight a choke for upland birds, but just right for turkey.