Scattered Thoughts; Why we all need to pattern our shotguns....

by Phil Choake, August 2001

This article was prompted by a number of developments #1) This week I finally got around to some very important work that was about a year overdue. #2) I have been rereading Bob Brister's fine book "Shotgunning; The Art and Science" for about the umpty seventh time this past week AND #3) I read several pieces in other publication on the subject of shotgunning that sort of fly in the face of my experience in general and information gleaned through items #1 & #2 specifically.

First, some background:

My first and only shotgun for the longest time was a Model 500 Mossberg 12 gauge pump with screw-in chokes that over the years I had some stock work done on to improve it's fit to me. I also had the barrel's forcing cone bored out by a gunsmith to improve the patterns it threw . At some point a few years I started training dogs with a guy who owned a nice new SKB over/under 12 gauge that I came to enjoy shooting very much during our training sessions. The gun just came up, swung and pointed so much easier and faster than my old gun that I made obtaining one for myself a top priority. However, a new version was running about a month's pay or so at the time and it was apparent that I wasn't going to have one of my own anytime soon. Fortunately, as I did some research into a more affordable brand I discovered that in the late '60's and early '70's the Ithaca gun company had SKB make the exact same model to for them to market here in the states under the Ithaca brand and that there is a decent supply of these guns on the used marked at prices that at times are pretty reasonable.

So, then along comes the world wide web and the explosion of the "ebay clone" auction sites and my search intensified. After several false starts, 2 years ago I bought a nice Ithaca/SKB model 500 over/under 12 gauge on the internet. It was my first O/U, choked improved and modified with 28 inch barrels. I came to enjoy shooting this gun very much. It was such a huge improvement in balance and feel over my old Mossberg pump. It was very evident from the first time I swung it on a training session pigeon just why these older guns are cherished by their small but loyal following. (This summer I scooped up another one, same model, in 20 gauge on the internet, I should have it in hand by the time you read this)

Ok, so long story short...last day of the season, two Januaries back. After the end of the day's hunting, I accidently leave the gun in the luggage rack of my car and drive off, dumping the gun at 60 mph onto Nebraska Hwy 275, reducing the gun to pieces of concrete scoured metal and a pile of very high quality kindling wood. Along comes a gunsmith just twisted enough to want to work on this tragedy who expertly restores the weapon for me, right down to an original replacement forearm. The barrels of the gun had to be cut down by 1/2 inch at the end as a result of the lower barrel being smashed shut in the fall. Not pretty.

So, just glad to have the gun back, I just starting shooting it again. It seems to point reasonably in the same direction that I'm looking when I shoot but I always wondered just how shortening the barrels by that half inch affected the patterns being shot from the original improved cylinder and modified chokes they were built with.

So, this past week, I finally made it out to a pattern board to see. First, this endeavor made me even more impressed and appreciative of the work that Bob Brister did for his book "Shotgunning; The Art and Science - (Winchester Press 1976)". Bob shot hundreds of rounds at a like number of pattern boards out of dozens of different guns. He and his wife then counted and tablulated all the pellet strikes and interpreted all the data.

For his tests he even devised a 16 foot pattern board that was towed beind his family station wagon (driven by his wife) so he could fire shots at it to obtain data to compute leads and pattern pellet stringing. I only tacked up and shot about 20 pattern sheets and brought them home to examine, dissect and count. At the end of my little test, I was mind numb, frustrated and not too sure I had found out what I set out to find out.

The second thing that was driven home by my own limited pattern test of this one gun is that this is something that everyone who shoots a shotgun a birds over a bird dog should undertake, even on a limited scale, just to point up a few things to themselves.

Everyone should first go out to their local library and check out Bob's book. If you can't find it, my bird dog bookshelf has it through Reading the book will give you more questions than answers and it just may be the thing that causes you to ultimately end up on YOUR kitchen table under a a pile of shot up easel sheets mumbling to yourself.

I make it a point to read a lot of magazine and other hunting and bird dog publications every month. Let me tell you, don't feel bad if you have never heard of Bob Brister or fired a shot at a pattern board. There are a lot of folks out there apparently getting paid good money to write pieces on shotgunning that evidently haven't either, based on some of what appears in print on the subject at times.

Just this month, in a very prominent on-line and print publication, a writer seemed to be putting forth the opinion that based on some sort of "Daniel Boone" backwoods physics equation that the ideal size of shot to use for game bird shooting over dogs, up to and including pheasants, just might be #9 shot, which is generally about the smallest size of shot that one can regularly purchase. He was toting some sort of "#9 fly-swatter" effect to kill game birds stone dead without having the shot actually penetrate the bird's body and ruin the meat.

Now, let me say that everyone, if you shoot long enough, will develop preferences based on experience and maybe even a bit of science (it might not be good science, but I guess it is still science). A bit more of in depth study on what is actually going on with your gun, I believe will ultimately help you put a few more birds in the pot. If nothing else, I would hope it would generate a bit of enthusiasm for shooting and give you the impetus to get out to the skeet range and practice a bit. The more you study your shooting, the fewer cripples you will have spend time having your dog search for each season when you could be hunting. Of course, the advantages to having birds come down dead instead of possibly being only wounded and escaping cannot be overstated. Which takes us back to Mr. Flyswatter...

Shotgun performance on game is a result of just a couple of factors;

The velocity and weight of the shot charge are the primary factors. The size of the shot, the choke of the barrel and distance to the target are the secondary factors that determine how effect the shell/gun combination you are firing is down range on the game in terms of pattern effectiveness. Through some study and experimentation, you can improve the performance of your battery by selecting shell/choke combinations that ultimately put largest number of pellets into the bird you are shooting at.

Generally, the math works out like this;

It's energy transfer that kills game. Penetration, shock, breaking bones and damaging vital organ systems in a manner than incapacitates your target and causes it to die just about the time it hits the ground. You hit game with a projectile fired from your gun. Be it several pellets from you shotgun or a single rifle bullet fired at big game. The more energy the projectiles hit the game with, the more effectively the game will be killed, everything else being equal. Physics and Mr. Brister says that big pellets moving as fast as possible deliver more energy than smaller pellets moving slower. Read the book, physics is a queer thing sometimes. It can actually be better to hit your target with just couple large pellets than a mob of small ones. Big pellets carry and retain more energy better downrange. Small pellets start out with less energy individually and they lose that energy faster. That is smaller pellets slow down quicker than big ones. (Again, I leave this in the hands of Messrs. Newton and Brister)

(Remember, the lower the shot size number for a shell, the larger those pellets will be)

So, the total enery available to a shot charge of any given total weight and velocity is the same, regardless of the size of shot being fired. Read that again...and again. For instance, two standard one and one-quarter ounce 12 gauge loads, one of #8 shot and the other of #4 have the same amount of total energy available at the muzzle for hitting game with if they are fired at the same velocity to begin with. Read that again too.

It's just that the total energy in the #8 load is divided up amongst about two times as many pellets as in the #4 load. Thus, the pellets in the #4 load have more energy, pellet to pellet, as compared to the pellets in the #8 load.

To read the writer in the above mentioned article and others, if you employ his twisted "anti-physics" (which includes factoring in the shot size number to compute total energy or killing power) you come out with a deal where it appears that a identical weight loads of #4 shot and #9 shot, fired at the same velocity, would give a result where the #9 load is approaching 10 times the lethality of the #4 load as a function of the total energy the load carries. This is nonsense. I am not really arguing with the man's stated results , which is apperently some examples of very dead birds. I am simply asserting the the observations, compiled with this type of voodo science is misleading to the average shooter and will lead to scenarios where the average Joe will actually cripple a lot more, if not most of the birds he shoots at.

Just because there are more shot in a load by virtue of the smaller shot size, it doesn't follow that loads smaller shot size are more deadly at all given ranges. In fact, because the energy avaible at any launch velocity is identical in our ounce and one quarter loads (at the same speed) the load carring more pellets can actually be shown to be very inefficient at longer yardages because all of that energy is DIVIDED up evenly throughout each of the 500+ plus pellets in a #9 load. The #4 load has only about half as many, larger pellets carry the same total energy at the muzzle. Each pellet, then carries much more energy, and each pellet carries that energy down range much better. Mr Newton taught us all that in High School....or some of us anyway.

It all depends on what barrel choke your use and what distance away your target is. Also to be considered the size of the bird being shot at. Obviously, pheasants take alot more killing than doves or bobwhite quail. I just had the willies envisioning hoardes of folks taking to the fields in the midwest this Fall, flailing away at pheasants with #8 or #9 target loads.

I have long felt that the popular #6 shot size is too small for pheasant hunting, in general. This is based on a number of seasons hunting in South Dakota with some very large groups on a number of occasions over the years. I took a cue early from some of the large family groups of resident hunters residing in this, one of the most pheasant rich areas of the country. Alot of these folks don't bother to keep or hunt with dogs. There are so many birds there, they don't really need dogs. Their hunting is done mostly as a large social gathering of the family on someone or another's farm. At times, there are so many birds that dogs are more of a distraction to getting a 20 man limit killed in any kind of an orderly fashion. This type of hunting at times is actually more pheasant shooting than it is pheasant hunting.

These folks want to shoot alot of birds and they don't want to ever waste time looking for a bird bird that doesn't come down dead. For these reasons, I observed that alot of these folks shoot #4 size shot, much of it copper plated. I recall one youngster sent to case his gun and sit in the truck by his grandfather for showing up and crippling birds with #6 loads on Sunday after being instructed to get himself a box of #4's so as not to repeat a couple of dismal performances he had on Saturday. On another occassion I seem to recall several boxes of #7 1/2's being tossed into a creek after their owner caused the party to have to waste time searching for a runner for the second time in one cornfield. The thing that sticks in my mind about that incident is that the shells where still in the owner's coat when they disappeared beneath the cold, black riffles. Point taken.

I actually polled a number of pheasant outfitters that I found on the internet early this summer and their preference ran solidly to shot sizes larger than #6. Not one recommended loads in smaller than #6 shot size. Most favored #4 or #5 shot, backing up my experience. One fellow even said he goes to #2 shot late in the season.

Ok, so all of this takes us back to our gun. Just what shot sizes does our gun pattern best at the ranges we shoot at? What size bird are we going to be shooting at?

Well, the results of a little testing can be illuminating, to say the least. In my cheap old Mossberg, where the barrel work I had done cost me more than the gun did when I bought it. (used, course) #4 loads were found to shoot beautiful, round, even patterns on the pattern board out of the IC tube. Out to 35 yards, there was no room for an excuse for not dropping birds dead as free lunch. ( I love that line. Thank you, Mr. Capstick!)

As an aside, I think most "experts" will tell you that most hunters shoot guns that are choked about one size too tight for their upland bird shooting. I think this is particularly true of shooting birds over pointing dogs. Pace off 30 or 40 yards sometime. Alot of shooting sources tell you to pattern your gun at 40 yards. I think that 40 yards looks like a heck of a long way to me when you put a target out there and then try to imagine the last time I shot a bird out that far when hunting. I think you would find that almost all of the birds you shoot over your bird dog will be shot inside 35 yards and a great number are shot at less than 25 yards. Again, alot of older guns came equipped with barrels choked Modified or even Full (Full being the "tighter" of the two). Several sources I have read recommed shooting the biggest shot size your gun will pattern well out of an Improved Cylinder barrel. Improved cylinder is a much more open and even patterning choke, in most cases. The choke gives you a better chance at the close distances we shoot birds over pointing dogs when our aim or swing on a bird is not perfect.

Indeed, the propenent of the #9 load as upland bird panacea stipulated that most of his shots are at very short range. For sure, if you shoot most of your birds inside of 25 yards, it really won't matter what shot size you use IF you pretty much center most of the birds in the pattern.

However, I think most of us are pretty marginal shots. We are not accurate and we are not fast. Mostly we shoot low and behind almost every bird. Most of the time we are shooting at birds that are less than 30 yards away and we are still catching alot of our birds with the fringes of our patterns, largely because our patterns are TOO TIGHT. Shot size really starts to matter if you are only catching half or less of the bird in the pattern. Brister's work tells us that the very edges of the pattern are where the ingition damaged and therefore slower shot in the pattern end up most of the time. If you are hitting birds with damaged, slow chunks of lead, shoudn't they at least be BIG chunks of slow, damaged lead? Physics gives us a very loud YES as our answer.

So, what did my own little test show me? Well, first and foremost, dropping your gun to the highway at 60 mph is NOT the preffered way to give yourself a custom barrel job. Secondly, it showed me that not all barrels or brands of shells are equal, but that some given shot sizes pretty much are equal. That is, every barrel will have one or more shot sizes that just pattern well, regardless of brand and will probably have a limit on one end or the other of the shot size spectrum where the shells just pattern poorly, regardless of brand. Every barrel will show a tendency to "prefer" one brand, load and shot size over others.

In my now fully repaired Ithaca, it seems that my favorite shells, the one and one quarter once high brass loads of #4's that my Mossberg liked so well are still the best patterning loads of several brands that I tried. The bad news is that when fired out of the IC barrel (now 27 1/2 inches long as opposed to the original factory 28 inches) of this gun, ALL loads of #4 shot were pretty poor performers even as close as 20 yards. No, they weren't poor, they were downright pathetic. At 30 yards, all loads of #4 shot fired through this barrel had holes you could throw a cat through. The good news is that when fired through the other barrel (also likewise bobbed to 27 1/2 inches and originaly marked "Modified") fired tighter and more even patterns out to 35 yards. My longtime favorite brand was still the prefered performer at all yardages from this MODIFIED barrel in #4 shot size. Mr. Brister states several times in his book that more open chokes generally don't handle larger shot as well as tighter chokes do.

This was illustrated by the fact that both barrels (with the Modified barrel still firing tighter patterns than the Improved Cylinder barrel, despite being shortened in the repair job) fired nice patterns of #7 1/2, 8, and especially #9 shot all all yardages out to 40 yards. This is good news for me at the skeet, trap and sporting clays ranges. Again though, bouncing down the highway does nothing for your gun, in general. These tests showed that the more open barrel to be impacting on the board about 4 inches to the right of "dead on" at 30 yards. So, I guess the result of my negligence is that I get a bit of a built in lead on birds flying to my right but I will have to swing a bit faster and further on birds going to my left. Since I am left handed, I think I might have invented the ideal "field trial gunners barrel set" since I usually guard the right side of dogs on point at trials with birds going to the right being my responsibility. (No, I am not taking orders to customize anyone else's gun at this point!!) I did also notice that the patterns of the IC tube are not always excatly round on the board. This must be caused by faulty engineering the the part of the Nebraska highway dept having left this barrel still just slightly out of round to a small degree.

So, I learned that even though it appears that you can lop a half-inch off of fixed choke barrels without largely affecting their general patterning tendencies, again, not all barrels are equal and my tests showed that my open barrel just does not like #4 shot at all anymore. Even going to loads of one and one half ounce light turkey loads of buffered, copper plated shot did little to make the patterns fired out of this barrel useful at much past twenty yards. (That's OK, those load's kicked like a mule anyway!!) The modified barrel did pattern these heavy loads nicely, but it will have to one windy, nasty mother of a day before I will load up that barrel with those shells.

Now, the IC barrel did throw decent patterns of #6 shot out to about 30 yards. (Brister, in his writing states something to the effect that the IC choke in general may be the most useful field choke overall in that with carefully selected shells and loads. The pattern of an improved choked barrel is of useful size and density on targets from about 15-35 yards. The tight, full choke, on the other hand, is only really useful from about 30-40 yards away. The full choke appears to be too tight and ragged at closer yardages and like most patterns, really goes to pot on targets more than 40 yards distant.

What was really interesting is that at all but ranges over 35 yards, the IC barrel still did a pretty good job with shells in my favorite brand loaded with #5 shot instead of #4. The patterns obtained with #5 shot at each distance appeared to be just slightly inferior in terms of eveness to the pattens obtained using shells loaded with #6 shot. Little things can make a big difference.

I doubt that my results would have been a whole lot different had this gun not been damaged. I really should have patterned this gun before now, I would have been getting much better results using #5's for the first shot in the open barrel. My choice, based on my limited testing will be to load #5's for the open barrel and #4's for the tighter barrel in this gun. This should be a bit of an improvement in performance for me. Perhaps now a numer of those "easy" straight away birds that I used to fail to cut a feather on will now start to fall for me this year. I will let you now.

The popular modified choke that so many popular gun models come off the rack with offers a bit of the best of both worlds it seems, but again, only if you do some tests and pick your loads according to the type of shooting you do. My personal experience is that it is a bit tough to make a modified choked barrel throw real nice open patterns at less than 20 yards, but if you pick your shells carefully, useful patterns can be obtained if modified choke is your only choice.

My personal opinion is that most hunters, regardless of the gauge they shoot or what game bird they hunt, would be more effective shooters with a shotgun barrel choked Improved Cylinder when they are shooting over pointing dogs. This pattern is larger and more even than any choke at close range with the exception of having a barrel choked pure cylinder (which is actually a barrel with no choke at all). This open, even quality carries out, in most cases to ranges between 30 and 40 yards in most cases with shells fired out of an improved cylinder barrel. Those with screw-in choke systems in their barrel can even opt for one of the more open "skeet" chokes if Improved Cylinder isn't open enough for you. These more open "skeet" chokes are a dream at less than 20 yards, but they go to heck a little too fast beyond that for me. Of course, hunters shooting double guns can opt for a more tightly choked second barrel for the second shot, which is generally the longer shot anyway over a pointing dog, even further increasing your total effective range. Many fine English double guns are choked precisely that way, Brister reports, IC or even more open for the first barrel and then something approximating a full-choke for the second barrel, making the gun deadly effective on all targets that appear inside a window of about 40 yards with properly selected loads for each barrel. Many guns of double barrel or over-under configuration have fixed chokes of IC and MOD, which is better for shooting over dogs than MOD/FULL set-ups, which you also see alot.

What is boils down to, it seems to me, for bird shooting over pointing dogs is that you need the widest pattern you can get with the largest shot size possible at distances less than 25 yards out and then you meed the MOST EVEN pattern you can get with the largest shot size possible at distances over 25 yards. Taking both of these considerations into account will aid us with our previously stated shortcomings of being slow and innarcurate shooters, again with the goal being to put the highest number of the largest shot possible onto our target in order to tranfer the most foot pounds of energy into the target with that given load.

In other words, most folks fail to center birds at close distance, so, using bigger big shot is still nice if you are only putting a few pellets into the bird anyway. At long distances, the average hunter is going to miss no matter how big his pattern is, and that pattern will be pretty big regardless, so you might as well hit that bird with few big pellets as opposed to a few smaller ones if you hit your target at all.

To fly in the face of some writers who would have us do "new math" to figure all of this out, there is no way that hitting a bird with a half-dozen of #6 pellets is ever going to be superior to hitting that same bird with the same half dozen #4 sized shot at any distance. If fact, we can draw from Mr Brister's careful work (through phsyics, not "new math" involving the square of the zip code of the ammunition plant or whatever) that we are actually better off hitting that bird with just three #4 size shot than six of the #6 size shot any any given distance that you would normally shoot birds at over a pointing dog, even if we take the "fly-swatter" effect into consideration.

We all could do well do go grab our gun, several boxes of shells of various shot sizes and go out to a pattern board and test these loads at various distances and chokes. Given our own preferences of whether we select a 12, 16 or 20 gauge and a gun with just one barrel or two with fixed or screw-in choke selections, such tests will go a long, long way to helping us make sure that most of the birds we shoot at and hit, will come down very dead and not cause a hassle for us and our dog in recovering a wounded bird.