"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Learning the Secrets of a Shotgun's Pattern
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Scifres

There are many ways to miss such zooming targets as doves, teal, and other fast-flying/running critters with a shotgun, but it is equally as easy to miss a squirrel--especially at close range. 

Worse yet, is hitting a squirrel, or other game birds or animals at close range with a shotgun unless you know what the pattern of the gun looks like at 10 to 25 feet. Often you have just succeeded in blowing up your dinner. Worse yet, you have wasted good food. 

And still worse, your misses--or your close-range hits--can be eliminated by simply learning what the pattern of  your shotgun looks like at close range. 

So how does one go about learning the secrets of a shotgun's pattern? You shoot it, that's how. You shoot it with various loads of various sizes of shot, and at various ranges.

This can be accomplished at many of the shooting ranges at state-owned properties. The Division of Fish and Wildlife (317-232-4080) will tell you the closest range in your area. But any dead tree will serve this purpose just as well, if the shooter is cautious and safety-minded. 

The big rub comes because when most hunters pattern their shotguns, they are concerned with prints at 20, 30, 40, or 50 yards. This is fine if all of your shots at game birds and animals will be taken at those ranges. 

But how about this hypothetical (but fairly common) situation: You are sitting with your back against a tree while waiting for a squirrel to come to a hickory tree for lunch. You have seen nothing for some time, but suddenly a fat squirrel (just right for the pan) comes down a tree to scold you for being in the woods. Your dinner is 20 feet away, sure shot. 

If you wait for the squirrel to go back up the tree for a 30-to-40-yard shot, it may never happen. The squirrel hides and you have blown your opportunity. But if you know how tight the pattern of your gun is at 20 feet, you merely wait for the squirrel to turn sideways, put the bead on the head, pull the gun left or right a bit, and squeeze off a shot that puts one or a few pellets in the head while the remainder of the load flies off into oblivion. 

The positive effects of patterning a shotgun at both close range (10 to 25 feet, and out to 50 yards, about the maximum effective range of most shotguns) will be seen in many ways. It serves me well by giving me a mental picture of what the pattern looks like on almost every shot I take--be it a sitting rabbit at 10 feet or a wood duck that is changing his address very fast and is almost out of range. 

Incidentally, I can make life miserable (even short) for that woodie . .. if he is going away. On the other hand, if he is coming at me at any angle, he is home free most of the time. I grew up shooting at birds and rabbits going away; pass shooting is something I have never mastered. 

Sure, you put the bead on a spot behind such birds and targets and you swing the barrel until the bead passes the bird before you pull the trigger. And you follow through with the swing. But it doesn't always work for me.

This, of course, gets into ballistics and lead. 

I will not attempt to explain ballistics and lead in this column, but I will tell you the best writing I have ever seen on these subjects was turned in by the late Robert Ruark, a newspaper man and author. You will find it (pages 30-32) in Ruark's book, The Old Man and the Boy. This book, incidentally, is among the top five books I have read on the outdoors. It could be the best. 

As a teen-age boy, Ruark sets the stage by missing a pintail, and asking his grandfather why: "Damn ballistics! I missed that duck, that duck as big as a turkey, as big as a house, and I don't know why."

The old man's answer is classic. You need to read it--and the rest of this book--even if you don't hunt.


All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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