Like anything, you can get the right find and the right load for your gun a long way. A turkey hunter once told me that he spent $1,000 one winter buying xx-plot noise and magnum loads for his guns, then he modeled them all to find the combination that put the maximum number of holes in a 10-inch round. . This is too far. At some point, such testing is no longer about killing turkeys, but about shooting holes and getting through the offseason. That’s fine, I guess, if that’s what you want to do. And it’s a lot better than not trying far enough. Fine-tuning the choke and load for your gun ensures that when you do take a shot, you’ve given yourself the best possible chance of making a clean kill. You owe yourself and your quarry that much.
So here we go, in four easy steps.
Step 1: Gather your clothes
First and foremost, you need a gun that fits you and that you can hit. A good model does you no good if you can’t target it. You can have two such weapons, in which case you’ve doubled the amount of modeling work you have to do.
Start with chokes that came with the gun before you start spending money on aftermarket pipes. Circle the boxes of what you think will be the right ammo. Keep in mind that all of the following factors can affect patterns, sometimes dramatically: shot type, shot size, WAD type, buffer and velocity. In general, slower loads, buffered loads, harder cartridges and larger sizes shot harder than faster, softer and/or smaller impact loads and unlimited loads. Some WADs are designed to hold the target several feet outside the muzzle, and they usually produce stronger patterns than other types.
Blackmaxx Waterfowl Choke Tube
Try the choke tubes that come with your gun first. If you don’t get the patterns you want, try an aftermarket tube like this one.
When choosing shot sizes, start with your favorite for the species you are targeting, then choose a smaller size and a larger size. There is no magic shot size for every game, just our favorite. I like steel 2s for big ducks, but 1s and 3s work fine. I like the lead and bismuth 5s for stages, but no flies on the 4S and 6s. What matters is how a load works with your gun and your choke.
Once you’ve chosen your gun, choke, and load to test, you’ll need a roll of paper at least 30 inches wide, as that’s the maximum effective spread of a pattern, and a recoil pad to hold it up. I buy 36 inch wide rolls of brown or red contract paper at Lowe’s. Take a large Sharpie to make a target mark in the center and write notes on your patterns.
Step 2: Shoot and shoot some more
Start shooting at the distance you most often shoot your birds. Shoot from a rest, aim at the target. Change paper between shots. No two models are alike, and there is variability within the same shell case. Therefore, three is the best minimum to shoot at each range with each gun and load combination. Five is good, 10 is the best. After 10 models, the law of diminishing returns takes effect.
Shoot groups of patterns 5 yards closer and 5 yards farther with each combination, too. Not every shot will be taken exactly at your ideal distance, and some tighter chokes hold a very tight pattern, then open quickly, while wider chokes usually produce more gradually spread patterns as they fly down. It’s good to know what’s going on at longer and closer range, as well as your chosen range, just in case. Test as many throttle and load combinations as you can stand to shoot. A lead sled helps a lot.
Step 3: Evaluate your designs
Once you’ve shot all your patterns, take them home and make yourself a compass to draw 30-inch circles with a marker and string. Use the middle of the densest part of the pattern as the center of your circle. If desired, draw a second, smaller 20-inch circle inside the 30-inch. This is the core of the model, the part that kills the birds cleanly and smokes the clay.
Now, look at all your targets. What you want to see is the combination of a gun load that fires scattered patterns so that there is good density in the 20 inch core, and lots of rounds in the 20 to 30 inch ring. That outer ring is your margin for error if you don’t make a perfect shot. There will be gaps and piles in any pattern, especially around the edges. What you want is one without too many holes a bird or target can get through. (Note: For turkeys you can skip the large circles and just count the holes in a 10-inch circle.)
You don’t have to count the holes and figure percentages if you don’t want to, although I find that counting all five or 10 patterns and averaging the holes helps me compare results. If you do, the ideal is usually a model that presses 75 to 80 percent of its pellets into a 30-inch circle at the range you want to shoot your birds. It will be dense in the center, but not so tight that the rows don’t have enough pellets to make it easier to hit, nor so dense it blows your birds.
Step 4: Iterate to find the best combination and the best load
If, after comparing the patterns made from your factory shocks with a variety of loads, you don’t see a result in a combination you like, buy an aftermarket shock or two and try again. Or experiment with even more loads. Or both, until you find the choke and load your guns best. Then, stock up on shells.