Patterning, or evaluating the spread of your shotgun’s pellet array after you shoot a target, is mostly used by bird hunters to make sure they choose the proper load and choke for their intended game at anticipated ranges. Bird hunters do not aim shotguns, but rather point them, and so stock fit plays a major role in delivering their patterns where they point. The act of patterning is not as vital for home-defense shotguns because these guns are often used at very short distances before patterns have a chance to spread much at all. Very rare indeed is a shotgun that displays an erratic pattern at 12 yards or less.
But patterning also reveals something else, and that is the pattern’s median point of impact (POI) compared to your shotgun’s point of aim (POA). In other words, if your shotgun delivers its pattern several inches in any direction from where you actually aimed, it could make missing your target altogether much more likely. So, here’s how you pattern your shotgun.
First, find a large target, such as a cardboard box, or staple wrapping paper to backerboard or any other target holder. Using a marker, color a dime-sized dot on the target. Next, draw an upward arrow on the target indicating it’s top—you’ll use this as an orientation reference later.
Place the target about 7 yards downrange; this is an average “combat distance” that is common for home-defense testing. If you anticipate shooting closer or further than seven yards, place your target accordingly).
Next, while using your exact setup (shotgun, choke and load) that you intend to use for home defense, throw the gun up to your shoulder naturally, aim at the dot (using whatever sighting system you have) and pull the trigger. Concentrate on getting off a good, flinch-free shot. If you think you flinched or yanked the trigger, discard the shot and start over. After a good shot, remove the target and install a fresh one. Shoot three targets and then evaluate all three targets.
While there may be more mathematically accurate ways to evaluate a shotgun pattern, a great, easy way to determine the center of your target’s pattern is to simply view the whole pattern from a couple feet away. Let your eyes see the full target and judge the center of the pattern formed by the pellet holes.
After you’ve estimated its center as best you can, mark the center with the marker. This is your POI. Next, compare where it is in relation to the bullseye, or your point of aim. Average that distance using your three shots. If the distance between the POA and POI is less than three inches, your shotgun is good to go. If it’s more, however, you should probably consider correcting it by adjusting the sights (if it has them) or installing an optic or aftermarket sights.
If you prefer the simple bead front sight only, consider installing a rear sight or experiment by moving your head one way or another on the stock while aiming. If moving your head corrects the problem, then you’ll need to have stock work performed on your gun if it did not come with a stock-adjustment kit. If none of these things work, consider taking your shotgun to a gunsmith because there is likely something wrong with the barrel’s alignment.
Chances are, your shotgun will pattern just fine with buckshot at home-defense distances. After verifying this, you can rest easy knowing it’s the home invader who should be worried.