Why'd I miss that bird?

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Even small changes in load, choke or distance can make significant differences in how your shotgun performs. It pays to test your loads on paper before you take them afield.

A few years ago I tried a new load for my shotgun. The new load contained less shot and powder, so it kicked less. As a result, I shot better at targets flying back and forth across the skeet field.

But when I moved to the trap range, where targets whiz away from the shooter at what looks like warp speed, a strange trend emerged. I could break targets if I locked onto them quickly, but if I fired a moment later, many of the targets kept right on flying. I decided it was time to get some hard data on my new load's performance

I made a quick trip to a furniture store and rescued a large cardboard box from the trash. Back at the range, I cut three pieces of cardboard three feet square and tacked them, plain sides out, to target frames. Then I fired one of my new loads at each sheet, one from 20 yards, another from 25 yards and the third from 30 yards.

The 20- and 25-yard targets looked good. Nowhere on these sheets was there a space the size of a clay target that didn't have at least one pellet hole.

The 30-yard target was another story. The pattern of pellet holes showed several patches where a clay target could have slipped through untouched.

Mystery solved. My new load, while a pleasure to shoot and perfectly adequate on the skeet range, wasn't going to work for trap. And it certainly wasn't going to be much good for dove hunting, where

I often take shots at 30 or even 35 yards.

I was glad to have discovered the limitations of my new load before deciding I had lost my knack for wingshooting. More important, I had discovered the problem before going afield with the new shells to miss and cripple game.

While many hunters are familiar with the concept of shotgun patterning, surprisingly few actually do it. Their failure to determine exactly what their guns will and won't do with a particular load and choke at a given distance probably accounts for many of the rabbits, doves, ducks and turkeys that elude them each year.

Patterning a shotgun tells you three things that are critical to good shooting. First, you find out which load

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