Everything You Might Not Want to Know About Shotgun Patterns

By Randy Wakeman

Clay pigeons are not made of clay, dram equivalent does not mean anything specific, barrel length over 26 inches generally reduces velocity, the human eye cannot possibly read breaks and we don't have a clue as to the pressure to which our factory shotshells are actually loaded. Welcome to the shotgun land of mirth and mystery.

A higher efficiency pattern is not going to make you a better shot and your scores may not go up dramatically; they may go down. John Brindle wrote years ago that you cannot get much more than an 18 inch effective pattern out of a 1-1/8 ounce shotshell. Many shotguns do not shoot close to point of aim. As a result, if your shotgun throws excessively high (the Benelli SBE3 is a recent example), a higher efficiency choke tube (tighter pattern) may cause your scores to drop dramatically.

An excessively open, less dense pattern can cost you birds and can cripple game, but if you are breaking things with the lowermost third of your pattern, your scores tend to go down with a denser pattern. More than a few turkey hunters (who didn't bother to pattern their shotguns) have been successful with a Modified choke, yet have lost birds with a dedicated turkey choke. A higher efficiency, denser pattern does not do you much good if you are throwing it a foot over your target.

The best choke tube ever made cannot take a low-antimony shotshell into a high quality shell. Unfortunately, we cannot cheat the system. Currently, there are three brands of factory lead target shotshells that use hard shot and these give the highest percentage patterns. They are Remington STS / Nitro 27, Winchester AA and Federal Gold Medal shells. They are alloyed with 5%-6% antimony. When antimony is added, you also get more pellets per ounce for the same shot diameter, as antimony weighs less than lead.

Neil Winston conducted extensive testing of Remington STS loads. Neil's results show that there is no substitute for payload, after you arrive at high-antimony shotshells.

The high-quality shotshell market is a comparatively small one, as is the target shotshell market. Far more shotshells are used the first week of dove season than for the entire year of clay target sports. Comparatively few shooters use high-antimony shotshells for clays or for hunting. Buying the cheapest shell or what is on sale, or just readily available locally is not exactly a new idea. People buy far more Remington Gun Club loads than STS loads and far more Federal Top Gun shotshells than Gold Medals and always have.

It is the same way with hunting. Tom Roster carped a bit about the Nilo Farms testing that used buffered lead Winchester shells on mallards with the Mark V collar, suggesting that those loads were "too good" and not representative of common lead shells used at that time back for duck hunting. Tom had a point, for cheaper shells generally do the big sales numbers.

The most efficient shotshells from the 2016 testing by Neil Winston were Remington STS 6% antimony, 1-1/8 ounce, #7-1/2 loads that patterned 77.9% at 40 yards, 10 shot average, Full choke. These were the most efficient shotshells tested among several brands.

Neil Winston also tested the Remington American Clay & Field 4% antimony, 1-1/8 ounce, #7-1/2 loads. The ten shot average was 74.3% pattern efficiency in a 30 inch circle at 40 yards.

Your results will vary, but the best available version of the truth is that the Remington American Clay & Field shells get you within 3% or so of the pattern efficiency of the top of the line STS loads. The results of my testing show them to be within 2% on average at 40 yards, with a .033 inch constriction choke.

On average, you'll get at least 15% more pellets in the 30 inch circle at 40 yards with a .035 inch choke by using high-antimony shotshells versus softer, chilled shot loads. That is significant, for who wants a 1-1/8 oz. shotshell that actually puts less pellets on the board than a high-antimony 1 ounce load?

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Copyright 2017 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.