When patterning a shotgun, what is a sufficient percentage of pellets within a 30-inch circle?

When patterning a shotgun, what is a sufficient percentage of pellets within a 30-inch circle? Shotguns are known as scatterguns because the shotshells (the cartridges they shoot) discharge small, round, pellet-like projectiles. These pellets are called shots. Sometimes they may also be used to shoot single pieces called slugs.

Patterns in shotguns

When patterning a shotgun, what is a sufficient percentage of pellets within a 30-inch circle?

The pellets, as discussed before, emerge from the cartridge in the chamber as the gun is fired. These little pieces travel through the bore and get projected out through the muzzle.

Upon projection, they tend to scatter about and create a randomized pattern when hitting a target. This pattern is what they are talking about when speaking of shotgun patterns.

As the pellets travel through the bore they exert pressure normal to the inner wall of the barrel, upon exiting, they spread out and travel at an angle away from the muzzle. Various factors affect the patterning and shooters use multiple ways to get the exact type of patterning needed.

No single pattern or set-up is good for all situations, it is, therefore, necessary to have a proper understanding of controlling pellets and pattern behavior to make the best use of your shotshells.

As the distance between the target and the shooter increases, the pellet pattern gets more and more spread out. This is because a small angle creates a greater difference over longer distances.


Chokes are cylindrical tubes that can be attached to the end of the muzzle. These tubes have a basic job. They restrict the angular spread of the pellets. So basically, a shotgun with a choke will create a less dense pattern than a shotgun that does have a choke.

When speaking of chokes, it is important to understand the different types of chokes should you decide to invest money in them.

Different types of chokes provide different levels of restrictions to the pellets and therefore result in differing densities of shotgun patterns. Let’s take a look at some common types of chokes:

  • Cylinder choke: These are the least restrictive type of chokes and provide a negligible amount of constriction. What is means is that the pellets create a very spread-out pattern.
  • Improved cylinder choke: These chokes provide slightly more constriction and therefore lead to a slightly denser pattern. Nothing radically different from the cylinder choke but the difference can be visibly felt.
  • Modified choke: Modified chokes have moderate constriction. They significantly limit the pellets from spreading out and yield a dense pattern.
  • Full choke: Full chokes have a substantial amount of constriction. The shot will hold together longer and have a high pellet density upon hitting the target.
  • Extra full choke: They are special types of full chokes designed to be used for targets that require exceptionally long ranges beyond 35 yards.
  • Turkey chokes: These are specially designed for hunting turkeys. Turkeys require a significantly longer range which means the pellets will spread out by a lot and upon reaching the target pellet density will be so little that it will not cause any harm to the turkey. Therefore extra constriction is required, and turkey chokes are used.

The 30-inch circle

It is recommended that practice shots are fired on a target before hunting the actual game. This ensures experience with the shotgun and patterning. Practice targets often have a 30-inch circle on them.

The circle is a widely used metric to set the pattern as you would like. Upon firing, walk up to the target and check the distribution of the shot within and out of the circle.

The circle marks the kill zone and it is essential to have the right amount of shots fall within the circle so that the correct amount of damage is caused.

You don’t want to have the pellets too dense as that would burn off a lot of meat and would destroy a rabbit. Too little pellets would just be a waste since the target won’t even suffer any damage. It is therefore essential to fine-tune the pattern of your shotgun to get the most out of every shot.

Factors affecting the pattern

Shotguns never fire the same pattern twice. It will always be a randomly generated pattern. There are a few things that directly affect the shotgun patter, some of which are given here:

  • The type of shot – there are lead shots and steel shots. Different types of shots can spread more or less.
  • Size of the shot – there are smaller and bigger shots. Some shots spread out more than others.
  • Choke of the gun – we discussed this part early on. The choke can restrict or “choke” the pellets. The more constrictive chokes will lead to a denser pattern than others.
  • The nature of the gun itself – shotguns can be rifled or smooth. Rifled shotguns have grooves in the inner wall of the barrel which provides additional control over the pellets and causes them to gain angular momentum.

As we can see the factors that directly affect the pattern of your shotgun are numerous, not to mention the range of your target and your shooting capabilities play a huge role. Seasoned shooters will understand how wind conditions can make or break patterns.

See Also: What Distance Should Be Used To Pattern A Shotgun?

What’s a load?

Before we can address our original question of the sufficient percentage of pellets within the 30-inch circle, we should understand what load is.

Shotguns use straight-walled cartridges called shotgun shells or simply shells. The shells are filled with numerous pellets. The total projectile that is emitted out of a fire is termed as load.

It is an important term to understand since the amount of pellets inside the 30-inch circle is expressed as a percentage of the load.

What is a sufficient percentage of pellets within the circle?

What is a sufficient percentage of pellets within the circle?

The answer to this question would depend on the exact setup of the target and the gun. But, at a bare minimum, it is recommended to have at least 55% of the total load strike within the circle.

Note that this only includes pellets landing inside of the circle and not on the boundary of the circle. If there are less than 55% of the pellets, then the target simply isn’t inflicted with enough damage to ensure the kill.

In some cases like rabbits, squirrels, or smaller birds the requirement can be lowered a bit to 50% when shooting from a close range. Longer ranges for even frail animals like those will require a minimum of 55% load.

It is important to not overkill the shot density. The extra dense shot will destroy the target completely and not leave any meat for consumption.

The range of the target has an important role to play as well. As discussed before, the longer a range is, the more a shot spreads out therefore more constricting chokes should be used for a longer range to ensure a sufficient amount of pellets in the kill zone.

What is an even pattern?

In many circles, a minimum load of 55% plus an even pattern is recommended. What an even pattern essentially means is the pellets be evenly spaced out upon landing on the dummy target. In a real-life scenario, no shot is perfectly even – almost all patterns are random and yield different results each time.

This should not however mean that a leaning pattern is okay. A leaning pattern is when the pellets are heavily concentrated to the left or the right of the kill zone. This may give the target a chance to survive and not result in a kill.

In case your pattern shows too much concentration in the center, consider choosing a less constrictive choke. Having too much concentration in the center cause make you miss the target as the more center concentrated the shot string is, the more sensitive the initial stages of the shot become to the final pattern.

Some other things to keep in mind when patterning your shotgun

A clean kill requires that you have the most efficient pattern set up for your shotgun. Here we look at some other things to keep in mind when patterning the shotgun so each shot yields you a kill.

  • Ensure that your load is working as per your shotgun and it is not the other way round. If it is, you’re doing it wrong and should consider making changes.
  • Have a picture of a bird or animal on the practice targets to understand your shot positioning better. These work better than the usual plus or cross marks for most people.
  • Choose the right kind of shots for the kill. Stell shots may be needed for heavier targets while lead shots are more preferred for smaller targets.
  • Make sure to use steel-proof chokes when using steel-based pellets. Non-steel-based chokes might get ruined when used with steel pellets.


There is a multitude of factors that affect the pattern of shotguns. No two shotguns fire the same patterns and no shotgun fires the same pattern twice.

The 30-inch circle is a widely used metric and is a good indicator of the strength of your shots. A minimum of 55% of load pellet is considered sufficient for clean kills.

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