Patterning a Shotgun: Defense Edition


Patterning a Shotgun - Defense Edition

The shotgun is often touted as the “end-all, beat-all” for home defense. I am not going to tell you that shotguns are not potentially great for home defense. What they lack in precision, the can certainly make up for in volume of fire.

But, if we take a second to think about it, do we really want a volume of fire within the house? Realize that a nine-pellet OO Buckshot load is nine projectiles with the same weight as a 5.56 bullet flying downrange.

Admittedly, they are traveling at less than half the speed, but in houses distances are short and sheetrock is a very bad bullet trap.

This line of thinking leads me to a very old idea: shotgun patterning. I have seen people check their groups with their deer hunting rifle. Most people also pattern their shotgun before turkey season.

I almost never hear of anyone checking the pattern for their home defense shotgun. That does not seem like a very smart choice. Living in America, we are not going hungry if we miss our intended deer or turkey.

We might well have an injured relative based on our lack of understanding of the performance combination of our chosen shotgun and defensive load.

shotgun patterning boxes
Different loads tested in today’s shotgun patterning article, all available from Cheaper Than Dirt!

Patterning for Home Defense?

My preferred load for indoor social work used to be Hornady 2¾” #4 Buckshot Varmint Express, due to the Versatite wad. This worked well in my Mossberg 500.

I like the fact that I have the potential of 24 wound paths and the much smaller diameter of the #4 pellets means much less retained inertia to continue through house components, compared to OO buck.

patterning hornady varmint express
Hornady 2¾” #4 Buckshot Varmint Express is the author’s preferred load for indoor defense.

I have retired the Mossberg 500 from bedside service. This was done when I purchased a Kel-Tec KSG-25 pump-action shotgun.

One reason for the transition: the KSG has the option of having two shell options readily available. My choice has been to run one tube with buckshot and the other with slugs.

You could chose OO in one and #4 in the other. With a simple flick of the tube selector switch and a pump stroke, one can adapt to the needs of the situation. The second reason is that the KSG was specifically designed to run Aguila mini shells.

These rounds are much lower recoil, a fair amount quieter and provide almost double the round count (at 12) in each tube.  The downside to the buckshot version of the Aguila minis is they have no wadding cup to assist with flight cohesion.

This makes the groups of roughly nine inches at 10 yards. Not exactly a precision shot. This is an advantage, in the aspect that compared to a 9mm (.355” diameter) bullet, the hit probability zone is roughly 25 times larger.

The disadvantage is that you are likely to have lots of misses continuing on towards things (or people) you may love.

Patterning a Shotgun - Aguila Minishell
The KSG was specifically designed to run Aguila mini shells.

Setting Up the Process

This is where patterning comes in. By developing a uniform test for the chosen shotgun and several shell options, a determination of suitability can be determined. My test protocol is to set up a 36 x 18″ cardboard target.

I shoot shells starting at three yards, then five yards, then move back five yards for each subsequent shot. With a five-round box of shells, this will give values at three, five, 10, 15 and 20 yards.

It is rare to be able to articulate the use of deadly force past 20 yards, so I normally stop there. The great thing is for another few more dollars, you can continue out to 45 yards.

My procedure is to only use five shells per cardboard target. The target becomes too busy with between 40 and 150+ pellet holes to do more than five rounds. To keep track of groups by distance, a different color sharpie marker is used to “x” each pellet’s impact.

That makes for very simple target comparisons and eliminates the need to indicate distance with each pellet impact. For example, all green “X’s” are three yards, all black marks are ten yards, red is fifteen and so forth.

hornaday shotgun patterning
Important for patterning: with a five-round box of shells, you want values at three, five, 10, 15 and 20 yards. Note the different “X” marks as well.

By using this procedure with the contenders, you develop a very solid indication of their group performance at specific distances.

Sample Patterning Test

Now, let’s get to testing. For my patterning tests, I used a Mossberg 500 18” barrel shotgun, as more people own this than the KSG. Here were the results, in alphabetical order:

*Where the shot cup fell away

As you can see, there are clear choices for retaining a tight group at distance and clear choices if maximum spread is your desire. This test does not cover penetration or damage dealt, but someone else has already done that work. See Brassfetcher’s excellent work here.

Patterning a Shotgun - Rio Buckshot
Rio Buckshot’s effective lack of a shot cup is obvious in the results. It has an early and huge spread.

Analyzing the Results

As expected, the Aguila Mini did not feed well in the Mossberg. The results of my five-shot test were one proper feed, three stovepipes and one failure to feed. This is NOT a failure of the ammo, as this gun is not designed to run it.

The minis run flawlessly in my KSG.  They were by far the lowest recoil as felt by my finely calibrated shoulder.

Here are some of my other general conclusions:

  • The Hornady Reduced Recoil was a bit softer shooting, with the reduction of load weight from nine to eight pellets
  • Even with the reduction to eight pellets, the Hornady Black had stout recoiling – by far the strongest
  • Flight control wads contain the column integrity
  • It is fairly easy to see where the wad cup opens up with each shell
  • Rio and Aguila’s effective lack of a shot cup is obvious in the early and huge spread
  • All other things equal, #4 Buck spreads faster than OO Buck
  • With my shotgun, almost all rounds impacted high compared to point of aim
Patterning a Shotgun - Hornady Black
Hornady Black had the strongest recoil by far.


Patterning a Shotgun - Remington Ultimate Defense
Remington Ultimate Defense had an 8.75″ spread at 15 yards.


Patterning a Shotgun - American Gunner
Hornady’s American Gunner Reduced Recoil had a 9. 75″ spread at 20 yards.


For the KSG, I currently run Hornady Versatite #4 Buck in the ready tube (7+1 rounds) and the Federal Flight Control OO Buck in the second tube (7 rounds). With the Versatite, all indoor shots will have less than a 4.5” of spread.

Shots past 10 yards will open up more, which might be a good thing outdoors. For longer outdoor shots, the Federal Flight Control allows precise shots out to 50+ yards, or performance similar to a frangible slug at closer ranges.

shotgun patterning - federal premium
The flight control wads in Federal’s Personal Defense loads contain the column integrity.


You now have the information needed to replicate my test if your shell choices are not in my chart. If they are, you can make informed predictions on what shotshells are appropriate regarding dispersion and distances you plan to engage at.

You also can determine penetration depth for the type of shot chosen. You should still pattern any choices in your own shotgun.

As always your results may vary from mine, so test it yourself.

Patterning a Shotgun - John BIbby
The author and his Mossberg 500 shotgun he used in this article’s patterning test.

Have you patterned a shotgun before? Let us know your thoughts about patterning in the comments below.


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