If you're a waterfowler eager to take to the marsh Saturday when Minnesota's 2008 duck and goose season begins, and you feel your life is lacking surprise, try patterning your shotgun.

The process, and its findings, might in fact be very surprising.

What is patterning? Ballisticians can get pretty technical in their answers. But basically it's a process of determining the pellet "pattern'' produced at specific distances downrange by a shotgun, using various choke and load combinations.

Last week, with the help of a friend, Brett Bader of Somerset, Wis., and one of my sons, Trevor, I patterned two shotguns, a Super X2 12 gauge semi-auto Winchester, which I shoot, and a Mossberg 12 gauge pump, which is Trevor's gun.

Both were outfitted with factory-issued modified chokes. All loads fired were comparable, 3-inch, No. 2s.

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Patterning can be accomplished a number of ways. Perhaps there is no "best'' way (though certified ballisticians probably favor one over another). The goal in any event, regardless of methodology, is to get a sense of which load works best in your shotgun.

By "best'' I mean which load is most evenly distributed within, say, a 30-inch circle at distances downrange of between 30 and 40 yards.

Of course, patterning is not everything when considering the killing power of a particular load fired from a particular scattergun. Downrange energy, measured in part by the speed with which pellets of particular weights and designs are carried at various distances, is also important. Critical, even.

This is particularly important when shot is made of steel, which the large majority of waterfowlers' shot shells are today. Other options for waterfowling loads are made of bismuth or tungsten. Each has specific weight and flight characteristics -- variables that also must be considered when choosing a load for duck hunting and (perhaps) a separate load for goose hunting.

Also, price is a consideration. One all-steel load I tested is manufactured by Winchester and marketed under the brand name Xpert High Velocity. Muzzle velocity of these was comparable to shells I tested that were almost three times as expensive (about $30 per box of 25 for Hevi-Steel, a mixture of steel and tungsten, compared to about $11 for Xpert), but pellet weights were significantly different between the two, with Hevi-Steel being, as the name implies, heavier (and therefore more efficient at longer ranges).

Finally, consider also pellet and wad design. Federal made news in these departments in recent years with the introduction of "Black Cloud'' shot shells. These are manufactured with a new-style wad that is designed to hold pellets together longer downrange, and Federal says this development contributes to better (meaning more uniform) patterns.

Federal also includes pellets of two different designs in Black Cloud loads, a factor the company says contributes to improved downrange energy, measured, generally, as killing power (the concept of mixing pellet designs in single loads has been done previously by other manufacturers).

In round figures, retailers sell Black Cloud for about $21 a box.

I patterned two other loads, Remington Nitro-Steel High Velocity and Winchester Supreme High Velocity. Both of these, in round figures, sell for $18-$20 a box.

Before discussing findings, a reminder:

Your shotgun probably will -- in fact, most likely will -- pattern differently with the loads I fired than our guns did. So to achieve any benefit from this information, you'll have to shoot your own gun, using the chokes you plan to use in the field.

Meaning that if you hunt geese and intend to use a full choke doing so (I wouldn't advise shooting steel through a full choke without patterning it first), then pattern desired loads using that choke. Ditto modified chokes for ducks, etc.

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We elected to shoot from 30 yards, rather than 35 or even 40, both of which are favored by some ballisticians. I chose the closer distance because we were using modified chokes and I wanted to make sure enough pellets from the various loads landed in the patterning sheets to draw some conclusions (the importance in any event is to determine relative comparisons among the loads fired, so long as the testing is within the usable hunting range).

The sheets themselves were made of paper and had turkey images on them -- leftovers from last spring that I bought at a sporting goods store. I turned the sheets over and, using a magic marker, drew a large crosshairs on them, using a section of each sheet about 20 inches square.

Trevor shot each load, firing from a bench rest.

What we learned will give heart to anyone who thinks, generally, that "you get what you pay for.''

What we also learned will give heart to those who think value-priced shells might be good enough for them.

But remember: These results apply only to our guns and chokes.

First, as people familiar with the ballistic properties of Hevi-Steel might expect, this load patterned evenly through both guns. Heavier than steel, Hevi-Steel pellets overcome air resistance relatively more efficiently. But at nearly $30 a box, they're expensive.

Winchester's Xpert loads patterned about equally with the Hevi-Steel, and at a much cheaper price. Muzzle velocities of the two are about the same. But even Winchester would concede that Hevi-Steel is the better killing load, because of the properties of tungsten-steel pellets compared to all-steel pellets.

Still, I've killed a lot of birds with Xpert loads, and in our guns they obviously patterned well. The issue becomes one of an individual's ability to shoot particular loads at birds that are within "range'' of the loads. That range necessarily will be shorter than a comparative range for Hevi-Steel. The issue also becomes one of what a given wingshooter can afford.

Middle-of-the-road loads for us, in terms of patterning results through our guns and chokes, were the Remington Nitro and Winchester Supreme shot shells. Both patterned acceptably, but not as well as the Hevi-Shot or the Xpert.

Now for Black Cloud.

Federal has been touting these loads as highly efficient at significant distances, meaning uniform patterns of pellets carrying improved (over traditional steel loads) killing power downrange, measured as foot pounds of energy retained.

Credited for the improvement by Federal are pellets of two different designs in these loads, and Federal's "Flightcontrol'' wads. In patterning the loads, I couldn't verify these assertions. To do so would require more expertise and equipment than I have.

That said, how did the Black Cloud loads pattern? In our guns, about the same as Hevi-Steel and the Winchester Xpert loads.

And I drew what conclusions from this exercise?

Only this: That I want to pattern our guns again, this time using BB shot, and also while moving the pattern sheets back to 40 yards. Then I should know even more specifically what I need to know to buy shells for both duck and goose hunting this fall.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com