Barrel length, choke and chambers for hunting shotguns

Barrel length, choke, and chambers for hunting shotguns are three topics that any aspiring small game hunter should know about. These three things will change significantly depending on the game you are looking for. Barrel length, choke, and camera settings will change a lot between chases.

An obvious defining term, barrel length refers to the length of the barrel of the shotgun. In general, a longer barrel allows projectiles to harness more energy from the powder explosion and fall in a truer flight path.

20″-24″ Barrels – These short barrels are best left for turkey hunters, who take careful aim at stationary birds. They are usually too short to shoot with wings, as accuracy suffers. However, many rabbit and grouse hunters who spend their time in extremely thick cover will tout the benefit of a short barrel that doesn’t get caught in brush.

26″-28″ Barrels – These are standard barrel lengths that can be used for all shotgun applications from wing to slug hunting. While a 26” barrel is lighter and more maneuverable, a 28” barrel will be more accurate for long range shots and should be considered perhaps the best overall barrel length. Note that choke selection can mitigate the inherent differences between 26” and 28” barrels. That is, a 26″ barrel with a full choke will fire a tighter grouping than a 28″ barrel with an improved cylinder choke. See below for detailed choke information.

30″-32″ Barrels: These longer barrels certainly have their devotees, who use them for all shotgun applications. However, they are most favored by waterfowl hunters who take a lot of long range shots at waterfowl.

A shotgun’s choke is a tapered restriction at the muzzle end of the barrel. This results in a wider or narrower shot pattern, or “spreading” of shot, as the shot travels down. A tightly constrained choke produces a tighter pattern; that is, it concentrates the shot into an overall smaller diameter impact zone than you would get with a wider choke at equal distances. There are five common chokes used by hunters, they are as follows.

  • Improved cylinder: very versatile choke, used for upland birds, small fur-bearing animals and waterfowl. (Safe for slugs).
  • Modified: A general purpose choke, used for upland birds, small fur game, and for shooting waterfowl at short to medium range. (Safe for slugs).
  • Modified Improved: Mid-range shot of waterfowl and mountain birds. (Not safe for slugs).
  • Full: The most common highly compressed choke. It is used for long range upland and waterfowl shooting. It’s also good for turkeys. (Not safe for slugs).
  • Extra Full: A highly compressed coke used for specific applications in turkey and long range waterfowl hunting. (Not safe for slugs).

The type of choke you should use depends on the type of hunting you are doing. The tightly restricted “extra full” choke that allows you to put an overwhelmingly lethal dose of buckshot into a turkey’s tiny head at sixty yards would be a huge handicap when shooting for fast-moving cottontail rabbits in the tight confines of a heather patch. Not only would he miss most of his shots, at ten yards, his pattern is no bigger than a baseball. A direct hit at this distance would destroy most of the animal’s meat.

If you are looking for a truly versatile shotgun, it is wise to select a shotgun with bolt-on chokes. This makes it easy to change from one choke to the next, something that can easily be done in the field. And you can buy additional chokes for a fraction of what it costs to buy a new gun. Screw-on chokes are not universal; you must match the chokes to the specific ones designed to fit your gun.

However, many older shotguns have fixed or adjustable chokes. A fixed choke is just that, it cannot be adjusted or unscrewed. Double barrel and side-by-side shotguns with fixed chokes often have a different size choke for each barrel, for example a modified choke and a full choke, to improve their versatility. Adjustable choke shotguns can be adjusted by tightening or loosening a fitting at the end of the barrel. While this style of choke was popular in decades past, it has fallen out of favor with hunters for a number of good reasons and is fast becoming a thing of the past.

A good way to understand shotgun chokes is to consider the average percentage of lead shot from a shell that each choke will throw in a 30” circle at 40 yards.

  • Extra Fill: +/- 75%
  • Full: +/- 70%
  • Modified: +/- 60%
  • Improved Cylinder: +/- 50%

There are three common chamber lengths for shotguns: 2 3/4″, 3″, and 3 1/2″. Most modern shotguns are designed to accept both 2 ¾” and 3”, and many accept 3 ½” as well. As a general rule of thumb, 2 ¾” carcasses are perfectly adequate for all applications down to goose and turkey. And while you can also use 2 ¾” cartridges for goose and turkey, most hunters prefer to switch to a 3” cartridge for these larger birds to get a little more oomph out of their shotgun. As for the 3 ½” shells, you just have to decide how much abuse your shoulder can take. They give you some extra buckshot and maybe a bit more range, sure, but whether or not the advantages outweigh the extra cost, recoil, and jam risk is debatable.