There aren’t many gun products that offer drastically improved performance without breaking the bank. One could argue that shotgun choke tubes are one of them.
“A choke is one of the easiest and cheapest things you can change on a shotgun to improve effectiveness,” said MeatEater waterfowl guru Sean Weaver.
In simple terms, shotgun chokes reduce the diameter of the gun’s barrel to adjust the shot pattern and extend the effective range. In some situations you may want a wider pattern, but Weaver encourages hunters to use as narrow a choke as possible.
“I would love to see more hunters shooting a tighter choke. Sometimes they’re going to smell, but they’re also going to end up with more stone-cold dead birds in the bag,” Weaver said. Thousands of birds are injured and lost each year, in part because hunters do not use the proper chokes.
What is a choke on a shotgun?
A shotgun choke is the small metal tube that threads onto the end of the barrel. Your shotgun probably came with one and a tool to remove it. There are a variety of choke sizes that restrict the caliber of a shotgun to a greater or lesser degree.
“Cylinder” chokes do not restrict the inside diameter at all. “Full” chokes constrict the inside diameter by approximately 0.035 inches. Between cylinder and full, “improved cylinder” chokes restrict diameter to about 0.010 inches, “modified” restricts to about 0.020 inches, and “improved modified” restricts to about 0.025 inches.
Between, above, and below these choke variations are additional choke sizes that further restrict (or sometimes expand) the hole diameters.
Changing the diameter of a shotgun’s bore changes the “pattern” of the shotgun’s ammunition. “The tighter the choke, the denser the pattern,” Weatherby’s Zach Hein told MeatEater.
A dense BB pattern will be more effective at a longer range because the cloud of shots will stick together longer. A wider pattern requires less precision and is ideal for scenarios where birds are close, erratic and fast.
Generally speaking, a cylinder choke will produce 40 inches at 25 yards, an improved cylinder will produce 40 inches at 30 yards, a modified one will produce that distance at 35 yards, and a full choke will do the same at 40 yards. yards. While hunters new to the field can benefit from a modified barrel choke, Weaver never shoots anything wider than a modified one in the field. For a quality choke, he recommends Carlson Chokes and Pattern Master.
The size of choke you choose depends on the type of game you are hunting. Turkey hunters often use a full choke (or an extended full choke like the one on this Weatherby item), waterfowl hunters generally opt for a modified cylinder, and upland fowl hunters often opt for an improved cylinder .
Everything in the above section is generally true, and if you’re just getting into shotgun hunting, it’s a good place to start. But if you dig a little deeper, things start to get a bit complicated.
First, different shotguns can produce different patterns even with the same choke and trigger because shotgun manufacturers don’t use the same bore diameters, Hein explained. If a 12 gauge bore starts at 0.724 inches, a modified choke will reduce it to 0.704 inches. But if it starts at 0.730 inches, a mod will bring it down to 0.710 inches.
Believe it or not, 0.006 inches is enough to change the shot pattern and affect the result. “Knowing your particular shotgun, especially the shells you’re shooting, is really important,” Hein said.
To make matters worse, different brands of the same type of choke can work differently even on the same gun and with the same shot. A choke must have enough space after constriction to allow the balls to “seat” (about an inch for a 12 gauge). If the choke is not long enough, the patterns will be inconsistent or produce gaps.
“You’ll find that a choke tends to throw a little high, or a little to the side, or for whatever reason it doesn’t keep a nice, tight pattern,” Weaver said.
Different types of shots can also affect shooting patterns. Lead, steel, bismuth, and tungsten all react differently when choked, so it’s important to make sure your choke can accommodate the type of shot you’re using.
One final complication: different choke and shotgun manufacturers use different choke “patterns”. Hein compared the neck-in patterns with thread pitches in screws. Weatherby uses a variety of choke patterns on his shotguns, and your gun’s owner’s manual should list the pattern he’s looking for.
Testing, testing, testing
Changing even one variable in your build, be it weapon, shot, or choke, can affect your shot pattern, but there’s only one way to know for sure.
“Everyone needs to get into the habit of designing their shotguns,” Weaver said. “No one fires a rifle without aiming it.”
“Modeling” a shotgun is not difficult. As with rifle aim, be sure to shoot from a stable rest. Pattern boards are available online or you can make your own from cardboard or butcher paper (just make sure you have at least 40 inches of board).
You can shoot from whatever distance makes the most sense, but Hein and Weaver recommended 30-40 yards. At that distance, you’ll know pretty well what your shot is doing.
Shoot the center of the board with the shotgun, projectiles, and choke you plan to use to hunt. Weaver said that if he sees holes in the pattern larger than a melon, he “has a problem.” He tries out different chokes and projectiles until he sees a nice solid shot pattern right in the middle of his pattern board.
Designing a shotgun may sound tedious, but it is crucial to a successful and ethical hunt. Weaver recalled a choke that caused the lug to invert and not open when it came out of the barrel. At 30 yards, the cue was traveling fast enough to put a hole in the paper.
Hein also noted that shotgun manufacturers have different standards for regulating shotguns. Some time their guns to hit dead center every time. Others, well, not so much.
You will also notice during the test that quality shotgun shells are a must. Some of our favorites are Federal’s Bismuth for highlands, 3rd Degree with HEAVYWEIGHT TSS for turkeys, and Black Cloud for waterfowl. These shells will deliver consistent patterns every time, whether you’re out in the field or in the field.
Why chokes matter
Many hunters do well without thinking too much about chokes or shooting patterns. But they could do even better and help wildlife conservation in the process.
Both Hein and Weaver agreed that trying out different shotgun chokes on paper increases confidence and leads to more successful hunts. If you know for sure that your gun produces a tight shot pattern at 30 yards, you’ll pull the trigger with more confidence when a mallard approaches that distance. If you miss, you’ll also know it’s not the weapon’s fault.
It’s tempting to make up for those shortcomings by using a wider choke, but Weaver argues that you’re not doing yourself—or the ducks—any favors.
Estimates vary, but most researchers agree that “crippling loss” accounts for between 20% and 40% of all ducks hit by gunshots. These ducks get hit with a few BBs, but not enough to stop them in their tracks. They fly over the next hill and never recover.
“That’s a disgusting number,” Weaver said.
Some of that loss is due to poor shot selection, but sometimes it’s due to poor choke selection. That’s why Weaver always recommends using as tight a choke as possible.
“Firing a tight choke is an all-or-nothing proposition of killing the dead bird or living to see another day,” Weaver said. “If spending $60 on a choke means a lot more mallards come down the flyway each year, that sounds like an easy proposition to me.”