These four things many shooters get wrong about choke can’t hurt you, but they do hurt your chances of hitting what you shoot at. Because few people ever bother to take time to understand what different choke sizes really do to their patterns, millions of clays and gamebirds fly unscathed every year. As a clays coach for a high-school team, I see it happen all the time.
First, some basics: Choke, either an interchangeable tube or a permanent constriction at the end of the gun barrel, shapes the shot charge as it leaves the muzzle. That affects the size and density of the pattern. Think of choke as those adjustable garden hose nozzles that open up to give you a wide spray of water, or tighten down to give you a solid stream. That’s roughly how choke works.
Chokes themselves are referred to both by “points of constriction” measured in thousandths of an inch (the more the constriction, the tighter the pattern), and by name. From least constriction to most, the most common choke types are:
Almost every modern shotgun now comes with at least one and as many as five or six interchangeable choke tubes. There’s a burgeoning aftermarket choke industry, too. Interchangeable chokes let you adjust your shotgun pattern to the optimum spread, from in-your-face shots to the long pokes.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the day—meaning until the early 1980s— most shotguns had their choke integrally bored into the barrel. You were stuck with the choke the gun came with, and if you wanted a different choke, you bought an extra barrel. In fact, choke tubes were originally marketed as “a pocketful of extra barrels.” We are lucky now that a $20 choke tube can accomplish what it once took a $200 barrel to do: instantly convert your shotgun from a trap gun to a skeet gun to a hunting gun.
But those multiple choke tubes can become a hindrance to better shooting if…
1. You Change Chokes Instead of Changing Ammo
Factors besides choke affect your pattern spread. Changing ammunition can change patterns even if you never switch chokes. Larger shot patterns more tightly than smaller shot, while increasing velocity usually causes patterns to open up. Steel shot tends to give tighter patterns in a given choke than lead.
Once you start changing ammo and chokes, you can change how your gun shoots dramatically. The only way to know what your choke and load is doing is to pattern your gun. Shoot it at a 3×3-foot sheet of blank paper at the distance you plan to shoot, then looking at the distribution of pellets. Note that the “evenly distributed” pattern you hear about is a myth. All patterns have gaps in them, all patterns are denser in the center than around the edges; and, like snowflakes, no two patterns are alike.
2. You Use Too Much Choke
Most people assume the tightest choke is the best. In fact, most makeable shots are taken inside 30 yards, which is within range of an open choke like Improved Cylinder. The extra pattern spread of an open choke gives you greater margin for error. A study of dove hunters by Texas Parks and Wildlife showed that most hunters had difficulty hitting past 30 yards, yet the majority used Modified or Full chokes—suitable for longer range. Hunters choosing Improved Cylinder hit a higher percentage of doves.
Extra pattern spread can definitely help you hit targets. For instance, I have had waterfowl loads fired through a tight choke put all their pellets into a 15 or 16 inch-diameter clump at 15 or 20 yards. Switching to a more open choke and a different load gave me a 20- to 25-inch pattern. Do the math, and you’ll see that’s a huge difference in terms of square inches, offering about twice as much pattern area to hit with.
3. You Think Changing Chokes Will Solve Shooting Problems
While choosing the right choke can definitely help you, choke is not the most important factor in hitting a target. As sporting clays shooter and teacher Andy Duffy likes to say, “Choke gains you inches, and most people miss by feet.” Duffy’s point is that good shooting technique is much more important than choke.
Even so, many shooters become far too obsessed with the choke they have in their gun, blaming good and bad performances on their choice of choke. Often I have asked kids on the clays team I coach why they had a bad shoot, and they will say something like “I was doing really well with Full choke and I switched to Modified and my score went way down.” In a game like trap, choke might cost you a target out of two or three hundred. And it gets worse: Choke can be a hindrance to your performance if you are thinking and worrying too much about it, because thinking and worrying will make you miss.
4. You Don’t Take Care of Your Choke Tubes
Choke tubes, for all their advantages, have one drawback over old fixed chokes: you have to take care of them. They can be fragile if dropped. If you dent a tube out of round, don’t use it. It could potentially snag the wad in the barrel, leading to a dangerous obstruction. Replace it or have a gunsmith fix it.
Tubes need to be kept snug, but not cranked down tight, into your barrel. Tubes do get a loose during shooting, and if one gets too loose, it can fly out of the barrel along with the shot charge, most likely damaging the barrel threads in the process. I have only seen one tube blasted downrange, but it happened to a man using a $10,000 target gun, and that flying tube made for a very expensive repair.
If you screw tubes in too tightly and don’t remove them for cleaning every once in a while, you risk getting a tube stuck in the gun. Most stuck tubes will come out, but some have to be removed by a gunsmith. It can be an expensive repair, costing a couple of hundred dollars and destroying the tube. Sometimes it can’t be done. I have a trap gun I use as a loaner for SCTP kids with a choke tube rusted solidly in place, probably as a result of my failing to take the tube out and clean it after a rainy shoot. My gunsmith says it won’t come out without damaging the barrel, so my choke tubed gun is now an anachronism: a fixed-choke gun.
When you clean your gun, take the tube out and use a bronze or nylon brush on the tube and barrel threads. Clean them, lightly grease the tube (Grease stays put. Oil migrates) and snug it back into the gun. A little bit of care is a small price to pay for the versatility of a gun with interchangeable chokes.