For many shotgunners, myself very much included, it’s the Holy Grail: that precise combination of shotgun, shotshell, shot charge, shot size, velocity, and choke that will produce the very best pattern possible for a given situation. Why mention the situation as a variable in this equation? Easy. Duck hunters want one thing, and upland bird enthusiasts another. There is desired performance for home defense and for predators, which may in some instance be one and the same.
Few shooters are as enamored by this quest as turkey hunters. I know I speak for many of my gobbler-chasing brethren, as well as myself, when I say I’ve spent hours upon hours at the bench evaluating what seems like an infinite number of possibilities: the aforementioned combinations of at least six ingredients in this recipe for shotgunning success. What am I searching for? Pattern density out to, personally, 40 to perhaps 45 yards.
NOTE: For some turkey hunters, the distance may be 50 paces, maybe further; it depends upon the individual, his equipment, and his ability – with the retained kinetic energy necessary to produce undeniably concise harvests.
Consistency. That’s what I’m looking for. A combination of all the variables, the result of which are consistent patterns. Each and every time I pull the trigger, I want to know what’s going to happen at ‘X’ yards. Consistency builds confidence, and confidence is the cornerstone of success.
As you will see, shotgunning isn’t quite as precise as, say, long-range rifle shooting, but there are just as many variables that can be fined tuned for desired performance.
Understanding what choke tubes are and how they work begins with a basic understanding of a shotshell and its components. To that end:
Hull – The case or container into which the shotshell ingredients (components) are placed. Modern hulls are plastic; however, older styles, some of which are still in use today, are made of thick paper, similar to cardboard. The base of the hull is capped with a brass base that allows it to fit securely in a chamber. It also holds the primer.
Primer – A small top-hat-shaped unit inserted into the rear (bottom) of the shotshell. Upon being stuck sharply by the firing pin, the primer explodes, shooting a flame into the powder charge, thus providing a source of ignition.
Propellant – Ignition of this granular explosive compound by the primer results in a controlled explosion within the shell. Rapidly expanding gases as a result of this explosion force the shot charge down the barrel and out the muzzle.
Wad / Shot Cup – A heavy plastic cup that contains the shot pellets. A wad serves a few functions: it protect the barrel from damage as the shot charge travels down the bore and it also helps hold the shot charge together as it leaves the muzzle, thus creating, in conjunction with the choke tube, a tighter (smaller) pattern at longer distances.
Shot – The round pellets, usually made of lead or steel, are projectiles housed in the wad. The number of pellets inside the shotshell varies based the size of the pellets, as well as the size of the shotshell.
Crimp – The fold at the end of the shotshell that locks or holds all of the internal components in place until firing
Chokes and Choke Tubes
Chokes, whether fixed (permanent) or interchangeable, work in conjunction with the shotshell, and function quite like an adjustable nozzle on a garden hose. Turn the nozzle clockwise (this would be a Full Choke) and the water stream becomes narrow and extends some distance from your location.
Turn it counterclockwise and the stream widens, shortens, and covers a broader area (this would be an improved cylinder choke).
Interchangeable chokes, or choke tubes, are like the adjustable nozzle in that they can be swapped, one for another, thus producing wide or broad pattern (stream), as desired for any particular situation. Conversely, fixed chokes are akin to a hose without a fixed nozzle; one volume of water for any and all situations. That’s it.
The vast majority of modern shotguns on the market today feature interchangeable chokes, with the makers typically, though not always including three choke tubes – Improved, Modified, and Full – with the package.
Why these three? Because these three degrees of constriction will, with few exceptions, produce satisfactory results in situations ranging from home defense (Improved) to in-the-field turkey hunting to distances up to and perhaps beyond 40 yards when combined with modern shotshells.
You can tell if your shotgun sports a fixed choke or allows for the use of interchangeable choke tubes by examining the muzzle. Of course, remember to follow the four rules of gun safety. If you’re going to be dealing with your choke tubes, the safest way is to remove the barrel from the shotgun after ensuring it’s unloaded, twice.
Interchangeable choke tubes, being removable, will appear to be a separate piece inside the muzzle, which it is. The tube is affixed via threads cut into the inside of the barrel and the choke tube itself will include two or four notches or grooves, opposite one another. These notches correspond to studs on a choke tube wrench, typically included with the shotgun, which is used to remove and change the tubes. These visual indicators will be absent in the case of a fixed choke tube.
Conversely, when you’re shopping for choke tubes in the gun shop, most will have a list of shotgun models on the package with which the choke tubes are compatible. Some choke tubes fit flush with the muzzle, making a choke wrench essentially for swapping them out. Others will extend beyond the end of the muzzle a bit. This is the case with ported Extra Full turkey chokes, but more on those later.
NOTE: If your shotgun accepts interchangeable chokes, make sure you use one. If the shotgun is fired with no choke tube installed, not only will it pattern poorly, but the shot could tear up the threads on the inside of the barrel.
Debunking the Myths
The first step in finding the shotgunner’s Grail lies in laying to rest the myths surrounding shotguns in terms of the variables—shotshell, shot size, shot charge, velocity, and choke—as well as the shotgun itself. Here’s a few things to not believe if you hear them somewhere:
Myth 1 – All shotguns are the same.
Absolutely false. Stocks, stock fit, barrel length, sighting devices or lack thereof, fixed chokes, and interchangeable chokes all play into how a shotgun performs. Or doesn’t. Even supposedly identical shotguns can, and often do, shoot differently, even with identical ammunition. That’s why finding a “recipe” can becomes such a personal quest. Whatever make and model your shotgun might be, it will likely perform well when you find the right combination.
Myth 2 – All shotshells, even those with identical numerical components, are the same.
It’s never ceased to amaze and somewhat confound me how different shotshell manufacturers can pack hulls with essentially the same components, each resulting in a different performance—sometimes radically differently. When you get down to it, there will actually be slight differences in the components. Wads are probably the biggest culprit in terms of similar shotshells delivering very dissimilar performance downrange. Without question, the wad plays a large role in the quest for the perfect pattern.
Myth 3 – Full chokes deliver the tightest patterns.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. True, full chokes sport a smaller inside diameter than a modified or improved choke. If you break out the calipers, a full choke or choke tube will add an additional .032 to .040 inches to the inside diameter of the final muzzle inches. How many ‘final inches?’ Roughly from 1.5 to 4, depending on the physical length of the choke tube or the permanent taper, as in a fixed choke.
Conversely, a modified tube will add only .014 to .023 inches. So, in summation, a tighter, i.e. full choke will squeeze the shot charge into a denser mass, thus resulting in an improved (tighter) pattern at longer ranges, yes? Again, sometimes yes; sometimes no. Some shot charges like to be squeezed, per se, while others don’t. Experimentation is the only way to arrive at an answer. (Scroll down for a quick guide to choke names and sizes.)
Myth 4 – All “Extra Full Turkey Chokes” are created equal.
Not really. All are tight, per se, with a constriction above and beyond the bore diameter of from .040 and up. Thats where many of the similarities end. How so? Some turkey tubes, we’ll call them, are ported; some aren’t. Some feature a long forcing cone, a gradual inside taper designed to s-l-o-w-l-y compress the shot charge over a distance, whereas others are designed to compact the charge abruptly.
Other tubes have a parallel section immediately after the forcing cone; this allows the now-compressed shot charge a chance to relax, let’s say, before exiting the muzzle and heading downrange.
Myth 5 – Bigger is Always Better: “A 3.5″ shotshell will always outperform a 2.75″ shotshell.”
It’s undeniable that more #5 shot can be packed into in a 3.5-inch long shotshell than a 2.75- or 3-inch hull. However, more shot in the shell doesn’t necessarily translate into more consistently uniform patterns at 40 yards, my ultimate goal here.
Larger shotshells, e.g. 3.5-inch, generally mean increased recoil, and greater recoil often means fewer rounds fired at paper targets, thus less testing. And let’s face it; excessive recoil hurts, no matter who you are. Bottom line? More pellets can be a good thing, but at what cost? Recoil? Cost? Velocity? All come into play and must be considered before making a final decision.
Myth 6 – Bigger is Always Better, Part Two: “A #4 shot is a better choice than is #6.”
While #4 shot might have more kinetic energy at 40 yards, it likely won’t produce the pattern density I can get at the same range with #6 shot, which is more important to me for turkey hunting.
To compare. There are roughly 200 #4 pellets in a 1.5-ounce 12-gauge load; there are approximately 337 #6 pellets, or 60 percent more, in the same load. However, when it comes to energy, the same pellets post 4.0 foot-pounds and 2.5 foot-pounds, respectively, at 40 yards given a 1,350 muzzle velocity. So fewer pellets with #4, but more energy at 40.
Now, conventional (Internet) wisdom says 2.5 foot-pounds of energy are required to penetrate a turkey’s head and/or neck at 40 yards. If this is indeed true, I’d much rather put 337 pellets packing 2.5 foot-pounds out there as compared to 200.
At The Range: Selecting and Testing Chokes and Shot
Now that the myths have gone up in so much smoke, let’s take a look at the process for coming up with the ‘ultimate’ combination of shotshell, shot size, shot charge, velocity, and choke.
The truth is that it takes experimentation to find out, plain and simple. There’s going to be an initial start-up cost, above the shotgun itself. I would suggest the following, assuming a 2.75- to 3.5-inch 12-gauge is the firearm of choice:
Choosing Ammo to Test
I would recommend a selection of 2.75-, 3-, and 3.5-inch shotshells in #5 and #6 lead shot. Velocities for these loads will range from 1,100 to 1,400 fps; shot charges from 1.5 to 2 ounces.
I didn’t include any #4 shells in that list, although you’re certainly welcome to include them at your shooting bench. I feel they’re a bit large and eat up too much hull interior for what benefit(s) they provide, but that’s just me.
There are several excellent non-toxic turkey loads on the market as well, like Hevi-Shot, Federal’s Heavyweight, and the sadly discontinued Xtended Range from Winchester being just three. They’re good, but they’re a bit more pricey than lead shot loads, with makes shooting up a bunch on the range a little more than painful.
Specialized turkey shells are another option that are a little expensive to test with, but could ultimately be the right shells for your setup, like Winchester’s Long Beard XR and Federal’s 3rd Degree.
Range of Choke Tubes
Some shotguns will include a selection of choke tubes, including modified and full, while some turkey-specific models will come with only an Extra Full tube. This is a good place to start and there’s an excellent chance you won’t have to search any further. And one of those doesn’t provide the desired results, a wealth of aftermarket turkey chokes are available, and range in price from $20 for The UnderTaker (Hunter’s Specialties) to $80 for the Black Diamond Strike from Indian Creek.
Inexpensive doesn’t translate into poor performance, in this case, nor does a high price tag ensure excellent results.
And now, you shoot the at 40 yards (or whatever your goal range for consistent shot placement is), one combination after another. (Using a rest is a good idea to help minimize the impact of the shooter on the results.)
What are you looking for? Again, the goal is The Grail of consistency, uniformity and pattern density.
It’s tough to put a number on it, but I like to see a minimum of 12 pellets in the head/brain and spinal column on a turkey target. If there are 20 pellets, that’s even better. The process may require one trip to the range; maybe two. Perhaps even multiple sessions. At some point, believe me, you will hit upon a combination that both you and your shotgun are happy with, but it can takes some time.
The Fixed Choke and the Shotgun-In-The-Corner
All this talk about building the ultimate turkey gun. Sounds as though Old Reliable, the Remington Model 1100 with the fixed modified choke, or Suzie Belle, the Mossberg 500 with the 20-inch barrel and Improved tube installed that stands in the corner, filled with #00 Buck, should a night prowler decide to come a’calling, are out of the picture once turkey season rolls around.
But that’s absolutely not so, thanks in large part to modern shotshell technology, and interchangeable choke tubes.
In the case of the Remington M1100, one of today’s high-tech turkey exotics might be the answer to achieving the Grail. For example, and if you’re my father, who shoots a circa 1970 2.75-inch fixed modified M1100, the solution is 1.5-ounce Federal Mag-Shok #5s with the FliteControl wad. Winchester’s Long Beard XR is also available in a 2.75 format in #5s. So, too, are a variety of tungsten-based non-toxics from Hevi-Shot. But isn’t this particular M1100’s fixed modified choke going to prove a challenge?
Again, absolutely not, thanks to a combination of metallurgic technology, i.e. modern ultra-round non-toxic shot that flies true and hits hard, and innovative wad designs like the FliteControl from Federal.
In the case of Winchester’s Long Beard XR, the factor that makes the difference is the patented Shot-Lok resin that works to hold the shot charge together until firing, at which point it transforms into a pattern-protecting form of buffering. Regardless of the shotshell choice, the process is the same – shoot, shoot, and shoot.
Not all so-called turkey guns, regardless of their aftermarket configurations, are 50-yard turkey guns. The firearm may be capable; however, and in the heat of the moment, the shooter may be less than able.
My point is, the example of the ol’ M1100 may prove to be a 30-yard gun, or a 40-yard gun. Range time and patterning will reveal this maximum consistent distance, but it’s your responsibility to invest that time, but remember, that shotgun can only reach so far. It’s like my father, an artillery captain in Vietnam in 1965-66, said regarding his six 105mm howitzers. “I have seven miles. Every gun, no matter how big, has its limitations.”
As for the home defense Mossberg M500, of which there are many, it’s 75 percent a turkey gun as it sits. I’d suggest swapping the Improved tube for a Full, Extra Full, or any of a dozen aftermarket tubes, and the #00 Buck for a selection of 2.75- and 3-inch traditional turkey shotshells in #5 and #6 shot, and – Here we go again! – spend time in front of multitudinous pattern targets at the range and see what it likes best.
And again, to perform the same experiment for a home-defense application, try a number of different loads and chokes at closer ranges of about 10 yards. You won’t see too much variation, as the pattern won’t open up much at that range, but you might be surprised what you find and how much different choke tubes can change the performance of a simple 2.75″ 00 Buck load.
Turkey Gear and Recoil Reduction
It’s a fact; turkey guns can hurt. And typically, pain, regardless of the source, isn’t enjoyable. Lightweight shotguns, high velocity ammunition, and magnum-length, high velocity shotshells can combine to create what’s known in shooting circles as an unpleasant situation. And if you’re afraid of a gun’s kick, you aren’t going to shoot it well. But is there a remedy for the recoil? Actually, there are a few things you can do:
- Use a Lead Sled at the Range – This will save you so much pain when it comes to putting in the range time to find the right shotgun choke and ammo combo. A Lead Sled or similiar shooting rest is designed to take the place of your shoulder and absorb nearly all the recoil when the gun is fired. Additionally, it keeps the gun nice and steady so you know your results are from the gun, choke, and ammo, and not from the shooter.
Use of a recoil absorbing rest is also a great way to see if those 3.5-inch magnums are worth the recoil. After all, most turkey hunters shoot one or two rounds afield each season (and somehow the recoil doesn’t sting so much when you’re actually shooting at a real target); however, they’ll shoot two dozen or more on the range in preparation—and a device like a lead sled lets them do that.
- Shoot a smaller shotgun – I killed dozens of gobblers with a Remington Model 870 Youth Model 20-gauge topped with a generic Red Dot and filled with 3-inch Winchester Xtended Range #5s. Recoil was, to me, insignificant, both at the range and in the field.
Shoot a heavier shotgun – Weight soaks up recoil; thus, shooting a heavier shotgun will help downplay felt recoil. Combine weight with a gas operating system, itself decreasing recoil, and ‘kick’ becomes more manageable. Just keep in mind you have to carry and maneuver the gun in the field, so the recoil mitigation from extra weight, at a point, might not be worth it.
Shoot smaller shotshells – 3.5-inch shotshells aren’t necessary when it comes to killing longbeards. Smaller shotshells – 2.75- and 3-inch – pack less punch at both ends, but lack nothing in terms of on-target performance.
Shoot conventional velocity shotshells – High- and hyper-velocity shotshells, like 3.5-inch hulls, aren’t necessary for grounding gobblers either. I killed many a tom with Federal’s Old School 2-ounce charges of copper-plated #5s moving at a snail’s pace of 1,200 fps.
Install a recoil reducing device – Ported barrels and ported choke tubes help some, and there are many affordable aftermarket recoil pads, like KICK-EEZ, and Limbsaver that can help cut down on the sharpness of your shotgun’s kick.
An internal recoil reduction system installed in the stock can also help. Some turkey guns come with such stocks installed, while in the case of a Mossberg 500 or Remington 870, you can easily buy and install a recoil-reducing aftermarket stock. Even something like a PAST padded shooting pad worn on your shoulder can reduce felt recoil.
Quick Guide to Choke Names, Constriction, and Uses
Below is a quick guide so you know what those choke and choke tube names mean in the gun shop.
It should be noted that a traditional 12-gauge barrel has an inside diameter of 0.73 inches. Chokes are determined or categorized by (1) the deviation or constriction measured in inches from 0.73” and/or the number of shot pellets falling within a 30” circle at 40 yards measured as a percentage of the total pellets in the particular shot charge, e.g. 100 inside/200 total count, or 50 percent…and hence this handy guide:
|Choke Name||Constriction||Pellets on Target at 40 Yards||Uses|
|Cylinder or Cylinder Bore||0.00″||30-35%||Home defense shotguns; Foster-style slugs|
|Improved||0.10″||40-45%||Home defense; upland birds in heavy cover; trap/skeet; waterfowl over decoys with steel|
|Modified||0.20″||50-55%||All-round choice; trap/skeet; waterfowl with steel non-toxics; upland birds in all types of cover|
|Full||0.35″||70-75%||Late season upland birds, e.g. pheasants and prairie grouse; turkeys with high-tech ammunition, e.g. Winchester’s Long Beard XR; buckshot for deer; pass-shooting waterfowl|
|Extra Full||0.40+”||75%+||Turkeys with lead or softer non-toxics; not advised for steel shot|