My first serious shotgun was a Winchester Model 12 in 16-gauge with a full choke barrel. I know this because it says so right on the barrel. I hunted squirrels, dove, quail, and rabbits with that gun when I was young. Mine was the only full choke in the quail hunting parties with the rest of the guns being improved cylinder or modified, or a combination of the two if it was a double-barrel.
My lack of success in downing quails was explained to me by my uncles and cousins as being the gun’s fault. Unfortunately, I was stuck hunting quail with a duck gun, but I did better at dove because my full choke could reach out and get them as they flew high over a field. I still have the gun, and I now know the best times to use it.
We were far from rich, and the only reason I had a gun at all was it had been passed down to me by a grandfather who no longer hunted. During my senior year in high school, I inherited a shotgun from my other grandfather. That shotgun was a double-barrel, right for quail with its improved and modified choke barrels. I still didn’t get much better at bringing home quail for dinner.
This was almost my entire education on chokes as a kid. The exception came from one of my uncles who had a Remington Model 11 with a poly choke. With it, he was able to select the choke type he wanted by rotating the choke which was attached to the end of his barrel. (BTW, a Remington Model 11 is the same gun as the Browning A5.)
One of my regular quail hunting companions was so good, the rest of us almost hated to hunt with him. He owned the dogs, though, so we pretty much had to. He would invariably end the day with the limit of birds while the rest of us were lucky to get five or six birds apiece. Years down the road, I learned his Browning A5 was a cylinder bore gun that shot a significantly wider pattern than the guns the rest of us had.
There are three common bird hunting chokes: Full choke for ducks, geese, and turkey and Improved, Modified and sometimes Cylinder bore for dove and quail. More recently, I’ve learned about chokes used in tactical shotguns. I bought a .410 Over/Under that came with a package of notched chokes. I planned to shoot skeet with the gun, so I wanted to know how to identify the chokes and which ones to use. This set me off on a research project, the results of which are in this article.
How Shotgun Chokes Work
Shotgun chokes constrict the shot as it exits the barrel to make the shot pattern tighter than it would be if there was no choke used. The reason for tightening the pattern is the tighter your choke, the further your pattern will hold as it travels.
Many shotguns are sold with fixed choke barrels, such as my 16-gauge Winchester Model 12, but there are also multi-choke shotguns. A multi-choke gun provides more flexibility to accommodate different shooting situations. Multi-choke guns normally come with a set of choke tubes in the standard sizes, plus a choke wrench to get them in and out.
A shotgun with removable choke tubes is typically sold with four different chokes, but additional special purpose chokes can be purchased. Removable choke tubes can be internal to the barrel requiring a choke tube wrench for installation and removal. Likewise, the chokes may be external, adding a little length to the barrel. External chokes can normally be tightened or loosened by hand.
Although the same name is used, regardless of the bore of the gun, the actual constriction amount does differ. For example, on a 12-gauge shotgun, the constriction to achieve full choke would be 0.040″ whereas on a 20-gauge shotgun, it would be 0.027″. Regardless of the actual constriction measurement across the different bores, they are all looking to achieve the same thing, which is a specific percentage of the shot within a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. The table below shows the common choke sizes and their target percentage of shot in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards.
Choke Tube Chart
|Choke Size||Shot in 30” Circle at 40 yds.|
There are additional choke tubes, some used for skeet and trap, some used for steel shot, and others for tactical use. I’m not going to get to them all, because there are a number of custom choke makers who make chokes for tactical use and who improve on the existing choke sizes by creating internal coil patterns that spin the shot differently. The ones I know about that can be measured are:
|Choke Size||Shot in 30” Circle at 40 yds.|
|Extra Full Trap||85%|
Choke markings are used to identify different choke tubes. There are several methods of identifying which choke is which, the most common being notches. Some brands of chokes use abbreviations marked on the choke. Here are the most common notch markings. These will be on the rim of the tube:
There are chokes made for special purposes such as for use with steel shot or for hunting ducks, geese, or turkey. There are also custom chokes made for law enforcement that have tactical uses. These may be marked with initials on the choke to identify them. If purchasing a specialty choke, you may see some of these designations:
|LONG||Tight constriction used for longer ranges, mostly steel shot|
|MED||Medium constriction for medium ranges with steel shot|
|CLOSE||Very open used for short range with steel shot|
|TNT||Timber and Teal (designed to spin shot)|
Which Choke Should You Use?
For lead shot, the following are accepted guidelines regarding which choke can be expected to give you the best results:
- For targets at 40+ yards or further, use a Full Choke
- For targets under 40 yards, use Improved Modified
- For targets up to 35 yards, use Modified
- For targets up to 30 yards, use Improved Cylinder
- For targets less than 25 yards, use Improved Cylinder
Let’s put that into some practical applications.
Shotgun Chokes for Hunting
If you’re hunting quail or pheasant where you’re walking up to the birds, they’re going to be relatively close, so a combination of Improved Cylinder and Modified would be the ticket. As the bird is flying away from you, the Improved Cylinder would be the one on the barrel you fire first followed by the Modified Cylinder which will give you a little more range as the bird flies farther away.
If you’re hunting dove where the birds are coming toward you, you want the tighter choke on the barrel that fires first, and the most open choke on the barrel that fires second when the bird is closer to you. I guess that assumes the bird keeps coming, because you missed so far on the first shot it doesn’t feel threatened. Ducks and geese are going to be pretty far from you, generally speaking, so Full Choke is usually most appropriate.
Sporting Clays, Skeet, Trap
When shooting sporting clays, you’ll encounter a variety of targets but none that are either very close to you or extremely far away. With this in mind, an Improved and Modified setup will usually work fine with Improved on the first firing barrel and Modified on the second.
In skeet shooting, because the targets are at close range, a very open choke is normally called for. A typical setup would be Improved Cylinder or Skeet chokes in both barrels.
Trap shooting is just the opposite of skeet. The targets are moving quickly away from the shooter and are engaged much farther away; therefore, a tighter choke is required. Full and Improved Modified is a common setup for trap shooting.
Three Gun and Cowboy Action Shooting
I spoke with some regular participants in these activities and most of them used a combination of Improved Cylinder or Modified. Some used custom chokes made by well-known blacksmiths who also compete in these events.
Shotguns are used in breaching doors and clearing rooms as well as other close-quarter combat situations. There are chokes built with tabs internally or at the end that spread the shot into high and low patterns that are sometimes used in these guns. Your department armorer will most likely be aware of these chokes if you’re in that business.
Sometimes you’ll come across an older shotgun that doesn’t have any markings and you want to know the choke size for any barrels in the gun. The chart below is a pretty good guide. There’s sometimes a little deviation from the standard but not enough that you can’t tell which size the gun has.
Choke Tube Size Chart in Inches
Care and Cleaning
Choke tubes need to have the same care as the gun itself. Fouling will build up in a choke tube. Powder residue will also work its way to the outside of the choke. By removing the choke after a day of shooting and cleaning it, you can maintain the choke tube’s performance and durability. It’s a good idea to lubricate the threads before you install a choke tube. This will ease cleaning, reduce wear, and prevent your choke from seizing in the barrel. Store your chokes so the threads don’t get damaged or dirty between usage times.