What Is Choke And How Much Of It Do I Need In My Shotgun?

If you could travel back to the 1860s, the shotguns you would find hunters using wouldn't be that different from what we use today. They would still have barrels and a stock. And they would still have hammers and triggers. But almost all would lack a feature we consider essential today: Choke.

Choke is constriction built into the final few inches of a shotgun's barrel. Unlike rifles, which fire single bullets, shotguns fire clouds of shot. Choke adjusts this cloud to be either very diffused, very concentrated, or somewhere in between. In 1866, an American gunsmith and British gunmaker—Sylvester Roper and W. R. Pape—filed patents for choke designs. Roper's patent was filed first and today he's credited as the inventor of choke.

Impacting Pattern

A shotgun barrel is basically a pipe. On one end is the chamber, at the other is the muzzle. The chamber is where you insert the shell; the muzzle is where shot leaves the gun. There are three key things between the chamber and the muzzle: The forcing cone, the bore, and the choke.

When you fire a shotgun, the shell releases a column of shot into the forcing cone. As this shot column proceeds forward, it moves into the bore and then through the choke and out the muzzle. The internal diameter of the bore and the choke differ, with the choke being tighter. This restriction squeezes the shot column and affects the pattern it produces.

Patterns are flat, 30” circles which show how shot pellets are concentrated at different distances from a gun. For a pattern to kill a bird or break targets, it must contain a certain number of pellets at various ranges.

Each choke measurements corresponds to the amount of shot the barrel places in a pattern at 40 yards.

  • Cylinder: 30% - 40%
  • Improved Cylinder: 50%
  • Light Modified: 55%
  • Modified: 60%
  • Improved Modified: 65%
  • Full: 70% - 75%
  • Extra full: 76% or more

For 12 gauge shotguns shooting standard loads, here's a summary of different chokes and their effectiveness:

  • Cylinder: Restriction, zero. Effective range, under 20 yards
  • Improved Cylinder: Restriction, .010”. Effective range, 25 yards
  • Light Modified: Restriction, .015”. Effective range, 30 yards
  • Modified: Restriction, .020”. Effective range, just over 30 yards
  • Improved Modified: Restriction, .025”. Effective range, 35 yards
  • Full: Restriction, .035”. Effective range, 40 yards +
  • Extra Full: Restriction, .040”. Effective range, 40 yards ++

What does this all mean? Basically, the more choke a barrel has, the further it can be relied upon it to kill game and break targets.

Chokes For The Uplands

Most upland hunting is a close-range game, especially if you're in alder thickets, poplar stands or shelterbelts. In these covers, most shots will be between 15 to 25 yards. If your game gets farther out, you're chances of having a clear shot diminish a lot.

For shooting like this, all you need is a little choke. Improved Cylinder is plenty. If you're shooting a double, Improved Cylinder and Modified is an ideal set up.

Choke For Waterfowl

Like in the uplands, most duck hunting happens within 30 yards, especially if you're jump shooting or using decoys. For these situations, Improved Cylinder is fine. If you're going after Canada Geese, go with Modified instead. If you're using a double, Improved Cylinder and Modified will do it all.

For pass shooting--especially geese--you'll want to tighten things up. Improved Modified is a good, all-around choice. If you're shooting a double, Improved Modified and Full will give you the reach and back up you need to drop distant, fast moving birds.

One thing to keep in mind: Steel shot patterns tighter than lead. So, if you're shooting steel though a barrel choked Improved Cylinder, your patterns probably look like they're coming out of a barrel choked Modified.

Can You Have Too Much Choke?

Absolutely. In fact, many shooters use too much choke. Instead of helping them hit more targets, it causes more misses.

Remember, choke concentrates your shot and it puts more pellets in a 30” circle. Patterns that are evenly dispersed throughout this 30” circle give you a broad area to hit a bird or bust a clay. Tightly concentrated patterns give you a smaller area to hit your target.

It doesn't take a lot of lead to down game birds like quail, grouse, and chukars. A couple pellets is plenty. So, to shoot these game birds with success, a wider pattern is better. Improve Cylinder is fine. Pheasants, bigger ducks, and geese are tougher birds to put down, but don't think you need Full or Extra Full chokes for success. In most instances, Modified is more than enough.

Shooting Skills Still Matter

Like swinging a golf club or a tennis racket, shooting a shotgun well has more to with the person doing it than the firearm being used. While choke can help you hit more targets or down more game, it can't make you a better shooter. Even though screw-in chokes are one of the greatest benefits of modern shotguns, swapping them in and out all the time isn't necessary.

Instead, try to do most of your shooting with one all-around choke, like Improved Cylinder or Improved Cylinder & Modified. Then focus your effort on mounting your gun and placing your pattern on your target. If you do those two things right, you'll shoot well--regardless of how much choke is in your barrel.

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