One of the most misunderstood and misused pieces of equipment hunters and range shooters have is the shotgun choke tube.
We all have them, but do we really know when and how to use them most effectively?
I know from watching serious trap, skeet and sporting clay shooters at the range that they rely heavily on their choke tubes to improve their accuracy. But whether in the upland game fields, duck blinds or while sitting in the woods awaiting that incoming tom, are we getting the most out of our choke tubes? Before you say my modified choked shotgun will handle all my hunting situations, take a minute and look at these tubes and their uses afield. You might be surprised how they can add to your scores and/or game pouches.
An Illinois duck hunter by the name of Fred Kimble is credited as the unheralded inventor of the first choke tube, back in 1886. But the current system of interchangable choke tubes first appeared in 1959 in the Winchester Model 59 semi-auto 12-gauges, later known as Winchokes. Other gun manufacturers and aftermarket companies introduced their own lines of shotgun choke tubes, and since then, they’ve become considerably more complicated. But that’s good.
How good are your choke tubes? To determine this, the first thing that you should do now or when you buy a shotgun with factory choke tubes is go to the range and shoot a few rounds through each of the choke tubes that came with the gun. Just remember, every shotgun shoots differently, and that’s also true with the choke tubes. There are two things to learn at the range — where the shot load hits when you hold dead center on the target and the number of pellets in the “kill zone.”
To do this, put a piece of paper measuring around 40 inches square out at 40 yards and use No. 6 shot, which has about 225 pellets. As you shoot each choke tube, you’ll notice how the pellet pattern changes, depending upon which choke you use.
Be sure to note where the shot pattern hits — right, left, high, low or right on. This will make a difference afield. If you have too much variance from your center aiming point, I suggest you try a different brand (aftermarket) choke rather than having to adjust your aiming point in a hunting or target shooting situation.
For example, if the gun’s pattern is low left, when that mallard is flying overhead, you not only have to lead it, but also aim high right. Try remembering to do all that when a mallard comes zipping by you at first light. That’s too much to think about, and there’s too much opportunity for error. I’ve had several shotguns, and first thing I’ve done was try a new choke tube. Two out of the three times I had problems, a new choke tube solved them. For the other, I replaced the gun.
For hunting, most shooters should be looking for a pattern that puts 70 percent of the shot pellets in a 30-inch circle at the yardage they expect to shoot with that particular choke. Once you see the percentage of shot inside the circle drops below 65, you’ve exceeded the maximum effective range of a choke/load combination. It only takes one pellet in the head or spine to get your bird, but I also know it’s possible for all pellets to miss a bird’s head/spine, and when that happens, enough pellets hitting the body will also bring it down. So keep this rule mind.
Generally speaking, a good choke tube should allow you to accomplish this 70 percent rule. The extra full choke should achieve this at 45 yards; the full at 40 yards; the modified at 35 yards; the improved cylinder at 30 yards, and the cylinder at 25 yards. Now, these are with the basic factory-included choke tubes, but there are a number from the aftermarket that offer in-between models. Your choice will depend on the target and a trial-and- error method. You’ll be surprised at just how much using these other tubes can improve your accuracy and effectiveness.
On my recent pheasant hunt in South Dakota, I had six different choke tubes with me for my 12-gauge Beretta over/under. At the suggestion of the outfitter, I started out with a skeet choke in my bottom barrel, which I set for my first shot, and an improved modified for my second shot in the top barrel. Most of the pheasants flushed 15 to 20 yards from me, and therefore, the skeet pattern worked perfectly. But on more than one occasion when I missed my first shot and had to fire a second at a longer distance, the improved modified did the job.
My one exception to this rule is the choice of a turkey choke tube. The full choke tube that came with with my 12-gauge Benelli Super Black Eagle II shot better than 70 percent at a distance of 45 yards right out of the box, but I wanted more. When I’m matching wits with a wise old Tom, I prefer a tighter pattern, and that’s why I opted to use a Kick’s Gobblin’ Thunder extended, ported choke tube with a .670 constriction. This is ideal for my 31⁄2-inch No. 4 shot turkey loads, and gives me a tighter and more consistent shot pattern along with the ability to reach out there a little farther if I have to.
As a general rule, extended choke tubes have several distinct advantages over internal screw-in tubes. More importantly, the added length outside the barrel lets the constriction taper over a longer distance, which in turn improves the pellet pattern consistency and density. And if the tube is ported, it’ll reduce recoil.
So if you’re satisfied with your shotgun’s performance in the field, on the water and/or at the range, then there may be no need for you to explore a new choke tube system. However, if you feel there is definitely room for improvement and have determined this based on pattern testing at the range, then by all means visit your local gun shop and discuss your choke tube needs with them.