How to Choose the Right Chokes

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Video choke selection for sporting clays

How to Choose the Right Chokes Chokes play a key role in getting the best out of your sporting shotgun, so it is important to make the correct choice. Simon Rood, former Gun Room Manager for William Evans in London, explains how to go about it.

The invention of choke and its subsequent development in the late 19th Century was perhaps the greatest advance in the history of the shotgun, because extending the effective range made it into the efficient sporting device we know today.

When considering ‘choke’ we tend just to think of the degree of constriction of the barrel at the muzzle, which nominally it is, but not all chokes are the same. They differ in type, such as whether they are conventional or retro, in terms of length and therefore the distance over which the shot is constricted, and also whether they form part of a multi-choke system, which also differ in terms of being internal (invisible) or external.

The advent of the multi-choke represented another major step forward, giving sportsmen the ability to tailor the effective shot pattern to the quarry and shooting environment. But, whether you are purchasing a new gun with fixed or multi-chokes, knowing which choke to select can be a key factor in shooting well.

Whilst many sportsmen spend endless hours thinking about the ‘right’ chokes to use, even experienced shots often don’t fully understand the subject or appreciate that it is not a panacea for success. What I would say is that the process should not be over-complicated: eighty-plus percent of shooting is ‘mental’ so if you are consistently missing targets it is unlikely that the chokes are entirely to blame and your time would probably be better spent considering other causes.

The standard shotgun for game shooting has long been a side-by-side 12 bore with 28″-barrels and ¼ choke in the right, ½ in the left, but times are changing. Even side by sides are now available with multi-chokes and with countless options in terms of bore size, barrel length and cartridges to take into account the choice of chokes can appear daunting.

In practice, it is somewhat simpler. For most the 12-bore remains the most appropriate, not least because it is the most versatile in coping with a wide range of quarry, from grouse to geese, but because it offers the widest availability of cartridges. Consequently, that is what we will focus on in this article.

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My preference is for ‘fixed’ chokes as this is one less ‘variable’ to think about when out in the field. Where the specification includes fixed chokes I suggest at least starting off with tighter chokes as you can always take metal out at a later stage but it is significantly more difficult to put it back. Half-choke is very under-rated, being tight enough for all but the most extreme situations, yet not too tight for ‘normal’ range shooting.

The question of multi-chokes is increasingly common as systems have become more affordable and ‘discrete’. These do have an obvious advantage in allowing the more experienced shot to tailor the level of constriction to the type of shooting – for example, they may shoot grouse in August and September, then high pheasants from October. However, unless you fully understand the benefits and capabilities of each choke this feature is likely just make shooting more complex and ultimately detract from your enjoyment of the sport.

Currently, about 40% of the shotguns which we sell are equipped with multi-chokes, the majority being fitted to over-and-under models, with about 20% of side-by-side guns being so equipped. But how does one go about making the right choice?

MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE

The starting point is to appreciate what choke is and what it does. Simply put, choke is the amount of constriction in the barrel at the muzzle, which significantly affects the size of the effective shot pattern and the distribution of the shot pellets within it. The more constriction (choke) in the barrel generally the tighter the pattern in terms of size and pellet density, but this is not always the case.

A choke is classified by the number of pellets, calculated as a percentage of the total number in the cartridge, which fall in a 30″ circle, the effective pattern, at a distance of 40 yards from the muzzle. In the case of a 12-bore, which has a nominal diameter of 0.729″, with no choke (True Cylinder) the effective pattern will be less than 20 yards. ‘Skeet’ which provides a constriction of 0.005″ increases that distance to around 22 yards, while Quarter or Improved Cylinder (IC) has a 0.010″ constriction and generates the effective pattern at 25 yards. The respective figures for Light Modified (0.015″ constriction) is 30 yards, for Half/Modified (0.020″) 32.5 yards, Improved Modified (0.025″) 35 yards, ¾ /Light Full (0.030″) 37.5 yards, Full (0.35″) 40+ yards and the same for Extra Full (0.040”).

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A rough guide is to use Skeet chokes for a target that is less than 25 yards away, ¼ choke for 25-yard targets, ½ choke at 30 yards, ¾ choke at up to 35 yards and Full for anything at 40 yards or more.

In addition to the degree of constriction, or choke, many other factors impact on pattern size and quality, from bore size, the type and hardness of the shot in the cartridge to atmospheric conditions. No two days will be exactly the same, but for practical purposes you should evaluate your shotgun with a range of different cartridge brands and shot sizes to see what works best. If you have multi-chokes then see how the different options affect the size and quality of the patterns.

The ideal way to check how your gun performs is on a proper pattern plate, generally at a range of 40 yards, but tailor this to the distance at which you are most likely to be shooting.

The ideal pattern is characterised by an even distribution of shot across a central 30″ circle and the choke determined by the percentage of pellets falling inside the circle at 40 yards. For a True Cylinder this level would be 30%-40%, Improved Cylinder (IC) 50%, Quarter/Improved 55%, Half/Modified 60%, Three-Quarter/Improved Modified 65% and Full 70%-75%, with anything over that considered Extra Full.

If the pattern is too tight then your chances of hitting the target are likely to be reduced and if it is too open then it may be possible for it to fly through the shot pattern without being hit. The starting point is therefore to assess the likely range at which you will be shooting and choose a degree of choke that will ensure that there are no holes in the pattern which are large enough for the target, be it clay or feathered, to fly through.

Much will depend on the type of shooting you have in mind and personal preference. Most fixed choke guns will be over-choked as standard, simply because it gives flexibility in terms of reduced the amount of choke by taking metal out. Most shotguns will also have different chokes in each barrel, with the right barrel of a side-by-side or lower barrel of an over-and-under having least choke, but that is not always the case.

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Unless you are shooting targets that are particularly close, say less than 25 yards, open chokes (cylinder or improved) are generally not to be recommended. For most purposes a combination of ¼ and ½ choke will probably suffice and ½ /full may be preferable for general use, providing the ability to deal with longer range targets without too many compromising at short-range. The tighter chokes tend to ‘kill’ the target, whether clay or feathered, more cleanly and thereby increase confidence.

For really high targets many find that the combination of ¾ / ¾ or full / full chokes to be the most effective, especially when using longer barrels which have the effect of slightly increasing shot velocity. However, chokes which are too tight may result in ‘blown’ patterns, which are uneven and ineffective. Also bear in mind that if using cartridges containing steel shot these should only be used with a maximum of half choke. This is due to the fact that steel does not deform nearly as much as lead and will significantly increase pressure created within the barrel, potentially damaging a heavily choked gun and injuring the shooter.

Another key point to remember is that many modern cartridges, especially those with plastic wads which ‘cup’ the shot to minimise the pellets scuffing against the bores, produce tighter, more even patterns, which may significantly reduce the amount of choke required for a given target.

This is a brief overview of a subject which can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it. Most people over-complicate matters to the detriment of their shooting performance. My advice would be to experiment at the pattern plate, possible seek expert advice to help you assess pattern quality, choose one or two choke combinations that cover most of the shooting situations you are likely to encounter, and be consistent in terms of your cartridge choice as this is another variable to think about. With that done, forget about chokes and cartridges, focusing instead on enjoying your chosen sport.

Shop chokes and choke gauges.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>