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Don't Choke Over Chokes

by Joel M. Vance

Perceptions of shotgun choke is just as confusing to the average hunter as the misty origins of choke itself.

What is choke, what does it do, how does it apply to upland hunters?

Fred Kimble, an Illinois market hunter, is credited with the idea of squeezing the muzzle of a shotgun to constrict the shot string about 1870, but there are others who shared in the development. English gunmaker W.R. Pape patented a system of choke boring in 1866; however, according to W.W. Greener, whose book The Gun dates to 1881, there was choke-boring in the 1700s.

Choke has only one function. It constricts the shot charge to hold it together longer before it spreads, thus giving a more dense pattern at a longer range than an open choke or no choke at all.

The basic misapplication of chokes is to extend the killing range of a gun. Long-range shooting, except for the very expert, is an invitation to cripple. A tighter choke should be insurance that you kill a bird in normal range, rather than cripple it. Anyone using tighter chokes to extend his effective range is missing the point (not to mention distant birds).

Upland hunters almost always overestimate the range at which they shoot, while waterfowl hunters underestimate their range. Upland hunters should use chokes that give a wide, but still effective, pattern at close-in ranges (from 15-25 yards). Almost all shots are within this span. The advantage of a double barreled gun is that the first shot can be with an open choke and the second with a tighter choke. A single-barreled gun is limited to one choke, even if it does have one more shot than a double.

Some hunters opt for a light load of small shot for the first shot on grouse, woodcock, and quail, perhaps No. 9 or 8, then a high- brass load of No. 7 1/2 or No. 6 shot for the follow-up.

the tighter the pattern. Full choke is about the tightest a bird hunter wants, except for turkey hunters who want an even tighter pattern.

There are different built-in chokes: English, American, swaged, recess or jugged, and bell or reverse. The only common types are English and American and, except for those who shoot expensive English doubles, the average American shooter will only encounter American choking.

It doesn't matter--the shooter can't see choke and shouldn't really care what kind it is as long as it does what it's supposed to.

A quick way to check the choke of your barrel(s) is to shoot off a rest at a center mark in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards.

Full choke will put 70 percent of the shot in the circle, modified 60 percent, improved cylinder 45 percent. Improved-modified should shoot 65 percent. Cylinder, or no choke at all, should shoot from 25 to 35 percent. Some bird hunters have barrels choked "Skeet One" and "Skeet Two." "Skeet One" is equivalent to cylinder boring, while "Skeet Two" may be slightly more open than improved cylinder. The differences are slight.

Another way to check the effectiveness of your gun on your chosen game bird(s) is to draw a picture of the bird and shoot it at your usual range. See if the pattern actually would kill the bird. See if there are holes in the pattern. See if different loads and chokes will give a better pattern. And, again, see if the gun is shooting where you point it.

if you're shooting where you're pointing (if point of aim and point of impact are the same).

To check point-of-aim/impact, divide the pattern sheet in quadrants and center the shotgun bead on the target, just as you would with a rifle. Shoot from a firm rest.

Then count the pellets in each quadrant. They should be roughly equal. If one quadrant is heavily weighted, then you obviously are shooting off in that direction. Or if most of the pellets shoot high or low, then you have a problem that way.

I watched a hunter pattern his favorite turkey gun, one made specifically for turkey hunting. It consistently shot more than a foot low and an inch or two left. He had a major problem he didn't know he had.

Turkey hunters, to be most effective, should shoot a tighter-than-full choke and use a one-power scope so the bird's neck can be centered with the scope's crosshairs. The scope also helps gather light in the low-light conditions often encountered in turkey hunting.

over patterning, remember that the pattern you see on a pattern board is not the pattern that a flying bird encounters. That bird is moving and the shot load is not at the same point in space at the same time--it is strung out so only relatively few of the shot intersect the bird, while the rest pass in front, behind, below, or above. Only a stationary bird, like a turkey, will be roughly equivalent to a pattern board target.

Ever since the first choked barrels, hunters have been faced with the problem of adapting their existing chokes to different game birds. You can own a closetful of guns with differently choked barrels, or you can buy a slew of barrels for a single gun...or you can opt for a mechanical method of changing chokes on one barrel.

S.H. Roper actually patented a screw-in choke in 1866...but it took many decades for the idea to catch on.

The Cutts Compensator is an external set of chokes that screw onto a barrel and the Poly-Choke is a device that works much like the nozzle on a water hose, screwing down to tighten the choke, loosening to open it. There have been other choke devices before the current choke tube systems.

fit factory-threaded guns or guns that have been retrofitted. No one should thread a valuable old double, but most modern guns can be retrofitted for tubes. The major choke-tube manufacturers are Hastings, Winchoke, Remchoke, Briley, and Tru-Choke.

The threading opens up the possibility of more than a dozen chokes, which is far more than any hunter ever will need. Finding the right several is the key.

That chore is complicated because different guns pattern differently, even with the same load and choke. Further, steel shot patterns differently than does lead. You should shoot a more open choke with steel than you would with lead to get a similar pattern density at a given range.

Even among lead loads there is variation--copperplated vs. straight lead, for example.

It's not as frustrating as it may seem. For one thing, ammo is much cheaper than barrels or even choke tubes. Find the choke tubes that are indicated for the type shooting you do and pattern them with your favorite load.

If it isn't satisfactory, try a couple of different loads--maybe up or down a shot size or slightly hotter or less powerful. If that isn't satisfactory, spend $20 and either tighten or loosen the choke one size and pattern again. Sooner or later, you'll hit a combination that is ideal for your gun.

It may cost $100 or so to do it, but that's still cheaper than a new barrel and you'll have a gun that delivers a killing pattern. Any misses then are your fault (of course, that does eliminate the familiar excuse of blaming the gun).

with single barrels choose either modified or improved cylinder, though some opt for skeet, which is slightly more open than IC. Waterfowl hunters traditionally go with a full choke and turkey hunters choose extra full or get into the esoteric world of choke tubes that squeeze a shot charge even more (if in doubt as to what choke tube to use for turkeys, try one .665 inch, which gives an adequate pattern with almost every load.

Shotguns begin to get load-sensitive at modified choke and get more so, the more you tighten the choke.

"Load-sensitive" means that a given load (shot size and shell length) may not pattern well with a tight-choked gun, but a shot size larger or smaller might do just fine. Cartridges are cheaper than new barrels so it's cost-effective to pattern with different loads until you find the right one.

Patterning a shotgun is something the average hunter never does. It's a classic case of traveling down the well-known road to Hell--the one paved with good intentions. All shotgun hunters intend to pattern their gun someday, but someday never comes.

In fact, most hunters don't know if where they are aiming actually is where the gun is shooting. Since they shoot instinctively, without aiming, they assume the shot charge is going where their eye tells it to, but if the barrel is bent, it may not be.

seem dedicated to getting a shot pattern as close to a slug as they can which is fine...assuming they can hit what they're shooting at. If your favorite turkey gun has a wayward barrel and you're shooting a fist-sized shot pattern at birds, about the best you can hope for is that you'll scare a bird to death.

Maybe the hunter's barrel was bent. It doesn't take much to throw a gun off. If a bent barrel is bent enough to be visible, the hunter has a bigger problem than a wayward shot pattern. It doesn't take much to throw the pattern off. The answer is to use Kentucky windage, have a gunsmith straighten it, or get a new barrel. But you need to pattern the gun to find out.

Take turkey hunting as an example: There is a bewildering range of chokes available when you get into tubes. A standard extra-full choke 12-gauge turkey gun is .685 inch. The most open Hastings tube is .675 and they squeeze to .640, which is equivalent to full choke in a 16-gauge gun (there is even one choke tube that measures .629 in 12-gauge).

Obviously, you can constrict the hole considerably beyond full choke--but is that what you really need?

for a gun that isn't choked the way you want it or has some other problem you're not happy with--but choke tubes are a versatile and comparatively low-cost way to make one barrel do the duty of several.

Choke tubes cost about $20 each, far less than a new barrel. And they are almost infinitely variable. No hunter needs a complete set of tubes. A hunter who uses the same gun for upland and waterfowl use might be satisfied with an open choke tube for upland, a tighter one for waterfowl (though he might have to buy two or three gradations of each style to find the one that patterns best).

But there are different types of waterfowl and upland hunting. If the shots are long, the choke needs to be tighter and you might find a hunter using the same tube for long-range pheasants or prairie grouse as he does for some duck hunting over open water. If the duck hunting is over decoys, close-in, the hunter might find himself using the same tube for teal and quail.

Most choke tubes should only be hand tightened and can be removed without a wrench, but Remington choke tubes can back out with heavy loads and need to be tightened an extra tug. No choke tube should be overtightened or there is the danger it could cut right through the barrel.

Don't use lubrication on the threads of a choke tube. Oil can jam the threads. If you're uncomfortable with bare metal, use a dry lubricant.

Although one pellet in a vital area will kill a game bird, it usually takes several, depending on the size of the bird. Considering that there are several hundred pellets in a shot charge, you'd think putting five of them in a turkey's head and neck wouldn't be a big problem.

And it isn't, but the more centered the shot pattern is, the more chance there is to lodge those five or six lethal pellets. If you're shooting birds with the edge of the pattern, you're asking for cripples or misses.

Good shooters to some extent are born, not made--they have the hand/eye coordination and other physical attributes that make some people great basketball shots or baseball hitters. But practice improves any shooter. And practice, coupled with good shooting habits (gun mount, concentration, follow-through, etc.) improves a shooter even more.

Add in the factor of a gun that fits the shooter, plus a choke/load combination that is right for that gun, and you have an optimum situation.

Until, of course, the bird flushes the wrong direction, dips or flares as you shoot, the sun gets in your eyes...well, considering the variables, it's a wonder we ever hit anything.

Copyright (c) 1995 Joel M. Vance. All rights reserved.

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