Shotgun 101: Understanding choke tubes and shot patterns

Shotgun fundamentals: Understanding choke tubes and shot patterns

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A shotgun is a versatile tool capable of taking all manner of winged game and, when equipped with slugs, even big or dangerous game. Regardless of what you’re hunting, it’s crucial you understand how a shotgun’s choke dictates its application and effectiveness. The choke controls the spread of the pellets or BBs by constricting the shot as it exits the barrel, dictating the pattern. This is accomplished by either a machined taper in the barrel (older and inexpensive shotguns often have fixed chokes that can’t be altered) or an interchangeable steel tube that threads into the barrel’s muzzle.

Your distance from your target informs what choke you’ll want to use. If you anticipate walking through dense brush where most of your shots will be up close, you’ll want a wider choke in your shotgun to improve your odds of scoring a hit without obliterating the meat with a tight ball of shot. Conversely, when hunting turkey, you want to keep the pellets tight together for improved precision at a distance.

Here’s a basic rundown of the most common chokes and a few of the applications in which one might use them.

Choke tubes often have notches or colors on them designating their type and how they function with steel or lead shot. Check the container for details.
  • Super full: Often used in turkey hunting, these chokes have the sharpest taper and so produce the tightest patterns. They shouldn’t be used with steel shot—steel won’t deform as the pellets pass through the choke’s taper the way lead will, and may cause damage to your barrel.
  • Full: Pheasants flushing before you can get close? Equipping a full choke may be the answer. With a tight constriction and a dense shot pattern, it delivers great performance at a longer distance (by shotgun standards), but shouldn’t be used with steel, either.
  • Modified: This choke has less constriction than a full choke and can be used with steel. Drop one in when hunting waterfowl. Most fixed-choke shotguns are either modified or full choke.
  • Improved cylinder: Less constricted than a modified choke, an improved-cylinder choke works in tandem with a full choke on double-barrel shotguns for an excellent upland bird combination. (The improved cylinder works best for close birds, the full for those that get up farther away). Rifled slugs work well with this choke, too.
  • Skeet: A choke that delivers an especially wide pattern, the skeet choke is designed for—you guessed it—skeet shooting.
  • Cylinder: Seldom used in shotguns outside of those used for self-defense, the cylinder choke has no taper. Because it’s essentially a continuation of the barrel, it has the broadest pattern of any choke.

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