You might have to go all the way back to the invention of gun powder to find an innovation that is more important to shotgun technology than the barrel choke.
Although it seems like a simple, practically-obvious invention, the choke wasn’t actually a major factor in shotgun design until the mid-20th century. The first interchangeable choke system is believed to have been released in the 1960’s. It’s now one of the most important factors for shotgun selection, and it has just as much (sometimes more) influence on shotgun effectiveness as does shot size, shell length, gauge, and barrel length.
Essentially, the choke is a narrowing of the inside of the barrel. When multiple pellets come blasting out of the barrel, a tight choke will help them keep a close grouping downrange for a longer distance. This increases the hitting power, but decreases the shot area. An open-choke (larger tube) will give less hitting power but increased shot area.
Interchangeable choke-tubes now make shotguns more versatile, as you can change the level of choke to suit your specific purposes.
There are many types of chokes, and manufacturers will often have different names, categories, and subcategories for their choke designs. These, however, are the basic types of chokes and the most common terms you will find.
Cylinder: When the inside of the barrel keeps its shape consistent from chamber to muzzle, with no tightening at all, you have a cylinder choke. You could argue that this is really no “choke” at all, as the diameter of the tube doesn’t change. It will deliver the broadest shot pattern and is often used for law enforcement and self-defense. It can also be used for close-range bird hunting.
Improved Cylinder: Tightening up the barrel slightly is the improved cylinder choke. This is often the preferred choke of waterfowl and upland bird hunters who need to place shots on fast targets at a maximum of 50 yards.
Modified: Used for hunting waterfowl, pheasant, and small game animals at greater distances, the modified choke allows you to place effective long shots but requires more accurate shooting and skill.
Full: With a tight constriction of the barrel, this choke will deliver tight patterns at a greater distance. This type of choke is commonly used for distance trap shooting and waterfowl hunting, and can even be used for effective placement of heavier buckshot.
These make up the vast majority of chokes, but there are also “extra-full” chokes and “turkey chokes,” which deliver even tighter grouping and enhanced power to a smaller space.
When you are choosing the right choke for your sport, experimenting is key. Use your shotgun at various distances and choke levels to determine which setting will best fit your needs. Patterning your shot before a hunt is essential, not only for filling your bag, but to ensure you’re not wounding animals.
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