I love to joke with everyone and blame the choke in my gun for a poor shooting performance. “Man, I should have used a mod and not my full” is my signature tag line. The truth is, understanding your gun’s performance with different chokes is obviously important when we analyze our shooting performance in the field. The ammunition we are using, the gun itself, and of course the choke all impact your range, pattern and overall accuracy.
How to Pattern
If you do some light research, you’ll find that the best distance to pattern your gun is around 40 yards (with the exception of a .410 gauge, which is ideally patterned at 30 yards). Your target can be blank paper, approximately 48” x 48”. From the center of your target paper, draw a 30” diameter circle around which will give you your target area.
Before you shoot at the target, make sure your gun is well rested and balanced. Of course, make sure all safety items are accounted for (shooting in a safe direction, nothing around to ricochet, hearing and eye protection, etc.). You will also need to make sure that the ammunition you are shooting works with the choke you are using (some steel shot cannot be fired through certain chokes). Once a shot is fired at the target, the idea is to count the pellets inside the circle, which will give you an idea of what your pattern is like. Naturally, like any experiment, it may be wise to do this a couple of times and average your results. Keep in mind that results will vary based on the ammunition and choke that you use.
Why to Pattern
Patterning our guns is all about determining application; what would we use this gun, this choke and this ammunition for? Those are the questions we are answering. When we shoot clay pigeons, the idea is to throw a steady “cloud” of shot at the target, to maximize our chances for a hit. The same is true when shooting fast gamebirds such as quail or chukar. For that reason, a full choke that shoots 70% of the pellets at the target may not be ideal considering the wad of shot is very small and compact, reducing the “cloud” size.
There are so many factors that impact what kind of shot we will use, as well as choke. You’ll see most upland hunters or trap shooters utilize two different chokes in an over under shotgun. The idea being that a modified choke shoots a more balanced wad of shot at the target, and in case of a miss, will fire a full choke on the second shot giving the gunner a tighter, farther pattern for the second attempt as the target is now further away.
In terms of pellet strikes per choke, here is data from Jack O’Connor’s Shotgun Book:
Full choke: 70% or higher
Improved modified: 65%
Improved cylinder: 45%
It is important not to confuse percentage of pellet strikes with application. The full choke at 70% sounds like the most accurate, which it is, however the concentrated wad of shot gives you a smaller target spread to hit your target with. Full chokes are ideal for longer distance waterfowl shooting, or turkey hunting where the shot needs to hit a small target area such as the head of a turkey.
For medium range shooting of waterfowl or upland birds, modified, improved modified or improved cylinder are all suitable options depending on your preference. Consider factors such as wind; the stronger the wind, the faster your wad of pellets will dissipate. If your normal choke is a modified, and it is rather windy that day, consider an improved modified for example.
Understanding your guns pattern with various chokes and loads is essential to success in the field or the range. Often times, missing shots can be a result of improper selection of a choke tube and or ammunition. Sure, we all miss and likely have fundamental issues at times, but understanding our pattern is just as important. Take the time to do this, and know your applications well enough to make the right decision!