I was at the Northeast Side by Side Classic Shotgun Championship and shooting with one of the best shooters in competition. While only a few of the target presentations on the course were long-range shots, J.D. was shooting a gun with modified and full chokes. Classic shotgun competitions do not allow choke changes because those old classic guns didn’t have interchangeable choke tubes. He was clearly a better shooter than I, but I was outdoing him on the close shots. I was shooting a gun with improved and modified chokes. The rules do allow using different loads for different stations, and I was using RST Spreader loads for the really close targets.
Since I knew I couldn’t outshoot J.D. in the overall, I offered him some of the spreader loads. He declined. I then asked him why he was shooting a modified and full choked gun when there were so many close targets in the event. He smiled, “I shoot modified and full because I can hit the close targets with tight chokes and I need the pattern density to make sure I break the long ones.” J.D. is a really good wing shooter, and I could see the sense in his strategy, but I knew it wouldn’t pay off for me. Sure enough, he outshot me, but in the back of my mind, I thought less choke would have given him an even better score.
Modern shotgun ammunition has improved pattern density by a full increment of choke. I suspect fewer targets are broken and more birds missed because of having too much choke than not enough. A recent study of dove hunters by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department indicated that most shooters have difficulty hitting targets beyond 30 yards yet they tend to use modified and full chokes. Many shooters see longer targets and think they should tighten up on their choke choice. As a result, they miss up close shots they can almost certainly hit for more pattern density on shots they would probably miss anyway.
To understand this, we need to think about angles and area. It’s generally agreed that the ideal pattern size for shot pattern density is about 30 inches, meaning the shooter has 15 inches of latitude from a perfectly centered shot to break the target. Depending on the choke you choose, that 30-inch pattern occurs at different ranges. Most charts reflect optimum performance at about 20 yards for a cylinder choke and about 40 to 45 yards for a full choke. At any given distance and based on the uniform dispersion of the shot load, the diameter of a full choke pattern is about half the diameter of a cylinder choke pattern, but the area of the pattern is much smaller than half. The area of a 15” circle is about 177 square inches, but the area of a 30” circle is 707 square inches, almost four times the area. Sure, the shot density of that smaller circle is denser, but at shorter ranges, that level of density is overkill on both game birds and clay targets. Based on this, having the ideal choke for a 40-yard shot makes it four times more difficult to make a 20-yard shot.
To break this down, given a mix of short and long-range shots, the amount of benefit you get out of using tighter chokes is directly linked to your shooting ability. A better shooter can utilize more choke, a less competent shooter will suffer. On those longer shots, the thin but larger diameter pattern might still give you occasional breaks you might have missed with the smaller pattern of the tighter choke, but it will certainly be more forgiving than a dense, small diameter pattern on close shots.
So, as Clint Eastwood said in Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” If you have trouble with longer shots, you’ll be better served to go with a more open choke. Remembering that Texas study in indicating most hunters had difficulty with shots past 30 yards, almost any shooter at that level would be better served to use no more than improved cylinder unless there were no shots closer than 30 yards.
On the average sporting clays course, dove hunt, or even duck blind, an improved cylinder choke will almost always result in more success than a modified choke and not one wing shooter in ten is skilled enough to benefit from a full choke for any endeavor other than a turkey hunt. Even moderately high-level shooters will benefit from using less choke.
Not everyone shoots as well as J.D. - the rest of us might do well to know our limitations.