Last Updated on May 13, 2023 by Dwayne Easton
While there is much discussion about shotgun and waterfowl load selection, many hunters neglect an essential element of ethical hunting: the choke tube. The interchangeable choke tubes have been one of the most significant technological advancements in shotguns over the past 50 years. Being able to adjust the chokes gives you more control at different ranges. Before you go to the blind, think about the choke at the barrel’s end.
While interchangeable choke tubes can be a great tool for shotgunning you must understand the basics of constriction. To achieve the same results with steel shot, a choke that is rated I for lead shot is more open. A tube that is rated IC for lead shot will produce a tighter pattern (more like Modified).
Understanding How Chokes Work
The constriction of chokes is different. This means that the shot swarm will vary in size depending on how tight you are. Your ability to make quick, clean, humane kills decreases as pellets travel further and spread out faster. As a waterfowler, your goal is to first understand the distance of the bird you are shooting at (which can be difficult). Then you will need to choose the choke tube that provides the best pattern at this distance. Sometimes the birds will come in fast and be very close to you before you get a chance. This is most common in hunting early-season teal along small, cattail-choked holes or in wood duck shooting along a creek in heavy trees. These two situations are examples of overchoked hunters. This means that your shot pattern is too tight and your shot pattern is too small that you will miss a lot or hit them with dense shot patterns that cause a lot meat loss. If you shoot at Passover ducks, or at the edge your shotgun’s lethal range, you won’t be able to get the pellet count and density you need for a clean kill.
Range Versus Choke
Waterfowling requires that at least 60% of your shot be on target to achieve a clean kill. This takes practice and some preparation. A large American duck, such as a mallard, gadwall or black duck, has a wingspan of about 30 inches. To draw a 30-inch circle, you will need a 15-inch string with a marker attached at one end and a pushpin the other. The pushpin should be placed at the target on the paper. Stretch the string so you can draw a circle of 30-inch diameter. You can test your shotgun at different ranges using various chokes and the load that you intend to hunt with. It takes time but once you know your shotgun’s effective range with the load/choke combo, it will be easy to determine. For example, if your shotgun fires a 1-1/8-ounce load of number 4-steel shot, you will need approximately 216 pellets per load (see chart). To be deadly at this range, you will need 130 pellets. This load will kill waterfowl if you shoot it at 25 yards using an improved choke. If you find that only 95 pellets are in the circle when you test that load at 30 yards, then you have gone over your lethal limit. Keep your shots to under 25 yards for that load. Always wear hearing and eye protection and never load your firearm until it is safe to do so. Make sure you know your target and the area beyond it, and don’t fire until you are certain it is safe.
How Chokes React to Steel Shot
Steel and tungsten shot have tighter groups than lead due to their metallurgical properties. If your choke tube is marked Improved Cylinder (or IC), it will behave like a modified choke with steelshot. Your standard modified lead choke will also produce a tighter pattern when combined with steel shot. Full lead chokes with steel shot should not be used as they are too restrictive. An improved cylinder, or even a skeet constriction choke, are good options for ducks and geese who live close to each other. Modified choke tubes are better for birds farther away.
You will be able to determine the appropriate choke constriction and the effective load range for your load. This will allow you to make cleaner and more efficient kills, with less meat destruction and cripples.