THE BEST TYPE OF CHOKE FOR DUCK AND GOOSE HUNTING
by Brad Fitzpatrick
There’s a great deal of discussion regarding shotgun and load selection for waterfowl, but many hunters overlook a very important element in making clean, ethical kills—the choke tube. Interchangeable choke tubes are one of the most important technological advances in shotguns in the past 50 years, and having the ability to change the chokes allows you to fine-tune your shotgun’s pattern for more versatility at varying ranges. So before you head to the blind this year, take some time to think about the choke that’s in the end of your barrel.
Understanding How Chokes Work
Chokes vary in constriction, which means that when your shot charge leaves the barrel, the swarm of shot will be wider or narrower at a given distance depending on your level of restriction. As pellets travel farther and spread out more, their lethality decreases, and your ability to make clean, quick, humane kills also decreases. Your goal as a waterfowler is twofold: first, you need to understand how far away the bird is when you are shooting (and this can be tougher than you think), and to select the choke tube that gives you the optimum pattern at that distance. In some cases, the birds will be coming in quickly and will be close to your position before you are offered a shot. Prime cases of this include hunting early-season teal in small, cattail-choked potholes or shooting wood ducks along a creek in heavy timber. In these two cases, many hunters are actually overchoked, which means that the constriction of the shot is so tight and the pattern so small that you’ll be missing a lot of birds or hitting them with a shot pattern that is so dense it destroys a lot of meat. Conversely, if you’re shooting at high-flying Passover ducks or shooting at the edge of your shotgun’s lethal range with an open choke you won’t have the density and pellet count you need to create a quick, clean kill.
Range Versus Choke
The rule of waterfowling is that you need approximately 60-percent or more of your shot on target for a clean kill, and this takes some pre-season practice. The average wingspan of a large American duck such as a mallard, gadwall, or black duck is about 30 inches, so on a large sheet of white paper or poster board you need to draw a 30-inch circle using a 15-inch string tied to a marker at one end and a pushpin at the other. Place the pushpin at the center of the paper target and stretch the string out so that you can draw a 30-inch-diameter circle. Test your shotgun at varying ranges with various chokes using the load you plan to hunt with. This takes some time, but you’ll know the effective range of your shotgun with that choke/load combo. If, for instance, your shotgun is firing a 1-1/8 ounce load of number 4 steel shot, there are approximately 216 pellets per load (see chart below). That means you’ll need about 130 pellets in the 30-inch circle to be lethal at that range. If you test that load from your gun at 25 yards with an improved cylinder choke and find that you have 140 pellets in the circle, that load will be lethal on waterfowl at that range. But when you test that same load at 30 yards and find out that there are only 95 pellets in the circle, you’ve gone beyond your lethal range. For that load, stick to shots under 25 yards. Be certain to wear hearing and eye protection at all times and don’t load your firearm until you are sure it is safe to fire. Know your target and what is beyond, and never fire until you are absolutely certain it is safe to do so.
Understanding How Chokes React with Steel Shot
Because of their metallurgical characteristics, steel and tungsten shot produce tighter groups with a given choke than lead. For instance, if your choke tube is label Improved Cylinder, or IC (standard constriction is usually measured with lead shot, but check with your choke manufacturer), it will perform like a modified choke with steel shot. Likewise, your standard modified lead choke will produce a tighter full pattern with steel. Avoid using full lead chokes with steel shot because the constriction is too tight. For ducks and geese that are close, improved cylinder or even skeet constriction choke work well. If the birds are farther out, a modified choke tube is better.
Knowing proper choke constriction and effective load range (which you have determined with your patterning prior to the season), will give you a good idea of the proper choke constriction for your load at a given range, and it will help you make cleaner, more effective kills with fewer cripples and less meat destruction.