Years ago a friend and I went pheasant hunting with an Annoying Guy named Jerry in southern Iowa. He proved annoying on many counts, one of the minor ones being his obsession with choke. At one point all three of us emptied our guns at a rooster that flushed underfoot, then watched it fly away. “I had an Improved Modified choke in so I didn’t stand a chance on a shot that close,” he said. “You guys should have been okay with your Skeet and Improved Cylinder chokes.” We then had to make detours to his car throughout the morning so he could switch barrels (this was in the early 80s, before choke tubes were common).
While few are quite so choke-centric as Jerry, people do worry about it, perhaps too much. I tend to side with sporting clays shooter Andy Duffy, who likes to say: “People miss by feet. Choke gains you inches.” That’s not to say choke isn’t important, but on the list of reasons you missed, it’s not in the top three (you aimed, you rushed, you made a bad gun mount would be 1, 2, and 3 off the top of my head), nor even the top five.
Choke helps – literally – on the margins. It does give you those extra inches of pattern spread around the edges that can make the difference if you mispoint the gun slightly, or if the bird or target makes an unexpected change of direction. It’s telling that tournament shooters like Duffy rarely switch chokes but will always shoot an open choke or spreader loads at close rabbit targets, which can bounce unpredictably. Then those extra inches can make the difference between a hit and a miss. Likewise, hunters in heavy cover can take good advantage of extra spread when woodcock flutter like knuckleballs.
You will also run into people who will tell you that Improved Cylinder is all you ever need because they have killed birds and broken targets with IC at 50 yards. And, while it’s true that if you hit a bird with the pattern core at that range you can kill it, it’s also true that tighter chokes not only deliver a larger pattern core, but they fill the pattern fringes better at long range, reducing the chance you’ll fringe hit and cripple a bird.
Choosing choke properly for hunting is also about making sure you deliver enough pellets for a clean kill, but not so many you tear up your birds. I prefer to err on the side of more choke, not less, and trust myself to let gamebirds get far enough out so I don’t shred them, and to shoot ducks and geese before they get too close. Remember, too, as you rummage through your choke tubes trying to decide what’s perfect for a particular day or particular station, that choke is only half the equation. Most chokes pattern more tightly as you increase shot size, and the only way to know for sure what your gun does at different ranges is to pattern it with the choke and load you plan to use.