When gearing up to go after waterfowl, a great deal of focus is put on the gun. Many people feel that the right gun will make your duck season, and that the wrong gun will break it. However, outside of your own ability the largest factor in the success of your shot is the choke. A choke is a tube installed at the end of the shotgun barrel that restricts the spread of the shot. This small piece of metal will determine whether the shot from your shell hits the duck or catches nothing but air. Selecting the best choke for duck hunting is absolutely essential.
Why does it Matter?
Most shotguns come with a series of factory choke tubes. So why not use them? It really comes down to customization. Your needs as a hunter are going to be different from other hunters. It is impossible for a manufacturer, even a good one, to produce a choke tube that is perfect for every hunter. This means it is your job to consider the variables that matter and choose a choke that will give you the best chance of success.
Let us look at the physics behind a wing shot. Wing shots are complex equations with several moving parts. To hit your target, you must tweak each variable in your favor. You must factor the speed of flight, the direction of flight, the distance at point of impact, your own shot accuracy, and the spread of your shot at point of impact.
We can look more closely at the spread of shot at point of impact, the distance of the target at point of impact, and your shot accuracy. If you have a target at 30 feet and your aim is typically dead on, you want a tighter pattern on your shot. This way you might still be effective if the next target is further out. However, if your aim is not all that great and the center of your pattern is typically one to two feet behind your moving target, you will need a wider pattern on your shot. This will compensate for any lack of accuracy with your shot. However, at longer distances the pattern will likely be sparse enough that you would miss the target.
There are several qualities of choke tubes that will affect the spread and accuracy of your shot. These qualities need to be carefully considered before making a purchase.
The constriction that a choke tube offers is the single most important variable for success. Keep in mind that the style of duck hunting that you enjoy will change the constriction you desire. If you hunt ducks in heavy timber along creeks, they will likely be on top of your quickly. The same goes for early season hunting on small ponds with tall cattails. In these cases your shots will be hurried and you are best to have a wide constriction.
If you are hunting out in the open where you can see your target coming from a long distance, you will likely want a tighter pattern. You will be able to be more accurate on your shot, and will need the shot to stay tight and reach out to the edge of your range.
There are roughly a dozen different constriction types for any given shotgun, but simply targeting waterfowl eliminates most of your options. Open constrictions such as Cylinder, Skeet, and Improved Cylinder are used mainly by trap and skeet shooters and upland hunters. The patterns from these chokes are too wide for our purposes. Extra Full and Super Full are too tight for wing shooting and are more designed for stationary targets such as turkey.
Modified has been considered the best steel shot design for decades. However, advancements in aftermarket choke tubes have offered better patterns such as the improved modified. This choke offers a pattern more specifically ideal for waterfowl at shorter ranges. For pass shooting at longer ranges a Light Full choke will hold your pattern better and reach out to the edge of your range. If you are using non-steel, non-toxic shot you can go with a Full choke for the best pattern at long ranges. Again, it all comes down to the type of duck hunting which you plan to enjoy.
Extended Tube versus Flush Tube
Deciding on extended tubes versus flush tubes is a fairly one-sided argument. Extended tubes can be installed and removed without any tools, while flush tubes require a tool. Extended tubes are typically labelled on a spot which is visible after installation, while flush tubes must be removed to be identified.
More importantly, extended tubes offer better performance. The patterns are more accurate because the restriction of the shot is more gradual and uniform. With extended chokes you have the option of vented tubes which allow gases to escape to the sides. This reduces recoil and muzzle movement. If you have to take multiple shots like I normally do, this can be very helpful. The best vented tubes use diagonal porting which angles away from the shooter and reduces side blasts.
The material used for construction is important for durability and camouflage. A matte finish, parkerized finish, or black oxide are ideal to reduce glare. Remember that your target animal has incredible eyesight, and the slightest glimmer could spook the birds. As for the steel, 17-4 PH grade steel is best for long term durability. Duck hunting is a rough and wet sport. Your choke tube will take some abuse, and quality steel will hold up to that abuse.
Variety is important for most shooters. We are strictly discussing duck hunting in this article, but most hunters use their shotgun for more than just ducks. In most cases you cannot use one tube for everything, but many manufacturers sell sets of aftermarket choke tubes. This might be ideal to cover your needs for that particular shotgun. Some even offer adjustable choke tubes good for several distances and needs, however I am not a fan.
The shot you use with your choke tube is an essential part of the equation. The tough part about selecting a choke is that threads on your shotgun barrel are not standardized between manufacturers or even between models. The gun/load/choke combination is going to behave differently each time you change one of these variable. The best bet is to find the choke that you think best fits your needs, and then try a few different loads to get the pattern you desire. Borrow shells from your hunting buddies until you find the right fit.
Final Notes On The Best Choke For Duck Hunting
Pattering your choke tube is an essential step in finding the correct combination of shot and choke tube. To do this you will need several sheets of cardboard. I would plan on at least one sheet for each type of load, and I prefer three feet by three feet in dimension. This allows you to see the pattern on your target and also the pattern in the area immediately surrounding your target.
I like to draw two target circles in the center of the cardboard. The first is roughly the size of the vital area of a duck or about three inches in diameter. The next covers roughly the full area of the bird or about 12 to 14 inches in diameter. Set your target at a distance that is realistic for the shots you will be taking in the field. Use a rest and fire a round at the center target circle.
Mark on the target how many holes appear in the center circle, how many appear in the larger circle, and how many appear on the whole sheet of cardboard. Keep the target with the shell you used and reload with a different type of load. Try to only change one variable at a time such as shot size, brand, or shot material. Repeat with all your loads and compare the results.
Keep in mind that selecting the best choke for duck hunting is not just about killing as many birds as possible. It is also about killing them in a quick and humane way. When your shot pattern is less than ideal, you are more likely to injure a bird or cause them suffering. As a responsible hunter, your goal is always a quick kill with a guaranteed recovery. You also must be cautious not to damage the meat. If you are over-choked for a given distance, your shot might be so tight that it rips apart the meat.
When deciding on your choke tube, take your time and do your research. Many people make a hasty decision and come to regret it. Remember that finding the best choke for duck hunting is a one-time purchase for most hunters. If you make the right decision, it should bring you decades of hunting success.