September 23, 2010
Contrary to an old wive's tale, patterns delivered by screw-in chokes are equal in quality to those produced by fixed chokes.
The interchangeable choke concept began to enjoy some degree of popularity among hunters when Winchester introduced its Versalite system in the Model 59 shotgun in 1961, but the idea had already been around long before then.
During the late 1800s American designer Sylvester Roper came up with a set of short tubes with various bore constrictions and their internal threads allowed them to be attached to the muzzle of a shotgun barrel. Roper's invention was attached to the outside of a barrel, but otherwise it worked the same as the modern chokes we see on the inside of shotgun barrels today.
Before quick-switch chokes as we now know them became as plentiful as fleas on a stray coon dog, other devices that allowed the owner of a shotgun to quickly and conveniently change from one choke constriction to another had their time in the limelight. One of the more popular developments was the Cutts Compensator.
Developed by U.S. Marine Corps veteran Colonel Richard M. Cutts, it consisted of interchangeable tubes of various constrictions that screwed into the front of a vented cage, the rear of which was permanently attached to the barrel. The U.S. military adopted the compensator alone for use on the Thompson submachine gun and also used the same device with interchangeable choke tubes on the Winchester Model 97 shotgun.
A set of screw-in chokes with various consrictions adds a lot to the versatility of a shotgun.
Lyman bought the manufacturing rights in 1929 and went on to sell many thousands to shotgunners. There was a time when just about every skeet gun in America wore a Cutts Compensator and my .410-bore Winchester Model 42 is a classic example. The device also became mildly popular on field guns and if bird dogs of yesteryear could rise up from their graves and talk, I am sure those who hunted with hunters who used Cutts-equipped guns would tell us how unpleasant the muzzle blast was.
In the eyes of most shooters the modern choke system has one major advantage over older designs such as the Cutts; it screws into the barrel rather than onto the barrel and for this reason it does not change the appearance of the gun. Other advantages offered by the interchangeable choke system are equally obvious; technically speaking, it is capable of transforming one shotgun into an entire battery of shotguns.
Screw in a Cylinder Bore or Light Skeet choke and you are all set for shooting ruffed grouse in thick timber, bobwhite quail in piney thickets and for breaking clay targets out to 20 yards. Switch to regular Skeet or Improved Cylinder and you have extended your range out to about 30 yards and that takes in a lot of hunting territory.
This pump gun placed the center of its pattern to the left and above my hold point until I had Briley install a set of eccentric chokes in its barrel.
Tighten the shot charge on down with Modified or Improved Modified and you are all set for hunting ringneck pheasant during late season or reaching high into the sky for a mourning dove. Screw in Full or Extra Full choke and no turkey gobbler within 40 yards of where you sit should be safe. Install a rifled choke in the old smokepole and watch your accuracy with saboted slug loads improve by leaps and bounds.
How many chokes you actually need depends on what you do with a shotgun. A friend of mine who shoots a lot of clay targets when he is not hunting says you cannot have too many and tries to prove it by using a battery-powered wrench to screw various and sundry chokes in and out between stations at sporting clays. I tend to be a bit more conservative. The 12-gauge autoloader I use most has six chokes and I don't recall ever needing more.
Their constrictions are .005 inch (Skeet), .010 inch (Improved Cylinder), .020 inch (Modified) and .035 inch (Full). The other two have .055 inch and .070 inch of choke, both used for head/neck shots on spring gobblers, the former with Hevi-Shot, the latter with Winchester's new Hi-Density shot. I don't hunt deer with that shotgun but if I did I would simply screw in a rifled choke, load the magazine with slug loads and head for the woods.
Then we have a strange but useful critter called the eccentric choke. It is quite useful to anyone who has a shotgun that does not place the center of its pattern where the barrel is pointed. This, by the way, is not at all unusual but most wingshooters are unaware of it because they have never patterned their guns. They just keep on missing and blaming it on everything but themselves.
I'd estimate that at least 10 percent of the shotguns built today leave the factory with some degree of misalignment between the bore and the screw-in chokes that come with them. When it is being machined the bore of an eccentric choke is intentionally misaligned with the bore of the barrel just enough to shift pattern point of impact the desired amount and in the desired direction. Called the Excentrix choke by Briley Manufacturing (800-331-5718), it can be reamed to shift the pattern in any direction on the face of the clock by as much as 12 inches at 40 yards.
Some of the older guns that came from the factory without interchangeable chokes are also in need of this remedy. A good example is the 28-gauge pump gun I bought several years ago. Choked Modified, it placed its pattern far to the left and high of my hold point; I had Briley install a set of five Excentrix chokes and it not only cured the point-of-impact pattern, but it made the gun far more versatile by giving me the option of using chokes ranging from Skeet to Light Full.
Chokes that extended beyond the end of the barrel are convenient to check for looseness and they protect the muzzle from damage in the field.
Chokes that extend beyond the muzzle of a shotgun barrel and have a knurled or checkered surface are easier to check for t
ightness than flush-fit chokes. I find that to be especially convenient on clay target guns. It is not a bad idea for a hunting gun, either, since the extended choke protects the muzzle of the barrel from damage should it be banged against a rock or other hard object in the field.
Markings on the outside make it easy to tell at a glance what choke is in the gun. I like extended chokes on guns used for shooting skeet, trap and sporting clays. I also like them on modern hunting guns whether they be autoloaders, pumps or over-unders. I do not like the way they look on a side-by-side double. But then, I never liked cars with two-color paint jobs, either.
It takes only a bit of maintenance to keep screw-in chokes in good working order. This should go without saying but I will say it anyhow--everything I am about to recommend should be done with the gun completely unloaded. Only a fool places any part of his body near the muzzle of a loaded gun. Rule number one is to never allow a choke to become loose in the barrel; to do so is to risk permanent damage to its threads and to those in the barrel. I like to check chokes for tightness every 100 rounds or so.
Each time the bore of the barrel is cleaned, the choke should be removed and its threads along with the threads in the barrel thoroughly cleaned with solvent and an old toothbrush. Allowing rust to form there can cause a choke to become impossible to remove and it is easily prevented by applying a light coat of grease to the threads after cleaning. Special lubes designed specifically for this purpose are available from Brownells (800-741-0015), Birch-wood-Casey (800-328-6156) and Briley. In a pinch, those lubes formulated to prevent breechplug seizure in muzzleloading rifles will also work.
Powder fouling, along with the buildup of plastic residue left behind by the wads found in most of today's shotshells, should be removed from the bores of the barrel and choke with a tight-fitting brass bore brush and a plastic-dissolving solvent such as Shotgun and Choke Tube Cleaner from Shooters Choice (440-834-8888).
A choke with an extremely heavy buildup of plastic is often easier to scrub clean if it is removed from the barrel but don't make the mistake of placing it in a bench vise when doing so as that can squeeze it out of round and render it impossible to get back into the barrel. Wearing an old glove on the hand that holds the choke during cleaning will protect it from the bore brush.
A signed copy of Layne Simpson's full-color hardback book, Shotguns & Shotgunning, has a chapter devoted to both fixed and screw-in chokes and is available for $39.95 plus $6 p&h from Highcountry Press, 306 Holly Park Lane, Simpsonville, SC 29681.)