Don't Choke On Pheasants!

Selecting the correct choke for the job at hand is almost as important as being a good shot! (December 2005)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The pheasant-hunting experience has much to offer, and there are many characteristics that constitute a good hunt. Foremost of these characteristics are the feathers that go into your game pocket that happen to be attached to Mr. Ringneck. In other words, "scoring" a pheasant or two is what solidifies the experience and pulls you back year after year.

Of course, there is the pageantry and beauty of the great outdoors, the camaraderie between you and your hunting buddies, the artful beauty of good fieldwork by your dog and the way your clothing and equipment worked perfectly. But without some feathers sticking out of your game bag at the end of the day, it's kind of like kissing your sister.

If we stop and examine why your game bag will -- or will not -- have pheasants in it at the end of the day, it boils down to two things: the availability of shots, and how well you shot when you did have the chance.

For the purposes of this article, we're going to believe that you will get shots, and that you want to maximize your chances of taking more birds by optimizing how to use shotgun chokes in various types of scatterguns.

To start out with, we have to think about the physics of the "shot stream" that comes out of the end of your shotgun when you pull the trigger. This shot stream has a three-dimensional shape that resembles a football: pointed on each end and fat in the middle. It is not a two-dimension flat shape.

For a 12-gauge shotgun shooting a shell with 1 1/8 ounce of lead, the shot stream can be as long as 12 feet. The reason I mention this is because when you look at a patterning board, you're only getting a two-dimensional view of what happened.

In effect, patterning boards record the performance of your shotgun's patterning ability, but we have to remember all of the shot didn't arrive at the patterning board at the exact same instance in time. The front of it got there first, and the rest of it arrived shortly thereafter.

This streaming out of the shot is what makes shotguns so well suited for hitting moving objects like pheasants or skeet targets. Your timing can be off a little, but you've got 12 feet of shot to help you make up the difference or to compensate for the error, provided, of course, you do get the shot in front of the target and not behind it.

With this three-dimensional picture of the shot stream in mind, let us work backward from the patterning board to the end of the barrel of your shotgun -- it is here that we can shape the form of the shot stream by "squeezing" it.

Shotgun chokes are inserts that you screw into the end of your barrel to produce varying amounts of restriction. As the restriction increases, the spherical expansion of the shot swarm is reduced, and the downrange effectiveness of the shot stream is increased. This is what we call an inverse relationship.

We need to remember, however, that downrange effectiveness is in terms of pattern tightness or how well the shot stream stays together (spherically) as it travels downrange -- not in energy delivered on the target. Also, the farther the shot stream travels downrange, the less energy and killing power remains. This is why most ballistics charts for shotgun loads top out at 60 yards, and why pellets only sting at greater distances.

Controlling how well the shot stream stays together in the horizontal plain (at varying distances from the end of your shotgun) is the goal with choke usage. By squeezing "down" or not squeezing it "down," the shot stream will stay together in varying degrees as it travels through space -- as in the space between you and a ring-necked pheasant.

Typically, the measure that determines how well the pattern stays together is defined by how many pellets can be counted in a 30-inch circle at varying distances from the end of the shotgun.

For example, if we took a brand-new shotgun out of the box and fired a shell at a patterning board, 100 percent of the pellets would hit in the 30-inch circle at 25 yards if there were a full choke in the gun.

Shotgun chokes are defined by the amount of restriction they produce in thousandths of an inch, and each one of these has a name. From the example just mentioned, a full choke has .040 inch of constriction, and it is (for all practical purposes) the most constriction you can get; hence, its name full. Let's now take a look at the full spectrum of what's offered in shotgun chokes, and discuss what they're best suited for in terms of pheasant-hunting conditions.

This streaming out of the shot is what makes shotguns so well suited for hitting moving objects like pheasants or skeet targets.

We'll start out with the chokes that have the least amount of constriction. These chokes have names, and they are open cylinder, skeet and improved modified.

An open choke cylinder has no constriction, and it is like shooting a shotgun with no choke in it. You might be wondering why you need to use an open cylinder choke if it produces no constriction. You may be thinking that you may as well just shoot without a choke. The answer to this is because you want to protect the threads that are used to hold the choke in place from lead or wad buildup, or worse.

As you might guess, open cylinder is designed for use when a pheasant is only 15 to 20 yards away. Open cylinder chokes will put 80 percent of the shot pellets into a 30-inch circle at 20 yards, and the pattern will be widely dispersed.

As you'll note, 20 percent of your shot will not be in the 30-inch circle, and make your pattern even more effective at close range. Though 20 percent may not sound like a lot, it averages out to about 51 pellets when shooting a 1 1/8-ounce load of No. 6 shot, which on average has a total of 253 pellets.

At close range, you want your pattern to open up very quickly. In other words, you don't want to "squeeze" the pellets together and restrict their spherical expansion. Instead, you want to let the pattern open up very rapidly.

When you're hunting pheasants in tall cover, like a corn field that hasn't been harvested, your field of view will be obstructed. In this case, open cylinder is a good choice because you're going to have very little time and distance to make the shot before t

he bird vanishes. With open cylinder, the shot stream will expand spherically outward very fast, and put a lot of "flack" in the horizontal plane of your shot aspect.

If we compare this with, say a full choke, where 100 percent of the pellets will hit in a 30-inch circle at 20 yards but the pattern would be significantly smaller, the full choke pattern reduces your chances of hitting the bird. If you did hit the bird with a full choke at this short of a distance, the density of the pellets would pretty much ruin any culinary preferences you had for it -- and your hunting partners might start calling you Dirty Harry.

Skeet chokes have .005 inch of constriction and improved cylinder has .010 inch of constriction. Skeet chokes got their name because they are the most-used choke in the clay-shooting sport of skeet.

Skeet chokes are extremely effective at 21 yards, which is the average distance from the shooter to the target on a skeet range. This writer has shot a fair amount of skeet and I can tell from experience that I use skeet chokes on the skeet field. Why? Skeet chokes work great for this type of shooting.

Having a tight pattern at 21 yards is the goal in skeet shooting. This is based on the fact that in the sport of skeet shooting, you don't want to have gaps in your pattern (in the horizontal plain) where a clay target could escape through at 21 yards. This holds true in pheasant hunting as well.

If your pheasant-hunting situation were such that you'll get most of your shots at 20 to 25 yards, then a skeet choke would be an ideal choice for you to use. For instances where you hunt over a pointing dog in medium cover, and your standoff distance behind the dog is about three to five yards, then using a skeet choke should be a good choice. This is because by the time the bird clears the cover and starts to accelerate, you'll have about a 20- to 25-yard shot. If this distance were somewhat farther, say 25 to 30 yards, then an improved cylinder choke would be more appropriate to use.

Regardless of your pheasant-hunting situation, the best way to determine your shotgun pattern is to get to a range where you can use a patterning board.

Some pheasant hunters are good enough to actually wait and take the shot when the bird has reached the optimum distance for their particular gun. These fellows usually have spent hours practicing at a clay bird course, and have many years of hunting experience. They know exactly how their shotgun will perform.

Pheasant hunters who use double barrels can fine-tune their choke selection to increase their chances of bagging a bird. In the hunting scenario just mentioned, a savvy pheasant hunter could put a skeet choke in the barrel he shoots first and an improved cylinder choke in the barrel he shoots second.

The concept here is to use a choke in the barrel you're going to shoot second. The second choke should give you a more downrange pattern (a pattern that will stay together in the horizontal plain) should you miss on the first shot. Or you might get a chance for a double (shooting two birds one after the other within a few seconds).

When hunting with flushing-type dogs in medium to thick cover, you may want to use a modified choke, which has .020 inch of restriction and will put 60 percent of the pellets in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards.

Flushing-type dogs do not point pheasants, but rather scare them into the air. Flushing dogs are usually trained to hunt at a maximum of 25 to 30 yards from the gun because if they flush a bird at this range of distance, the escaping ringneck will be at 40 yards distance before you can say, "Doggone it, I missed." At 40 yards, you'll need a tighter-holding pattern to improve your odds of knocking the bird down.

Pheasants are pretty fast fliers; they have a top speed of about 45 mph. However, their speed is no match for a swarm of shotgun pellets traveling at about 1,200 feet per second (fps). It's kind of like an F-14 jet racing a biplane.

Some of the loads available nowadays have velocities of 1,350 fps, which is extremely fast, and rule out any possibility that a pheasant is going to outrun your shot stream. In fact, even the loads that produce slower velocities are faster -- much faster -- than a pheasant.

With such a speed advantage, the main characteristic that determines whether or not your gun will knock a pheasant down at longer ranges is how it patterns (i.e., how well the shot will stay together). Of course, there is the hunter's shooting ability to consider, but in terms of the shotgun itself, it is its patterning ability that makes the difference.

If you're going to be in a pheasant-hunting situation where you know you'll have shots beyond 40 yards, you should consider using a full choke that has .040 inch of constriction.

Regardless of your pheasant-hunting situation, the best way to determine your shotgun patterns is to get to a range where you can use a patterning board.

There are paper patterning boards, but with this type of board you'll have to bring shotgun patterning targets with you to the range, or hope they sell them at the range you visit. Patterning board paper targets are available at many of the outdoor sporting goods stores. You can also use cardboard from large boxes as patterning targets.

Some pheasant hunters are good enough to actually wait and take the shot when the bird has reached the optimum distance for their particular gun.

Some shooting facilities have grease patterning boards, which require no paper. This is a good thing in my opinion. A grease patterning board uses a thin layer of grease on a metal surface to record the shot pattern. At my skeet club, we have a grease-type patterning board, and I like it better than a paper patterning board because you never have to buy paper for it! Additionally, you don't have to worry about bringing along something to attach the paper targets to the board.

Below the patterning board at our club, we have a paint roller with grease on it, and all you have to do is roll the grease onto the board to create a fresh target. When you fire a shell at this type of patterning board, the pellets leave easily identifiable markings on the metal surface where they hit.

Once you make it to a range, you should try different chokes at varying distances. It's a good idea to take a 100-foot tape measure with you and mark off the distances you want to shoot from. Taking along pencil and paper is also a good idea if you're going to try several different types of chokes from several different distances. With pencil and paper you can record how the chokes performed for future reference.

Some competitive shooters will bre

ak the 30-inch circle up into four parts or quadrants and actually count how many pellets hit in each one, and then total them all up. This will reveal exactly how well the shotgun and chokes are performing. This is probably too intensive of a task for most hunters, and rating how your chokes do with a simple rating system will suffice. If they don't pass, buy new ones and try them!

The main thing is to write your test results down somewhere so that you won't forget what worked best. Taking photos is also a good way to record what happened; digital cameras are great for this.

It needs to be mentioned that steel shot and lead shot do not pattern the same with the same choke. Steel shot resists being constricted more than lead shot because steel is harder than lead. Therefore, you'll need to use a choke with less constriction when shooting steel shot to get the same pattern at the same distance.

Always wear safety glasses when shooting, and be careful of ricochets. Steel patterning boards must only be used when testing soft shot like lead, since hard steel shot can bounce back and hit the shooter. Never shoot at any target from too close a distance.

If you can make a little time to get out and test the performance of your chokes before the pheasant-hunting season starts, it will pay great dividends in terms of how many birds you bag. Good hunting!

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