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Shotgun Chokes: What they are and How they Affect Your Shotgun

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Shotguns are known for their ability to fire multiple projectiles, or ‘shot’, that ‘pattern’ a target. This feature makes them useful for a myriad of applications, ranging from simple recreation, to hunting and home defense. Depending on how you use your shotgun, though, its overall spread and pattern may be a hindrance.  

A shotshell’s spread is largely influenced by the shape of the barrel. The more constriction there is at the muzzle, the tighter and denser your shot pattern will be. Different applications benefit from a wider or narrower spread and having the wrong one can hinder your shotgun’s capabilities. For most shotguns, though, this can be easily remedied by using different choke tubes. 

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What is a Shotgun Choke? 

A shotgun’s choke refers to the constriction of the barrel at the end of its muzzle, which is determined by a choke tube that threads into the muzzle. Regardless of whether it’s a 12 gauge or 20-gauge shotgun, almost all modern models have threads to accept different choke tubes.  

For example, if you’re shooting sport clays, you ideally want to have a denser shot spread. And by using the right choke, your chances of hitting your target are much better. That said, there is a plethora of unique choke options available, with each one lending itself to different use cases.  

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Types of Shotgun Chokes 

As we mentioned, there are multiple shotgun chokes to choose from. While there are specialty chokes that are reserved for specific applications, there are four main sizes that are the most common: Cylinder, Improved Cylinder, Modified, and Full Chokes. 

Cylinder Chokes: Cylinder chokes are what most shotguns come pre-installed with from the factory, if they come threaded for a choke that is. Essentially, a cylinder choke has no taper and matches the profile of the barrel. You might be wondering why a choke with no taper is even necessary, but they’re more important than you may think. The main purpose of a cylinder choke is protecting the threads inside your barrel. Without one, you can do some serious damage to the threads, making your shotgun incapable of using other chokes.  

With a cylinder choke installed, the shot pattern will spread relatively quickly. With lead shot, the pattern reaches a roughly 40-inch diameter at around 25 yards. These chokes work particularly well for recreational builds or tactical shotguns for home defense, but if you’re going to be hunting or doing any other shooting at further distances, you’ll benefit more from using a more constrictive choke.  

Improved Cylinder Chokes: Improved cylinder chokes are where you begin to see a taper in the design of the choke. IC chokes have a slight taper that allows your shot pattern to stay denser for further distance. Assuming you’re using lead shot, your pattern will reach a 40-inch diameter around 30 yards instead of 25.  

These chokes are often used for smaller upland game hunting at closer distances, though they can be good for other applications where you’re shooting out to around 35 yards.  

Modified Chokes: A modified choke offers a more constrictive taper that’s ideal for shooting at distances beyond 35 to 40 yards. Having a steeper taper than the previous chokes, the shot pattern stays denser for a much longer time.  

When shooting lead shot, modified chokes have a 40-inch spread at roughly 35 yards. This makes these chokes incredibly effective for hunting at medium range distances, which are common when hunting fowl like ducks and geese. Depending on the shot type you use, though, it’s more than possible for shotguns with modified chokes to be effective up to 50 yards away.  

There’s also another type of modified choke known as an “Improved Modified” choke. IM chokes offer a slightly steeper taper, allowing you to stretch the range of your shotgun out by a few more yards. They’re a solid in-between for modified and full chokes, effective out to 65 yards depending on your shot type.  

Full Chokes: Full chokes have the tightest taper of the bunch. These chokes are used to hold shot spreads together up to 40 yards. As such, it’s commonly used for applications where the target is beyond 65+ plus yards. Just remember that reaching this distance depends on your shot type.  

Just like how modified chokes have an added variant, so do full chokes. “Extra Full Chokes” are available that feature an even tighter taper, allowing you to squeeze out an extra few yards out of your shot pattern. This choke is most often used by turkey hunters, as using this choke makes your shot pattern much denser than the standard full choke.  

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Other Chokes 

As we said before, the chokes mentioned above are the most common, but there are many other chokes available as well, which are usually used for specific applications. For instance, some manufacturers have chokes that are specifically designed for different shotgun models like break-action shotguns, and different applications like 3-Gun Competitions, turkey hunting, and more. For most applications, though, choosing between one of the chokes mentioned above will serve you well.  

Regardless of which choke fits your purpose, we recommend researching the manufacturer’s specs and recommendations for what shot types and loads to use. The taper spec between different manufacturer’s chokes can vary, and they won’t all the pattern the same. Most manufacturers either provide information on their chokes in the packaging, or on their site. Either way, they’ll have the most exact info on their chokes. 

Choke Markings 

Something else we want to mention is that, when out of the packaging, it’s easy to get your choke tubes mixed up. Though some choke tubes have their designation written on them, not all do, but there’s another way to keep up with them. Each choke type has a set of notches on the out edge that corresponds with its choke constriction: 

  • Cylinder Choke = Five Notches 
  • Improved Cylinder = Four Notches 
  • Modified = Three Notches 
  • Improved Modified = Two Notches  
  • Full = One Notch 
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How to Choose the Right Choke 

Ultimately, choosing a choke comes down to what distance you’re wanting to shoot at. As we mentioned previously, different scenarios call for different chokes, but something else to consider is your shotgun, shot material, and shot size/type

Shotgun Type 

While you can use different choke tubes in just about every shotgun variant, ranging from pump action to semi-auto, it’s crucial to know that not all shotguns can accept other choke tubes. Though most new production shotguns can, many older models often came with fixed chokes that can’t be swapped out. If you have an older shotgun model, it’s likely that yours is configured this way. Our guide on the basic parts of a shotgun can give you a better understanding of your shotgun’s components before you start making any changes to it.  

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With your shotgun unloaded, you can look at the end of the muzzle to see if there are any tool inserts. If there are four cuts perpendicular to each other, the choke tube is removable. If not, you can’t remove it. Older semi-automatic shotguns, such as the older Browning A5 models, often had fixed modified chokes. Just keep in mind that this varies from model to model. 

Shot Material   

Regarding your ammo type, the actual shot, or projectiles, can be made of either lead or steel. Between the two, lead is by far the most common and is what most enthusiasts use in a variety of applications. By its composition, it’s softer than steel and compresses easily, making lead compatible with more chokes. As the choke tapers down, the shot can compress and pass through it easier since it’s a softer projectile. The greater mass of lead also allows it to carry more energy down range, making it ideal for recreation, defense, and hunting larger game like deer. Another bonus of lead shot is its low cost. 

Steel shot is quite different from lead shot. Steel shot generally patterns tighter than lead shot. So, if you were to run a modified choke when shooting lead, you’d want to use an improved cylinder choke when using steel. Something else to consider is that steel shot doesn’t deform nearly as much as lead does. It’s crucial to check the compatibility of steel shot with your choke model. Some manufacturers might not recommend shooting steel through anything above a modified choke, while others say that steel is okay through everything from cylinder to full chokes. Keep in mind that this is entirely dependent on your choke’s manufacturer, so we highly recommend checking their compatibility charts before buying.  

Shot Size/Type 

The size and type of your shot also plays a role in the type of choke you can use. With lead shot, you can really use just about any choke. Anything from #12 to 00 Buckshot will properly work in all choke sizes. When it comes to slugs and steel shot, however, it starts to get tricky.  

Whereas shot variants like 00 Buckshot are made up of multiple projectiles, shotgun shells with slugs fire just the one projectile. They’re much more aerodynamic than other shot types, making them a common choice amongst hunters. Still, slugs perform best out of cylinder and improved cylinder chokes. Many modified chokes are rated for use with slugs, but the added pressure they provide to them can often destabilize their flight path, having a negative effect on their overall performance and velocity.  

As we mentioned before, using a choke while shooting with steel shot is completely dependent on the manufacturer of the choke tube, but something to consider is that even though you can use a more constrictive choke when shooting steel shot, doesn’t mean you should. Like we said, steel typically patterns denser than lead, and since steel doesn’t compress as much, a tighter choke can cause your pattern to spread more after it leaves the muzzle. Still, not every choke is made the same and they often pattern differently, so we recommend patterning your shotgun with different chokes to find the best one for you.  


Understanding the impact different choke tubes have on your shot pattern is paramount for maximizing the effectiveness of your shotgun’s performance in different applications. Having the right choke can significantly improve your shooting experience, giving your shot the time needed to pattern well at the right distances.  

Whether you’re shooting recreationally, competitively, or for hunting, it’s crucial to make sure you’re using the right choke. Remember, each choke offers its own set of advantages that are better for different purposes, so it’s important to take time and research each one before using it. Likewise, not all chokes are the same, and even though they may have the same designation, they might pattern differently.  

Even though adding a choke to your shotgun allows you to pattern more effectively at farther ranges, it won’t be useful if your aim is off. Check out our guide on how to choose a red dot for a shotgun. It goes over everything you’ll need to know when picking out an optic for your setup. 

Lastly, if you don’t already own a shotgun and are researching the different tools to use on your future set up, our guide on affordable and reliable shotguns breaks down some excellent shotguns for new owners.