by Chase Moore
For any waterfowl hunter, whether it be the once-a-year guy, the weekend warrior or the seasoned guide, nothing could be more disappointing than having a bird work into your spread and when the time comes to shoot, you miss all three shots.
While this has happened to every waterfowl hunter, whether they admit it or not, often it is not the result of bad shooting. What you thought was a lack of focus or an incorrect mount could be something as simple as a patterning issue caused by your choke tube and your load selections.
These shooting mishaps occur more than you think, and by learning more about how they affect your pattern, you can turn those misses into kill shots.
When referring to shotgun performance and patterning, I've heard the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." While this might hold true for some, many hunters may not realize that what isn't broke in their opinions can still be holding them back from being the best waterfowl hunters they can be.
To better understand the issues of patterning and how one should go about selecting choke tubes and loads, I took my questions to Rob Roberts of Rob Roberts Gunworks. Roberts has dedicated himself to the basic concepts of accuracy, consistency and feel. He has it down to a science when helping hunters customize their shotguns to produce the best patterns in any hunting situation.
"As with all hunting gear on the market today, especially waterfowl hunting gear, companies are always coming out with better and more efficient products to help a hunter get the most out of his or her hunt," says Roberts. "The choke tube, which always seems to get a lot of conversation among waterfowl hunters, has grown over the years into a big market for these hunters trying to improve their gunning abilities and put more birds on the strap."
With such a selection of choke tubes these days, how does one go about finding the right one? Here are some things to consider this season when looking to improve your patterning with a new choke tube.
First try to understand it on a basic physical level. Every time you shoot, the last link of direction that your wad of shot receives is from that thin cylinder of steel at the end of your gun.
"Today, most choke tubes on the market will be made with 17-4 stainless steel," says Roberts. "It is a must to try and find a tube that is also heat treated for maximum strength and reliability."
Roberts asserts that this specification will make for harder and more consistent steel, ultimately translating into better patterns.
Another major attribute to consider for choke tubes are the lengths of their parallel section. This is the part of the tube that extends out past the gun barrel. Roberts is a firm believer that the ideal length of a parallel section should be 1" to 1-1/8".
"I have researched and tested every possible parallel section length from a ½" to 2½" and have found that the best patterns are always present with the 1" to 1-1/8" lengths."
An additional feature of choke tubes that has both an aesthetic and functional impact is whether they're ported or non-ported.
"The whole idea behind a ported choke is the purpose of a wad stripper," says Roberts. "This means that the wad is separated more dramatically from the pellets at the exit point than a non-ported choke. Other than that basic feature, there are no other proven differences like a reduction in recoil or back pressure."
Roberts, who stands behind the performance of his non-ported choke tubes, says that the biggest factor is knowing what you want to get out of your gun's pattern, taking into consideration choke constriction and your gunning abilities.
Whether you are a waterfowler who desires to get a softball-sized pattern at 40 yards or one who needs a more open pattern for the in-your-face decoying shots, any pattern can be accomplished with the right combination of choke tube and load. Without having a basic understanding of how a choke tube functions or what to look for, it can become a guessing game with the potential for inconsistency and frustration.
The load also has an effect on the pattern of your gun. Within any cloud of shot, individual pellet placement is entirely random, and no given pellet or group of pellets can be precisely directed. However, if this scatter of pellets is dense enough, the sheer number defeats random positioning and can produce multiple pellet strikes to down the bird.
Choke tubes are essential in this regard, but without a satisfactory load to allow the choke to do its job, you won't see improvement. So how do you find a load to match your choke? According to Roberts, it's a trial-and-error process.
"If you don't feel like getting it professionally done, which I would recommend, the easiest thing to do is to go out and buy a couple of different boxes of shells that you would want to use during the season and go to work," says Roberts. "Find out which type of shell patterns best."
The professional pattern
Even though it is feasible for a hunter to generate a good pattern with basic knowledge of how it works, it's also important to understand that it's not as simple as buying an aftermarket choke tube. Do your research to see which choke best matches your gun.
In many cases, it would be a good idea to have a professional modify and outfit your gun with a choke tube. Roberts suggests a precision custom choke installation and individually fit choke tubes, which will have none of the limitations present in mass-produced or aftermarket choke tubes.
A custom choke will be more likely to be in line with the point of aim when the tube is in alignment with the shotgun bore. The patterns are likely to be more uniform when the shot is constricted evenly through the entire choking action. An off-center choke, which can be found in some factory or aftermarket choke tubes, will have the shot strike first on one side of the choke and have an uneven action.
"Nothing could be more detrimental to one's hunting experience than blatantly overlooking the importance of your shotgun's performance, especially that of the gun's patterning ability with respect to choke tubes and load selection," Roberts concludes.
However, none of this is to say that some quality time with your favorite shotgun can't produce nearly professional results.