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Scott Rall: Chokes and patterns and all that jazz

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors writer 

I was out at the Worthington Gun Club the other day and shot a friend’s pistol. It was a different gun than I was accustomed to and I did not shoot it very well. I got the bullets down range to a paper target in a safe manner, but if that target would have been a striped gopher he would have been pretty safe.

The same thing could have been said 15 years ago if I had been holding a shotgun instead of a pistol. I went to the sporting clay range at Rossows’ Horse Barn and Hunt Club, located a few miles north and east of Lakefield, and after shooting 50 shot shells through my favorite shotgun I had only killed seven clay pigeons.

That was only seven out of 50 and I was totally embarrassed to the point where I became motivated to do better —and not just a little better but a lot better. The second time out I killed 17 clay pigeons and after about 30 outings I was up to about 25 out of 50. Years have passed and today I am still not a great shooter but I did tie my all-time high of 43 out of 50 this season.

Shooting well is a responsibility of every sportsman. We all have an ethical obligation to make good shots that result in clean kills. Part of that responsibility is not to take bad shots in the first place.

Shooting at ducks overhead at 70 yards is not a good shot. A rooster coasting away at 70 yards is not a good shot, either. I hate to hear the sad story of five downed birds but they only found one.

Don’t get me wrong — every downed bird is collected one way or another —just not all are collected by the hunter. Other animals that live in the landscape will make absolutely sure that the uncollected bid will not go to waste.

If you want to be a better shot, then consider this. As most of you know, all shotguns have something called a choke. This is the gentle restriction in the muzzle right where the pellets exit the barrel.

Some chokes are fixed, in that the choke is an integral part of the gun barrel and is not removable or adjustable. Others have removable chokes that screw into the end of the barrel and allow the shooter to change the amount of restriction they want, depending on several factors.

Almost all guns manufactured today have removable chokes. Fixed chokes are more likely to found in shotguns produced over 20 years ago. This is where most peoples’ knowledge of chokes end.

All that a choke does is determine the rate at which the pellets spread out. An open choke (very little restriction) allows the pellets to spread out faster at shorter distances and a tight choke keeps the pellets closer together out to longer ranges. What choke you decide to use is largely determined by the distance the game is from you when you pull the trigger. If you shot a shotgun at a 36-inch piece of paper at, say, 30 yards fitted with an open choke, it would show pellets all over the 36-inch paper. The same shot at the same distance with a tighter choke might show pellets only covering 24 inches of the paper.

One might then conclude that if you want the best chance to shoot a pheasant, you should use an open choke as it spreads out the pellets into a bigger area (called the pattern), and the bigger the pattern the better chance of you have of hitting it. This is oh so true as long as you are close enough to the bird.

If the bird is so far away that by the time the shot pellets reach it they have spread out to a 60-70 inch pattern, the pellets are so sparsely spaced that not enough pellets contact the pheasant to kill it or even bring it down. Clean kills in this situation are very rare. You can have a big pattern in total size and still never bag a rooster. The key, then, to increased hunting success is a balance between the biggest pattern you can use and pellets that are close enough together to make a clean kill.

An open choke (the most common one is called an improved cylinder) is usually good out to 25-30 yards, and a much tighter choke called a full choke can produce good patterns out to 45-50 yards. Here is where my shooting science takes a personal turn.

If I want to use an open choke so I have a big pattern, thus increasing my chances of hitting the bird (but I also know that the pellets will be spaced to far apart at distances beyond 35-45 yards to make a clean kill) what is a die-hard pheasant hunter to do? You could only take shots of 35 yards or less and this would work, but what about late season roosters that will hardly ever cooperate with that plan?

I opt for this compromise. I use an open choke all year long and compensate by adding more shot later in the season. Shotgun shells purchased for pheasant hunting normally have 1 1/8th ounces of shot in each shell. This is the most common load and is normally the cheapest to purchase. I use these shells early in the season because almost all of the pheasants will flush within 30 yards at that point in the season. As the season wears on and all of the dumb roosters get harvested, a 30-yard shot is much less common. I then switch to shells that have between 1½ -1 7/8ths ounces of shot in them.

I figure I need a measurably higher number of total pellets in each shell to fill in that pattern out to 50 yards. It really seems to work for me. I have a big pattern at close ranges due to the open choke and a really big pattern (approximately 50 inches) that still has enough pellets in it at 50 yards to have a pattern density satisfactory to make a good shot and a clean kill.

I am sure that there is an engineer out there that could calculate the exact formula behind my thinking and even disprove some elements of it to some extent, but this is just an avid hunters’ methodology that seems to work really good for me.

The most important thing to do as an ethical hunter is to know what kinds of shots you’re capable of and only take those shots. Sky busting and Hail Marys don’t qualify for any ethical hunter. I am confident that I can down a rooster at 25-50 yards and do so cleanly, bringing a very high percentage of those birds to my game vest.

If you ever hear a hunter say that he has never lost a bird, he or she is lying or has never gone pheasant hunting. Even the best dog can’t bat 1000 all season. It happens to every hunter, but knowing your shooting limitations and that of your gun/shells/choke should make these losses rare.

Give this method a try and see if it works for you. I discharged thousands of rounds before I settled on this method. It is now my tried and tested method for putting more roosters in my bag at the end of a day afield.

Hunting isn’t all about killing game, but a bird or two in the bag is better than getting skunked. Consider this last question: Is it better to shoot at a rooter and miss it than it is not to see one and not have fired the gun at all?