A shotgun is a key player in many competitive shooting sports—three gun, cowboy action, skeet, clay pigeons, trap—in countless hunting applications, and in home defense scenarios. But for each of these uses, the shotgun must perform differently. In home defense, you want a wide spread of projectiles to maximize the likelihood of a hit at close range. Conversely, when hunting turkey, you want to keep the pellets tight together for improved precision at a distance. (You don’t want to destroy the meat or risk wounding the bird by only hitting it with a few pellets.)

Shotgun 101: Understanding Chokes
Image courtesy of the International Hunter Education Association.
  • Super full: Often used in turkey hunting, these chokes have the sharpest taper and so produce the tightest patterns. They shouldn’t be used with steel shot—steel won’t deform as the pellets pass through the choke’s taper the way lead will, and may cause damage to your barrel.
  • Full: Pheasants getting up early? Equipping a full choke may be your answer. With a tight constriction and a dense shot pattern, it delivers great performance at a longer distance (by shotgun standards), but shouldn’t be used with steel, either.
  • Modified: This choke has less constriction than a full choke and can be used with steel. I drop one in when hunting waterfowl. Most fixed-choke shotguns are either modified or full choke.
  • Improved cylinder: Less constricted than a modified choke, an improved-cylinder choke works in tandem with a full choke for a great upland-bird combination. (The Improved cylinder works for close birds, the full for those that get up farther away). Rifled slugs work well with this one, too.
  • Skeet: A choke that delivers an especially wide pattern, it’s designed for use in skeet shooting.
  • Cylinder: Often used in shotguns with self-defense designations, the cylinder choke has no taper. Because it’s essentially a continuation of the barrel, it has the broadest pattern of any choke.
Shotgun 101: Understanding Chokes
Choke tubes often have notches or colors on them designating their type and how they behave with steel or lead shot—check the container for details.

These “patterns” are dictated by the shotgun’s choke—either a machined taper in the barrel (older and inexpensive shotguns often have fixed chokes that can’t be altered) or an interchangeable steel tube that threads into the barrel’s muzzle—which constricts the shot as it exits the barrel. Here’s a basic rundown of the most common chokes and a few of the applications in which one might use them.