Options for shotgun choke tubes are virtually endless. Most new shotguns come with a minimum of three choke tubes, some as many as six or eight so how does one determine the proper tube for a given hunting scenario?
Then there are the myriad of aftermarket choke tube companies out there claiming their tubes are the best and will let you swat birds from the skies at jaw dropping distances with absolutely zero cripples... much better than the plain jane standard factory tubes that came with your gun. Now, obviously much of the aftermarket hype is pure marketing but there are some true diamonds in that rough.
To the uninitiated all the information swirling around about choke tubes can be mind numbing. I've hunted with more than one neophyte nimrod who didn't know the difference between a Skeet tube and a Super Full Turkey choke. So, without getting too far off in the weeds on this topic I'm simply going to break the choke tube scene down into what chokes you should be using for what basic hunts because simply put, there's an awful lot more about shotgun bore constriction and shot strings/columns than I've got space for in this blog... perhaps a future blog will discuss some of that but for now let's simply break it all down like this... most shotguns will come with five choke tubes; Cylinder, which is the most open or widest "spread", Improved Cylinder, Modified, Improved Modified and Full, which is the tightest choke with the least amount of "spread".
Now it stands to reason that the closer a target is to your muzzle the more open your choke will need to be to hit it easily. Imagine knocking a frisbee that is 10' away, out of the air with a beach ball vs. a baseball, the beach ball would represent a cylinder choke and the baseball a full choke. Obviously, my example has flaws as a shotgun throws a "cloud" or pattern of shot to hit and destroy the intended target but the idea is the same... a wider/more open/larger pattern of shot (the beach ball), which is produced by a more open choke like Cylinder or Improved Cylinder makes hitting closer targets(the frisbee) easier. As distance increases so should the amount of constriction in your choke tube.
At this point we should understand that Cylinder is the most open choke and that each tube gets progressively tighter as we make our way to Full Choke. Therefore, let's break down the applications of each tube.
Ducks & Geese (inside 30 yards) - Improved Cylinder will get the job done nicely here with any non-toxic load on the market. Inside of 30 yards you just don't need a very tight pattern. In fact, too dense of a pattern will destroy the bird and render it unfit for the table.
Ducks & Geese (30-60 yards) - While Improved Cylinder can still work, a better choice for steel and other hard non-toxics would be Modified... this is also where some of the aftermarket tubes come into their own as well.
Upland Birds - No matter the ranges encountered, unless shooting driven birds, I prefer Improved Cylinder for upland work. The Europeans, who've been wingshooting longer than Americans have prefer little to no choke at all for the lighter feathered and boned bird species. The one exception to this may be late season pheasants which tend to flush wild and offer longer shots... if I'm experiencing this I may switch to a tighter choke such as Modified or Full but this is rare as Improved Cylinder has always proven the most versatile.
Shooting Steel Shot - Steel shot patterns tighter than lead or soft non-toxics and you need to shoot a more open choke with it... IC or Mod is often as tight a choke as manufacturers recommend for steel shot, even going so far as to label their tighter choke tubes "No Steel" or "Lead Only".
A Note on Double Barrels - When shooting a double barrel shotgun, whether an over/under or side/side you have the advantage of running two different chokes. For waterfowl I prefer IC/Mod or Mod/Mod. I've even run double aftermarket chokes like Patternmasters with great effect as well. For upland purposes I've never chosen to run anything but IC/Mod or C/IC, sticking with the less is more European mentality.
Aftermarket Chokes - Are they worth the hype? That depends entirely upon what application you're using your shotgun for. Upland hunting... I don't think so, as I've simply never seen the advantage of the performance they provide. Waterfowl and turkey? Absolutely! I'm not going to get into specific brands in this blog because there are many and each has its merits. However, I will say this, waterfowl and turkey hunting demand a bit more from a shotgun's pattern and the advantages that some of the aftermarket chokes provide can make a noticeable difference in your shotgun's lethality.
Conclusion - A solid general rule when selecting chokes for any given hunting scenario is this... when expecting close shooting use an open choke such as Cylinder or Improved Cylinder, Modified is a do all but doesn't perform exceptionally well up close or out far, if your shots are longer or the birds tougher shoot a tighter choke such as Full.