Selecting Chokes For Non-Lead Shot

By Brian Lovett

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hunter looking down the iron sights of a shotgun

The old-timers had it easy. Sure, they stumbled through the woods without GPS and online mapping apps, and they likely froze while wearing cotton long johns and felt-lined boots afield. But selecting the right choke constriction for standard lead loads was straightforward and simple.

Fast forward through the introduction of steel shot, bismuth loads and then the plethora of heavier-than-lead tungsten options we have today. Suddenly, hunters must pause and think about the correct shot size for various game birds and also consider which choke tube will work best for the nontoxic load they’ve chosen.

Sure, some general guidelines still apply: Tighter chokes for longer-range shooting or smaller shot, and more open constrictions for close opportunities or larger pellets. But Scott Turner, Federal’s shotshell product line manager says shooters cannot rely on preconceived notions. They must conduct extensive patterning research to see which nontoxic loads shoot best out of various chokes and guns.

A New World

“People have a tendency to not be familiar enough with their guns and chokes,” he says. “If they’re going to be switching back and forth with steel and tungsten, you’re going to have a different point of impact even. Knowledge is power. If they’re not putting it on paper, they’re just assuming.”

For example, Turner says one of his shotguns performs extremely well with Trulock extra-full chokes, but one of his Benelli Super Black Eagles does better with a Rob Roberts T2 or T3 tube. And his wife’s shotguns shoot differently than his. He learned that by putting rounds on paper.

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“If people aren’t experimenting to see what works best and patterning their guns, they’re doing a disservice,” he says. “In the worst-case scenario, they end up crippling animals. A lot of times, people have a brand loyalty or certain constriction and brand of choke they like, and when they change shells, they don’t change the choke.”

When experimenting with loads and chokes, Turner looks for even, consistent patterns. If a combination produces a pattern with lots of holes, go back to the drawing board.

Consider The Situation

Also, the range at which you pattern loads will depend on your intended application. If most of your shot opportunities occur at 40 to 45 yards, pattern your gun at that distance. But if most will be closer—say 25 yards or less—pattern your gun mostly at that range. However, still shoot a few farther patterns to see what your gun does at longer range, as you never know if you’ll have to reach out and shoot a bird that sailed after the initial hit.

Of course, the distance at which you’ll likely shoot most birds still factors into your choke choice.

double barrel shotgun barrel

“For duck hunting in timber, I wanted more of an open choke,” Turner says. “I was hitting them just fine with the full choke or extended-range choke, but since they were such close shots, it was really destroying the birds. Up close, you might want more of an open pattern. My philosophy is that consistency equals efficiency. If you know what a choke and load are going to do, you can do your part as a shooter to adjust.”

Many shooters also struggle with the decision about using factory chokes or aftermarket models. Turner says there’s room for both.

“Some of the newer factory chokes are fantastic,” he says. “And there are a lot of good aftermarket choke companies out there. I like to investigate which one works best for my gun and style of shells I’m going to be using.”

Material Matters

One final note about bismuth: It’s relatively brittle compared to harder nontoxic options, such as steel, tungsten. Therefore, over-choking bismuth loads is a mistake.


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Federal Premium HEVI-Bismuth packaging

“I’ve found that if I over-choke bismuth, it seems to blow the patterns,” Turner says. “On the patterning boards, I’ll actually see broken pellets, and it doesn’t matter what brand of shell. I just stick with a modified when shooting bismuth.”

But again, Turner learned that through extensive work at the patterning range. The bottom line? Take a bunch of nontoxic loads and various chokes to the range, and see which work together best in your guns. Finding that ideal combination will let you realize the tremendous potential of today’s nontoxic shotshells.