The Screw-In or Fixed Choke Challenge - Decisions... Decisions... Decisionsby Bill Hanus
The main rap against screw-in chokes is that . . . . .. they add a couple of ounces at the muzzle. Barrel walls have to be thicker to accommodate the threading that screw-in chokes require. The extra weight is going to make a 26" barrel with screw-in chokes feel like a 28" barrel with fixed chokes -- and a 28" barrel with screw-in chokes feel like a 30" barrel with fixed chokes. That's no bad thing of and by itself. The extra weight will help build momentum in the swing, which can be very helpful for dove, ducks and sporting clays targets. But there is a trade-off for end-of-the-day pheasant, where a tired lead hand might cause sluggish barrel movement. A couple extra ounces of muzzle weight that is of little consequence when the day is young, takes on significance as shadows lengthen.
However . . . they add a lot of flexibility to choke choice. Obviously true, but the distances at which birds are taken does not lend itself to a high degree of micro-management. The scary thing is that at the instant of flush, the hunter can easily lose his focus on the target if he asks himself: "Omigosh! Which chokes do I have in the gun?" This moment of self-doubt -- a nanosecond squandered on indecision -- is a good way to talk yourself out of the target. Lots of bird hunters simply put in a set of chokes that get the job done and leave them in.
Our fixed choke heritage . . . dates back to a time (when the dollar was a lot stronger against the European currencies than it is today) when double guns were commonly available in choke combinations married to barrel lengths: that is, 26" barrels had Improved Cylinder and Modified chokes and 28"barrels were Modified and Full choke. Two-barrel and three-barrel sets with various choke combinations were not uncommon.
It is interesting to note that high-profile double gun manufacturers like AyA, Merkel, Parker Reproductions and the new Kimber Valier II offer only fixed choke guns -- usually Improved Cylinder and Modified -- thus boiling the decision-making process down to a single or double trigger choice. However, just because a shotgun is equipped with fixed chokes does not mean you are "done dancing." While it is true that, in theory, choke constrictions are quite specific (industry specifications for Improved Cylinder for 20 gauge, for example, are .007") in practice getting within .002" either way is often considered "close enough for government work," as the saying goes. Note, however, that while a .002" difference is not significant in 12 gauge; it's a big one in smaller gauges like 20 and 28.
There is a tendency for Improved Cylinder -- especially in the smaller gauges -- to shoot tighter than most bird hunters need. As suggested above, factory boring often errs on the tight side. The idea being that while you can always take out some choke constriction, you can't put it back. Plus, today's ammunition is infinitely more efficient than when choke standards were established early in the last century. Today's shotshells shoot tighter than they did before the invention of shot wads and hard shot. If you are hunting over close-working dogs, tight chokes and tight ammunition are a poor combination.
This useful chart from Winchester demonstrates relative pattern sizes for different chokes at various distances.
Taking the cure . . . there are two ways to deal with the too-tight fixed choke problem. If you are a hand-loader, the answer is an easy one -- brew up some spreader or brush loads and the problem is solved. These types of loads generally give you about a one notch larger pattern than the barrel is marked, so your Modified barrel might deliver an Improved Cylinder pattern -- or -- your tight Improved Cylinder barrel might give you a Skeet pattern. Hand-loading spreader or brush loads is a tedious process -- not well suited to mass production (which explains why they are not commonly available over the counter) -- but suggests a skill level to which you might reasonably aspire.
Fixed chokes offer a broad canvas upon which to create a shooting masterpiece, that perfectly serves your needs. A good man with a reamer can, for example, open the chokes to whatever lesser constrictions are required. If you only shoot bobs, Cylinder and Skeet might be what you want. The secrets of elliptical boring are not commonly flaunted, but if you are a woodcock hunter, a skilled practitioner can coax your right barrel into shooting six inches higher than where you are looking. You could perch any upwardly mobile bird on the front sight and get more than tail feathers. Elliptical boring allows the point of impact to be moved about nine inches in any direction. Twenty/20 vision can be restored in a cross-eyed double with this low-tech technology. Magic? Sure. That's why he gets the big money.
Will changing the original chokes hurt the resale value of a fine double? No more than improving the length of pull or gaining the advantage of cast on a birdgun. It's really a no-brainer. When a gun becomes an extension of your will (sort of defined by routinely taking doubles and signified by new confidence levels and marked personality changes) they are going to have to pry your fingers off to get it away from you. What possible reason would you have for voluntarily parting with a gun that so suits you?
Be buried with it. Heaven is where birds flush at easy angles. The other destination features head-high weeds, plum thickets and flushes into the sun; where you are going to need all the help you can get!