In general usage, the more open chokes are effective at shorter distances and tighter chokes are more effective at longer distances. For years, only four chokes were available and utilized: cylinder, improved cylinder, modified and full. Three choke choices (cylinder was usually dropped) were standard for hunters through most of the 20th Century. The upland gunner can do quite well using improved cylinder most of the time, though a modified choke would make a good back-up choke.
Trial "guns" (Maine) use full chokes preparing for a "worst case" scenario.
Photo by: Author
Clay target games were responsible for the creation of additional chokes. Skeet -1 and Skeet - 2 were developed for skeet shooters. Improved modified came about because of trap shooters. Light modified and other gap-filling chokes came about primarily because of sporting clays.
While many folks think that interchangeable chokes are a new development, Poly Choke and the Cutts Compensator have been around for a long time; both are devices installed on a shotgun’s muzzle to adjust the choke or pattern.
Interchangeable chokes are standard equipment on many modern shotguns, certainly most American shotguns. Remington, Winchester, Browning, Berretta, et all, manufacture their shotguns with interchangeable chokes available. Briley and others make a wide range of chokes to fit nearly any smoothbore and offer a wide range of choke patterns.
Hunting and shooting is not rocket science and most hunters would do well using just improved cylinder, modified and full chokes. Skeet shooters could use just skeet or improved cylinder. Trap shooters would do well with just improved modified and sporting clays shooters could be successful with improved cylinder and modified, ok, maybe an improved modified, too.
There is an advantage to using double-barreled shotguns, either side-by-side or over/under, because they offer two choke choices. The reality is, though, that most modern doubles have a single trigger and even with a single selective trigger, one will nearly always use the same barrel (thus, choke) every time a bird flushes. Double triggers genuinely allow two choke choices.
Tighter chokes require more skill than open chokes and the average hunter would do well to use slightly more open chokes than they often do. Put another way, "Full choke is a demanding mistress; improved cylinder a forgiving friend." Bob Brister’s statement is as true today as it was in 1976 when he wrote it in Shotgunning: The Art and the Science, one of the best books available for wingshooters, especially concerning chokes and pattern.
Those of you who watch Springer Spaniel field trials in the east see some pretty good shooting. Most of the "official guns" use modified, or improved modified and full chokes. They are prepared for a "worst case scenario", like shooting at a distant bird when "backing" a fellow "gun" after a miss. Watching Paul Van Houten, Glen Ferrara or Ed Faraci Jr. shoot distant birds is an eye opener; they can shoot with the best in the country and can definitely utilize a full choke.
Did anyone notice I didn’t suggest patterning your shotgun? Very observant.
I don’t know anyone with the time or patience to pattern shotguns correctly except Bob Brister and the late Don Zutz. Those gents gained and shared good, important information, but most of us will just be wasting our time.
I do recommend shooting your shotgun at a patterning board from different distances to ensure that your point of impact is correct and to get an idea of the pattern your gun shoots. Shooting different sized shot can make a difference in pattern, as can different manufacturers’ shells. Most wingshooters, though, can see enough with several shots at the board to select effective shells.
Shotgun choke and pattern is not really a mystery. Shooting a lot is the best way to learn to utilize your pattern effectively.