While the focus of shotgunning falls on the firearm itself, without a basic understand of chokes, shooters and hunters can end up sorely disappointed. What are chokes? How do they work? What’s the difference between Extra Full and Skeet? What do you have now, or what do you need? Here’s a primer for beginners; however, even experienced shooters may glean a few tidbits of information as well. 

What is a Choke?

At its most basic level, choke is the narrowing-- or constriction--at the muzzle end of a shotgun barrel. It controls the spread of the shot, terminating in what is known as the pattern on target. The choke, whether fixed or interchangeable tubes, controls or alters the patterning of the shot that is sent out when a shotgun is fired.

Tighter tubes—like Full or Extra Full—constrict the charge the most, holding it together longer before the shot spreads. The most open is a Cylinder choke, which is generally considered to have no constriction at all. The key is finding and using the ideal choke that is at once dense enough to do the job, but with a wide enough shot string to maximize the impact potential. 

Choke Basics


choke tubes
Every choke tube serve a different purpose. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

There are two main styles—fixed or interchangeable chokes, though adjustable systems have peaked in the past. Fixed chokes are machined as an integral part of the barrel. Interchangeable chokes do what the name suggests. They thread into the barrel and can be changed out for different uses with a choke wrench. Interchangeable tubes can be flush with the barrel, extended, ported, rifled, or aggressively toothed for tactical operations. 

As a note, it’s important to use specialized choke tube lubricant to prevent interchangeable chokes from seizing up in the barrel, an incident we’ve seen multiple times where even a gunsmith cannot remove the choke without causing barrel damage. 

Taking that one step further, interchangeable chokes are not useable across the full shotgun spectrum. For instance, early Browning tubes are threaded differently than later models. Beretta or Benelli tubes will not fit Remington’s, or vice versa and this is simply one example among many. 

A firearm with interchangeable chokes must never, under any circumstances, be fired without a tube in place. Doing so will likely damage the barrel beyond repair. 

Types of Chokes


full choke tube
An extended ported choke comes with the Mossberg 940 Pro Waterfowl. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)
  • Extra Full (ExF / XX-F): Most common for turkey hunting. Produces the densest patterns and longest effective ranges, but also requires the shot to be right on target, as the pattern spreads the least. 
  • Full (F): The tightest constriction choke commonly used on general purpose shotguns. Almost always included with a set of three tubes (F, M, IC). Often used for turkey and waterfowl hunting, serious trap shooting, and longer distance work.
  • Improved Modified (IM): A specialty choke that falls between the tightness of Full and the more open Modified. Used most commonly by sporting shooters who require greater control for clay busting from mid-range yardages. 
  • Modified (M / MOD): Perhaps the most common of all chokes. It falls in the middle of the spectrum. Neither open nor tight.  This is the do-all choke. 
  • Improved Cylinder (IC): This moves to the more open end of patterns. It can be used for closer range clays, bird hunting at close range, and is generally the favored choice for slug use. 
  • Skeet (SK): This is specialty choke often found on sporting-specific guns. Skeet shooting happens at close range, and it’s a benefit for the pattern to spread quickly to bust those fast-crossing clay targets. 
  • Cylinder (C / CYL): This is essentially considered to be unconstricted. Common on home defense or law enforcement guns where the shooter wants a large pattern in a short distance. Pattern spreads quickly and is ideal for the closest ranges. Also a safe choice for shooting slugs. 
  • Rifled Choke Tubes: These are what the name suggests--tubes with internal rifling, ideal for slugs or sabots. Debate rages about whether it’s safe to fire slugs through tighter choke tubes. While some shooters do, we would never recommend it. Though exceptions exist, Cylinder or Improved Cylinder constrictions are best not only for safety, but also have a track record of accuracy. 

What to Look for When Buying a Shotgun or Chokes

While the vast majority of new manufacture shotguns utilize interchangeable choke tubes, many older ones featured fixed chokes. Some budget guns continue with fixed options today. Regardless, that’s an important consideration when buying any shotgun. If you want to, say, hunt turkeys with the same pump action that you’ll use for home defense, opting for a model with a set of tubes allowing the change from Full to Cylinder may be wise. 

interchangeable and flush choke tubes
A look at shotgun chokes--a fixed 20-gauge MOD on the left and a flush mount interchangeable MOD 12-GA on the right. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

While some shooters will shy away from fixed choke guns of yesteryear, some of them actually prove to be the most well-crafted and nicely patterning guns of all, if the buyer makes an informed purchase. In fact, some fixed choke shotguns have been known to put out patterns superior to some of today’s interchangeable tubes. For the same scenario above, a nice compromise may be a fixed Modified choke, which splits the difference between Full and Cylinder. 

Not all choke tubes or fixed chokes are equal. One full choke to another can yield very different patterns. For instance, we once grabbed a deeply discounted Extra Full choke tube from a bargain bin. As it turns out, there was a reason nobody wanted them. The shot string was awful and nowhere near where it should have been. Higher dollar tubes often earn their keep in the field. While choosing the right ammunition is important, choke tubes play the major role in maximizing a solid pattern on target. 

How Do you Know What Choke You Have?


Mossberg choke tube
If the choke tube isn't clearly marked like this Mossberg than look for a series of dashes or stars. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

Many guns with fixed choke barrels show the constriction marked on the exterior of the barrel, along with the other stampings. Some guns may require minor disassembly or barrel removal. For instance, double barrels are often marked on the underside.

In many cases, the type of choke may not be denoted by words or letter abbreviations, but rather with a series of stars (*) or dashes (-). Though there are common meanings, like one star for Full or three for Mod, it’s wise to verify with each manufacturer, as some makers use their own codes. For the tubes themselves, most will be stamped with the brand and constriction, though some will have only a series of notches at the end of the tube. 

Patterning a Choke

Turkey target and shotguns
The patterning board is where you pick the choke that is right for you. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/Guns.com)

The best—and only—way to know without a doubt how your shotgun’s choke performs at any given distance is to pattern it. That means firing the gun and inspecting the spread of shot on a paper target. Stay tuned to Guns.com for a more in-depth video on how to pattern your shotgun and why it’s a critical part of hunting.

During this process, the difference between a dense Full choke and the open spread of a Cylinder choke become evident. Seeing the paper, shooters get a better idea of factors like the distance they can ethically harvest an animal, the best constriction for busting clay targets from given yardages, and the ideal choke for home defense which often demands a faster-spreading shot string that will neutralize threats. 

Related – How to Pattern a Turkey Gun


Special Considerations

While this writing covers only the basics, shooters must be mindful of special cases, such as steel and lead shot patterning differently. Steel shot is not safe in all chokes. There are also specialty choke tubes on the market. Some are built for certain types of specialty shot that could easily damage a standard tube.Others are tailored for specific purposes, like distance turkey hunting or varmint control. 

Even those with fixed chokes have some control. One option is buying extra barrels in different lengths and chokes, or altering the type of ammunition. While this is, for the most part, an oversimplification of shotgun chokes, tubes, and related details, it’s the perfect place to begin when buying, perfecting, or simply getting the most from your shotgun.