I’m a competitive skeet shooter who tried sporting clays for the second time today. To be honest, I didn’t score very well. Anyway, I’ve been watching some sporting clays tournaments on TV lately, and many of the top competitors say that they use only full chokes. What choke setup and ammo would you recommend for a novice at sporting clays?
As a VERY GENERAL rule of thumb, choose a choke and pellet size appropriate to the distance and target area exposure. That said, a new shooter is usually best off not changing chokes. If you picked an IC choke and #8s, you’d be in the ballpark for most shots on most courses. The one or two birds you might miss by not having exactly the correct choke would by compensated for by hitting far more birds because you were able to concentrate on watching the presentations rather than fuss with changing chokes.
Changing chokes and shells is what gets you the last one or two birds. Analyzing target flight is what gets you the first 70 or so targets. In sporting clays, unlike trap and skeet where targets are shot at known distances, misses are usually by a considerable margin due to failure to understand the target trajectory. There really ought to be a rule that says that shooters aren’t allowed to change chokes at all until they have a dozen shoots under their belts. It would really be doing them a favor.
There is a very natural tendency for sporting clays shooters to fixate on the selection of choke and shells (they always go together and you can’t discuss one without the other). It’s something you have control over. You can make a concrete decision and that makes you feel better. As a gun writer I certainly gleefully contribute to “gear mania” with my Technoid columns. People love swapping chokes and shells and gun modifications around because they think it is performance that you can buy, not earn with practice. But the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t make too much difference to the new shooter. To the pro shooter who will win or lose the shoot by one bird, it sure makes a difference though. Most of the pros pay attention to chokes and shells and the new shooters copy the pros.
As to some of the pros shooting a lot of choke all the time (George Digweed is a good example), he has simply made the observation that his skill level is such that the occasional hole in his pattern will cost him more birds than a consistently smaller pattern on the nearer shots. Very, very, very few other shooters are in his league and most would be better served with more forgiving patterns. When you learn to shoot like George, then you can choke like George. It isn’t the choke selection that makes him shoot the way he does, that’s for sure.
If you absolutely can’t resist swapping chokes, make sure to pair the chokes with the shells or you are only doing half the job. My general rule of thumb for edge-on or slightly turned birds is Skeet choke and #9s to 20 yards, Light Modified and #8s from 20~35 yards, Full and #7-1/2s from 35 yards out. The more the bird is thrown “open” the more you can open your chokes. If you have the slightest doubt as to what the bird is doing, use a bit more choke and pellet. Better safe than sorry.
You may hear all sorts of drivel about never needing #9s on a sporting course or never needing a Full choke. Baloney. As a skeet shooter, you know darn well that a jug-full of #9s through a Skeet choke is the way to run the birds. How many trap shooters use anything except Full and #7-1/2s from 24 yards and back? Clay shooters would be well served to learn from the other disciplines in these instances.
Sporting clays gives rise to a lot of choke/pellet myths compared to trap and skeet. In trap and skeet, millions of shooters have shot billions of shells at exactly the same targets. They can make direct comparisons as to what works and what doesn’t. Seeing the same target over and over again ensures that a little experimentation will produce the best results. Everyone does it and everyone comes up with more or less the same conclusions.
Not so in sporting clays. You can never spend enough time on one particular presentation to know absolutely for sure what the ideal choke/pellet combination is. I’ve seen guys break 40 yard crossers with skeet choke and #9s. They then declare that’s all you “need” for 40 yard crossers. Lunacy. If you absolutely perfectly center a bird it might work, but over the long run, with normal aiming error, a full choke with #7-1/2s gives a larger kill zone. Has to be. Got to be. But since that shooter may not see exactly the same target again for months and months, he is more inclined to rely on anecdotal evidence, rather than any in depth study.
It’s amazing how many people will agonize over whether to use a Skeet choke or an IC choke for a particular shot. Or an IC vs a Light Mod. A full degree of choke only buys you another 5 yards! Half a degree of choke (as in Skeet to IC or IC to Light Mod) only gets you 2-1/2 yards! Come on. That can’t really matter to a new shooter.
Here are some very rough numbers to support the above. I won’t argue that they are exact, but they are pretty close:
Cylinder bore .000″ produces about a 75% pattern at 20 yards
Improved Cylinder .010″ is 75% at 25 yards
Modified .020″ is 75% at 30 yards
Improved Modified is 75% at 35 yards
Full is 75% at 40 yards
This means that when you are fussing around whether to use an IC or a Mod, you have to be able to discern whether that bird is 25 or 30 yards away. Can you judge distance that accurately? On a bird against the sky? Maybe so, maybe not.
Bottom line; save the fussing around with chokes and shells for the time in the future when you have learned most of the presentations and know what they take. As a new shooter, spend your valuable time before you shoot in watching the targets and how the other shooters in front of you address them. That will do you more good than sweating the small details. There will be time enough for that later when one bird more or less will be very important to you. For now, look at the forest, not at the trees.
The Technoid writing for Shotgun Report, LLC
(Often in error. Never in doubt.)