In these days of universal multi-choke options on modern shotguns, today’s shooters must wonder how their forebears ever managed to kill anything without the ability to swap from Improved Cylinder to Half Choke when the shooting context changed from walked-up pheasants to passing ducks.
There are two ways of looking at this if you are a user of vintage shotguns. Firstly, consider the value of choke to most shooters. I speak as someone who shoots most of his game with a gun built before choke was standardised (following the 1875 trials sponsored by The Field and largely won by W.W Greener guns, with barrels made and regulated by William Ford).
My most frequently used gun has damascus barrels of 30” and they have been lapped out to remove pits. They now measure .729 in the bores, rather than the typically tight Victorian originals, stamped 13 over 1 and 14! As a result they have accidental choke constrictions of 7 thou in the right barrel and 3 thou in the left. In modern parlance that would be Improved Cylinder and True Cylinder (just). To modern tastes that would seem excessively open for game shooting.
It is not. I kill game consistently and cleanly at 50 yards, using 1 oz or 1 ⅙ oz loads. When shooting pigeons in Africa, 60 yards is pretty normal. These are not freaks or proportionally unrealistic. Of six guns shooting pigeons and game birds over ten days last year, I killed 896 head of game for half a slab under two thousand shells. My percentages were well up on many of my friends using multi-choke modern over/unders. My trials in live-pigeon competition environments shows that full choke, or at least ¾ choke drops your birds dead at 50 yards but open chokes kill them too – they just take another 10-15 yards to hit the deck.
With modern cartridges of quality, like the Game Bore Pure Gold I use in the UK for everything and the Eley loads I use in Africa (no, I’m not sponsored by either company but credit where it is due for a good product), open choked guns with barrels which are properly straight and convergent, throwing even patterns, kill very effectively. Victorians killed game before 1875 without the benefit of choke. You can too. If an open choked gun with a good load will kill cleanly at 50 yards, it is better suited to kill at all ranges closer, and more likely to connect, given the wider spread.
Ok, that is me and I realise that I’m not going to convince most readers that they don’t need any choke. The Victorians were equally susceptible to the promise of long range ‘far killing’ guns. To be fair, there are occasions when you are likely to be taking most of your shots at ranges in excess of 40 yards. If you are, then tighter chokes do make sense if you have them.
Casting aside novelty inventions like the screw-on, double-choked false muzzle I have seen in old advertisements but not in an actual example, the best answer to the issue of choke changing was the gun with two sets of barrels. They are uncommon but they do turn up. Let’s examine a couple of examples as choices for the choke-sensitive vintage gun shooter of 2012.
The first example is by that great Scottish gunmaker best known for his rifles; Alex Henry. This is unusual in that it is a very high quality bar-action, hammer 20-bore with two sets of 28” damascus barrels. It has been re-proved for 2 ¾” shells, making it an easy gun to feed modern loads. Ribs are standard game type with a concave, smooth surface. It is tastefully scroll engraved, with a top-lever action, rebounding locks, weighing a very usable 6lbs 2oz with a 15 ⅛” stock. The two pairs of damascus barrels, one choked ¼ and ¼ and the other Full and Full are fully interchangeable.
I mentioned Africa earlier. This gun seems to be the perfect solution. For walking up francolin and guinea fowl, use the ¼ choke barrels. If the pigeon shooting edges towards the extremes of range, which it can, put on the Full choke barrels and see how far you can ‘dial out’ the range and kill cleanly. This is especially useful, as you can’t take two guns of the same calibre to Africa (don’t ask me why!).
For the UK, the Henry would make a nice choice for similar scenario changes – say walked up woodcock with the open barrels and high pheasants with the tight ones. Truly, a gun for all occasions!
If a 20-bore is not your thing, the second gun under examination offers the competition shooter some vintage options to tackle modern events. It is a heavy hammer gun by Reilly, with a bar-action, operated by a side-lever. It weighs 8lb with its 30” steel barrels, choked ¾ and Full, with flat pigeon ribs; and 7lb 12oz with the second set of 30” barrels with Briley interchangeable chokes. The original barrels are perfectly set-up for the pigeon ring or Helice but if Sporting Clays is your game, the multi-choke option enables you to engage with some of those closer targets without feeling disadvantaged.
A third variation that is sometimes encountered is where a quality gun has had a second set of barrels made to replace worn out originals. Sometimes, the originals are then sleeved, rather than discarded, in order to make a two-barrel set. The sleeved set can be multi-choked or set up to contrast with the new ones – either game choked or tightly choked for longer targets.
So, the issue of choke changing is not a new one and it is not one which is unavailable to users of vintage guns. However, to return to my original point; do you really need all those choke changes? Get to the pattern board with your old choke-less guns and see how well they perform with a variety of modern loads. You will be surprised.