Last year, I read a blog article from Grant Cunningham where he advocated for having a defensive shotgun barrel threaded for interchangeable chokes instead of sending the barrel off for modifications such as lengthening the forcing cone and back-boring. Since then I’ve been meaning to put that idea to the test. While I am always short on time and money, I actually already had everything I needed to briefly test the concept. Several years ago, when spare parts were more widely available, I was able to find an FN Herstal Police Shotgun barrel threaded for choke tubes and with fiber optic rifle sights that fit my Winchester 1300 Defender. (I actually bought the barrel because of the rifle sights.) I have swapped back and forth between it and my original Vang Comp modified barrel over the years, but never really played with the availability of different chokes prior to my renewed interest in the shotgun as a home defense gun. In addition to testing how different chokes perform, I also wanted to try and get a better sense as to whether I should send my 870P barrel to Vang Comp. I should note here that I am firmly in the camp of “shotguns need to be aimed, and all of the pellets need to hit the target.” If you disagree with that premise, go read this article by Greg Ellifritz where he recounts a recent discussion he had with Tom Givens.
To try and see what would happen with some typical defensive loads and different chokes and barrel modifications, I performed a rather simple and admittedly limited test during my last visit to the range. I dug out some old ammo that I had squirreled away (probably at least 15-20 years old), as well as some new premium ammo, and went to the range with both of my shotguns and both barrels for my Winchester. I decided to shoot at seven yards. My intent here wasn’t to pattern the guns and ammo at various ranges. Instead, I simply wanted to see how the different barrels and different chokes would compare with as few variables as possible. I chose seven yards because it seemed like enough distance to begin to judge the spread of the pattern and honestly, I doubt I would ever realistically shoot farther than that in a home defense situation. More likely is a significantly closer distance. I could conceivably have perhaps a 15 yard shot inside my home, but the set of circumstances that would require that are so far outside the realm of probability as to be largely irrelevant. Plus, I wanted to keep all the pellets on the target and be able to put multiple shots on each target.
I brought five rounds each of Winchester Super-X 00 buckshot, Winchester Super-X #1 buckshot, and Hornady Critical Defense 00 buckshot. (Hornady BLACK is my preferred loading, and as I illustrated here, I’m convinced that it and Critical Defense are the same ammunition with different packaging.) I fired one shot of each from each barrel and choke combination that I had brought, for five total shots on each of three targets. Four shots from my Winchester 1300 and one from my 870P with a fixed modified choke. I used full, modified, and improved cylinder chokes in the FN barrel, and also swapped to my Vang Comp barrel for one shot. (Full choke for the head shots, modified choke upper left, improved cylinder lower left, 870P with fixed modified choke upper right, and Vang Comp barrel lower right.)
So what did I learn with this exercise? First of all, old ammo still works! Second of all, I really do prefer shooting my Remington 870P SBS with MagPul furniture to my Winchester 1300 with Hogue furniture. Despite my small stature, the MagPul stock seems to mitigate recoil better, although it has about a half inch longer length of pull. However, what this post is really about is shotgun chokes, barrel modifications, and to a degree, ammo choice.
With the caveat that each and every shotgun barrel is, to quote Tom Givens, a “unique snowflake,” here are my results. The short version is that choke works, barrel modifications work, and good ammo works. I know that’s a simplistic answer, so let me explain.
Let’s start with the Super-X #1 buckshot target. The first thing I noticed was that the pattern with full choke and with the Vang Comp barrel were virtually the same size. The second thing is that the modified choke in the FN barrel produced a better and more concentric pattern than my fixed modified choke 870P barrel.
Next, let’s look at the Super-X 00 buckshot target. Here again, very similar pattern size with the full choke and the Vang Comp barrel. And again, the modified choke in the Winchester barrel produced an arguably better pattern than my 870P with a modified choke.
Finally, let’s look at my results with Hornady Critical Defense 00 buckshot. This one was somewhat interesting. The patterns obtained with full choke, with my 870P, and with the Vang Comp barrel are all very similar. Only with the interchangeable modified and improved cylinder chokes did the pattern really start to spread. Also take note of the wad impacts as compared to the other targets. Interestingly enough, no wad impact is discernible on the shot with the full choke. This is consistent with the theory that the wad was probably stripped away sooner by the tighter choke constriction. What I found surprising were the results from the FN barrel with the modified and improved cylinder chokes installed. The Hornady Versatite® wad appears to perform better out of tighter choke constructions. This is consistent with comments I received from a gentleman named Travis here on the blog. To summarize his comments, apparently Hornady redesigned the Versatite® wad in 2016 to work better in modified and full choke guns for their hunting ammunition lines. That design change was implemented across all ammunition lines. As a result, performance out of cylinder and improved cylinder choke guns suffered. This has so far been borne out in all of my shotgun patterning tests to date. Fortunately enough, it patterns well out of my 870P with its fixed modified choke.
So what conclusions can be drawn from this brief test? I can think of two main things. First of all, use good ammo. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the old Winchester buckshot that I pulled out of storage, but it simply doesn’t compare with new technology such as the Versatite® or FLITECONTROL® wads offered by Hornady and Federal. Which of those is going to work better for you and your gun is simply something that you’ll have to find out on the range. My decision to rely on Hornady BLACK in my 870P was reaffirmed here. Second, the Vang Comp system works. As I understand it, the entire point of back-boring a barrel and lengthening the forcing cone is to prevent pellet deformation as the shot travels down the barrel and exits the muzzle. A tighter choke can obviously achieve a similar effect by different means, but pellet deformation may yet rear its ugly head at farther ranges. In fact, I intend to test this further with my FN barrel. Stay tuned…
So if you are using a barrel threaded for interchangeable chokes for defensive purposes, I would suggest going to the range with your various chokes and some buckshot and seeing what happens. However, rather than going to the expense of having a fixed choke barrel threaded for interchangeable chokes, I think a better investment would be something like the Vang Comp system. I don’t know of anyone that hasn’t been satisfied with the work performed by Hans Vang. Furthermore, with the permanent modification that he offers, you don’t risk having a choke tube coming loose and being launched downrange. You also don’t risk having the wrong choke tube installed at the wrong time. Murphy’s Law is always in effect! It’s one less thing to worry about. Since I began my pattern testing, I have consistently gotten good results with my barrel modified by Hans Vang. Based on the patterns I obtained using the older buckshot, I strongly suspect that my 870P barrel will find its way to his shop sooner rather than later. I just think the modification offers more consistent results across a spectrum of ammunition choices, with almost no drawbacks or compromise. Indeed, it is not necessarily the pattern size that is prompting me to send my barrel off. Rather, it is the lack of pattern consistency.
As always, comments, questions, and civil discourse are welcome. Thanks for reading, and please share our blog with like-minded individuals and follow us by e-mail or on social media. If you would like to see some more formal pattern tests conducted with various ammunition and choke combinations, let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to to make it happen.