Merits of Chokes and Cylinders - Part III

Shotguns and Shotshells

By Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, 1892



Some of the advice given to shooters in the choice of guns is very laughable. For example, Mr. Greener writes in a recent book: 'The cylinder-gun must not be used at distances greater than 30 yards; to do so is unnecessarily cruel.' Dear me! If he could only see grouse and pheasants, and other game, killed stone dead by a good shot time after time with a cylinder at over 40 yards, as I often and often have seen, how he would stare, to be sure! He would probably say: 'Well, if a cylinder-gun does kill so well, it ought not to.' But that goes for nothing. It is what a cylinder gun can do—and what I and many other shooters are ready to vouch it will do, if properly used—that gives weight to the argument; for an ounce of proof is worth a ton of fancy.

For my part, I have killed hundreds and hundreds of tough-plumaged birds, such as wild duck, and wild geese, too, at 40 yards and more, with an old cylinder 12-bore ' cripple-stopper ' by 'Eeilly ' that in its best days could not put more than 120 pellets on the 30in. circle at 40 yards, with 304 pellets of No. 6—the charge I used, moreover, being 1-1/8oz. of No. 5 shot.

Mr. Greener also writes that he thinks especially badly of cylinders, because when he tried one at a stationary pigeon at 85 yards he failed to kill it. What sportsman does not know how difficult it is to kill with certainty a wounded bird running or squatting on the ground, whether with a cylinder or a choke, at even a less distance, merely because the bird's body is protected as with armour by its closed wings?

I will, therefore, say to the young shooter: If your aim is fairly true, you can, with a cylinder-gun, kill your game at any range at which it should be fired at,* and, taking all-round shooting into consideration, very much better than you will with a full-choke, for reasons I have tried to explain. And if your aim be not true, the choke will certainly not help you to kill, on account of its small shot-circle; whilst, on the other hand, a cylinder, by reason of its larger pattern covering more space, allows for some inaccuracy of aim, and hence, without doubt, will be of assistance in filling the bag, particularly in the case of all driven game.

*How far is this? Well, I should say no game-birds ought, as a rule, to be fired at with a cylinder or medium choke beyond 45 yards, or ground game at over 40 yards. Of course, a large bird like a pheasant, that offers a good-sized target, may sometimes with a full-choke be killed clean at 55 yards, if a crossing shot; but it is far more likely to be wounded. Partridges and grouse, however, being smaller birds, will not receive so many pellets at 55 yards as a pheasant does; and though they might be struck every time, yet they likely enough would not drop dead once to half a dozen hits, even with a full-choke. Fifty yards is a long distance at which to drop birds dead with any certainty; and it is dead, never wounded game, a true sportsman tries to bring down. People who talk of killing their game regularly at 60 to 70 yards, simply talk nonsense. I have never seen the man or gun that could do this. The 70 yard shooter should test his gun for penetration at this range, and note the result; for, even should his gun be a full-choke, and make a fair pattern on the target at 60 to 70 yards, yet this is no proof whatever that it will kill at these distances, though it may pepper the game all over. The pattern of a gun is very misleading at a long range—at 65 yards, for instance—as in reality only a part of the shot-charge then reaches a moving mark; the remainder—quite one-third at 65 yards — straggles weakly up, probably after the bird aimed at is out of the line of fire. In the case, however, of a stationary target, all the charge is shown thereon, as if it arrived simultaneously, and the shooter is too ready to accept this non-reliable pattern as evidence of what a number of pellets his gun can place on game at 60 to 70 yards. It is the shots under 40 yards that add up the bag. Let me see a man kill these regularly and neatly, and I do not care what he does over 40 yards; for the latter are the exception, and the former the rule. Lord de Grey uses a full-choke, and Lord Walsingham a gun without any choke; yet both these gentlemen kill their game in brilliant style, near or far. At the same time, this is no proof that the average marksman would drop his game with a full-choke as well as he would with a cylinder; though it does show him what he might do with a cylinder if he had the gift of using it with sufficient accuracy.

A cylinder 12-bore gun should, if it is properly bored, place 130 pellets of shot on the 30 in. circle at 40 yards with a charge of 1-1/8oz. of No. 6 shot, containing 304 pellets, or 270 to the ounce. A full choke should place 200 to 220, and a modified choke 150 to 160: and it should be borne in mind that a constant regularity of pattern, and even distribution of the shot all over the 30 in. circle, is a sine qua non in the shooting of a good gun.

It is a sign of a badly-bored gun when it places a high pattern on the target at one shot and a low one at another; and the gun is equally faulty if it places a thick cluster of shot on one part of the target, though this cluster be in the very centre, and spreads the pellets thinly over the rest of it; for it is a mere chance if the shooter places the thick cluster of pellets on his mark. And I may point out, that when the pellets are close together in one part of the shot-circle, they are proportionately scattered, and hence more or less useless, in another part.

If a shooter is a fairly good shot—a man, for instance, who, at ordinary ranges, and firing only one barrel, can pretty regularly kill eight out of ten partridges rising before him, seven out of ten pheasants passing overhead at a fair height and pace, and say six out of ten driven grouse—then he may, if he fancies his shooting will be improved thereby, use a modified choke making a pattern of 150 on the 30 in. circle at 40 yards. Should he find that, with the latter gun, he kills near shots as well as he did before making a change, he will be a decided gainer in the matter of long shots; but should he advance another step, and take to a full-choke, he will surely notice that, though he is still successful at the long shots, the ones at ordinary distances will be not seldom missed!

It is worth remark, that though the appliances for boring cylinder barrels are just the same as eighty years ago, yet, owing to the immensely-increased popularity of shooting since the advent of breech loaders, the boring of these barrels, from the additional care bestowed on their construction, has vastly improved during recent years; for instance, a cylinder of thirty years ago was a rare good gun if it made a pattern of 100—96 to 98 being the usual thing in those days, and previously. The present improvement in the shooting of cylinder-guns has often been attributed to their containing a certain amount of choke in their boring—a supposition that may be correct in some cases, but not generally, and especially not in the case of first-class guns.

A 12-bore gun that will regularly and evenly place 130 pellets on the 30 in. circle at 40 yards is a first rate game-gun in every way for the average marksman; and I will say the perfect gun for general shooting, and the use of a good shot, is the one that will just cover a space representing a 30 in. circle at 20 yards—of course, killing anything in that space, and by such a spread giving the shooter a good chance of hitting his mark (as in the case of small, driven birds, such as partridges)—and will put enough pellets into a 36 in. circle at 35 yards to kill well within that space at this distance. This a modified choke with a pattern of 150 at 40 yards on the 30 in. circle should do. On the other hand, a full-choke at 20 yards only covers about half a 30 in. circle, and at 35 yards, though it places more pellets in the 30 in. circle than the cylinder, it puts more than sufficient, the cylinder or the medium choke putting in plenty to kill; and more than that we do not want. Again, if the aim be somewhat incorrect, the pellets outside the 30 in. circle, in the case of the cylinder or modified choke, assist the shooter; while, in the case of the full-choke, there is little assistance of the kind, as very few of its pellets go outside the circle, even at 40 yards. As an example, it can be taken that, in the case of a shooter firing at a driven partridge at 29 yards, he may consider he fires with a cylinder a circle of shot nearly 30 in. wide; with a choke his circle is only 18 in. across!

In connection with this letter I append some reduced patterns (scale, 1/20 in. = 1in.), which are useful in showing the effect on game of cylinder and full-choked guns at different distances, and which are the average result of many hundred shots fired by me at full-sized outlines cut in paper and pasted on the 30 in. target.

In the case represented by Fig. 1, the shooter would have killed his bird had it been, instead, in the position of one of the outside birds shown, or 15in. from the sight he took—i.e. the centre of the shot-circle.

Cylinder-Gun at At A Driven Partridge (distance, 20 yards)
Fig. 1.—Cylinder-Gun at At A Driven Partridge (distance, 20 yards).
Partridges (and circle representing 30 in. in diameter) 1/20th full size. 260 pellets inside 30 in. circle, and spread all over it; 40 pellets outside 30 in. circle, within a breadth of 9 in.


In Fig. 2, the shooter would kill his bird three times over, and riddle it with shot, if he hits it at all! If, however, the shooter had aimed 10 in. to one side or other, he might have clean missed his bird, or only winged it, when, with a cylinder-gun, he would have scored a kill (vice Fig. 1). It will also be seen, had he shot at one of the outside birds, how near to the mark his aim might have been taken without his striking it.


Full-Choked Gun At A Driven Partridge (distance, 20 yards)

Fig. 2.—Full-Choked Gun At A Driven Partridge (distance, 20 yards).
Partridges (and circle representing 30 in. In diameter) 1/20th full size. All the charge of shot (304 pellets No. 6 = 1-1/8 oz.) in the centre of the 30 in. circle.


In Fig. 3 we again have a shot-pattern that allows some 15 in. for inaccurate aim, as, had the pheasant been that distance from its position below, or the sight taken by the shooter, as represented by the centre of the shot-circle, it would have equally been killed.

Cylinder-Gun At A Pheasant (distance, 30 yards)
Fig. 3.—Cylinder-Gun At A Pheasant (distance, 30 yards). 

Pheasant (and circle representing 30 in. in diameter) 1/20th full size. 174 pellets inside 30 in. circle; 86 pellets outside 30 in. circle, within a breadth of 9 in.


In the case of Fig. 4, the shooter will have to place all his charge of shot right smack on his bird, or he will probably wound it, as there are no pellets outside the actual width of the object itself to assist in case of an inaccurate aim.

Full-Choked Gun At Pheasant (distance, 30 yards)
Fig. 4.—Full-Choked Gun At Pheasant (distance, 30 yards).

Pheasant (and circle representing 30 in. in diameter) 1/20th full size. 274 pellets inside 30 in. circle (sufficient to spoil, and many more than enough to kill) ; 21 pellets outside 30 In. circle, within a breadth of 9 in.


Cylinder-Gun At A Pheasant (distance, 40 yards)
Fig. 5.—Cylinder-Gun At A Pheasant (distance, 40 yards). 

Pheasant (and circle representing 30 in. in diameter) 1/20th full size. 133 pellets in the 30 in. circle; 100 pellets outside 30 in. circle, within a breadth of 9 in.


A pheasant at 40 yards, crossing low, is a good long shot; a pheasant flying overhead at 40 yards is rarely seen: yet, from the example shown in Fig. 5, we can realize that a gun placing 130 to 135 pellets on the 30 in. circle at 40 yards should at the latter distance make a live bird into a dead one. In this case it will be seen that the pheasant would have been killed had it been 15 in. in any direction from the shooter's aim, as represented by the centre of the shot-circle, as there are a very useful number of pellets outside the 30 in. circle to assist him. A full choked gun would place 220 to 230 pellets inside the 30 in. circle at 40 yards, and about 60 to 70 outside, within a radius of 9 in. The choked gun would, of course, put more lead into the body of the pheasant —more, in fact, than required to kill—the cylinder, however, putting plenty for this purpose. The latter gun gives 100 pellets, well spread, just outside the 30 in. circle to assist the shooter; the choke would give but 60 to 70, irregularly placed, from their number being less.

In Fig. 6, of course, the pattern is thin; still it is one that, in the case of a gun with good penetration, might bring down the bird, though not often, as a dead one, for at 50 yards the shot charge from any gun strikes with very much less force than it does at even 40 yards.

Cylinder-gun At A Pheasant (distance 50 yards)
Fig. 6.—Cylinder-gun At A Pheasant (distance, 50 yards). 

Pheasant (and circle representing 30 in. in diameter) 1/20th full size. 78 pellets inside 30 in. circle; 90 pellets outside 30 in. circle, within a breadth of 9 in.


Full-choked Gun At A Pheasant  (distance, 50 yards)
Fig. 7.—Full-choked Gun At A Pheasant  (distance, 50 yards). 

Pheasant (and circle representing 30 in. in diameter) 1/20th full size. 156 pellets inside 30 in. circle, 104 pellets outside 30 in. circle, within a breadth of 9 in.


In Fig. 7 we have a first-class killing pattern, and which, at the long range of 50 yards, closely resembles the pattern of a cylinder-gun at 35 yards, or a medium choke at 40 yards. But then, nineteen out of twenty birds offer shots at from 25 to 30 yards, and few are killed at 35 to 40 yards. As to ground game, their distance is generally nearer 20 yards than 30. If birds or ground game habitually gave chances at 45 to 50 yards, then this pattern of the full-choked gun would be invaluable, though at usual ranges the cylinder-gun would be much easier to hit with, the pattern of the latter being in such case more than half as large again as that of the full-choke. However, even with the pattern shown in Fig. 7, to make certain of killing his bird the shooter will have to place the 30 in. shot-circle pretty fair on the mark, as within the 9 in. radius outside this circle the pellets are thinly scattered, and scarcely exceed in number the pellets thrown by the cylinder-gun at the same distance. One of the reasons why game is so often wounded with a full-choke is because a shooter is so apt to place the fringe of the pattern on the mark, instead of the closest cluster of the shot, as performing the latter feat naturally requires an exact aim on his part!

Full-choked Gun At A Rabbit Crossing (distance, 25 yards)
Fig. 8.—Full-choked Gun At A Rabbit Crossing (distance, 25 yards).

 The aim is too forward, and the rabbit missed by a few inches only. 


Cylinder Gun At A Rabbit Crossing  (distance, 25 yards)
Fig. 9.—Cylinder Gun At A Rabbit Crossing  (distance, 25 yards).

The aim taken at the same spot as in Fig. 8, and also too forward, yet, owing to the wider spread of the shot, the rabbit is killed.


The two examples represented in Figs. 8 and 9 (scale, 1/20th full size) show how a cylinder assists a shooter at an ordinary range, whether at ground game or birds, and how a full-choked gun has a contrary effect, from the accurate aim it requires. Had the shooter aimed a similar distance behind the rabbit, it would have been wounded by the choke, though killed by the cylinder.

Footnote:  Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey was a noted shooting authority in his day and was credited with many thousands of birds shot.


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  • Keith Bukovich

    A few years ago I wrote a brief review of Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey’s 1913 book “High Pheasants in Theory and Practice” for
    I felt then as I do now, that his comments and observations were still relevant today and deserved more attention from North American pheasant shooters.
    So with this in mind, I am delighted to see some of Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey’s 1892 thoughts on the “Merits of Chokes and Cylinders” contained on this web site for everyone interested in the sport of upland shooting to be able to read and contemplate. Like his later book of 1913, these 1892 observations are worthwhile and well done. They contain some useful insights on shotgun ballistics that were common at the time but still ring true in parts even today. In truth however, I must concede that shotgun cartridges and shotgun barrel technologies have advanced a great deal from the time that Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey wrote and shot. In the early 20th century a 40 yard overhead shot at a pheasant during a driven shoot was considered quite a challenge and many thought it almost beyond the capabilities of the shotguns of the day. However, modern technology has made possible the downing of birds, by well practiced and accomplished shooters, at nearly 60 yards! (Anything attempted beyond that point today is considered reckless and unsporting.) Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, if he were alive today, he would be stunned at the number of birds brought down regularly in the 40-55 yard range in Great Britain currently during driven pheasant shoots. So everyone reading the article here needs to bear in mind the advances that have been made but not to ignore some of the more common sense shooting advice given out to readers. I salute for having these writings from Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey made available as part of their website — they provide a thoughtful historical connection to shooting sports which every reader will benefit from.

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