We all have an opinion of what the greatest modern advancement in modern hunting guns would be. But as one of the top 5, I would like to nominate the shotgun choke tube. Coming off dove season, I am prejudiced.
Although the history of the shotgun choke goes back to the 1860s, your option was one barrel, one choke. My first shotgun had a 30-inch barrel and a full choke. Do not ask me the reasoning except my father had the same set-up on his old Remington Model 31 and never seemed to miss. Also back then steel shot was not an issue, so the gun was pretty good for everything except quail.
Winchester is given credit with rolling out the first tube sets in the 1960s, but they pushed the then-price of a pump shotgun up $30 to $200, about $1,400 today. The alternative of the day was typically a modified choke for everything. Other options included separate barrels or guns, neither of which was common when a monthly house payment might run the same price as the gun.
As time rolled along choke tubes became more commonplace. By the 1980s, one or two came with every new gun and suddenly a dove hunter was a duck hunter and a quail hunter by simply screwing out one tube and screwing in another. The main drawback, if it was one, was your options were full, modified and improved.
Of course with competition shooters getting involved that did not last long as they demanded more options. And as shooters grew accustomed to the concept, many wanted their older guns retrofit for tubes, and that created a cottage industry that flourishes today.
That lead to problem No. 2, and that is that all choke tubes are not created equal, at least as the specifications go. Hunters and shooters quickly learned some companies, including some of the big manufacturers, were more careful than others when it came to properly boring chokes to the right size for the choke they were advertised. There is an industry standard for choke diameter and degree of constriction based on the gauge.
Of course the marketplace pretty well took care of itself. To a certain point cost is not a factor to hunters. Quality is. They are willing to pay a little more for something that lasts and more importantly produces the results they seek. The cream rose to the top, and those producing poor quality shaped up or disappeared.
With gun manufacturers and after-market shops making tubes, the biggest problem now is that there was no standard for tube threads. Most shotguns have a proprietary threading, and while most after-market companies have options to match the various designs, do not expect to use you Remington chokes in a Benelli. Now there are some European shotgun brands where the tubes are interchangeable, but do not get surprised in the field when they are not. I recently bought a 20-gauge CZ and wanted to switch tubes only to find its 20-gauge were only compatible with Huglu, which actually makes the gun. For some reason its 12-gauges are interchangeable with any off-the-rack Beretta/Benelli Mobil style threads.
All those issues are a small price to pay to convert one shotgun into something that can be used for so many different things. I have 28- and 20-gauge shotguns that have been used for dove, quail, pheasant and duck. The tricky part is the duck because of steel shot. Steel shot can cause barrel damage through some chokes and shoots poorly through others. Manufacturers are good about marking chokes appropriate for steel shot, but the general rule of thumb is stay more open than full choke.
On the other hand tubes can be switched immediately depending on the situation. If you are set up for birds coming into feed, but find out you are going to be shooting at passing birds instead you simply unscrew the improved tube and screw in a modified or something else.
While choke tubes are pretty much plug-and-play, shooters need to be careful not to strip the threads screwing one in. Tyler gunsmith Dexter Jordan also recommends only tightening them enough that you can use a quarter to loosen them.
Something else hunters need to remember is that choke tubes need to be cleaned separately from the barrels especially if used under wet conditions. The heat caused by shotgun shells can cause rusting around the threads, and that can result in the tube becoming stuck in the barrel. There are ways to remove them, but it is pretty invasive and can result in a destroyed tube.
Jordan recommends annually putting a light amount of bearing grease on the threads to prevent the tubes getting stuck.
There have been a lot of gun improvements and changes over the years. If I lived out west and shot more at distance, I might vote for the new digital scopes as the best improvement. Or I might go with the better triggers that are like cutting through butter instead of breaking loose a lug nut. Improved ammunition for rifles and shotguns is right up there. But for my money and the way I hunt, choke tubes have had the biggest impact.