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Steel Shot Shoot Update

Updated 13 July 2021

Written by: Mark Osborne

Where are we now regarding the future of lead shot? The simple answer is that for Game shooting, there is in the longer term not really a future, but for clay shooting there almost certainly is, but perhaps not for as long as we would want.

The seven Landowning/Shooting Organisations announced over a year ago, that they wanted to see a phasing out of lead shot for Game shooting within five years. There was considerable concern expressed at this timescale, partially because of the difficulty of finding high quality alternatives to plastic wads suitable for steel, partially because of an apparent supply chain difficulty with sourcing enough high quality steel shot, but also because few of us knew much about what shooting the alternatives to lead would mean for our guns and our accuracy/effectiveness. Since then, a great deal has been written about the subject, but we are not necessarily much wiser!

The UK Government then called for a review of lead shot, and initiated a two-year phasing-out period, i.e. two years shorter than the seven organisations had originally anticipated. In early April 2021, the National Game Dealers Association announced that their members would cease to take in Game shot with lead as from July 2022, a little over a year away. In effect therefore, we only have one shooting season left when perhaps the majority of Game shot in the UK with lead, will be “taken in” by Game Dealers. This really is the game changer (no pun intended).

2020 was a terrible year for many businesses, including for Cartridge Manufacturers. Both Game and Clay Shooting were very badly affected by the lockdowns and as a result, sales of cartridges were poor. Whilst two of the UK Cartridge Manufacturers have already announced their new non-toxic products, it would be wrong to say that currently, there is a real expectation that there will be enough non-toxic cartridges available for 12th August 2022 and beyond to replace all the lead ones used to shoot Game. There will be further developments in cartridges between now and then and we have already seen very significant improvements, both in Bismuth and steel than were available in years gone by. However, it would be quite wrong for the shooting world to think that we are now ready for the changes which have recently been announced and particularly in time for the 2022 season. We hope to be ready, but the reality might be very different.

Many people who shoot have little knowledge of what happens to the Game they have shot. Almost all of it goes into the human food chain (and so it should). Over half of it is currently exported (or it was before Brexit) to Europe and the British Game Alliance (BGA) has done and is doing a fantastic job to find new outlets for Game consumption. Almost all of these new outlets appear to be wanting Game shot with non-toxic shot, which was the driver for the National Game Dealers Association’s decision. Some Game Dealers who presumably are not Members of the National Game Dealers Association will undoubtedly take Game shot with lead after July 2022, but it is very doubtful that any of the big ones will, not least because the future is not with lead and they will not run two side-by-side production lines, one for lead and one for non-toxic. Game in small numbers, which is used for home consumption or may be sold locally, will not at least initially, face the same restrictions, but big numbers of Game (and by that I mean in most cases, more than 100 head at a time), will generally go to a Game Dealer and most of those seem likely reasonable soon to insist that none of the Game coming into them is shot with lead cartridges. There may also be some Game Dealers who will, seeing a market for lead shot Game, continue to take it in, but we doubt this will be in volume or it will be a long term happening. The risk of cross-contamination in their processing line is high and the penalties from their end buyers will be equally high.

Quite how Shoots are going to “police” this is very unclear, but we may see either very thorough examination beforehand by Shoots of what cartridges the Guns are shooting with or many/most Shoots supplying non-toxic cartridges for the day on which only their cartridges can be used.

We remain convinced that for “normal” height birds, modern steel cartridges, to include the more recently introduced 65 mm (2½ inch) ones, are effective. Most English shotguns made and nitro proofed after 1954 should be able to shoot these cartridges. Most pre 1954 nitro proofed guns might well be able to shoot 65mm steel shot cartridges, but definitely not all will be capable of doing this safely, which is confirmed by the Proof Authorities not being prepared to say whether these 1954 guns are suitable for use with steel shot cartridges. Many of these guns may well be over 100 years old and have already seen a lot of use. It is absolutely essential that before using these older guns with any steel shot cartridges, they are taken to a competent Gunsmith or a Proof House and thoroughly checked over. Steel shot is not safe to use in Damascus or Twist barrel guns. It is also unsafe in 2½” (65 mm) chambered shotguns (which is what the vast majority of older English side-by-sides are), for you to use 67.5mm or 70mm steel cartridges. Also no steel shot must not be used in guns with over half choked barrels.

Equally important are the strength of the barrels and the strength of the action. Whilst many such guns might be capable of being shot with 65 mm steel shot cartridges, (but no-one can guarantee this and indeed does it make sense to use a 100-year old gun, to fire something it was not proofed for?), if you want to use a more powerful “High Performance” steel shot cartridge, which is above 65mm, then your gun must have work done to the barrel chambers and then be reproofed. This is the firing of a “heavy load” proofing charge, to test the strength of the component parts of the gun, particularly the barrels and the action. We do not know how many traditional side-by-side English Game guns with 2½” chambers will pass or fail being reproofed for 67.5mm or 70mm steel shot (after work is done to lengthen the chambers), but it is likely that many such guns will fail, perhaps 50% or more. This should tell the owners of such guns not to use 67.5mm/70mm steel shot cartridges through their guns, without having them first reproofed!

If you want to shoot high birds through guns with 2½” chambers, then you will either need to consider using Tungsten matrix cartridges or buy another gun, which is suitable for high performance steel cartridges and which will shoot these birds at higher altitude. Bismuth will be fine for shooting more normal height birds, both in old English 2½” chamber guns or for use with 16-bores or 28-gauge shotguns, where it is looking as though there might not be the availability of non-plastic wad steel cartridges. If as we firmly believe, “normal” 65 mm (2½ inch) steel shot cartridges are less effective than lead at distance (say beyond 30/35 yards), then the way to improve their effectiveness, is to make sure that your shot pattern is centred on the bird you are shooting at. What happens for most of us is that we seldom get the target in the centre of our shot pattern, but given the greater effectiveness of lead pellets and hence lead cartridges currently to the comparable steel ones, Guns can still kill well when using lead cartridges, even if the target is more on the edge of the pattern than it ideally should be. If you follow the Cartridge Manufacturer’s advice and reduce the shot size from lead to steel by two (i.e. instead of using size six lead shot, you use size four steel shot), you will have at range, a much less dense pattern when using steel shot. This will therefore reduce the likelihood of you being able to consistently kill your target, if it is on the edge of the pattern, than would be the case with a denser lead shot cartridge. The key therefore is accuracy in shot placing and most of us probably will need to spend more time practising and maybe having shooting lessons, if we are to be as good shots with steel cartridges, as we think we currently are with lead ones!

The key to discovering what your existing gun or guns should be safe shooting is to take it or them in to a very competent Gunmaker/Gunsmith and ask for their advice. William Powell will be pleased to do this if you would like to book an appointment by emailing or calling 01295 701701.


All William Powell guns now come High Performance Steel Shot Proofed as standard. Ensuring that no matter how soon the switch to non-toxic comes, you'll be prepared.

William Powell guns can also be made to measure and come with a list of additions or alterations to ensure that your gun fits, handles and looks just the way you would like it.


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