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What is the future for English guns with steel shot?

Updated 13 July 2021

Written by: Mark Osborne

Many of us have been using old English shotguns and particularly Side by Sides for a very long time; indeed many guns made in London, Birmingham or the provinces in the 1880s and 1890s are still in use today, cherished by their current owners. A lot of them have been handed down from great-grandfather to grandfather, to father and now to son and the expectation was that the next generation would also be able to continue to use them. However, the certainty that the vast majority of us will be using steel shot cartridges for shooting Game going forwards, is causing that presumption to be re-examined.

The vast majority of English-made shotguns have 2½ inch (65 mm) chambers. Provided that the barrels are in proof, have good barrel wall thickness and the action is similar, it seems likely going forward and when we cannot use lead cartridges to shoot Game with (which now looks as if it may be post July 2022), that we will be able to use similar length standard steel shot cartridges in these guns, provided that they have less than half choke in the barrels, do not have Damascus or Twist barrels and were nitro proofed after 1954. However, there is no firm advice on what guns made and proofed pre 1954 can safely shoot. The Proof Houses have not given much definitive advice on this and we have very little precedent to go on. We believe that whilst there is no guarantee that all such guns will be able to use 2½” steel shot cartridges, many might be safe to do so, but with absolutely no guarantee.  Please note, that none of these guns were proofed for that specific use.  We believe that provided the barrels and action are sound and the choking is half or less, “standard” 2½” (65mm) steel shot cartridges might be safe to use in some of these guns, but definitely not all. The Birmingham Proof House has very recently told us that they recommend for these guns, that their 65mm chambers be lengthened to 70mm, the forcing and choke cones eased, the gun rejointed and then reproofed for 65mm steel cartridges. However, the London Proof House seems unsure whether it makes sense to shoot shorter cartridges than the length of the chamber; if so, you should not be shooting 65mm cartridges in a 70mm chamber. All very confusing!

These 2½” (65mm) steel shot cartridges will be perfectly good for shooting the majority of Game we shoot at but will not be effective at high birds or for longer-range shots.  Whatever anyone tells you, they are simply less effective in these circumstances than their lead shot equivalent. However, before rushing off and shooting steel shot cartridges through older guns with 65mm chambers, you should note that many of these guns are now well over 100 years old and are not in any condition such that they will cope even with using 65mm shot cartridges, which they were not built to use. You should therefore take any such gun that you want to shoot steel shot cartridges through to a competent Gunsmith or a Proof House.  Almost certainly, some of these guns will not stand reproofing, therefore do you really want to be shooting them!

Modern day Bismuth cartridges are far better than those made ten years or so ago and whilst they are not quite as effective as their lead counterparts, they are still very good at shooting the majority of Game shot in the UK, and have the added advantage over steel, of being able to be shot through guns irrespective of choking. Yes, they are significantly more expensive than lead (and steel) but are almost certainly “kinder” on older guns and probably on older shoulders too!

Tungsten Matrix cartridges are ideal for use in old English guns with suitable length chambers and again, there will be no problems with the choking, but they are mega expensive. However, if you can afford to shoot £60 plus birds, then you can probably afford to shoot £2-£3 cartridges, but many people might struggle with the concept. Also currently Tungsten Matrix have to use plastic wads.

If you want to shoot higher birds using your older English gun and it is currently chambered for 2½ inch (65 mm) cartridges, then do not be tempted to shoot bigger steel cartridges through it. The fact that you may have got away with doing this with lead cartridges, is absolutely no guarantee that you will with steel ones (which are very different), and the practice could be extremely dangerous and end up hurting you very badly.  If you want to shoot High-Performance steel cartridges through your gun, then you need to carry out the necessary work to the chamber of your gun, to allow you to do so. Having a very skilled Gunsmith undertake this work, the gun will then need to be resubmitted for High Performance steel shot proofing. Whether or not the gun will stand such proofing will particularly depend on the barrel wall thickness and the strength of the action. Guns built to be lightweight or with thinner barrel walls, almost certainly will not stand such high pressure reproofing.  It might well be possible if the action is strong enough (like old live Pigeon or Duck shooting guns) to be reproofed, but where the barrels are not suitably strong, to consider re-sleeving the gun. This work was a staple of the gun repair industry in the 1930s to 1970s, but went out of favour, possibly when cheaper Spanish guns were imported to the UK and also with the availability of modern and in-expensive over-and-unders. Well sleeved barrels are extremely strong (almost every Continental over-and-under is built this way), and whilst traditionally a high-quality gun which has been sleeved has a reduced resale value, we believe that if this makes the gun suitable for shooting High-Performance steel cartridges, then it could be money well spent and in the longer term should not adversely affect the value of many guns, but please remember you will still need a very strong action and one a hundred years old is unlikely to be such. Also, High-Performance steel shot cartridges, because of the powder used have much more recoil than their lead equivalent.

The final alternative is to buy a new gun, capable of shooting High Performance steel shot cartridges, which most (but not all) modern over-and-unders can do, or the new generation of side-by-sides. Almost all English guns built in the last decade are steel shot proof, but they almost all come with a very high price tag. William Powell started nearly four years ago, to develop their new range of side-by-sides, and both their Viscount and Sovereign models are designed to shoot High-Performance steel shot yet look and handle like a traditional English side-by-side shotgun. At £5,000 for the Sovereign model and under £12,000 for the Viscount model, they are very affordable guns and are ideal for shooting all steel shot cartridges, including High Performance ones. 

If you would like William Powell to look over your existing gun to confirm what cartridges it will safely shoot, then please do either send us an email to or give us a call on 01295 701701.

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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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