A Brief Guide to the New World of Steel Shot

I was keen to write a blog on steel shot, having read lots of articles about it.  It has crystalised in my own mind the facts and the issues of which to be aware.  Compatibility with your gun and safety are major concerns, so pay attention!!!

Ill Effects!

We know that lead is poisonous to humans; small amounts may not cause noticeable effects but it is cumulative and can result in serious health issues. Whether it be lead pellets passing through the system with your roast partridge or residual lead particles in your pheasant casserole, this form of lead poisoning does not feature highly on any list of “common sources of lead poisoning”.  We could be brash and say it won’t affect us but the science is definitely there.

Lead is also proven to be poisonous to any wildlife that ingest it.  In 1999 lead was banned over wetlands for the protection of wildlife and environmental reasons.  So, whether you wish to prevent further wildlife suffering, believe that eating game shot with lead is a risk not worth taking or, more sceptically, think that it is the first step towards banning game shooting, lead is on its way out!

Several game shooting organisations including BASC, GWCT, CLA, British Game Alliance and Countryside Alliance last year promoted a voluntary ban of lead shot for game shooting within five years.  This action has been partly driven by regulations in Europe but now some major supermarkets, restaurants and game dealers have stated that soon they will only source game shot with non-toxic ammunition.  I believe this move by supermarkets is the biggest game changer (excuse the pun) as eating game is the major argument that legitimises game shooting. The ban on lead shot for game shooting is voluntary; if this is not successful, a legal ban will all most certainly follow. 

For clay shooting there is no planned restriction on the use of lead shot yet.  If you wish to use steel for clay shooting for environmental reasons, check first it is permitted at the ground.  There are concerns about ricochet of steel pellets on some grounds and problems of steel penetrating and causing damage to trees.

New Shoots!

Steel shot is widespread in America and Europe but mostly the cartridges have plastic wads and are loaded to a different specification to that given by the CIP (Commision Internationale Permanente) that we adhere to in the UK.  Steel cartridges are available in the UK but are more limited.

The purpose of the five-years is to give cartridge manufacturers time to develop suitable alternatives, as it is not so simple as swapping lead for steel.  Use of steel has implications for the gun, the person behind the gun, the quarry and the environment.  All constituent parts of the cartridge are being scrutinised and reinvented; new and innovative products are starting to come to the market including different alloys and environmentally friendly wads and cases, uniquely designed to disperse the shot safely and effectively.

Iron-ing Out the Problems!

Steel used mostly in steel cartridges is soft iron i.e. pure iron with an element of carbon to make it more malleable.  It is still much harder than lead creating an additional problem; steel pellets, propelled down the gun at very high speeds and under pressure may damage the barrels.  The barrels therefore need to be protected from the hardness of the steel.  This is achieved through cartridge design, the shot being encased in a cup which also acts as a wad; steel shot travels down the barrels inside the cup so it does not come in to contact with the barrel; on exit of the muzzles, the cup falls away like a normal wad.

A further complication is there are two types of steel shot; Standard Steel and High Performance Steel (HPS). They have different proof marks and you need to know which, if any, it is proofed for.  If the gun is proofed for HPS it will also take Standard Steel but not the other way round.

Alternatives to steel include Bismuth and Tungsten Matrix, that come with their own issues, one major one being cost of up to ten times more expensive than lead or steel meaning they may not be a viable option for many in any quantity. They can however be used through any Nitro Proofed gun regardless of choke.

Raise a Cup!

The voluntary lead ban runs along side a voluntary ban on the use of plastics so the cup referred to above needs to be biodegradable as it is discarded in to the environment.  It is not like the traditional fibre wad and nor can it be made of the same material.  Inventing non-plastic biodegradable materials has proved challenging but various water-soluble polymers and biopolymers that can be used to make wads and cases are now emerging.

Beware the Chamber of Horrors!

OK, this is important!  Check the barrels for the chamber length of your gun. Most side-by-sides have a 65 mm chamber and most over and unders have 70 mm chambers.  Steel is lighter than lead so the same weight takes up a greater volume.  Side-by-side users beware!  65 mm (2 ½”) steel cartridges are not “a thing”; all steel cartridges are 70 mm (2 ¾”).  The consequences of using cartridges longer than the chamber length are not worth considering!

Size Matters!

Patterns with steel are more consistent than with lead; they are tighter because the steel does not distort like lead and the shot string is shorter.  The range for successful shooting with steel, due to its density is slightly less (35 – 40 yards) than with lead.  The recommendation from BASC is to go two shot sizes smaller in steel than you would use in lead to achieve the same effectiveness i.e. use steel shot size 4 instead of lead shot size 6.  Larger size pellets do not give you greater range than lead but are needed to give you the striking energy level required for an effective kill.  The pellets are bigger so the pattern density will be less.  Having said that, in a 28g load of steel there are more pellets than 28g of lead!  

You may wish to experiment a little to see what gives you the best kill with your gun.  But be aware, the largest shot size for Standard Steel is 4.  If your gun is proofed for High Performance Steel then you can use steel shot size 3.

The Proof is in the Pudding!

Modern over and unders are more likely to be steel proof than an old side-by-side, but checking that your shotgun is suitable for steel shot is vital for safety reasons before using steel cartridges.  Make sure you understand the proof markings on the shotgun and exactly what they mean.

The Nitro Proof mark confirms a gun can be used for Standard Steel and is different for each country where the gun is made, so you need to know the nationality of your gun!  Refer to the Rules, Regulations and Scales Applicable to the Proof of Small Arms 2006 for the interpretation of proof markings.

The definitive proof for Nitro Powder for the Worshipful Company of Gun Makers of London is shown by the letters N P surmounted by an Arm Dexter in Armour Embowered, holding a scimitar as below:-

The definitive proof for Nitro Powder for The Guardians of the Birmingham Proof House are the letters B N P surmounted by a Crown as below:- 

For HPS proofing by both companies is indicated by the CIP fleur de lys. 

Note that all HPS cartridges should be clearly marked on the box to avoid any accidental use.   Note also that if your gun has Damascus barrels you must not use steel shot cartridges through it.  If you are in any doubt about safety or proofing of your gun ask a trusted gunsmith.

Don’t Choke to Death!

It is essential not to use steel cartridges through barrels choked greater than half chokes.  Steel does not distort like lead does as it is propelled down the barrels, so the pressure may be too great for the gun and it could cause damage to the barrels, compromising the safety of the user and those around them.

Half choke (modified) used with steel is said to give a pattern similar to full choke used with lead.  Therefore you may wish to consider using a quarter choke (improved cylinder) for game shooting with steel.

Gauge the Cartridge!

12 gauge steel shot cartridges are available in the UK, but often in heavier loads for wildfowl shooting.  20 gauge cartridges are not so easily available.  16 and 28 gauge and .410 steel shot are not available although Bismuth and Tungsten Matrix can be found in these gauges.  Not all steel cartridges have biodegradable wads yet, so watch out for that.

Using steel shot may affect your shooting a little to begin with until you get the measure of it.  Also with HPS there is reported to be more noise and more recoil.  But the good news is that steel is supposedly cheaper by up to 10p per cartridge!  I wonder how long that will last?!  

The steel game cartridges available are reviewed as being good for average game shooting but not so effective on high pheasants.  This could change the face of game shooting altogether.  With more time better cartridges may be produced or perhaps this new world order will bring about an end to high pheasant shooting?  

Blog written by Nicki Wakeford