The Transition from Lead – Is this the end of game shooting as we know it?

Lead shot

By Mike Swan, GWCT Head of Education

In the early 1990s, when we had a voluntary phase out of lead for shooting over wetlands, my old mate Charles Nodder and I had a little try with some steel cartridges out on the Medway mud. It was not very scientific, just a first dabble really.

Being young and keen, we hit the road from Dorset at about 2.00am, with a view to being out on the Kent shore for morning flight. In those days, with wigeon and teal the main quarry, I usually used 28g lead 7s and my first 14 shots at dawn put five birds in the bag. From then on, I changed to steel, following the conventional advice to go up two sizes, and ended up shooting another 10 ducks, including a single pintail, for 32 burned.

If you do the sums, the cartridge to kills ratio goes from 2.8 to 3.2 to one, which is hardly significant. Add in that two of the 32 were used to finish off wounded birds on water during the tide flight, and you could only conclude that there was no significant difference.

But what about the high ones?

Now, I will confess right here that most of those birds were not long shots. Pulling at extreme range on the foreshore is a recipe for wounding, and when the tide is in, ducks can easily escape the best of dogs by diving and disappearing. These were all shot at what I judged to be sensible ranges, but I did not hold back on what I considered to be fair chances, and one rocketing wigeon killed with the second barrel was certainly memorable, so I think that part of the experiment was fair.

Lots of folk say that they can consistently kill high birds at 50 or perhaps 60 yards, but I question how they judge the distance. There is no opportunity to use a range finder, so actually they are mostly making an educated guess, and I am less than convinced that we are good at that. Certainly, when I have been involved in some range judging exercises, most people have turned out to be much less consistent that they expect.

Whatever, it is true that steel is less dense than lead, so the frictional drag through the air will reduce pellet energy more quickly. Everything else being equal, a lead pellet of a given weight will fly a bit further, and hit harder than its steel equivalent. But, from a shotgun shooting point of view, everything is not equal, and lead being softer is more inclined to deform inside the barrel, potentially flying off at an angle, so steel patterns tend to be more consistent.

The golden pellet?

So, lets ask another question, how far is too far? Well, for me, and for the Code of Good Shooting Practice, anything beyond the reliable range of a shotgun is too far. Add in operator error, and that should be restated as anything beyond your ability to kill consistently. And here is a real question to consider, at what distance do you become inconsistent? Methinks this closer than we might believe.

An average team of guns on decent pheasants or redlegs, might expect to kill a bird for every three squibs fired, but what if it is one for five? Are they missing more often, or are those birds beyond reliable range? And what if that becomes one for seven, or even eleven? Having shot for the pot all my life, and dressed my own birds, I am convinced that instant collapse only happens when a pellet goes into the brain or breaks the neck. Also, there is no magic cut off where the pellets bounce off rather than penetrating; you can riddle the body with holes, and the bird will not stop, although it may bleed to death after a couple of hundred yards if a pellet pierces the heart.

As we get to the limit of reliable range, we run into a long zone where it is possible to drive pellets deep into or even through a bird’s body without bringing it down. As one well known coach and author said, some who shoot high birds are really relying on the ‘golden pellet’ that happens to hit the spot. What he failed to add is that there can be several other birds wounded for each one that “dies in the air”.

Now, I am not for smashing low birds, and I relish a testing one as much as anyone, but I do think that it will be no bad thing if the change away from lead persuades us to reassess what is sporting. The late Hugh Falkus was clear that fishing ultra-fine tackle with a high risk of breaking the line and leaving your hook in a big fish was not sporting, and I am very much of the view that shooting very high birds where there is a serious risk of wounding is even more unacceptable.

Three decades of using either bismuth or steel for all my wildfowl shooting have convinced me that there is no problem with either. I am also reminded of some words from back then, penned by American shooter Worth Matthewson, who still writes for Shooting Times. He said he would not change back to lead even if he could, because he did not want to contemplate lead poisoning his quarry. I agree with him; my bigger concern with steel is that of slightly greater carcass damage if I let a bird get too close, not whether I can reach as far as with lead.

Suitable Guns

In one sense, many wildfowlers were ready for change in the 1990s, because they were choosing semi-automatics as the workhorse for the shore, and these guns were mostly built for steel anyway. By the same token, most who regularly shoot high pheasants and partridges have modern, long chambered and steel proved guns to throw a heavier than ‘normal’ load, so the tool is already there.

If it has tight chokes, they may need opening out a little, but then steel usually patterns more closely than lead, so there should be little difference. Clearly, we will all need to be careful not to use high performance steel loads unless the gun is suitably proved, but as the gun trade has said many times over the last couple of years, anyone who is worried about using standard steel in case of damage to their gun should ask whether it is safe even with lead.

A Bit of Experimenting

The conventional wisdom with steel is that because of its lower density, we should go up two shot sizes, but I am not entirely convinced that we need to go that far. What we all need to do is a bit of experimenting to find out what suits, and then build our confidence. For those whose normal shooting would be with a standard game load of lead 6s, I would suggest a shot at the pattern plate with a similar load of steel 5s. If this looks acceptable the next step is to have a few sessions at clays, before moving on to the real thing.

What I am convinced of is that we need to embrace this; lead is a real Achillies heal for shooting. We do great conservation, provide rural employment, deliver wonderful recreation for large numbers of people, and generally enhance the countryside, but lead is a poison, and our continued use gives our detractors a stick with which to beat us. This change is not the end of shooting as we know it; we might just need to recognise slightly different limits, but we probably need to do that anyway.

This article originally appeared in Shooting Times.

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lead steel debate.

at 12:52 on 11/05/2021 by jon petterssen

The facts are as we stand today in May 2021 steel cartridge development has some way to go before we reach high noon shooting quality pheasant.I live in Dorset close to Mike Swan.Locally many shoots present birds consistently in numbers beyond the effective range of current steel shot.Can you picture guns on these shoots trying to select birds in range to shoot with steel.Guns come here from steel only countries to shoot high birds and use lead and in some cases plas wads.Talk is cheap and misleading when a solution is the answer we seek not keep waffling for peronal aclaim. JP

Steel shot

at 12:42 on 11/05/2021 by Erik Kamman

Perhaps it would be an idea to look at the experience we have gathered here in Denmark, where we have been using steel shot for a number of years. In my experience all the fuss was wasted, a suitable change up in pellet size, and all problems goes away.

What's the real agenda

at 12:14 on 11/05/2021 by Philip McConnachie

The shooting fraternity do seem to be getting ushered down a one way street towards non-lead shot and I have to wonder what the agenda is? Firstly, by way of context, I'm not aware of anyone amongst my shooting friends embracing or even interested in non-lead; in fact, the only time it comes up in conversation is when someone moans at this whole initiative to ditch lead and the occasional discussion about the price of bismuth / tungsten etc. However, I know that no-one being interested does not prove anything. What is more interesting to me is that the move away from lead is being justified as some way of getting shooting's detractors off our backs and "modernising". Antis don't give two hoots about that level of detail; they just can't stand the fact that "toffs" enjoy chasing "defenceless animals". The expectation that the antis will stop being antis if there is a change to non-lead is just ridiculous. The argument of lead contaminating the countryside may stand up to scrutiny on a commercial shoot running several shoots a week but for the rough shooter firing a few shots every couple of weeks, I would say the countryside has some far larger contaminants to fear (industrial farming being near the top of the list). Finally, the only other plank in the argument is that game wholesalers do not want meat from game shot with lead. There seems to be a problem of perception / education rather than reality here because I don't think an example exists of anyone who has been poisoned by lead from game (if there is then please tell me because I've eaten game for 40 years). So rather than throw the baby out with the bath water, can we just examine all of this with cool heads? One final point, the author tells us he shot 15 duck on his morning flight. Where have the rest of us occasional wildfowlers gone wrong?

Wads and shot cups

at 11:45 on 11/05/2021 by Crispin Auden

I completely agree with Nick van Zwanenberg. As someone who regularly shoots over grazing land, plastic wads appear to me to be the far greater evil. They don't just make a mess - they can be very harmful or even fatal to stock who inadvertently ingest them. However, I recognise the need to migrate away from lead, both to ensure a ready market for shot game and to reduce the lead poisoning risk identified by Mike Swann in his excellent article above. He is right that lead is our Achilles Heel. So I had decided to try steel shot next season. But when I looked into it, I found a choice of one cartridge with fibre wads and steel shot. Like all monopolistic situations, this seems to rather adversely affect the price! So I have decided to allow the cartridge makers to catch up with the policy makers. When there is a reliable supply of competitively priced steel shot and fibre wad cartridges, I will be at the front of the queue. Until then, the priority for our Syndicate must remain fibre wads.

Steel cartridges

at 11:26 on 11/05/2021 by Paul

I miss birds with lead just as well as I do with steel. On the other hand I have taken some very rangey birds with steel, and ducks no less, so can't see an issue really. A problem is not being able to practice with steel however as shooting ranges seem to be lead-only so it is difficult to get to the intuitive shooting stage with steel.

Killing cleanly

at 8:24 on 07/05/2021 by Nick van zwanenberg

Mike makes a lot of very valid points; there are rarely more than 3 or 4 pellets in a bird that you have killed. To fold a bird in the air certainly needs a head or neck shot. Indeed one can see the head go back but even that does not guarantee a kill. (For some reason especially with Partridges) If Mike is right about tighter patterns in soft iron. (I'm not sure we should be calling this material "Steel") then surely they should be able to kill at longer ranges.? After all lead pellets will travel around 300Yds and are certainly lethal up to 100. (I'm not advocating shooting at that range as if you do hit the target you are likely only to get one pellet into the target. and so wound it.) The biggest problem with the new cartridges seems to be moving to bio-degreable wads and cases. These seem to be creating a lot more problems. How long with they last while being stored? Will they deteriorate before being fired and if so how dangerous is this to the shooter? What will happen to them on a wet day? Steel is one problem wads and cases quite another. Cases are ,or should be , fairly easily cleared. Wads are much more of a nuisance. As a 1st step plastic wads should be phased out.

Steel filled cartridges

at 7:27 on 07/05/2021 by Denzil Skinner

Thank you for an interesting article. My Damascus barrelled side by side by Ingram is away having the chamber wall thickness measured to check they are able to accept steel. Fingers crossed they are and then hurdle one has been crossed. If not it will be sad as I do enjoy shooting with a shotgun barrelled in such a manner.

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