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.
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.