Phasing Out Lead; where are we?

Written by Mike Swan, GWCT Senior Advisor

In early 2020, when our various organisations announced a joint plan to phase out the use of lead in live quarry shooting, no one could possibly have known about the glitches that would get in the way. Five years seemed like a sensible target, but no one was thinking about the effects of disease. As if the covid pandemic and its lockdowns were not enough, we then had avian influenza and its impact on supplies of birds for releasing.

Many shoots will have lost two complete seasons, and most will have been significantly disrupted, so most shooters have probably fired significantly fewer cartridges than they would normally over the last four years. I am certainly one of those, and I confess straight away that I am still burning up supplies of lead loads, including some extras given to me in the meantime by chums who have retired from shooting.

However, I made myself a promise when the voluntary phase out was announced, that I would no longer buy lead cartridges if I did not need to, and I have stuck to that, and only bought steel. My little caveat, which I have not had to invoke, was that I would still buy lead if there was not a non-lead cartridge to suit my needs for a particular situation. Meanwhile, despite genuine difficulties over world trade during the pandemic impinging on the development of new non-lead loads, there are now over 120 different steel cartridges on the market in a whole range of bore sizes. There may still be some way to go, but the manufacturers are to be congratulated on their progress during difficult times.

One of the features of the 2023/24 season for me has been hearing about shoots that are going lead free. The first came from Arthur Leigh-Pemberton of Torry Hill in Kent, when we were wildfowling together in the autumn. Arthur said that he was actively encouraging folk to go lead free on the home shoot, and that it will become the rule for 2024/5. The following day I received an invitation for what turned out to be a delightful driven day at Bisterne, just south of Ringwood in the Avon Valley. In his instruction my host Hallam Mills said that the shoot is now lead free, and everyone seemed quite happy about that. The same applies at the GWCT’s shoot at Loddington, where there has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the lead free rule from our many visiting Guns.

On the other hand, when I contacted a shoot where the keeper had been positive about changing to steel when I visited almost four years ago, I heard that this had gone no further. “My Guns say that they will give up shooting rather than buy a new gun for the heavy steel loads,” said the owner. Sadly, it seems that there are still lots of people out there who do not realise that the guns which they already own are likely to be perfectly compatible with normal steel loads, and I fear that a combination of ignorance and disinformation is holding people back.

As the gun trade has been at pains to point out from the very beginning of the voluntary phase out, if you are concerned that steel is not safe in your gun, you should question whether it is safe with lead too. Anything sound and in proof should be fine with a suitable steel load, so long as the chokes are not excessively tight. Contrary to the perceived wisdom, I am quite sure that this even applies to Damascus barrelled guns, a view which is corroborated by no less an expert than Bill Harriman, BASC’s director of firearms. Doubters should perhaps read his article “Against Received Wisdom” in the November/December 2023 edition of the BASC magazine, about experiments using steel in a Damascus barrelled muzzle loader. Even with no option to protect the bore with a cup wad, careful examination revealed no scratching or other damage to the gun.


Interestingly, Hallam Mills said that changing from lead made his Guns think about their barrels and chambers, and what that meant ballistically. That is something I have been doing myself over the last wee while, alongside pulling cartridges apart to see what they contain. In some senses I am amazed at how few people ever do this. We are mostly happy to fire shots at a pattern plate to see how our cartridge performs, but pulling a squib apart without firing it seems like an anathema.

In getting a bit technical, I have found out that all is not as it might seem, and that shot sizes and pellet counts can be well away from what you expect. Take, for example, Eley ecowad 32g steel 5s – a cartridge with which I have had great success at pheasants, redlegs, pigeons and ducks from mallard to teal. The couple that I opened had 275 and 276 pellets respectively, as against 338 which my Eley shooter’s diary says they should contain. However, for my money that makes them an excellent equivalent of my standard choice game load of 30g lead 6s which the diary says should contain about 285.

This little bit of research led me to the view that the standard advice to go up two sizes when changing to steel was a mistake, and that one size bigger is probably all that is needed. This view is corroborated with another Eley steel load which a chum has tried and pulled apart for me. Ecowad 28g 7s are listed as a clay load, but he spotted that they might be just the business for snipe and the odd teal and confirms suitable success. The pellet count of 400 in 28g matches what you would expect from the same weight of lead 7.5 almost exactly, and I’m champing at the bit to go and walk a few snipe bogs to try them out next autumn.

There is another thing that compounds the issue of choosing the right steel shot sizes and that is that UK, EU and US sizes are not the same. So, a French cartridge with size 4 shot contains number 3s on our scale. Thus, a Jocker 32g steel 4, which I pulled apart, had just over 200 pellets, making them very equivalent in weight to UK lead No 4s. If you chose this cartridge in following the standard advice to go up two sizes from 32g of UK lead 6s which should contain just over 300 pellets then it is clear that the pattern will be much thinner.

And here is where I get critical of the cartridge trade; rather than doing their best to advise us about what we need in this brave new world, I fear that they are, to some extent pandering to ignorance, compounded by the disinformation that I keep hearing. In a recent email exchange with a manufacturer, I was asking about a smaller shot non-lead load for my old 2 ½ inch chambered Damascus barrelled 20 bore. The reply was that what I was after, which was the equivalent of a 23g load of lead 6s or 7s would not sell in today’s market, because everyone was after larger shot sizes for better lethality.

Well ok, but those bigger pellets are only lethal when they hit a vital spot and there needs to be enough of them to ensure that happens. I have long maintained that instant collapse only occurs when a pellet hits the brain, neck or upper spine. Heart shots will kill too, of course, but the bird will normally fly on a couple of hundred metres before it collapses, maybe never to be recovered. Meanwhile, for every bird killed instantly at long range with large shot, there will be several wounded ones with broken limbs and/or pellets driven deep into or even through the body.

Interestingly, this was echoed by the gentleman that I was drawn next to at Bisterne. He was clearly a good shot, and was doing well with his English side by side, but he did say that he felt the wounding rate was higher when he tackled the highest birds; “Too many runners” he said. That, for me is a symptom of pattern failing before pellet lethality. I did not think to ask what shot size he was using, but I bet it was bigger than he needed.

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at 16:56 on 16/04/2024 by Gary Easton

Some of the supermarkets are will only buy lead-free game so surely this will push shooters towards lead free shot as there are so many pheasants released these days . One hears stories of pheasant carcasses being dumped because there are no buyers which is bad news all round.

Lead v steel

at 23:05 on 15/04/2024 by Geoffrey Bazeley

I do think that the change lead to steel is going to be only another nail in the coffin for shooting in general , lots of people are giving up shooting as the rules and regulations are getting tighter and tighter and the cost of owning a gun and and using it , this is becoming more and more relevant as people get older and maybe need a new gun to suit steel shot and shooting opportunities start getting thin on the ground .

Steel v lead shot

at 8:27 on 12/04/2024 by Chris Vinnicombe

This is a bad idea, I have used lead shot since starting shooting a long time ago, I eat what I shoot so the odd lead pellet was never a problem, they never get consumed with the meat as you can easily remove them while eating. I would not want to eat anything with steel shot, imagine the rust staining left by steel in a damp bird after hanging for a few days, let alone the damage done to teeth chewing down on a steel pellet. Then there’s the lack of clean kills with using steel shot, I had a days shooting on Duck and noticed lots of hard hits yet birds not getting killed cleanly, it’s plain to all that use steel it simply doesn’t compare to lead. I would go so far to say it’s actually cruel and should be withdrawn for live quarry shooting.

Wake up, guys!

at 14:17 on 11/04/2024 by SteveC

Lead not harmful to health, eh? I guess, then, that many of you would argue that we shouldn't have banned the use of leaded fuel, or lead paint on children's toys. Lead is sneeky, it builds up progessively, so sure you're not going to drop dead after eating a couple of lead pellets, but who's going to know if that memory loss, or worse, later on was exacerbated by a steady buildup of lead? After a lifetime of obsessive shooting my health is crap in many ways - perhaps there's a reason why. Having promoted a change to steel or bismuth to my scathing syndicate members I was amazed at the ignorance in this respect. Concerns for the use of steel, and horror at the price of bismuth, with no experience of either, led to a first quick conclusion - none of them had used anything other than lead for all our duck and goose shooting for the past 20 years. So much for respect for the law by this so-called law abiding sector of the population. As for cost, many of our members think nothing of buying a new SUV each year or so, with all those £000's of depreciation, but baulk at the idea of £150 for 4 boxes of bismuth, which is all many use in a season, having spent half that just getting to the shoot, and the other half in the pub afterwards. Like it or not, the public in our democracy don't like the idea of lead so its days are numbered. It's another issue to be taken on board along with others that are generally accepted - the schedules of protected species, which pesticides are banned, the need for gun control certification etc etc - all things many would wish weren't there, but that most comply with. I would happily move to steel and agree to limit my high bird shooting (much of which is already inhumane even with lead - more birds wounded and lost than ever killed - many way out of humane range) than to give up. Fleur-de-lis steel proofing is only needed to use High Performance Steel, akin perhaps to using 3" magnum cartridges. Since few would use magnum shells today, why all the hysteria about HP steel? Stick to Standard Steel, which only demands the usual nitro-proofing. And using modern heavy lead game loads in your old damascus heirloom WILL shoot it loose - don't kid yourself otherwise. So what happened in my syndicate? I had to walk the talk and used a few bismuth (in the cupboard for many years - but previous good results), a few bio-ammo given foc by a dealer, and the rest steel - Eley 30g 4 & Eley 32g 5 both bio-wad. I shoot about 7500 clays a year which means I do shoot quite well. I shot a light Browning B1, lightly choked, at birds up to 120'. I would have said that I noticed no difference from lead, except that I did see a difference - the great majority came down dead, with very few needing a knock on the head. I marked my birds, took them home so I could see the damage, and found nothing amiss. Our sole 20ga user, bought Eley 24g 4 bio-wad, and was so re-assured that he will not go back to lead. A friend, also an excellent shot, used the Eley 24g 4 bio-wad on a big duck day, and commented that he couldn't see what all the steel v lead fuss was about. Perhaps the difference is that I am open minded about the matter, and not trying to shoot 70- 80 yard birds - I have 10ga and 8ga for that, and even then those ranges are pushing humane-ness. I have used steel and bismuth for waterfowl (and clays) for many years, so it holds no alarm for me - I've just accepted the differences. As for rust in frozen birds - if it even happens - I have not seen it - I would far rather scrape away a rust stain than eat invisible traces of dissolved lead oxide. If chinese steel contains traces of heavy metals then have you not considered that the same applies to alloyed (antimony) and recycled lead - oh, of course, lead is a toxic heavy metal! A local dealer commented that with both lead and steel on the shelf the arguments will rage on. Once only steel is there shooters will just get on with it. Sage words, and since that day is not far away we don't have to worry about this for ever more.

Lead shot

at 22:14 on 10/04/2024 by John Thorogood

Strange, I don't recognise any of these comments. I changed to lead shot three years ago, fire around 1,500 shells each season and my kill rate is little different from what it was with lead. Okay, so I could just be a lousy shot. My reason for converting was, simply, that we're shooting a quarry for human consumption and should therefore be encouraging the uptake of game consumption by the wider public. If butchers and supermarkets won't sell game shot with lead, and / or consumers won't buy it, then it's an easy decision to make, we should be shooting with steel shot. It isn't, really, a scientific argument because all the so-called peer reviewed literature talks about lead fragments throughout carcasses but then ends up with the limp assertion that lead (in any quantity) is known to be harmful to health. This begs the question as to whether the "linear no-threshold model" (LNT), the focus of contentious debate in the medical world, is valid. Certainly, there are no peer reviewed epidemiological studies (that I could find) connecting lead shot game consumption with adverse human health effects.

Steel v lead shot

at 11:37 on 10/04/2024 by Chris Vinnicombe

This is a bad idea, I have used lead shot since starting shooting a long time ago, I eat what I shoot so the odd lead pellet was never a problem, they never get consumed with the meat as you can easily remove them while eating. I would not want to eat anything with steel shot, imagine the rust staining left by steel in a damp bird after hanging for a few days, let alone the damage done to teeth chewing down on a steel pellet. Then there’s the lack of clean kills with using steel shot, I had a days shooting on Duck and noticed lots of hard hits yet birds not getting killed cleanly, it’s plain to all that use steel it simply doesn’t compare to lead. I would go so far to say it’s actually cruel and should be withdrawn for live quarry shooting.

Steel Shot impressions

at 11:31 on 10/04/2024 by Thomas Olesen

I have been using steel shot for wildfowl since lead shot was banned in the UK over 20 years ago, in both 12 gauge and 20 gauge shotguns. I have found that they can kill cleanly at similar distances to lead shot but they wound more birds at longer ranges. My main gripe with them is that they rip the poor birds to pieces which is probably why so many more are wounded. Before the ban, I never had a problem plucking and eating what I shot. Since the ban I find about half of what I shoot cannot be prepared for the table because the skin comes off with the feathers. I suspect that most of the people who write about how good steel is for shooting fail to undertake the essential "pluck test" to see if more game can be consumed in the human food chain. If it cannot, then what is the point of using steel shot?

Lead shot alternatives

at 0:36 on 10/04/2024 by Brian Cunnah

Having trialled steel eco-wads no. 4s at pigeons on crop protection in a direct comparison to lead fibre 5s and 6s. The difference in clean kill performance was shocking. We were hitting birds cleanly at 30-40 yards only to see them wheel away on the wind after seemingly losing half of their feathers. Lead shot birds were dropping cleanly when hit. The fancy wads have also made the (once inexpensive) steel loads actually more expensive than lead in some cases. I have now discovered Bioammo Blues 25g and 27g bismuth alloy, which are admittedly a couple of quid more expensive than steel. However, these perform extremely well in my sxs game guns and I'm happy to pay the extra for performance as good as lead. I'll also give solid copper shot a go if / when they become readily available. Not interested in hype, sales jargon or manufacturers taking the easy route. I simply won't shoot live quarry with steel. I've heard of some people using steel no. 7 shot for pigeons but I wonder what can be done with the birds after chucking 400+ pellets at them!?

Steel is co not the answer

at 21:32 on 09/04/2024 by Kenneth Annand

Reading all the comments, I think it is pretty clear that the vast majority of shooters are not convinced that steel is a viable option for game shooting. Yes, at close range steel can kill cleanly. But at decent high birds, it is questionable where it is morally correct to use steel, when the likely hood is that an unacceptably high number of birds will be wounded. An other problem that has not been addressed is the danger of eating game containing steel shot. I have a friend who actually broke a tooth while eating a goose that he had shot with steel. Not surprisingly he said he was in agony! Also, a more serious issue I read about, was, like most things nowadays, steel shot comes from China. Where it is made from low grade recycled metal. As a result it can contain high levels of other metals and contaminants. These could then leach into the flesh and contaminate any birds shot, rendering them unsafe for consumption. Ironically one of the reasons given for transitioning from lead was supposedly to allow more game to be sold for human consumption. Steel could end up having the opposite effect. Definitely time for a rethink. Every shooting organisation that supported this ill thought out ban should stop pretending that we will all be fine with steel.


at 19:52 on 09/04/2024 by Richard

I have never in my life heard of anybody dying from eating lead that may had been in a killed bird or rabbit shot with lead It’s like the electric cars with steel How many tests etc have been carried out properly to see that steel is the way forward How many guns are going to be classified as unsuitable and worthless The word cotton wool may be better

Lead v Steel

at 18:59 on 09/04/2024 by Mark Breeze

Being a Wildfowler I’ve had 20 plus years of using steel, 36g steel 3’s for flight pond ducks, 40g steel 3’s for the foreshore are fine for ducks. 24g of steel 4”s through my 20 Bore are a joke on moderate to high North York Moors Pheasants! The birds come down but are certainly not clean kills, moribund and runners are the norm. I run a shoot and encourage the use of lead alternatives but for 20 bore users I always recommend lead.

More wounding

at 17:50 on 09/04/2024 by Mike Ball

I used steel shot two seasons ago but the general consensus was that we had considerable more “runners” and far fewer clean kills than usual. After returning to lead last year I am convinced it is a better material for shotgun pellets. Thankfully I now shoot at locations where all birds are taken for consumption by the guns and beating teams, none of whom are concerned about potential consumption of lead shot. I will continue to use lead until an efficient alternative is available.

Lead v steel

at 16:56 on 09/04/2024 by Geoffrey Bazeley

I do think that the change lead to steel is going to be only another nail in the coffin for shooting in general , lots of people are giving up shooting as the rules and regulations are getting tighter and tighter and the cost of owning a gun and and using it , this is becoming more and more relevant as people get older and maybe need a new gun to suit steel shot and shooting opportunities start getting thin on the ground .

Steel Shot

at 16:51 on 09/04/2024 by ROBERT JOHN FRAMPTON

Dear Sir, purely anecdotal feedback but none of my shooting buddies will switch to steel shot until they are forced to. The bar-stool consensus is they don't 'do the business' on even an average height driven pheasant, and the felt recoil is noticeably sharper.

Problems with soft iron

at 16:44 on 09/04/2024 by James

I agree with the contributor above, there are so many extra problems with steel (soft iron) that more issues will arise. Iron will rust and leach into the rivers, Wounded birds will die a slow death when the iron oxide enters their blood and poisons them, MRI scans are dangerous as Iron is magnetic There is no possibility of loading steel in small gauge .410 and 28 gauge guns, The list goes on ????

lead shot

at 15:18 on 09/04/2024 by John P Carroll

Nice article Mike--I would also remind all that there are alternatives to steel shot for situations where steel is not the best option. I moved to a steel shot area for ducks and geese in the USA in 1983 and of course since then lead has been banned nationwide for waterfowl hunting. Lead shot is problematic. There are numerous studies on the health hazards of lead in vertebrates including humans. There are now a number of studies showing trasmition of lead from game killed with lead shot. Also, reminder that the GWCT did one of the early terrestrial studies of lead shot ingestion in gamebirds which was published in the late 1990s. Hen pheasants were found with lead shot in their gizzards well after shooting season and hens had elevated bone and blood lead levels.

Steel v Lead Shot.

at 14:34 on 09/04/2024 by Tony Lockwood

Dear Sirs, I am a game shooter, using only 20 Gauge guns. My game includes high partridge and pheasant with occasional duck. As you are aware, there is only one steel cartridge available in the UK (24grm 4) so I am handicapped against other gauges and their range of cartridges. My experience with steel, is a good kill up to 30yds at a ratio of 2.5 : 1 This drops off rapidly for a good kill up to 35yds at a ratio of 4:1. With lead shot (28grm 5) I can maintain a good kill ratio of 2.5:1 up to 40yds. So I am definatly wounding more birds with steel shot against lead. Give me a s similar range of cartridges to other gauges and I might agree with you?

Lead shot

at 14:27 on 09/04/2024 by Lyell Fairlie

I have read Mike's article have a great deal of sympathy with his thoughts. 2 years ago when I thought the going to have to change I moved over to Eco-wads having previously used paper cases in my old 2 1/2 inch chambered Aitken, a gun which I shoot well with and will be reluctant to get rid off. Unfortunately I found that the plastic cases distorting and sought the advice of my gunsmith who had previously checked all of my guns and advised which ones were suitable for steel. He had told me that I should not use steel in the Aitken hence the transfer to Eco-wads. On seeing the problem with the cases he advised that 65 mm cartridges were still putting undue pressure gun and said I should try and find a shorter cartridge. The only one I have found is 63 mm but with lead shot so I am still shooting with lead.

Shot size

at 14:14 on 09/04/2024 by Calum Fleming

I have used Eley steel extensively, however, i must respectively disagree with this article. Firstly, I love the clay shell and now just use it wherever steel is allowed and notice no difference. I personally do not rate steel for live quarry and believe that ethically I owe it to the game to use a cartridge that kills as cleanly as possible. I shoot a modern shotgun and actually quite like a bit of recoil so have no problem with heavier steel cartridges. The no 5,eco steel, 32g i found effective on walked up woodcock and quite frankly nothing else-I ended up running the last of these of at clays. The 32g 3 was much better but still struggled on pheasants-particularly end of season cocks. The 3” 36g ESP eco wad shells were the best of a bad bunch but still did not compare to a lead, VIP, fibre. 32g no 5. If non toxic is the future i believe we need something better than steel that is not prohibitively expensive. There was an interesting video on Fieldsports nations youtube channel regarding a new shot type called Hortonium. With regards to tungsten, as effective as it is, I would question just how “non toxic” it is as it is certainly not considered safe in its industrial settings. I am personally using lead fibre again. I would support a total ban on plastic wads over a lead ban.

Lead shot alternatives

at 11:30 on 09/04/2024 by Piers Austin

I reiterate that wholly changing to steel (soft iron) shot will be more environmentally damaging and lead to more loss of life from natural disasters globally than if we had continued using Lead! This is because the carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions will be higher throughout the manufacturing and supply processes for steel. The perceived solution is actually worse than the problem we are trying to solve! Time to stop and think?

Steel shot

at 11:28 on 09/04/2024 by Ian Pratt

Having changed to shooting steel shot at Snipe a good few years back when they were initially treated the same as various waterfowl our team had dramatically worse outcomes. From cleanly killing the majority of what we hit we instantly went to having numerous flappers and spent ages following up and reshooting injured birds. It was a total farce and I would never use steel on snipe again. As soon as we went back to lead we had clean kills

lead shot

at 11:17 on 09/04/2024 by Mr Richard C Compton

steel shot is dangerous on grouse moors where the butts have stone nearby. I have heard of dangerous ricochets. Also, steel shot is not effective on high pheasants. The size of shot needed means old English guns would 'rattle and shake' themselves to bits in attempting to fire steel at these high birds. The cartridge manufacturers should abandon steel and concentrate of better, cheaper and more effective bioammo, which would also be safe on grouse moors.

Lead shot alternatives

at 9:13 on 02/04/2024 by Robert Barton

Why steel? Bioammo is much denser, yet softer than steel. A good alternative, I believe.

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