The lead shot vs steel shot debate continues to rage. But does steel really herald the demise of our beloved old guns – or merely a modification? Luke Davison investigates
Shooters and gunsmiths have readily adopted the idea of adjusting and updating old guns throughout the ages. So can the same be done for steel shot or will the debate mark the demise of our old guns? Luke Davison investigates adapting old guns for steel.
Stay up to date with the lead shot debate with The Field, find the latest news by reading lead shot.
ADAPTING OLD GUNS FOR STEEL
It was the penultimate drive and one of my favourites. Although I was on the end of the line, this drive always offers good birds throughout and at the right-hand end in particular. There had been some excellent birds so far and I reloaded my gun and waited for the next flurry. As I focused my attention to my front again, a hen bird lifted over an oak tree and presented a nice shot. I had already started to my raise my gun when a fantastic cock bird came into view. He had broken over the tall chestnut trees on the far bank and was seemingly nearly double the hen bird in height. I changed my footing, readjusted my gun and gave the cock bird some decent lead. Upon the report I watched with immense satisfaction as it crumpled in the air, tumbling fully to land a good way behind my peg. Easily the best bird of the day for me and one that I can happily remember as a highlight from last season. I opened my gun and caught the still smoking standard steel cartridge case and thought once again, “Why are people still so reticent to shoot steel out of their game guns?”
This little memory was from last season, late November 2019, and is very much a true story. I was delighted with that cock bird, not because I am so consistently lucky (we all have moments of seeming greatness, although a lot is overshadowed with horrible mediocrity) but due to the ammunition I was using. Aside from wildfowl, I was gaining more and more confidence in steel cartridges and using them on all types of quarry. I found that I was no longer limiting myself to distances that I felt were ‘safe’ to guarantee bringing down a bird ethically, but rather reaching for birds that I would be delighted with if my gun was loaded with lead, let alone steel.
The gun that I’ve been using recently and for most of the previous season is a modern Beretta SO6 EELL over-and-under game gun with three-inch chambers, superior nitro proof with 30in fixed choke barrels at ¼ and ½ choke. Although it doesn’t bear a fleur-de-lys mark I have been happily and safely using standard steel cartridges through it for most of the season.
Without going into too much depth about the qualities of steel shot, as there’s been acres of ink already expended on the subject, there are a few simple rules for using steel in shotguns and certainly far fewer concerns than many shooters seem to make of them.
Firstly, and most simply, if your gun is fully steel shot proofed, then you can use any steel cartridge in it up to its max chamber length. If it’s a 3½in semi-auto destined for the foreshore – stick those super magnum 42gm loads in them and hit the marsh. If it’s your beloved new game gun that can accommodate up to a 3in cartridge, use 2¾in shells or 3in magnums at your leisure.
However if, like me, you want to shoot steel out of your preferred game gun and it isn’t fully steel shot proofed up to its entire chamber length, then you can still use ‘Standard’ steel out of it and still be covered by the advice of the proof house and the Gun Trade Association (GTA). Standard Steel cartridges, compared to high-performance steel cartridges, can be identified by the manufacture’s mark on the packaging and should be only up to No 4 shot size. If you’re in any doubt about standard steel or high-performance steel your cartridge supplier should be able to assist.
RULES OF STEEL
The rules for using standard steel out of a non-fleur-de-lys game gun are straightforward:
proof mark – make sure your gun is fully proofed and still within proof standards; if in doubt, always consult your local gunsmith;
2¾in (70mm) chambers as a minimum –nearly all standard steel cartridges are 2¾in (70mm) in length; game guns with shorter chambers won’t be able to accommodate most standard steel commercial loadings that are currently available;
3in (76mm) chambers – even if your gun can accommodate 3in (76mm) cartridges, nearly all 3in commercial cartridges that are available are classed as ‘High Performance’ and the cartridge manufactures would insist that your gun is Fully Steel Shot Proofed to use them;
choke – this is one of the more crucial rules when using steel shot out of any gun; there are a few differing opinions but to keep it simple use nothing tighter than half choke.
If your game gun can conform to these rules and it is in good and serviceable condition (as all guns that get used should be), then there should be nothing to stop you using standard steel loads. If your game gun doesn’t conform to these rules then all is still not lost, it can still be more than possible to adjust, update or alter your gun to make it eligible for steel shot.
Adjusting, updating and altering shotguns has been a readily adopted idea by shooters and gunsmiths throughout the ages. It’s not uncommon to see that some flintlocks were updated to percussion guns and other muzzle-loading barrels were reused to be incorporated into breech-loaders. Black powder guns were re-proofed to be safe to use with smokeless and nitro powders, while, in more recent times, lengthening chambers has been seen as a practical approach to offer you more flexibility with cartridge options. Generally speaking, all of these adjustments have been along the lines of updating older guns to be as flexible as their modern counterparts of the day. So why not try and adapt your game gun to be flexible enough to use modern shot types?
The most common variable that affects a gun’s ability to be used with standard steel safely is too much choke. Altering chokes, although not a modern innovation, is the simplest place to start when looking at ‘modernising’ your gun to make it steel friendly. Steel does not compress like lead so barrel constrictions will generate more pressure and damage can be incurred at the muzzle with chokes tighter than half.
Removing choke in a shotgun barrel is in theory a simple process but it is a one-way ticket. Once you’ve reduced the choke restriction it can’t be added again. Many competent gunsmiths can ease the choke in shotgun barrels but, in my opinion, the real masters when it comes to precision barrel work are Teague Precision Chokes, the company based in Wiltshire. Originally set up by Nigel Teague, a former Rolls-Royce engineer by trade, Teague is most famous for its Invisible Multi Chokes, but the firm’s skill set has always encompassed barrel improvement as well as patterning and regulating.
OPENING UP CHOKE
Discussing fixed chokes and opening them up from a steel advantage point of view with Ivan Reid at Teagues was most insightful. Seemingly, opening up choke on shotgun barrels can be straightforward: “So long as there’s good barrel wall thickness at the muzzle, opening up to half or less can be readily done,” he said.
Not only can opening up choke be a simple solution it does not require the gun to be re-proofed, an added bonus re time and cost. Once your gun’s chokes are suitable for shooting standard steel, you’re away. Your gun would fit within the advice given to the public by the GTA and organisations such as BASC endorsing the use of standard steel shot in a nitro-proofed gun and no greater choke than half. However, although it’s not mandatory, if you wanted to maximise your gun’s capability Reid would recommend steel shot proofing at the same time. Coincidentally, using only half choke as a maximum for steel isn’t a handicap. Reid’s experiments with steel show that steel loads pattern significantly tighter than lead, due to their differing material properties and the cartridge loadings. “With a 28gm load out of half choke you’re going to produce ⅞th to a full choke pattern, relative to lead… With a 32gm game load you’re better off opening up to quarter or even skeet.”
But if you’d prefer to have your game gun with a greater choke increment than half whilst using other shot types, but still be flexible enough to use all steel shot cartridges, then explore the depth of Teague’s services and look at getting your gun retrofitted with Teague’s aftermarket Invisible Multi Chokes. Adding multichokes to a fixed choke gun is an incredibly innovative and skilled procedure, with Teague being the pioneer of this technique. Relative to the amount of material that is being removed and subsequently added to your muzzle, Teague’s thin-walled chokes add a minimal amount of weight to the gun, which hardly compromises the balance and feel.
As the ‘invisible’ name would suggest, externally the looks and lines remain unchanged. Couple this with the addition of individually made and hand-fitted multichokes to your gun and you get the optimum match for the corresponding bore size.
As well as the increased performance, Teague multichokes are suitable for all steel shot cartridges – both standard and high performance – up to half choke. Once ‘Teagued’, reproofing is essential and Reid would always suggest submitting the gun for steel shot proofing as well. “We send all of our guns for reproofing after we’ve multichoked them and for a small additional cost whilst it being done, it’s cheaper to get the gun reproofed as well as getting high performance steel proof as well.”
If you choose to submit your game gun for the full Teague treatment you could radically modernise it, ensuring it is not only suitable for standard steel cartridges but also for high performance steel cartridges suitable for your gun’s chamber length.
So, clearly, some people’s views that steel isn’t a viable shot type as it can’t be used out of their game gun is a slightly moot point. Guns of the past have been updated, changed and altered to be usable to the shooter in times gone by, so why can’t we do the same now by simply adjusting the choke on our shotguns?
Although you may be reticent to have any ‘altering’ undertaken on you beloved game gun, from a point that you’d be distorting its originality, I am very much of the opinion that owning a gun in its original format despite the fact that this is seemingly obsolete due to its inability to use the mandatory shot types of the future, is a waste of time. Although unaltered it may retain its crown as a perfect specimen, originality value of the gun may not necessarily keep its value if it’s unusable. If you still have doubts, contact Ivan Reid at Teague Precision Chokes for more information, as well as your gun’s manufacturer, if at all possible.
Call Teague on 01666 841496 or visit: teaguechokes.com