The move away from lead shot need not mean parting company with our beloved vintage guns, says Simon Reinhold
Simon Reinhold looks at the future of using vintage guns for game shooting – and the enjoyment they bring — as we look towards a non-lead shot world.
Find out why summer pigeon shooting is an experience to test the best of us, as Will Garfit invites you to join him in a pigeon hide to get an insight into this thrilling combination of testing sport and pest control. And take a look at our must-read guide on how to shoot grouse.
STEEL SHOT AND VINTAGE GUNS
The enjoyment derived from using vintage guns for game shooting is an important part of many a day in the field. They are some of the finest guns ever produced and were built by bench-trained master craftsmen who devoted a lifetime to their art. Gun making reached its zenith at the turn of the century when skilled artisans forged, carved and finished guns for their discerning clientele, building them up to a level of perfection, rather than down to a price. It is telling that many are still in use more than 100 years later. Sadly, there are some today who would have others believe they are obsolete hardware in a soon to be non-lead-shot world. I don’t believe that to be true.
I have no interest in shooting anti-aircraft shells at pheasants on the edge of space; if that is your principal focus then the chances are that you are already shooting a modern over-and-under. But for those of us who enjoy using side-by-sides for reasonable birds at decent ranges, what does the future hold?
First, it is important to understand that there are two types of steel shot: ‘Standard Steel’ (in reality soft iron) and ‘High Performance’ (HP) steel. For users of vintage guns we can put HP steel to one side as it can only go through barrels that have a fleur-de-lis proof mark. This mark shows that the barrels have been proved for it. Even if your side-by-side passed proof for HP steel, the recoil would be so unpleasant that you would likely end up with a flinch in short order. It would be a miserable experience.
Our focus should be on standard steel that can go through any nitro-proofed gun with barrels in good condition, as long as those barrels are under half choke. It should be noted that The Proof House currently recommends that nitro barrels proofed before 1954 are re-submitted for nitro re-proofing before using standard steel shot. The exception to this rule is Damascus barrels. If you shoot a Damascus-barrelled gun then your option is to use bismuth instead of lead shot. Here we need to put the cost of shooting with bismuth into perspective. If I fire 80 cartridges on a driven day, then I have had a good day. If it adds £100 to the cost of my day then that is a price I am prepared to pay to continue using my Damascus-barrelled gun. If I was shooting three days a week then I might have to consider other options, but (sadly) I’m not.
There are tests being conducted now to ascertain whether or not Damascus barrels in good condition can take standard steel so the guidance may change in the future. Certainly Danish hunters, who have been obliged to use steel shot since 1996, have reported no issues using standard steel in their open-choked Damascus barrels. This is largely down to the protective wad that all steel shot cartridges employ, as wad technology has improved greatly in recent times.
If you want to shoot standard steel through your non-Damascus-barrelled vintage shotgun then you will need to conduct a barrel health check. I urge you to take your gun to a competent gunsmith, gunmaker or valuer at an auction house to have it looked over. Barrel health checks must be conducted on an individual basis, as several factors determine whether you can shoot safely with standard steel.
With the advent of new biodegradable wads, there are cartridges coming to the UK market in 65mm chamber lengths, suitable for use in older side-by-side shotguns. It may raise an eyebrow to learn that some Guns do not know what their shotgun is chambered for. If that sounds familiar, then you need to find out. Do note that many gunshops do not have proper chamber-length gauges, preferring simply to read this information on the proof marks. It is for this reason that you should seek out a competent gunsmith, gunmaker or valuer at an auction house. It is these people who will be able to give you a proper barrel health check that you might not get at your local dealer. If you do want to shoot standard steel on the grounds of cost (it is less expensive than other non-lead-shot alternatives), then it is wise to consider using a cartridge that matches the chamber even though 65mm cartridges can be used in 70mm chambered guns. Some suggest that there is less risk of damage to the forcing cone (just after the chamber), which is the part of the barrel profile that ensures a good seal between the wad and the rapidly expanding gases.
Choke needs measuring accurately and cannot be done by using a cheap choke plug. The degree of choke is always relative to the diameter of the bore of the barrel and must be measured with a bore gauge. Current guidance when using standard steel shot is to shoot no tighter than half choke. Using tighter than half choke risks damaging the barrel. It is quite difficult to blow up a barrel, and a blockage in the barrel itself is usually the cause. What can occur with steel shot and tight chokes is a ring bulge, often just behind the choke constriction. There is a sliding scale of risk here: the smaller the shot size and more open the choke the less likely a barrel is to bulge, but the opposite is also true. There has been an impression that big loads of large pellets through tight chokes is better, but tight chokes are unnecessary for the majority of game shooting in the UK. Steel shot does not necessarily benefit from tighter choke so it is both unwise and unnecessary. Steel is harder than lead, so steel pellets do not deform as they travel down the barrel and through the choke. This results in fewer ‘fliers’ (deformed pellets that fly off at odd trajectories) and a more even pattern than may be found with lead shot.
The general advice when choosing your standard steel load is to go up two shot sizes from your normal lead load. As always there is a trade off between shot size, pattern and penetration. Shotguns kill effectively (and therefore humanely) through a combination of good pattern and good penetration. The greater the pellet size with steel, the more retained energy and the greater the penetration but you need more of them for an effective pattern. It is for this reason that 65mm steel cartridges will probably not be offered in a shot size No 3 because it is difficult to fit enough of them into the shorter cartridge.
Eley’s Grand Prix Traditional Steel Pro Eco Wad 30g 4 has a rolled turnover, rather than a crimped end, to get around this issue safely and effectively. It is highly likely that 30g of size 4 steel shot will do everything I need it to up to 25yd. The majority of people’s ability with a shotgun falls off before standard steel cartridges run out of puff. Add to this our cognitive bias, which makes us overestimate range, and I believe many will be surprised to find what standard steel is capable of at traditional ranges. Much game killed in the UK is shot between 15yd and 25yd, the latter being the average height of a fully mature oak tree. Birds taken at 25yd and 40yd require standard steel with a little more choke (although not tighter than half) and a larger shot size. The shot size can be no bigger than 3.25mm, after which it is automatically classed as High Performance steel. However, if you are not shooting
an average of 2:1 with your favoured lead load at a true 35-yard pheasant, do not expect to do so with steel. The margins for error are smaller as steel patterns more tightly and a bird caught on the edge of the pattern rather than in the centre is more likely to be wounded. Good shots will find fewer issues. Average shots may have to find within themselves the discipline to row back from true 40-yarders.
BARREL WALL THICKNESS
Some high-quality vintage guns left the workshops when new with deliberately lightweight barrels for fast handling, so thinner barrels are not necessarily a sign of overuse. When using lead shot the recommended minimum is a measurement of 18 thousands of an inch (‘thou’). There is no stated minimum thickness of a barrel wall for standard steel shot but many experienced commentators I have discussed it with would be uncomfortable shooting standard steel through a barrel thinner than 23 thou. To put this in context: a coke can measure around 5 thou thick and a new over-and-under proofed for High Performance steel measures around 32 thou, about the same as your credit card.
For users of small-bore vintage guns, it may be some time before there are enough steel products to cover all eventualities. During the transition from lead to steel shot the commercial reality is that cartridge manufacturers will rely on the 12-bore and 20-bore market to cover their costs before developing products to suit other calibres. I am resigned to the fact that as a 16-bore devotee a 65mm steel load with a biodegradable wad will be one of the last products to be developed as there are not enough of us to make it a priority. For 28-bore and .410 fans it is unlikely that effective steel cartridges will be available commercially and they will probably be reliant on bismuth. Having said that, this is a fast-moving theatre of operations and there is a great deal of product-development work being done behind the scenes, including some new amalgams that are about to reach the market, so this is not set in stone.
The magic ingredient in good shooting is confidence. It has its foundation in good gun fit, a sound technique and plenty of experience but it is affected by the equipment we use. Many of us will have a favourite lead cartridge even though there are some who can happily shoot any cartridge (a different type of confidence). When my in-field testing unearths both the performance and comfort of my favoured lead load I need look nowhere else. When it comes to navigating this transition away from lead shot there is no shortcut for experimenting with different loads and shots sizes until we find one that we have confidence in. There are already products on the market that suit vintage guns and I see no reason to abandon some of the finest guns ever built in favour of a modern over-and-under. The latest addition to my cabinet is 151 years old and it will be coming out with me this season.