Non-toxic shot 2021: where are we now?

A man walking towards the camera carrying braces of shot ducks and pheasants

Game dealers have said they will no longer accept lead-shot game birds from July 2022 - Credit: Tina Bricknell-Webb

Where have we got to since the 2020 announcement about the phasing out of lead shot for live quarry? Mike Yardley takes a look at the issues facing shooters and cartridge manufacturers...

A lot of us are very concerned about the non-toxic shot issue. We feel it has been forced upon us at short notice and we may have worries about the suitability of our guns and only limited knowledge of the new ‘non-toxic’ cartridge products. The purpose of this article is to dispel some of the confusion.

To start us off on the right, simple, track, I want to quote my old friend Malcolm Grendon in the GMK workshop. Malc is one of the most clued-up gunsmiths in the country (he has to be, managing one of the biggest and busiest gun workshops in Britain).

This is what he told me about steel: “People are tending to weigh themselves down gathering too much information about pressures etc. If you have a standard nitro-proof gun in good condition you can put standard steel shot loads though it provided you do not exceed Half choke. If you have a gun with superior fleurs de lys proof, you can use high performance loads and you will know that the chokes are suitable because they have been supplied with the gun. If you have an older gun with barrels that have thin wall thicknesses or Damascus barrels, we would not recommend steel shot. If in doubt, seek out a qualified gunsmith or contact one of the proof houses.”

I thought that statement really helpful. I would emphasise the fact that you need a gun in good condition and suitably choked to shoot steel (less than Half unless it is a Fabarm specially designed for use with increased constrictions). The gun must be tight and have relatively thick barrels. Like Malcolm, many gunsmiths now believe that Half choke should be considered a maximum for steel – which is actually soft iron – and that Quarter or tight Quarter might be considered ideal with this shot material. You don’t need tight chokes with steel to get effective patterns. There is less central concentration than with lead.

How steel cartridges perform 
I have had some, not a vast amount, of experience shooting steel. When steel shot cartridges first appeared in Britain a generation ago, they were pretty nasty. They didn’t pattern particularly well and they were characterised by a very sharp recoil. The latest standard steel loads are much better. They aren’t as good as lead, but they will do the biz on clays or game birds inside 40 yards. Powder, primers and wadding have also much improved. You still need to judge range carefully on live quarry, and to avoid being tempted by the long shots. It’s inadvisable to use either on very close range birds (inside 20 yards) because it will damage the game meat.

On the all-important subject of wadding, the issue is that steel loads normally require a plastic wad to protect the barrel bore as the shot passes up the barrel. This is not absolute. Gamebore led the way with fibre cup wads suitable for steel almost 20 years ago. In 2019, Eley came out with their Pro Eco Wad, made from starch and a binder not unlike PVA glue. Gamebore have developed a degradable cup wad too driven by a new ‘quad seal’ driving wad. Jocker, a relatively new French entrant, have come up with a clever expanding skirt card wad which has a driving wad with cord discs top and bottom, and the Spanish company, Bioammo, also have some interesting new products. Both Jocker and Bioammo offer a new bismuth, aluminium, tin and zinc shot; Bioammo call it ‘blue’ and Jocker call it ‘alternative shot’, which apparently works well. Plus, you can read all about Lyalvale’s new earth wad here.

It is clear from conversations that I have had with ammunition manufacturers, meantime, that they feel they have not been given the time to develop the new products we need. It’s not a quick process; it takes literally years of research and development. And, recently there have been very serious supply issues too with the price of steel (which mainly comes from China) rising greatly.

What alternatives are there to steel ammunition?
Are there any alternatives to steel? Yes, but they are all expensive. Tungsten, and products such as Gamebore’s Tungsten Matrix, can out-perform lead (tungsten is much denser than lead, so in the same volume you can have more pellets of smaller size with the same terminal effect). But tungsten is very costly and abrasive (requiring extra bore protection). There have been some concerns about toxicity too. 

Bismuth is softer on barrels but also very expensive, and may be prone to fracturing. This has been improved by increasing the tin content (tin itself – and copper – has been tried as a shot material, but it doesn’t have the weight to perform well). It’s not a perfect solution, but bismuth may be the best non-toxic option for those who want ammunition for use in classic guns, especially those with original chokes exceeding Half. 

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Most of us, I suspect, will soon be opting for standard steel loads for clay, pigeon and game shooting within sensible ranges (inside 40 yards as noted). My advice, moreover, would be to push these through a relatively modern multi-choked gun. The latest fleur de lys proof is only a requirement if you want to shoot high-performance steel (which may appeal to some wildfowlers). The rest of us will probably rest content with standard steel on cost grounds if nothing else.

Being practical, and believing in markets, I asked Jamie Baughan at Just Cartridges what was selling at the moment on the non-toxic front (usually an indication of what works reasonably well). He said: “The best sellers for steel are Eley Eco in 32g No.3 or 5 shot and Gamebore Quad Steel Bio Wad in a No.3, 4 or 5. As for bismuth, we don’t sell much because of the price; it isn’t really viable to the average shooter.”

Do I have to make the switch now? 
Here is another important point to take on board: although the National Game Dealers Association (NGDA) have announced that they will only accept game shot with non-toxic cartridges after 1 July 2022, this will only affect you if you intend to supply game to NGDA members.

It doesn’t mean you have to use steel this season, nor next season, necessarily, if you are not passing game meat onto dealers. While it may be tempting to stock up on lead pellet cartridges now, it’s possible that some sort of ban may come in the future – so don’t overdo it, as you might get stuck with them. Nevertheless, if I had an old gun (and I do), I would be stocking up on some.
 

A selection of non toxic cartridges

A selection of non toxic cartridges - Credit: Mike Yardley

Other issues with steel cartridges...
Steel has drawbacks as a shot material. It is prone to ricochet. It occupies a greater volume than lead – tending to favour longer cartridge cases and limiting space for the propellent (and necessitating special propellants). From a loading point of view, it is less forgiving than lead... small errors can lead to big changes of pressure.

Powders 
Powders for steel tend to be more potent. Steel also has a tendency to rust (and so may be oiled to prevent this or plated with zinc or copper – some believe the latter improves pattern). It has a greater tendency to ball than lead, and, less of a problem with improved wads, it may bed itself into shotcups. Steel itself may have toxicity issues in some situations when it falls on land where there is lead already.

Pellet size
Previously, the advice was to select a pellet size two or even three sizes up on lead. Now, my usual advice would be to go up one or two sizes – the cartridges are better and this seems (from my admittedly limited experience) to be adequate. I suggest, meantime, we all experiment. Buy a few different brands and a few different sizes and try them. Terminal efficiency is obviously important but so is the way the cartridge feels. I don’t like sharp recoil as it still afflicts some – not all – loads. See what works for you.

Relative density
Lead has a relative density of 11g/cm³ (11.3 in pure form, 11 when alloyed, as it usually is, with antimony). Steel (soft iron as noted) is 7.87g/cm³.

For tungsten, it is 19g/cm² and Gamebore’s Tungsten Matrix has a similar density to lead at around 11g/cm³. Tungsten/iron is about 10. Bismuth is just under 10 – it is typically alloyed with a little tin now. 

Steel is significantly lighter than lead, bismuth only slightly so. Both occupy more volume than lead. Tungsten is significantly heavier and occupies less volume weight for weight.

Range
For standard steel, you should operate within 20-35/40 yards. Inside that, as mentioned, you will damage game meat, and beyond that you will wound birds. High-performance steel in a suitable gun will give you an extra 10 yards or so. My preferred delivery system for these loads would be a semi-automatic.
 
When did lead shot first become an issue? 
Concerns about lead shot date back at least to the beginning of the last century. In the 1970s, biologists and environmentalists started to focus on lead toxicity more seriously. Some US states banned lead over wetlands in the late 1970s. These increased and a national ban was implemented in 1991. The Scandinavians followed suit (with Norway lifting a ban recently because of concerns about wounding).

We introduced a voluntary ban over wetlands in 1995 and this became law in 1999 covering wildfowling anywhere, wetlands and SSSIs. There are important differences in Scotland and Northern Ireland and it is best to check locally to find out what applies. BASC note that: “In Northern Ireland, the lead shot regulations are based on the Scottish approach and prohibit the use of lead shot on or over any area of wetland for any shooting activity.”

Major shooting organisations, with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association opting out, signed a declaration of intent in 2020 to phase out led “for all live quarry” within a five-year time frame. More recently, the game dealers have said they won’t accept game shot with lead after 1 July 2022. This, of course, places great pressure on shoots supplying NGDA members. Small shoots may be less affected.

Many cartridge manufacturers, meantime, are unhappy. They feel that they have not been well represented by the shooting organisations. I want to end by quoting to you from a letter sent to me by a cartridge importer recently.

He writes with some passion: “18 months ago, there was a death warrant issued for lead cartridges circulated by many of the organisations. The error they made was never consulting anybody connected with the manufacturing or importation of cartridges to find out whether their wish was feasible, and over what timescale. 
“Then Covid arrived, causing many problems for the cartridge industry and others. Most of the last 18 months has been taken up with survival rather than studying an alternative to lead. I think in fairness to everybody the five-year clock should be restarted from February 2022. I am sure that, given time, the manufacturers will come up with a solution, but it’s going to be at a high cost. Cartridges will inevitably continue to rise in price as the cost of the imports are rising and the machines will have to run at a much slower rate, which they already do when loading steel – and if you load ECO wads they run even slower.
“Currently, about 3% of cartridges sold are non-lead, most of these with plastic wads. If anyone can tell me where we are going to get the other 97% of cartridges required, I would like to know. I believe by next season if plastic wads are to be accepted along with ECO wads it may be possible with early orders that 25-50% of the demand could be supplied...”

Where does all this leave us? Truthfully, I am not sure. The statement above may be overly pessimistic but it resonates. This does all seem to have been forced on us very quickly. Meantime, my advice is to buy some proprietary standard steel cartridges now and try them in a couple of pellet sizes (in a suitable gun of course). 

Shot pheasants hanging on the side of a truck with beaters in the background

The announcement was made in 2020 that the shooting community would be voluntarily phasing out the shooting of live quarry with lead - Credit: James Marchington

What is the difference between standard and high performance steel?
BASC's definitions of Standard and High Performance steel are outlined below. Visit the BASC website for more information on non-toxic loads.

Standard Steel: These cartridges, if they are to be fired from standard proof shotguns (i.e. those proved to 960 bar (transducer) or, previously, 850 bar (crusher)), or magnum proof shotguns (i.e. those proved to 1370 bar (transducer) or, previously, 1200 bar (crusher)) must not exceed the maximum admissible service pressure of 74 MPa (new units megapascals, in place of the old 740 bar) specified by the CIP.... The steel shot diameter must be 3.25 mm (i.e. equal to or less than 3.25 mm, which is smaller than English no. 3)....The mean velocity, measured at a point 2.50 m from the muzzle, must be 400 m/s (around 1,300 ft/s)....

High performance steel: These cartridges, whether 12/70 or 12/73 and longer (i.e. 12 bore cartridges for 70 mm (2 3/4in) or 73 mm chambers), can only be fired from 12 bore guns specially designed to fire steel shot ammunition and bearing the Steel Shot proof mark (this includes the words: Steel Shot and a Fleur de Lys ). They must all observe the maximum admissible service pressure of 105 MPa (1,050 bar (transducer))....The mean velocity measured at a point 2.50 m from the muzzle, for any 12/70 or longer cartridge, must be 430 m/s (around 1,400 ft/s). This velocity is to be measured using a cylindrical barrel and the mean value of a series of 10 shots...For 12/70 cartridges the momentum must be: Mo = mV  13.5 Ns.... For 12/73 or longer cartridges, the momentum must be: Mo = mV  15 Ns (see para 2.3 above)...