Steel shot for clay shooting – is it the future?

Steel shot may be the future for game shooters, but does it have a place in clay shooting? James Simon investigates.

It’s lead for now, but will we eventually move to steel shot for clay shooting?

In 2017 a 91-year-old national treasure showed us images of albatross chicks eating a diet of plastic. A year later, a 15-year-old environmentalist skipped school to protest outside the Swedish parliament. The quiet Sir David and outspoken Greta transformed public opinion around the globe.

Mass protests erupted and the environment topped every political agenda from Davos to the UK election. Almost overnight, caring for our planet had gone mainstream. 

This February, no doubt keen to remain at one with public opinion, nine rural organisations including BASC, the GWCT and the NGO published a joint statement. They “wish to see an end to both lead and single-use plastics in ammunition used by those taking all live quarry with shotguns within five years”.

The statement caused a bit of a hoo-ha. Although broadly in agreement with the sentiment, cartridge manufacturers were frustrated that they hadn’t been consulted and argued that eliminating both plastic and steel within the timeframe was unrealistic.

Putting these differences of opinion aside, does any of this matter to the clay shooter? There’s no talk of a lead ban for clay shooters, unless they are shooting over certain environmentally-sensitive areas, so why even consider steel?

Well, firstly it’s a matter of personal choice. Steel shot is less toxic than lead and cheaper than other non-lead alternatives such as bismuth and tungsten, so some shooters may choose to use it as a more planet- and wallet-friendly option. Then there’s the argument that the sport should be ahead of the sustainability curve and not behind it. 

“I think we are all very environmentally aware and want to do whatever is right,” says Rob Fenwick, managing director at EJ Churchill. “Additionally, if at some point game has to be shot using non-lead only, people will want to come here and practise using similar cartridges.”

So even without an outright diktat, it’s likely that more clays will be shot with steel in the coming years.

Is lead shot about to be banned?

Let’s get one thing straight. Lead shot is not about to be banned in the UK for clay shooting. Certain wetland areas and SSSIs do already have a ban in place, but this is unlikely to concern clay shooters. 

However, pressure from environmental groups and ever-changing European legislation – which is still likely to have a knock-on effect here – means that a ban could happen in the future.

Lead shot was banned in Denmark in the early 1990s and has since been banned in the Netherlands. Its use is very restricted in Belgium and large parts of Germany too. 

Most cartridge manufacturers have had steel shells in their product lines for years. Last year Eley pushed the boundaries with its ground-breaking VIP Steel Pro Eco Wad shell that marries steel shot with a biodegradable wad. 

Nick Levett-Scrivener, director at Shooting Stars, is the distributor for BioAmmo. Fresh out of Spain, its shells combine steel shot with biodegradable wads and casings.

“If you’re going to ban lead for game then it needs to be banned for everything,” argues Nick Levett-Scrivener. “It’s a nonsense that you could stand in a field and shoot a pheasant with a steel cartridge and the next day shoot a clay in the same spot with a lead cartridge.”

Grounds will have to consider the potential for ricochets

What’s the difference?

There’s no getting away from the fact that lead is toxic to flora and fauna. About 19,000 tonnes of the stuff is discharged over European soil every year (ECHA). It doesn’t break down, and it can enter the food chain.

However it does a great job of busting clays. In contrast, steel rusts away relatively quickly and isn’t anywhere near as toxic, but it does have very different ballistic characteristics. 

When lead shot is fired down and out of your barrels it gets a good hammering. Those neat round spheres start to deform, and as they become less regular they tend to spread into a broader pattern. Steel is much harder than lead and deforms less easily, leading to tighter patterns.

Because steel shot retains its shape it has much greater penetrating power than lead, which deforms, spreads and decelerates on impact. This is a potential issue in game shooting where steel shot can pass straight through quarry, wounding rather than killing it instantly. 

In clay shooting, a steel pellet travelling at speed will break a clay as effectively as lead, perhaps more so. But for woodland ground, this penetrating quality can be a problem, because steel shot shreds vegetation and can become embedded in growing timber. Steel is also more likely to ricochet off hard surfaces such as traphouses.

“I think as a ground we would want to test steel in larger shot sizes to see the damage it causes,” says Rob Fenwick. “The fact that steel is known to ricochet is a very real concern and something we need to look at very carefully.” 

Steel is also far less dense than lead. Pellet for pellet, steel shot is a third lighter than lead shot, and loses momentum more quickly, putting a dampener on its effective range.

To counter the density issue, use pellets two sizes larger than equivalent lead shot, but there’s a trade-off. Larger shot means that fewer pellets can be packed into a cartridge.

Downrange, that means fewer pellets available to collide with that tricky clay that’s moving a lot faster than you originally thought. On the other hand, a 28g steel load will contain more pellets than a 28g lead load, because steel is lighter and it takes more pellets to make up the weight.

Which is fine so long as the lighter steel pellets retain enough downrange energy to break the clay – a challenge on the sort of longer targets we’re used to shooting now.

So steel brings challenges, but it’s likely we’ll be using it more and more regardless. So rather than immediately dismissing it as second-rate, perhaps we should explore how changing our shooting techniques can bring new challenges and rewards.

Steel clay loads are already available

Getting the best from steel

Scan the internet and you’ll find anecdotal evidence that steel shot is the spawn of the devil. More research returns studies that show live quarry shooters can’t tell between lead and steel in the field.

These are from the US, where live quarry shooting is conducted differently, and higher performance loads are the norm. And of course clay shooting is different.

So for clay shooting, do you have to adjust your technique to shoot steel? And is there a discernible difference? There are several factors to consider. Because steel shot doesn’t deform, it produces a shorter shot string and more uniform patterns, so some shooters may need to adjust the amount of forward allowance they are used to giving a target.

There is a little less margin for error, but it will be the same for everyone, and perhaps that just adds to the charm of shooting clays!

Because steel shot is less dense it needs a good shove to give it reach. High performance steel shells generate more pressure and have higher muzzle velocity specifications than standard steel shells. This translates into better range but also results in more noise and more recoil, and your gun must be proved for high performance steel loads.

High performance cartridges can begin to compete with lead on range, but in a greener world perhaps it would be more sensible for course designers to limit long range targets and instead focus on making shorter range clays more interesting to shoot?

“If lead comes in it will be interesting to see whether the CPSA changes the maximum shot size allowed to be used in competitions,” says Rob Fenwick.

“I know many there are a great many clay shots that compete in countries where they have to shoot steel. They still seem to shoot very good scores and the good shots still win over the poor ones!” 


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