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Is there a lead-free future for those that don’t shoot 12 or 20 bore?

The alternative to Lead Shot for those who shoot 16, 28 or .410 Shotguns

21 January 2021

Written by: Mark Osborne


At William Powell Sporting, we believe that for most of us, shooting game with lead shot will probably be a thing of the past much sooner than we had originally thought. The talk now is that we may realistically only have two or three years left using lead cartridges, because of Game Dealers not wanting to buy game shot with lead, if these cannot be sold into the European market. As Europe has been taking over 50% of the UK’s dead game, we need to keep that marketplace open.

There is an increasing array of steel and non-toxic alternatives for 12 and 20 bore users, but it seems unlikely given the set-up costs, that there will be the same choice for those people who own 16 or 28 bore shotguns and almost certainly not the same for .410 users. 

Much could happen between now and then (but when is then!), but the general consensus within the Cartridge manufacturing industry, is that because of the very small demand for 16 and 28 bore cartridges (let alone .410’s), it seems unlikely that many if any UK Cartridge Manufacturers, will make steel cartridges without plastic wads, for these three calibres.  Instead, people who want to continue to use these “minority” bore shotguns, will probably have to either “revert” back to using steel cartridges but with plastic wads (if they can), or shoot Bismuth or Tungsten Matrix.  Assuming Tungsten Matrix is out for most shots on grounds of cost (but it is the most similar in terms of density and performance to lead of any of the alternatives), and steel is out as an alternative because single use plastic wads are incompatible with modern thinking in terms of the environment and conservation, that really leave Bismuth as perhaps the only viable nontoxic option.

In a very unscientific way and because I shoot a 16-bore, we took two types of non-lead 16-bore cartridges out to shoot in recent weeks.  The Shoot that I used them on is in South Oxfordshire.  It does not show the highest birds, and therefore this “test” should very much be seen as one where pheasants at no more than 35 yards away were shot at and most were between 20 and 30 yards away.  There was a nice breeze blowing and some interesting shots, but nothing too challenging.  It was perhaps a good starting point to retry Bismuth (and some steel), to see what they are now like, compared to the last time I tried Bismuth, which was 14 years ago, when (again in my 16 bore), I found them to be absolutely useless!  Now that might have been me, but I was at that time shooting in Hampshire on an SSSI and where we could not use lead cartridges.  I bought some No.5 Bismuth then and could not hit, let alone kill tree height (and not very high trees at that!) pheasants.

And so it was with a good deal of trepidation that I recently tried this new batch.  These were Eley VIP Bismuth, 65mm, with 26 gram of 5-shot.

The steel cartridges (with plastic wads) were Lyalvale Express, 65mm, again 26 gram but this time with No.4 shot.

I found both cartridges much, much more effective at these height of pheasants than I had thought I would.  I shot more of the Bismuth ones and found them nicely “soft” to use in my Baker action William Powell side by side shotgun, which is a light gun (the Baker assisted opening action is the originator of the Lancaster 12:20).  The barrels on my gun are 28” with improved cylinder choke in both, so there is very little choke. 

I found the Express Steel cartridges a little bit punchier in this very light gun, but not by much and still perfectly pleasant to use.

My usual lead cartridges are Gamebore 26.5 gram No. 6 shot.  I use these for grouse, partridges and pheasants.  However, I have to say that I was much more impressed that I thought I would be by these two non-toxic alternatives.  At this height of pheasants and I expect for all but long-range grouse and partridges as well, these non-toxic alternatives to lead were very effective.  The first three pheasants shot (with 3 shots!), were absolutely stone dead and were obviously so in the air.  I had no more runners all day than I would usually have when using lead shot and what I missed, I never felt that I would have killed with my usual lead cartridges.  I hit and missed much as I normally do. These non-toxic alternatives seemed to kill very cleanly at these ranges and just as well as lead.

I must confess to being mightily relieved, because other than on grounds of price, I am satisfied that for what I mostly shoot at during the season, modern Bismuth cartridges will be absolutely fine when I can no longer use lead and if no felt or similar wad steel cartridges are available for use in 16 or 28 bores or .410 guns.

I hope to try out these same cartridges on some higher birds in due course and will report back thereafter.

Mark Osborne

The alternative to Lead Shot for those who shoot 16,28 or .410 Shotguns

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