Home loading steel shot.

I seldom use large amounts of non-toxic loads, but when wildfowling with the 28-bore the only factory-loaded options, as yet, are cartridges loaded with bismuth.

As the latest quote worked out at almost £1.40 a pop, it looked like time to seek out an effective alternative, especially if – perish the thought – the powers that be enforce an unjustified total ban on lead at some time in the future.

I for one certainly couldn’t afford to provide pigeon pest control at such prices, as a busy day out protecting a farmer’s crop could cost almost as much as a driven day at pheasants on ammunition alone.

Admittedly, there’s a greater choice for the 12-bore, but most are still expensive when compared with lead loads.

A great deal of searching – both on and off the web – narrowed my problem down to just one option – but could steel provide the answer to my problems?

With the reloading machine sitting idle, and nothing available ‘off the shelf’, it seemed like a good idea to explore the possibilities of refilling my empties with steel.

But would it be up to the job?

RICHARD’S light 28-bore home loads (to a recipe suggested by Clay and Game Reloaders) proved extremely effective on decoyed woodpigeons over all normal sporting distances.

In my rather biased opinion, I feared it would prove a poor substitute for lead, but faced with laying out the best part of £70 for a couple of boxes of bismuth, things were getting desperate.

NOT STEEL’S BIGGEST FAN

I’d last tried steel while still using the 12-bore, firing off a couple of boxes with very disappointing results when the non-toxic laws first came into force.

Almost everything brought down were ‘runners’, but even when dead, the amount of bleeding showed that very few had been instantly or cleanly despatched.

From a humane point of view, it was just not on.

Over the first duck season a mate regularly picking up at local flight ponds found it took him almost double the time to bring everything to hand, with many more birds than normal requiring the coup de grace.

Similar reports from friends were equally discouraging. The new laws had caught everyone on the hop.

If the non-toxic charges were ever to be on a par with the good old-fashioned, tried and trusted lead, a good deal more testing and research on methods and materials was needed.

Apparently, things have developed since then, though prices, apart from steel, remain ridiculously high.

The only fair way was to give it another go. But first, I needed the right materials. I’m the first to admit to knowing very little about ballistics.

With high explosive as a key ingredient, it’s not simply a matter of refilling your empties with any old powder, shot, primers and wads.

There’s a lot more to it than that.

For safety’s sake, every component needs to be carefully matched together, and if you’re considering ‘rolling your own’ it needs an expert to guide you.

For me, this someone turned up in the shape of Stephen Dales from East Yorkshire, who took over the business of Clay & Game Reloaders, formerly based in Lincolnshire.

Now trading as The Steel Shot Company, Stephen and his father started up, developed and ran the prestigious firm of Gamebore until quite recently.

Despite its name, the firm doesn’t just sell steel.

Besides machines to cope with all shotgun bores and materials, a bewildering array of powders and shot, wads, primers, cases, cards, wad-cutters, case trimmers and other accoutrements are stocked, in fact anything and everything for the aspiring reloader, whether a beginner or a fully fledged veteran.

More importantly, with such a respected pedigree – Stephen knows all about cartridges!

A SUITABLE LOAD

Plagued by tinnitus, I wanted to try a light to medium load of steel, reasonably fast, and easy on the shoulder.

I normally use a 19-gram load in my 28-bore, but chatting on the phone, Stephen had plenty of ideas and finally suggested that something like 16 grams of steel propelled by 20 grains of Maxum CSB 0 fired off by a CX-50 primer – all double Dutch to me – might do the trick.

The lighter weight of steel would give a greater pellet count per gram, thus creating a denser killing pattern than lead.

With the lighter load, speed would be improved, and thus, quite possibly, would its effectiveness.

Meeting up at a late Game Fair, Stephen and Co fitted me up with a new charge bar, together with the necessary components, and once home, I got stuck in to load a bagful to try out the following day.

Due to a fault in crimping, my first efforts looked rough. They were shootable, but the machine obviously needed tweaking.

However, the cosmetic failings could be rectified later – it was results that counted!

GIVING ’EM A GO

Apart from the odd ‘big’ day out, during my normal duck or goose pursuits only small numbers of cartridges are fired – a couple here, one there, or sometimes none at all.

To road test my cartridges fairly, what I really needed was a steady stream of shots, enough to get my eye in and really give them a go.

A late pigeon opportunity on a bean stubble had obligingly turned up, so armed with my first 100 steel reloads, I joined up with mate Ed for a session where, if all went well, we hoped to clock up a reasonable bag over the decoys.

Just in case, though, I took my usual bag of 250 lead loads as back-up!

We shared a double hide below a leafy sycamore, and cramming in my first brace of scruffy looking steel reloads, it was with some trepidation that I awaited the first bird, all thoughts of pressures, noise and recoil churning constantly through my mind.

Ed was a great help, even suggesting that he moved to the other end of the field while I tried them out, though hopefully this was in jest! Eventually, a big old woodie curled in, nicely in range, and flapping slowly across the front as it inspected the decoys.

Whack!

Well, that one worked!

And so, in fact, did the next eight. The 10th bird, due to human error, was only clipped and needed a second barrel.

For some reason the birds were behaving warily, and though some dropped in nicely, many were skirting the decoys, giving shots just that little bit further out than expected.

(We later learned that the farmer’s friend had blazed away a couple of boxes at them the previous day).

Nevertheless, it was ideal for cartridge testing purposes. Taking alternate shots, the bag built slowly until mid-afternoon.

The few shots I took certainly packed a punch.

Passing high and wide or floating close in right over the decoys, there was no doubting their performance.

It was my turn as two wary birds came beating in from downwind, but right at the last moment drifted past at long range for the twenty-eight.

The leader, fully 40 yards, collapsed at the first shot, the second, trailing several yards behind and much further out, joined it a second later.

A fantastic double, and both easily picked as Ed went out for a tidy up, returning with two handfuls.

Things were looking up. Recording exact details in a notebook, my best spell was 23 birds in a row, including two cracking doubles.

The results were really encouraging, though I was possibly concentrating more than usual. The loads seemed quite fast, hitting instantly and hard with that feather-plucking smack that takes no prisoners.

Scraping the barrel, we just managed to clock up the 100th bird by the end of the day.

My own – better than usual – tally was 47 birds for 53 shots taken. Not all were stone dead, but it’s a bad workman that blames his tools and I put this down to lack of marksmanship.

According to my maths, that’s something along the lines of a 91% success rate.

Taking alternate shots, Ed and Richard managed to finish the day with exactly 100 birds in the bag.

If I could always pick up nine and a bit birds for every ten shots taken, I’d be a very happy bunny indeed!

So far I’m very impressed.

From the tinnitus point of view, noise levels and recoil are fine, and with Stephen still tweaking and improving performance, I can’t wait to try them out on the duck.

With shooting ‘form’ as it is, next time out may be a completely different story, but I’ve proved to myself that with a well-balanced load put in the right spot, steel can do the job on decoyed pigeons.

Watch this space!

www.claygame.co.uk