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Will steel shot make my gun obsolete?

Richard Atkins investigates the question

game shooting

If you are thinking of changing your gun, do some research first

Probably the most common cause for concern with the proposed lead shot ban is: “Can I use steel shot cartridges in my gun?” First, I’d like to echo the words of the well-respected English game gun specialist dealer, Francis Lovel: “Do not panic.” Hearing of those who have assumed steel shot will make their old gun obsolete,  a ‘wall hanger’ and all the negative things heard and read about, Francis advises against snap decisions.

So, how worried need we be? There is no single answer, because every older shotgun not proofed for use with steel shot must be properly assessed on its own merits, taking several factors into account, such as:

• Age, construction and condition

• Choke

• Barrel wall material and thickness

• Chamber length

• Is it still in proof now?

Bear in mind that older guns were made in various qualities of materials and action designs, hence their suitability for use with steel shot cartridges also varies.

The British Proof Authority (BPA) has made clear that it cannot make any recommendations for any guns bearing pre- 1954 proof marks due to age and potential wear, and suggest guns of this age be inspected by a reputable gundealer before contemplating use with steel shot.

However, considerable numbers of post-1954, pre-steel-shot-proof guns are in regular use and good condition. Owners of these guns can relax, because the Permanent International Commission (CIP), when framing the specifications for steel-shotproof and performance limits for steel shot cartridges, took the needs of these guns manufactured into account.

It was obvious that such a rich heritage of guns could not and must not be consigned to the scrapheap due to the introduction of steel shot cartridges. That’s why there are two very distinct categories of steel shot cartridges: standard (which CIP refers to as ‘ordinary’) and high performance (HP) steel. For ease of reference, I will use the term standard steel in place of ‘ordinary’. Will your gun be obsolete if we move towards steel shot? Richard Atkins investigates this question.

steel cartridges

It is worth getting an expert opinion on a gun’s suitability

HP steel cartridges are designed only for use in the steel proof tested and marked with the fleur-de-lis symbol among their proof marks. Best advice from the BPA and knowledgeable gunmakers is not to subject English-style game guns to HP steel proof. Experiments indicate that success rates are very low.

Standard steel cartridges are specifically designed for use in guns that bear standard nitro proof marks for standard lead shot cartridges and are still in proof. For a majority of owners of older guns, these are the purpose-made option already. Indeed, the majority of new steel shot cartridges coming onto the UK market are of the standard steel category.

Options for both types will undoubtedly increase in time, but the need to also use eco-friendly biodegradable wads with the steel shot has complicated matters considerably, encouraging the emphasis on standard steel cartridges. As an aside, from my own testing and observation some cartridges marked as ‘high performance’ steel remain quite close in pressure and performance levels to the standard steel parameters. It can be primarily the larger shot size that differentiates them.

Choke considerations

The topic of choke is, unsurprisingly, the cause of most concern with regard to non-steel-proofed guns. It is likely the most misunderstood too, and for good reason. (Read more on choke here.)

How often do we read that steel shot must not be used with more than ½ choke? And yet in the specifications put out by the CIP in 2014, it states that standard steel 12-bore cartridges may be used with up to full choke, and with shot size no larger than 3.25mm (No 4).

Note that any 12-bore cartridge loaded with steel shot larger than 3.25mm is classified by the CIP as high performance, irrespective of pressure, velocity and momentum. Note also that the maximum steel shot size for 16-bore and 20-bore standard steel cartridges is smaller, at 3mm. The reason is that the momentum and vector forces created by larger sizes of steel shot can cause much greater outward pressure. This is sufficient to cause damage when any impediment to forward motion is encountered. Such impediments occur in the choke section of barrels such that barrel/ choke bulging (and possibly worse) damage can occur. There is plenty of evidence to show this is a real concern. The same issue arises in the forcing cone, but, the barrels always being much thicker at this point, bulging is less likely here.

BASC members and others will have had access to the original CIP information, as this was used in the BASC Information Sheet headed ‘Steel shot’. What you need to know from a safety point of view is that it states: “Standard steel cartridges can be fired through any gun proved to the standard level (most ‘nitro’ guns, proved to at least 930 bar) and through any choke.”

measuring choke

Choke size can be measured using a device such as this one

This reflects that the CIP did not mention the unique situation found in the UK, where there are many older game guns in regular use, and these guns are frequently built more lightly and with thinner barrel walls than is generally the case across Europe

Hence it has fallen to the BPA to issue additional advice based upon their intimate knowledge of the situation regarding English-style game guns, whether they were made by UK firms or imports. This has led to the issuing of rather more conservative advice regarding what maximum choke should be in these guns, even when using standard steel cartridges.

In constructing this article I checked the latest advice, and it is thus:

“The problem is that very thin-walled tubes coupled with many variations on choke angles and constrictions is mostly a UK issue. Especially as many still used older guns here that are not in regular use in other CIP member states.

“The BPA still, given such variations of choke and most importantly the angles of choke found in older guns, only recommends less than ½ choke.”

Clearly, the amount of variables and the increasingly known risk of some damage, even if only cosmetic swelling or bulging of the barrel in the choke area, is not something anyone can guarantee against.

For the pre-1954 proof guns, many of which are fine-quality guns that have given good service and continue to do so with lead ammunition, the assessment of their suitability for use with steel shot and what might be needed to help ensure a successful outcome definitely requires evaluation by a competent gunsmith who has sound experience with a barrel.

This is new territory, not only for proof authorities but for gunsmiths and barrel specialists too. Knowledge and techniques learned and refined over many years working with lead shot does not directly translate to a full understanding with steel shot. This is especially so regarding the game guns and loads with appropriate shot sizes, so is just not possible yet.

Assess your options

Advice can be obtained based upon what is currently understood, but answers will always come with caution and caveats. We just do not have all the answers yet. As Francis Lovel clearly stated, it is important not to panic.

Poor decisions may result from becoming overly vexed at the situation regarding any older, non-steel-proof guns you may have. Some may feel vulnerable and tempted to accept a low price for an otherwise nice gun in part exchange for a new, steel-proofed gun. If that is what you wish to do, then fine. However, before committing to such a route, it may be worth getting a second opinion from a dealer with experience of older guns, one who is not pushing the ‘new steel-proof gun’ route too enthusiastically before you decide whether to part with an old friend.

Picking the best route to suit your situation requires that the details of your old gun and what it is that you wish to do with it are properly considered. Some older English-style shotguns are of fairly light construction, and may well have short chambers. Little can be done for the short 2in chamber-length guns, because there is insufficient space in the case to accommodate steel shot and a biodegradable full cup wad. Bismuth shot would be the best option for non-lead shot cartridges. Demand will not be so great, and so a lot less of a priority.

Very common and still in regular use are 2½in (65mm) chambered guns. So popular are they that UK cartridge brands, as well as Jocker, quickly produced steel shot cartridges with biodegradable wads suitable for them. Space within the case is still limited. Hull Imperial Traditional Steel holds 24g of steel shot, while the 67mm-long Jocker load is 27g. Both Eley and Lyalvale Express load a 30g load into 65mm by using the old rolled turnover (RTO) case closure, long replaced by crimp closure on all modern cartridges, barring very large shot loads and some small-bores. We will look at how RTO loads perform later.

measuring choke

The choke on this barrel is 0.025in

Lengthening the chambers of 65mm guns to 70mm could be a viable option, and is something some owners have already done before steel shot became an issue. Some of the sweetest-handling, lightweight English shotguns may not be well-suited for 70mm steel cartridges after the chambers are lengthened, especially if barrel walls are thin. Many such guns had fairly thin barrel walls from new; that is how they are so light and swing so readily. Some of these, especially after years of hard use, will unfortunately not be best-suited to lengthening their chambers. Others will be sufficiently strongly built and sound to make chamber lengthening a realistic possibility. It is clear why expert advice should be sought regarding your gun.

Advice from the BPA on this matter suggests that guns deemed suitable upon examination are submitted for re-proof to the standard proof for 70mm lead shot cartridges. There is a good chance that the gun withstands the reproof and is able to use the wider choice of 70mm standard steel cartridges available.

The slightly heavier shot charges that the longer case can accommodate should thicken up patterns and add a few yards to the sporting range. It will not turn your gun into one that could with lead shot (and stiff recoil) be stretched to the gamebirds it once could, but every little helps.

Points for owners of post-1954 nitro but not steel proof guns to consider:

My gun has 65mm chambers. It is in well-used but in sound condition and is choked Improved cylinder and ½ choke.

Buy 65mm steel shot cartridges and discover how they perform for you. They may feel different, and they will almost certainly have reduced maximum range. However, for some forms of driven shooting the maximum range is over predominantly flat land, as it is with pigeon decoying, and if there is a sensible range restriction the gun can be used as it is.

My gun has 65mm chambers with full and ½ chokes.

(a): If the barrel walls are reasonably thick and the entry angle to the chokes are not steep, according to the original CIP specifications you can still go ahead without change, if you wish. However, latest BPA advice is to have the chokes eased to no more than ½.

(b): 65mm chambers, but full and ½ chokes. If barrels are light and barrel walls are thin, or entry to choke is steep (rather than a longer, gradual taper) then having the chokes eased more open and the entry angle made less steep is advisable. Latest BPA is no more than ½ choke. This can usually be done without the need for reproof.

65mm RTP

The 65mm RTP case will be able to fit 30g

My gun has 65mm chambers but I would like to use 70mm steel shot cartridges.

A: This will entail having chambers reamed out to 70mm specifications, and will also require standard reproof for lead cartridges. This will cost considerably more than only easing the chokes; it may therefore be best to have the forcing cone angle eased a little at the same time.

Forcing cones need be no longer than 1½in to 2in, as this will remove and smooth out the steep cones of many early bores designed to perform well with fibre wad lead shot cartridges.

shotgun cartridges

A 70mm will fit 32g with crimp closure

My gun has 70mm chambers. It is well used but in sound condition, and is choked improved cylinder and ½ choke.

A: As 1 above. This gun should be fine to use with standard steel cartridges as it is.

My gun has 70mm chambers. It is also well used, but is in sound condition with full and ½ chokes.

A: Latest BPA advice is no more than ½ choke. As you will probably prefer the left barrel having the most choke, it is likely best to have both chokes eased. If qualified examination deems your gun has lightweight barrels, it may be prudent to go for more open chokes, such as improved cylinder and ¼ choke. Be advised by the barrelsmith.

gun barrels

Not all guns can be adjusted to be able to take steel shot

Other options

Of course, another option is to leave everything as it is and use bismuth shot. Or, perhaps, the new Bioammo Blue (bismuth, tin, zinc aluminium alloy) shot cartridges. This is lighter than bismuth but softer than steel. Early reports suggest good results where range is modest, as with partridges over hedges.

Antique guns and those with damascus barrels

Antique guns are a specialist area, covering many different types and styles that make them impossible to cover here. First thoughts must be that these are guns with potentially considerable value, be that monetarily and/or sentimental value, and as such require specialist advice. Those deemed fit for lead shot should also be fine with bismuth. We know some damascus-barrelled guns are currently being used with steel shot cartridges, although BPA advice is to avoid this. Continued use of such guns with non-lead projectiles also requires specialist advice beyond the scope of this article.

Cost estimates

Cost for barrel work can alter depending upon factors such as barrel condition and material, or if any dents or pitting may need removal. Among the trade we checked with opening up the chokes varied a little. Giles Marriott – another specialist in English guns – quotes from £65 per choke. This company also advised caution with increasing chamber length in 65mm chambered guns, and were confident that the better performing 65mm steel shot cartridges can do what is required within sensible range. Giles Marriott offers viewing, barrel measuring and assessment free of charge, as does Francis Lovel and no doubt some other companies.

The BASC has another Try Steel Shot day organised with Giles Marriott for 20 May this year, where you can have your gun measured and assessed for steel shot. Entry must be made by booking in with BASC.

Specialist choke maker Teague publishes a barrel services price guide on its website:

• Choke adjustment (per barrel): £90

• Forcing cone lengthening and polishing (proofing extra): £65

• Chambers lengthened (both) from 65mm to 70mm (including reproof): £130

• Reproof nitro proof for lead shot (nitro proof for lead shot/standard steel): £120.