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The romance of lead shot. (Shotgunner).

Often taken for granted, lead shot is really an intriguing projectile. Lead is a very ancient metal, known as early as 3000 B.C. It's mentioned in the book of Exodus. In my high school chemistry book (texts were more practical in those days), I recall that lead water pipes bearing the insignia of various Emperors were still in use in Rome.

In fact, the chemical symbol for lead, Pb, is derived from the Latin word, plumbum. Apparently, the Romans were exceedingly fond of the metal, even crafting eating dishes and drinking vessels from of the malleable element.

There is a theory that the Empire slid down hill as the aristocracy gradually succumbed to lead poisoning, and so to this day we are warned about not handling food or drink after working with lead shot or bullets until we've had a chance to wash up.

Lead is an ideal metal for shot. Given its high density, it delivers maximum striking energy with the least surface area and air resistance.

Thanks To A Plumber

The modem method of using shot towers to form shot is reported to have occurred in a dream in 1782. The dreamer was a plumber in Bristol, England by the name of William Watts, who, in his dream, visualized rain as perfectly round little spheres. Being a hunter and a plumber who knew his lead, Watts conducted an experiment of pouring molten lead through a sieve from the tower of the St. Mary Redcliffe church. The experiment was a success. Watts sold his invention and reportedly retired a wealthy man.

The first shot tower in America was built in 1808 in Philadelphia. Ranging in height about 100 to 190 feet, shot towers are still an excellent method of making shot up to the size of BBs, but are being replaced by more modern methods.

On the top floors, molten lead is poured continuously through a pan with calibrated holes in the bottom. A mechanical rapper taps the pan so that the molten lead is discharged. As it fails, surface tension forms the droplets into practically perfect spheres, and during the fall, it cools sufficiently so that it is not deformed when it hits the water.

Cooled thoroughly when it does hit the water below, the rough shot is then dried, sorted for roundness, polished and tumbled in graphite to provide lubricity and to prevent oxidation, and finally sorted by size.

A more modern method, called the Bliemeister method, does away with the expensive-to-build shot tower. In this method, droplets of molten lead actually fall only about an inch into a tank of hot water, roll across an incline plane and then continue falling through hot water for another 3 feet or so. Water temperature is used to control the rate of cooling, and surface tension brings the lead droplets into a spherical form.

Larger shot, like buckshot, is made by the cold heading or swaging process in which calibrated segments of lead wire are fed into a die and then sized into spheres by two hemispherical punches.

Harder Is Better, But...

Not all shot is created equal -- equal in hardness that is. The hardness of shot is controlled by the amount of antimony added at the time of manufacture and by plating the shot with nickel or copper. But how do we know how hard the shot in our shotshells is, or how hard it has to be to deliver usable patterns?

I posed those questions to Mike Jordan, recently retired from Winchester Ammunition, where he worked on the development of many of the ammunition types we enjoy today.

Jordan's first observation was that hard shot patterns better than soft shot. Given that fact, here is an approximation of the amount of antimony contained in several of Winchester's shotshell lines:

* Dove and Quail loads: 0 to 1 percent

* Super-X Game and Turkey loads: 2 to 4 percent (bigger shot needs less antimony than small)

* All Target loads: 6 percent (except for 12 and 20 gauge skeet loads that contain 3 percent)

* Buck Shot: 0 percent (except for law enforcement #4 buck loads that are harder)

Basically, what Winchester has concluded is that softer, cheaper shot is perfectly adequate for close-in bird shooting like dove and quail. Also for 12 and 20 gauge skeet competition where soft shot delivers more open patterns with larger fringe areas. When it comes to longer trap shooting ranges, and to 28 and .410 gauge skeet loads, extra hard 6 percent antimony shot is loaded.

Added Importance

In fact, while we're addressing the smaller gauges, if you hunt with a 28 or .410 gauge, by all means try the extra hard shot target loads if No. 8s or No. 9s will do, or handload extra hard shot.

It's an old rule-of-thumb that larger gauges will pattern better than smaller gauges with the same payloads because of less shot deformation. Shot deformation can be minimized in the 28 and .410 gauges by using extra hard and plated shot.

Yes, there's a lot of history and technology behind those little lead pellets.
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Author:Bodinson, Holt
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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