Clay pigeon shooting is an exhilarating outdoor sport that pays homage to the olden days of live bird-killing contests. Even though that barbaric practice has since been prohibited, clay shooters still refer to the target as a “bird”, hit a target as a “kill”, and a bad shot target as a “bird away.”
The ammunition used for this sport is lead shots or shotgun pellets, both of which have a significant influence on the game itself. Note that clay pigeon shooting was originally used by hunters to practice on flying targets. Only later was it used for competitive sporting. In this article, we will explore in detail the history behind lead shots and how the towers were used.
Lead Shot Making Process: Overview
The history of lead shot-making is not as you would imagine. In fact, shot towers existed since the 14th century and there were many different industries that had to be revolutionized in order to make lead shot an affordable and viable option to use for hunting.
In the late 18th century, shot towers started growing in height. And by the early 19th century they were over 100 feet (30 meters) tall. The lead shot-making industry in the United Kingdom used shot towers until the 1960s, and they fell into disuse after that.
These towers were built in different places, over the course of several hundred years, in California, England, Singapore, Belgium, and Spain. They were designed in different ways, using different technologies to make different types of lead shots.
In the next section, we’ll provide a brief history of shot towers; explain what they are, how they worked, and how they’re used today. We’ll also talk about the evolution of the lead shot production process over the years and why shot towers are now considered a historical marvel.
A Brief History of Shot Towers
William Watts from England is credited as the father of the lead shot production process. In 1782, Wats patented his design of extending his own house in Redcliffe to construct the first-ever shot tower. So, the first shot tower was built by William watts.
He found out that the key to creating seamless round shots was to release liquid lead or rather molten lead from a greater height rather than just a few inches.
Note that in absence of other forces, droplets of just about any liquid would be approximately spherical. The greater the surface tension, the higher chances of the liquid droplets forming into spheres. And Watts discovered that lead has a much greater surface tension than water.
Because of the surface tension, small droplets of molten lead tend to be pulled into a spherical shape. So, to actualize his idea, Watts utilized his brick row cottage in Bristol. He added floors to it, cutting holes through the floors and digging a well underneath the house.
He dropped molten/liquid lead at the top of the shot tower through a sieve such that as the lead droplets fell and turned into spheres, they’d already started solidifying by the time they reach the water beneath, which chilled them further.
William Watts was granted a patent for this and later on, shot towers began emerging all over Europe and England. This method became popular as it was affordable and efficient compared to other methods at the time.
Lead shots produced through this method were used mostly in shooting clay pigeons as well as duck hunting. However, they were later outlawed in most parts of the world including the US after it was found that lead poisoning caused extreme adverse impacts on waterfowl.
Moreover, the invention of the ‘wind tower’ process, which was patented in 1848 by the T.O LeRoy Company contributed heavily to the descent of shot towers. The wind tower’ approach utilized a flow of cold air to lessen the height of the cliff. This made shot towers unnecessary and obsolete.
So, shot towers faced a gradual alternative. They became less and less popular and finally began to fall into disuse. Although some were eliminated, many are still existing and are now conserved as industrial and architectural heritage.
In the 1960s, the earliest shot tower that was built by Watt at his home was acquired by a company, which was then known as Sheldon Bush & Patent Shot where it continued producing shot up to 1968. Unfortunately, even the original shot tower built by Watts was also eliminated.
Lead Shot for Clay Shooting: How Are They Made?
Well, the answer to this question might not be as simple as you might think, and we can’t just give an oversimplified statement to dissect the topic. So, along with a brief explanation, we have included some other relevant details as well.
Historically, lead shots were made in shot towers. The process involved exposing lead to high temperature for it to become molten. The liquid or rather molten lead was then dropped from a high point through a copper sieve and into a bucket of water at the base of that shot tower.
This free fall of the liquid lead allowed it to form the shape of tiny spherical balls, which solidified as they reach the bottom. The partially cooled lead shots would then solidify and be collected for use.
That said, lead shot making is a thorny topic and it has been at the center of debate for quite some time now. Particularly, if we take into consideration the environment, there are issues of contamination of the ecology and denuding of the trees.
The process is quite a messy one. People often wonder how our ancestors managed to come up with the process in the first place.
How Do Shot Towers Work
The manufacturing process of lead shots in shot towers is fascinating. This simple process uses only a furnace, water basins, copper sieves, and lead. Some methods may also involve a fan, but generally, lead shot towers remained useful in the making of lead shots for muskets and shotguns.
The furnace in this process was used to heat the lead at the height of the shot tower until it becomes molten. The liquid lead (molten lead) would then be dribbled via a copper sieve which would shape the lead into small spheres due to surface tension and gravity.
These spheres would then fall down the inside of the shot tower where they would cool and solidify and then be contained in a basin filled with water to cool down the entire process.
While falling from the shot tower, the balls lose thermal energy and slowly solidify until it reaches the basin. Other shot towers even had fans that blew upwards, which increased the drag force and the time taken for the balls to fall.
This fresh air also served to keep the temperature inside the tower from getting too hot, which could have decreased convectional cooling. It made it practical to make larger-sized lead shots from a certain height.
Bliemeister Lead Shot Making Method
Named after Louis W. Bliemeister, the Bliemeister technique is a lead shot-making process that emerged in the early 19th century. It made the shot tower and wind tower procedures obsolete.
In the Bliemeister approach, liquid lead is dropped from little cavities and is released nearly 1 inch or 2 ½ centimeters to a hot fluid, where it is then cruised on a slope and released for another 3 feet or 90 centimeters. Lead shots made through this method tend to have a smaller diameter.
The slope and surface tension makes the tiny lead droplets attain a rather orderly and seamless spherical shape. However, how fast the liquid lead will cool is determined by the temperature of the liquid lead.
The orifice cavity diameter through which the specific lead allow is released is used to standardize the lead shot size. For example, an orifice that measures about 0.025 millimeters is ideal for a #6 – #7 lead shot, whereas a 0.46-millimeters orifice is suitable for a #9 lead ball.
The liquid coolant used in this method could be a mixture of water-soluble oil and antifreeze or diesel fuel. The roundness of the lead shots is standardized by the steepness of the slope.
After cooling down, the lead shots are washed and dried before small portions of graphite are added to them to prevent clumping. That said, lead shots bigger than #6 are not affected by this issue when combined with graphite.
Clay Shooting: What’s the Right Pellet?
When it comes to trap shooting and skeet shooting games, having the right shotgun pellet can make a big difference in your performance. Generally, all 12 gauge shells are considered ideal for a 2¾-inch chamber. Of course, you can use a gun with a three-inch chamber but it might gave an effect on your practice.
The lead shot size is usually a matter of preference. Shooters who opt for the size eight tend to do so mostly because they think more shots provide a greater chance of hitting the target, whereas the advocates of smaller shots such as 7 ½ would suggest that a larger pellet is important for breaking the clay considering that size 8 is relatively smaller than size 7 ½.
Shot Towers That Are Still Found In the United States
There are only a handful of shot towers still standing in the United States. These include the Sparks shot tower found in Philadelphia (1808) which was built in 1808 and turns out to be the first shot tower within America; the Peter, Kings Mills, OH, which was used to make pellets for the Union Army during the United States Civil war.
There’s also the Remington shot tower, Bridgeport, CT, which is known to have withstood many fires; and lastly, the Phoenix shot tower, Baltimore, MD, which was built in 1828 and considered the tallest structure or rather the tallest shot tower within the country back then.
The Youle shot tower is another prime example of the shot towers. It was constructed during the 1830s on the East River banks in New York and was owned by George Youle, a merchant of dry goods. That said, there are other popular shot towers around the United States, including:
- The St Louis Shot Tower, St. Louis (1830)
- The Dubuque Shot Tower, Dubuque, IA (1856)
- The Collier Shot Tower, St. Louis
- The Selby Shot Tower, San Francisco (1864)
- The Chicago Shot Tower, VA (1807)
- The Winchester Shot Tower, New Haven, CT, and
- The Jackson Ferry Shot Tower, Wytheville.
These structures were meant for creating shots and musket balls for firearms. They used to be an important part of the firearms industry in the United States for many years but with the advent of new manufacturing methods, they became obsolete and were gradually abandoned. Today, they stand as reminders of a bygone era.
The Final Words
Shot towers have been used for a long time, almost since the invention of lead shots. In fact, it is thought that the use of tall shot towers is a practice that goes back to the 1300s. In the 16th century, shot towers became popularized, and in the 19th century, they reached their peak.
They were used extensively during wars in the past and are now employed in clay shooting by skeet shooters and trap shooters. Over the years, their manufacturing process has gone through different stages and developed greatly. Even though they are not used as much now, shot towers are still considered and preserved as historical artifacts in the United States.