Lead Shot

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Lead Shot
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Until the 1960s, ‘shot towers’, like the 190 foot building that used to dominate the skyline in Edmonton (North London) were used to make these small lead projectiles for rifles, muskets and pistols, otherwise known as lead shot. Ingots of lead were combined with antimony (or arsenic in the past) to make it flow more smoothly and then melted at between 370 and 420 degrees Celsius. This liquid metal was then dropped from the top the tower over a distance of 150 feet, travelling 130 miles per hour in about three seconds. The molten lead passed through sieves that determined the size of the shot, and into a pool of water that prevented it from being deformed on impact. This method is anecdotally thought to have been invented by a plumber from Bristol: some say he observed that raindrops became perfectly spherical when they fell, and others that he found spheres of lead roofing that melted during a church fire and landed in a puddle. This monumental manufacturing method has since been replaced with a much more space-saving solution whereby molten lead is dropped less than a centimetre into hot water, or another hot coolant, and then rolled along on an incline underwater to round the balls.

Lead is particularly suitable for making shot because it is very dense, making for ammunition that travels more accurately and penetrates more deeply. It also has a low melting point so is easy to smelt and form. In fact it was common in the early 20th century for people to melt lead on the kitchen stove to pour into small soldier-shaped moulds to make toys. This is not a recommended practice however, as we now know that lead is a neurotoxin that accumulates in soft tissues and bones when inhaled or ingested, causing damage to the brain, nervous system and other organs. It is also an environmental toxin, poisoning soil and wildlife, and as a result lead has been banned in everything from petrol to paints in most European counties. 

Strangely, however, it is still used as shot in rifles used by hunters who, for example, supply rabbits and pheasants as game meats to the British food market. Despite a concerted effort by shooting and hunting professional bodies in the UK to voluntarily phase out the use of lead shot in favour of alternatives like steel, bismuth and tungsten-based shot, this hasn’t yet been achieved. This can be partly explained by the fact that bismuth and tungsten shot is more expensive than lead, but there’s a whole host of somewhat dubious arguments  used by people who refuse substitutes for lead shot, including the long-held but disproven belief that steel shot is less effective than lead shot, or the argument that you are more likely to damage your teeth on steel than soft-but-toxic lead when you bite into your rabbit pie!

Sample ID: 197


Chemical symbol
Solid | Object
Kings College London

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