How Shot Towers Revolutionized Lead Shot Making – History in Short

Clay shooting is an exuberant sport that mimics the age-old live pigeon killing competitions. Although that practice has been outlawed due to its barbarity, the target is still referred to as a bird where a successful shot is a ‘kill,’ and a missed one is a ‘bird away.’ Shotgun pellets or lead shots are the ammunition used for this and have a huge influence on the game of shooter. This article will explore in detail the history behind shot towers and how lead shots were made.

How Are Lead Shots Made for Clay Shooting?

Answering the question is not as simple as it might seem, nor would an oversimplified answer do justice to the question. Hence, we have added some relevant details along with a simple answer.

Lead shots were primarily made in shot towers. Here, lead is exposed to high heat and acquires a molten state, and then released from a high point in the tower through a copper sieve. The free fall of the liquid lead allows it to take the shape of tiny spherical balls and solidify as it reaches the bottom. These semi-cooled balls are then collected in drums full of water.

The Short History of Shot Towers

The father of this process was William Watts in England. In 1782, he patented this design and built the first-ever shot tower by extending his own house in Redcliffe. This method soon gained popularity as it was cheaper and more efficient than earlier methods of using molds for shots and slowly pouring molten lead into water drums.

These lead shots were used extensively by duck hunters and in clay pigeon shooting and helped to cope with the burgeoning demand. However, these were later banned by the US government and in other parts of the world as lead poisoning has severely detrimental effects on waterfowl.

However, the advent of the ‘wind tower’ method led to the decline of shot towers. It used a gush of cold air to radically decrease the height of the drop and was patented by the T.O LeRoy Company of New York City in 1848. Thus, shot towers were no longer needed. Nevertheless, their construction continued well into the 1880s, and two standing examples date back to 1916 and 1969.

Youle Shot Tower
Youle Shot Tower

How Do Shot Towers Work?

Shot towers are not overly complicated and only use a furnace, lead, copper sieves, and water basins. Some models may also feature a fan.

The manufacturing of a lead shot in a shot tower is obviously a lot more detailed, but the spirit of it is that you cool molten lead such that you get perfectly sphere lead balls due to the free fall of the lead.

A furnace is used at the top of the tower to heat the lead until it reaches a molten stage. As the molten lead is poured through a copper sieve really high up in the tower, it makes use of gravity and the surface tension to take the form of tiny spherical balls. While falling, the balls partially solidify and are collected in a water-filled basin that ends the cooling process.

The ball loses thermal energy as it falls from a shot tower, solidifies and cools.

Some shot towers even incorporated fans that would blow upwards as the balls were dropping. This gush of air or updraft increased the time it took for the balls to fall due to the drag force. Moreover, this current of fresh air helped to curtail the heating inside the tower, which could alternatively increase the time and decrease convectional cooling. This allowed larger diameter lead shots to be made from a specified height.

The Bliemeister Method

When the Bliemeister method, named after Louis W. Bliemeister, emerged, it made the wind tower and the shot tower methods obsolete. This method is used to make lead shots with a smaller diameter ranging from #7 to #9. In this technique, molten lead is released from small cavities and dropped nearly two and a half centimeters or one inch into a hot fluid. There, it is rolled on a slope and then dropped for another 90 cm or three feet.

The temperature of the fluid or the liquid is what determines how fast the lead will cool, whereas its surface tension and the slope help to shape the small lead droplets into very orderly and regular spherical balls of lead. The diameter of the cavity of the orifice through which the particular lead alloy is dropped is used to regulate the size of the lead shot. A 0.018 inches (0.46mm) orifice is fit for a #9 lead shot, whereas an orifice of approximately 0.025 (mm) inches is used for #6 or #7.

The spherical shape and the roundness are controlled by the angle of the slope, while the liquid coolant could be diesel fuel or antifreeze and water-soluble oil. Once the lead shots have cooled down successfully, it is washed, dried and small portions of graphite are incorporated in them to avoid the clumping together of these shots. Any lead shot bigger than #5 may clump rather horribly when put through tubes, even after the use of graphite. However, lead shots tinier than #6 do not face this problem when mixed with graphite.

Bliemeister Method

Shotgun Shells Used for Clay Pigeon Shooting

The right shotgun pellet is essential and can go a long way in determining your performance in trap/skeet shooting games. Typically, all 12 gauge shells can be accommodated in a 2¾-inch chamber.

However, if all you have is a duck gun with a 3-inch chamber, then you can still use it, but it might affect your pattern. The size of the shot can come down to preference. Those who advocate for a size 8 do so because they believe more shots mean you have a higher chance of hitting the bird, whereas the proponents of a smaller shot like 7½ would argue that a bigger pellet is needed to break the bird. It is important to note here that size 8 is somewhat smaller than size 7½.

Shot Towers Still Standing in the United States

Sparks, Philadelphia, PA: This is actually the first shot tower of America that was built in 1808.

Peters, Kings Mills, OH: This tower was used to produce ammunition for the Union Army during the US civil war.

Remington, Bridgeport, CT: It has survived many fires, including one that lasted for a week but now seems to be living its last days.

Phoenix, Baltimore, MD: This red brick shot tower was the tallest structure in the country when it was built in 1828.

Jackson Ferry, Wytheville, VA: This tower has a controversy where some claim that it precedes the specified year of 1807 and that Moses Austin and his brother were using it to produce drop shots even before 1800.

Dubuque, Dubuque, IA: The 120 feet 5 inches tall tower can be seen from the riverwalk of the Mississippi River. It underwent some renovations in recent years.

Wisconsin Shot Company Shot Tower, Spring Green, WI: The original shot tower was completed in 1832 and named Helena but was then reconstructed.

remington bridgeport shot tower


Shot towers have played an important role in the production of ammunition for musket pellets or lead shots. While they were previously used in wars, they are now used in clay pigeon shooting by trap/skeet shooters. Their manufacturing over the years has gone through various stages and evolved considerably, but shot towers are still regarded as historical artifacts in America, if nothing more.