Shot Towers

Sparks Shot Tower, 129-131 Carpenter Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA

Sparks Shot Tower, 129-131 Carpenter Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA

Until the mid 20th century the method used to produce lead shot was to drop molten lead from a great height into water. The liquid lead’s surface tension would form it into almost perfect spheres and it would cool as it fell. The water would break the fall and the shot would be collected and graded. If you have ever used a soldering iron you have probably made shot this way without realizing it. Melted solder (a lead alloy) dripping off a soldering iron from the right height produces small shot.

The Natural Bridge, Virginia

The Natural Bridge, Virginia

During the Revolutionary War the Virginia Natural Bridge, then owned by Thomas Jefferson, was used to make shot for the American soldiers by dropping the molten lead 245 feet into the creek below. Specially build towers, called Shot Towers, were built around the world to produce shot using this method. You may have driven past shot towers without knowing what they were once used for. In fact you might have driven on top of a shot tower (Route 11 crosses the Natural Bridge).

400px-Clifton_hill_shot_tower_melbourne_australia

Clifton Hill Shot Tower, Australia

From the late 19th century onwards techniques to decrease the height shot needed to be dropped down had been developed, lessening the need for tall towers, and by the 1960s lead only needed to be dropped 1″ to produce small diameter shot while large caliber shot was made by simply stamping lead wire into a ball. Many of the shot towers have been knocked down by many still exist. Wikipedia has a list of still-standing Shot Towers.

Phoenix Shot Tower, East Baltimore, Maryland

Phoenix Shot Tower, East Baltimore, Maryland

This old technique is still used in parts of the world to make DIY shotshells or for loading straight into DIY muskets.

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Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


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  • Doom

    that is actually really freaking cool. had no idea that is how it used to be made.

  • Mike F Di

    yeah but baltimore’s was closed because the “lead was potentially a health hazard”….idiots

    • Steve (TFB Editor)

      in that case my house must be a toxic waste dump ;)

  • Giolli Joker

    I knew about this method, that was used in Europe as well, but I kinda remember of sand being used instead of water to soften the fall… not sure, though.

    • Steve (TFB Editor)

      Wikipedia lists shot towers in the USA, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. But the technique is also used in the middle of Africa. I guess sand would work, but you would need to clean them with water afterwards. Also, the more modern techniques (later 1800s and onwards) would only work with water.

    • Mark N.

      The sign posted at the Baltimore tower (which dates back to the Revolutionary War) says sand was used at the bottom, as I recall.

      • Giolli Joker

        Cool!

        The one I was told about (by my metallurgy professor) was in Italy, still I can’t tell for sure if he said sand or water, but good to know it was a real option.

  • Lance

    Cool monuments to American firepower awesome.

  • noob

    There was one shot tower in the heart of Australia that was so historical that they didn’t knock it down when they built Melbourne Central Shopping Center. They erected a giant glass cone over it instead.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melbourne_Central_Shopping_Centre

    • James In Australia

      The Clifton Hill one was the tallest in the world.
      Funnily enough I drove past it today on my way to Melbourne Central.

    • phuzz

      As a comparison, the very first shot tower in Bristol in the UK was demolished in 1968. Well, the original wasn’t so much a tower, as a converted house. A replacement was build on the same site later.

      More info on the replacement here:

      http://geotopoi.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/bristol-21-years-ago-sheldon-bush-shot-tower/

    • DiverEngrSL17K

      Noob, it’s wonderful that they saw fit to preserve an important artifact of history that is part of the national heritage without caving in to commercial and economic pressures.

    • Steve (TFB Editor)

      That is very cool!

  • Suburban

    Is the one in Philadelphia still there? The photo appears to be black-and-white. I think my dad pointed it out when we were on the way to a wedding. I was reminded of it recently when the subject of the Eddystone Remington plant came up, but I thought it was torn down to build a Burlington Coat Factory store, or something.

    • Dan

      Yes, it is still there, there is a park build around it, aptly named “Shot Tower Park”

  • Jeff Smith

    Interesting! Thanks Steve!

  • Scotty

    Awesome. Love gun history trivia like this. Thanks!

  • DiverEngrSL17K

    Great historical article, Steve — thanks!

  • Nathaniel

    There are two spelling/grammar errors in this article.

    • http://www.thefirearmblog.com/ Phil W “Senior Writer TFB”

      Geez we have a lot of English teachers around here:-)

  • dbnelson

    how would they determine the final size of the lead shot? Was it determined by mass?

    • Cymond

      Since the end result is basically spherical, it could be done with a series of screens. For example, the first, largest screen would allow all small pellets to pass and catch only the largest pellets like 00 buckshot, then the second screen would catch the next size such as #4 buckshot, and so forth.

  • ChrismM

    Remington still uses a shot tower at their plant in Lonoke, AR.

  • dfitch81

    Absolutely fascinating, thanks Steve for sharing!