Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Things You Discover Walking – Clifton Hill Shot Tower

Clifton Hill Shot Tower looms over local homes

Have you ever wondered how they made those little round balls that passed as bullets in the olden days? You know the type I mean. Small, round, lead balls that had to be rammed down the barrels of primitive muskets and pistols, before they could be fired at an assailant or enemy combatant. Well, today’s Things You Discover Walking entry provides the answer.

A couple of kilometres from the home I am currently house sitting (in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy North), is a tall chimney-like structure that towers high over the neighbourhood of Clifton Hill. A little research reveals the column to be the Clifton Hill Shot Tower, a structure that was first erected in 1882.
Would you like to hazard a guess at the number of bricks that went into
the towers construction?
But what exactly is a ‘shot tower’?

“A shot tower is a tower designed for the production of shot balls by freefall of molten lead, which is then caught in a water basin. The shot is used for projectiles in firearms.” ~ Wikipedia

Let’s examine this process in more detail. Inside the shot tower, lead was heated until molten before it was passed through a copper sieve high up in the tower (presumably, the furnace to melt the lead was located at the top of the tower). As the molten lead dropped through the air it solidified as it fell, and the surface tension generated by the fall, formed tiny spherical balls.

The partially cooled balls dropped into a pool of water at the bottom of the tower where they were left to cool down completely. And that in a nut shell is how lead shot used to be made before the development of modern bullets.

To make larger shot sizes, a copper sieve with larger holes was used. However, the maximum size of the lead shot was limited by the height of the tower, because larger shot sizes needed to fall farther to give them time to cool.

Originally, molten lead was poured into moulds of various sizes to create lead shot, but as you can imagine, this was a long, slow, time consuming process. The advent of the shot tower sped up the process considerably until even newer modern methods were developed. 

Clifton Hill Shot Tower
The Clifton Hill Shot Tower rises 49 metres (160 ft), and can be found on the corner of Alexandra Parade and Copper Lane. The tower (the tallest shot tower ever built in Australia), was operated by the Coops family, who also managed the Coops Shot Tower. Remarkably, this tower has also been preserved and can be seen inside the Melbourne Central Shopping Centre. Both towers are on the Victorian Heritage Register.

Modern methods for producing lead shot for shotgun shells, have of course done away for the need for shot towers, but many examples of these fascinating relics of a bygone age still survive.

Two of the oldest towers still standing are the Jackson Ferry Shot Tower in Wythe County, Virginia. This was built in the 1790s, and is now part of a state park and open to the public during the tourist season. Another is the Chester Shot Tower, in Boughton, England. This tower, built in 1799, is the oldest surviving shot tower in the Britain. Other examples still survive in countries as diverse as Germany, Finland, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

Clifton Hill Shot Tower
So there you have it: the Clifton Hill Shot Tower. It now stands like a silent sentinel on a nondescript corner just metres from the entrance to Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway.

It would be wonderful to see the tower turned into more than just an old relic from a bygone era – I’m sure the view from the top would be well worth the climb – but sadly, money, politics, and planning constraints will no doubt conspire to stop that.


  1. Very informative, did not know about this. Amazing pictures too!

  2. I had the tower offically measured due to incorrect height of 49m for many years. The shot tower rises 78m and 80m/262ft to small chimney.

  3. Thanks, Richard. I will accept your correction to the 'official' figures I found five years ago in good faith. Standing at the foot of the shot tower, it certainly seems to rise more than the 49m noted in my post.


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