Shotgun Shells

For something as primitive and basic as the humble shotgun shell, an awful lot of brain cells can be consumed in purchasing the right shell for the job.

There are considerations such as gun gauge, recoil, target and environmental regulations. Price of course can be a serious consideration. You can spend anywhere from $4 per box to nearly $20, so it’s important to understand what you get for your money.

Likewise, some shotshell aficionados have opted to load to their own formula into spent hulls. While some shooters argue the merits of reloading popular gauges such as 12- and 20- gauge, shooters of smaller 28-gauge and .410 can cut their shell costs in half through reloading.

And reloading can also provide the added benefit of shooting just the right combination of powder, lead and wad to give maximum performance with the lowest recoil -- making for an extremely comfortable load.

The Shot Tower

So while manufacturers fill the shelves of your favorite hunting store with a mind-boggling array of shotgun shells, the fundamentals of the technology have pretty much remained the same for the past two centuries.

William Watts of Bristol, England, is acknowledged as the father of the modern shotgun shell. By adding a three-story tower and underground shaft to his house, he put the laws of physics to work for him in developing round pellets of lead that can be propelled by gun powder.

The ingenuity of the process was thus: he melted lead into tiny wads that would roll down the inclines of the tower. Perfectly round shot would make it all the way to the bottom. Irregular shaped balls would naturally roll off the side.

Over the ensuing decades, shot towers evolved into a free fall of molten lead. With some towers reaching over 250 feet, the liquefied drops would solidify as they plunged toward a basin of water. After they hit, the quality control experts would remove them, check for roundness by rolling them down an incline, then give them a good polish to ensure maximum performance and shelf life.

Soon, shot towers were appearing all over the world, from England to Virginia to Australia. Today the tower has been replaced by a mold, but otherwise the process is surprisingly similar.

What you’ll find in most modern factories is a system that still pretty much relies on gravity and cooling to get the job done.

Modern Shot Making

It starts when rollers feed lead ingots into a meltpot. The molten lead is poured into a mold head (along with a tiny percentage of antimony for shape integrity), and then into a water column for cooling. From there the pellets are picked up on a conveyer and fed through a dryer. As in the good old days, the pellets tumble down an incline for classification and quality control. Graphite is added as a lubricant to improve the flow of the pellets, before they are segregated by size.

With shot being only one component of your favorite type of ammo, it was inevitable that someone would come along and mechanize shotshell manufacturing. That gentleman was Frank Chamberlain of Cleveland, Ohio.

As the legend goes, in 1883, Chamberlain hosted J. Palmer O’Neil, president of the Pittsburgh Firearms Company, on a duck hunt. After dinner and over cigars, Chamberlin mentioned he had built a machine capable of loading and crimping 400 shells per hour. By 1884, the men had teamed up to form the Chamberlain Cartridge Company. As they worked to refine their machinery, they improved production to nearly 1,500 shells per hour.

Shotshells in Decorative Boxes

These modern wonders of ballistics took the country by storm. Packed in decorative boxes of 25, their uniformity and price provided shooters with a superior and affordable product -- providing your shotgun didn’t have a Damascus-type barrel whose metallurgical integrity could be tested by the shells’ nitro powder loads.

Soon, a marketplace war broke out as other shell manufacturers adopted mass production. Paper hulls became the norm for upland hunters while waterfowl shooters preferred brass hulls. Wads were precut discs made from a fabric such as felt that isolated the powder from the shot. The assembly lines were running full tilt. In the frenzy, it took only 16 years before Chamberlain’s ammo business was crushed by competitors (but the company then concentrated on manufacturing mechanical traps and clay targets for a new sport called trapshooting.)

The turn of the century may have been the golden age of shotgun shell modernization.

The increased competition forced manufacturers to innovate as a form of differentiation in the marketplace. The King Powder Company started mass production of a smokeless powder. The company diversified into shot shells, relying on its new powder to seize a competitive advantage.

Still, Winchester is credited as the first American company to market smokeless shotgun shells beginning in 1903.

By 1900, paper shells were all the rage as sales surged seven-fold between 1887 and 1901. It would take 60 years before Remington became the first American manufacturer to introduce plastic hulls for shotgun shells. Plastic emerged as almost a default, after experiments with aluminum and other materials proved fruitless.

For many shooters, though, the big payoff of plastic hulls is that they could be reloaded.

Color-Coded Shotshells

That same year, Federal ushered in the age of color-coded shells by gauge -- a convention used industry-wide today. Federal also took the lead in the mid-1960s with nontoxic shells, finally getting the first steel load into production in 1973.

The 1960s also saw a massive consolidation of the shotshell industry. At the time, DuPont and Olin were the dominant powder suppliers, while ammunition manufacturers dwindled down to three majors: Federal, Remington and Winchester.

Brass heads became popularized, with brass-coated steel making inroads. As manufacturers turned to high brass or low brass shells, many experts agree that it is difficult to detect any measurable difference in performance.

In conjunction with other advances, primers evolved to ignite the propellant charge more uniformly. The challenge was in finding the right formula that would neither flame nor sputter -- and retain a resistance to moisture.

It’s All About the Gas in the Shotshell

When the firing pin strikes the primer, the objective is for the powder to create enough pressure to propel the shot hard and fast enough to decimate the target. The necessary pressure is built up between the powder and the wad. The wad is designed to both hold the pellets and seal in the gasses created by the burning powder. It is the gases from the powder, rather than the ignition of the powder, that propels the shot-filled wad from the hull.

As the wad and shot leave the muzzle, you can see the wad fall away like the first stage of a rocket. That leaves the shot hurling toward its target unencumbered. The velocity of the shot is often determined by the type and quantity of the powder in the shell.

Powders are formulated to deliver specific types of propellant characteristics.

The shape of the granules, burn rate and overall composition determine recoil, velocity and penetrating power for different size gauges and specific applications. There is an almost infinite combination of powder and shot size that can be used to achieve optimum results.

Smokeless Powder for Shotshells

For example, sub-gauge shells such as 28-gauge or .410 are likely candidates for powders milled with tiny grains that yield high density and quick burn rates. That’s because the tinier granules allow more powder to be packed into the smaller hulls, while the higher burn rate compensates for the relatively small powder charge.

Thanks to Alfred Nobel, the development of smokeless gunpowder in 1887 enabled the production of higher velocity ammunition. The Winchester Repeating Arms Company began experimenting with smokeless powder in 1891 as it pursued black-powder alternatives for a high-velocity smokeless cartridge.

Smokeless powder quickly became the defacto standard for ammunition. By 1914, E.I. DuPont was supplying 40 percent of the smokeless powder used by the Allies in World War I.

What makes smokeless powder so effective is the mixture of nitrocellulose-powder (NC) and nitroglycerin (NG). In addition, shells made with smokeless powder don’t need oxygen from the air to combust; they contain enough inherent oxygen to burn completely -- especially in a small, enclosed space like a shotshell hull. All it takes for the powder to ignite is a sufficiently high temperature…not a spark or a flame. That makes smokeless powder different from blasting agents such as dynamite.

Additional ingredients in smokeless powders include stabilizers, flash suppressants and deterrents. Put it all together and the beauty of smokeless powders is their ability to burn under controlled conditions, at a measured rate, in order to send a projectile from the barrel of a gun.

In the end, smokeless powder is more efficient, cleaner and more stable than black powder.

Crumple-Zone Wads

In conjunction with state-of-the-art wads that feature crumple zones to absorb the ignition impact, the pellets that shoot out of the muzzle are well-formed, provide excellent patterns and can reach high velocities with smokeless powder.

Innovations such as smokeless powder, shock-absorbing wads and competent primers have been integrated in shotshells across all gauges. That means the performance penalty between the granddaddy 12-gauge and the smaller 16-, 20- and 28-gauges, in addition to .410 caliber, becomes less important as shooters move down to smaller shotguns.

Unlike rifles and pistols that are sized according to calibers, shotgun barrels are designated by "gauges" -- or the measurement of the inside diameter of the barrel. The exception is .410, which is technically a caliber but is often referred to as a gauge during discussions of shotgun shells.

The basis for measuring shotgun gauges is actually counter-intuitive -- and can easily confuse new shooters. It works like this…

Shotshell Gauges

The larger the number of the gauge, the smaller the shell. Conversely, the smaller the gauge, the bigger the shell.

This methodology originated when shotshell lead equaled the diameter of the shotgun barrel's bore size. The number of lead balls of a particular size that totaled a pound in weight determined the "gauge."

For example, 12 balls per pound equals a 12 gauge. A 20-gauge shotgun translates into 20 lead balls equal in size to the gun's barrel diameter that total one pound.

Of all the gauges available to you, the easiest decision to make is to go for 12-gauge. It’s the most common and affordable. It delivers the biggest punch. And 12-gauge shotguns come in wider varieties than just about any other gauge.

Some people would argue that 12 gauge may be too heavy for new shooters. And in a way they would be right when it comes to the weight of the shotgun. But low-recoil 12-gauge shells can be easily purchased.

The next smaller shotshell is 16-gauge. While many newcomers may think that’s a good alternative to 12-gauge, the problem is that 16-gauge has been relegated to the arcane. The growing popularity of 20-gauge has surpassed the old-reliable 16-gauge. Shotgun makers only begrudgingly make 16-gauge compared to the overall market -- and they are usually specialty gun makers of side-by-sides.

So after 12-gauge, 20-gauge is far and a way the most popular. The ammunition is generally stocked right next to the 12-gauge, and priced comparably. And you could easily argue that there are just about as many 20-gauge shotguns on the market as 12-gauge. Shooters gravitate to 20-gauge because its low recoil doesn’t necessarily penalize the shooter with inferior performance.

Shotshells for Wingshooting

Some wingshooters also prefer 20-gauge over 12-gauge because the guns can be much lighter. When you’re trekking around for miles in the heat, a 20-gauge shotgun makes the expedition more enjoyable. Once you come on your bird, the smaller 20-gauge won’t decimate the prey as badly as the bigger 12-gauge either. Plus 20-gauge gives wingshooters certain elegance -- an understated bravado of going for a humane kill with a small shot. For some shooters, it can turn a science into an art.

That can also be said for 28-gauge wingshooters. Again, the lighter gun and smaller shot speak of a sense of confidence that comes with experienced shooters. For clays shooters, however, the premium price of 28-gauge can be intimidating. After all, if you’re a wingshooter you’ll only get off a few shots in the course of a day -- quite different from a skeet shooter, let’s say, who may fire hundreds of rounds in a few hours.

Perhaps the consummate shooter will bring them down with a .410. The diminutive shells are certainly capable of killing small game and hitting clays in a game of skeet. But becoming a great .410 shooter takes time. So new shooters concerned about recoil shouldn’t go to this extreme from the get-go. Instead, 28-gauge can provide the near-crushing power of a 20-gauge with very low recoil.

With all these available options it’s easy to get confused. The best place to start is with the tried-and-true experience that has successfully proven itself across generations of shooters.

The Right Size Pellet for Your Shotshell

For wingshooters, number 8 is the smallest pellet normally used. You can use it for game the size of quail or dove. Size 7½ or 6 are more effective on bigger birds pheasants or grouse. You can even use sizes 5 and 4 for longer pheasant shots. Sizes 5 and 4 are commonly used for ducks, with the killing power of the larger BB size reserved for the largest of birds, including Canada geese.

When it comes to waterfowl, the size of the shot can change due to environmental regulations.

Back in 1964, there were about 12 million more acres of wetlands than today, according to Ducks Unlimited.

Development, pollution, agriculture and climate change create a perfect wave of devastation for waterfowl habitats.

To help maintain and grow healthy environments for waterfowl, many state agencies require steel shot instead of lead (and it’s becoming more prevalent for upland wingshooting as well).

Steel Shot and the Law

Most of us already know about lead poisoning to humans, animals and the environment. For hunters, the best thing they can do save the wetlands is switch to steel shot.

Actually, they many not have a choice except to go steel.

The U.S, U.K., Canada, and many western European countries now mandate non-toxic shot for waterfowl. In short that means no lead.

Steel is the logical choice because it’s non-toxic.

But the density of steel is lighter than lead – reducing the down-range velocity. Lead is also much better in other ways.

The biggest gripe about steel is that it can damage the barrel of your shotgun over prolonged use. To compensate, steel-shot makers resort to thicker wads. The extra padding in the shotcup means it holds fewer pellets.

Experienced wingshooters rely on a 2-for-1 rule for steel shot. It says that if you’re shooting steel, up the size of the shot by 2 compared to lead. Number 6 lead shot therefore translates into number 4 steel shot.

That sounds easy on the surface but you have to check your local hunting laws. Some jurisdictions restrict the size of the shot -- especially near real-estate development.

Other Non-Toxic Shot

As a steel alternative, bismuth is a metal alloyed with tin to give similar characteristics to lead shot. The shot is simply called bismuth. While the density of bismuth is greater than steel, it doesn’t match the velocity and killing power of lead – even though the gap is closing.

However, alloys shells such as Hevi-Steel® can exceed the performance bismuth. Hevi- Steel can reach 1,550 feet-per-second (fps) compared with 1,350-1,400 fps for bismuth. The prices are about the same, but Hevi-Steel can be more devastating due to its higher density.

The company that makes Hevi-Steel, ENVIRON-Metal, Inc., also manufactures Hevi-Shot®. Hevi-Steel uses the same production methods and materials as Hevi-Shot but with less tungsten. The lower tungsten content means Hevi-Steel can sell for about $7 less per box of 25. So Hevi-Shot would cost you about $25-$30 and Hevi-Steel $18-$23.

Steel, meanwhile, will you set you back $15-$20 per box.

The price premium of Hevi-Shot over Hevi-Steel gives you 10% more density to make the ultra long-range shoots you encounter with turkeys, ducks and geese -- something that Hevi-Steel shooters might find challenging.

The natural comparison with Hevi-Shot and Hevi-Steel is with the original non-toxic load, steel shot.

Hevi-Steel shot has a density of 9 compared to typical steel shot with a density of 7.86, and with a muzzle velocity of 1,550 fps, according to the manufacturer. Hevi-Steel’s downrange retained energy is nearly twice that of regular steel -- resulting in a denser, more effective pattern.

By comparison, the density of Hevi-Shot is 12.0 versus 7.8 of steel shot. With a maximum velocity of about 1,400 fps, it’s slower than Hevi-Steel but delivers more lethal results due its higher density. ENVIRON-Metal claims that Hevi-Shot has 50% more lethal pellets at 40 yards compared with steel loads.

Magnum Shotshells

The other big variable in wingshooting shotshell is the magnum load. Magnum means “more” when applied to the world of shooting, and specifically when it comes to ammunition it translates into more mass per shell. That’s why you’ll find Magnum shells in 3-inch and 3½-inch sizes. You just have to make sure the chamber of your shotgun can accommodate, since most shotguns are designed for 2¾-inch shells.

By filling the Magnum hull with bigger pellets (and more powder to fire them) you get a heavier load (mass), tighter shot pattern and higher crushing power.

That may sound all well and good, but the downside is that since Magnum pellets are bigger than your standard load there are fewer of them -- unless of course your gun is capable of taking a 3-inch shell instead of the standard 2¾-inch shell.

The heaver Magnum load can also be slower than a standard load. The bet you’re making with a Magnum load is that the pellets that do strike the bird will have greater killing power than a standard load because of their greater penetration power.

You’re also betting that you can deal with the stronger recoil. If you’re expecting to get off only a few shots for the day, it might not be a problem for you. On the other hand, if you’re going to park yourself in a camping chair and shoots hundreds of pigeons out of the sky, a standard load (or a smaller gauge) is highly recommended to avoid shoulder and cheek bruises.

Standard loads certainly increase your odds for more hits, especially at close range, since you’re shooting more pellets than with Magnums. But since the pellets are lighter they run out of energy faster, diminishing their penetrating power at longer distances.

When it comes to shooting Magnum loads, try to keep the range within 35-40 yards. That way, if you miss with the first shot at least you still have a fighting chance on the second.

Magnum loads are the heavyweight of wingshooting shotshells. But as you can see, it’s easy to fall into overkill when it comes to shooting birds. With so many permutations, some people may just say the “heck with it” and buy the biggest and baddest shotshell they can find.

Take that route, and if you’re going dove hunting you’ll end up with just a bag of feathers with each and every kill. The ideal is to match the prey with the shooting conditions and your experience and your gun. Then factor in any regulatory restrictions. And of course the far-ranging opinions of your shooting buddies. No questions about it, finding just the right shotshell for wingshooting can get pretty darn confusing.

Shotshells for Clay Targets

In fact, it may drive you to take up clays shooting -- where ammo choices become much easier.

For the most part, traditional clays targets are far more predictable than wingshooting. Clays travel a predictable path at a set speed with little variation in hold or break points. Clay targets don’t flap their wings, they don’t have brains, and they don’t have instincts all working together to trip you up.

Exceptions would be sporting clays and five stand, where each presentation is different. But at least you get lookers before you shoot -- giving you the opportunity to formulate a plan.

So when it comes to shooting clays here are the tried-and-true recommendations. But before we continue, please bear one thing in mind. The discussion of chokes is not included here. The assumption is that you’re using standard chokes for each clays sport. With that in mind, let’s continue…

The Right Size Shotshell

Number 9 shot is most suitable for skeet. The high pellet count gives you the best chance of breaking targets at the game’s relatively close range. That said, more experienced skeet shooters find a psychological advantage in really crushing their targets. They’ll go for number 8 shotshells or even 7½. At that point, you’re not breaking targets; you’re mulching them.

Regular 16-yard trap is best served with number 8 shot. The size, mass and pellet count make number-8 loads pretty close to ideal. When it comes to handicap trap shooting, number 8 can take you all the way to 25 yards. However, you should seriously consider moving to a handicap load with a velocity of 1,200-1,300 fps as you move further back from the trap house.

If you’re concerned about the recoil of handicap loads, switch from number 8 to number 7½. The higher mass of the larger pellet holds a tighter pattern for longer distances -- improving your odds for a kill. Even if you’re shooting 1 ounce loads of number 8 or 7½, expect a lower recoil than number 8 high-speed handicap loads.

Many sporting clays shooters prefer number 8 handicap loads to cover them for both short and long shots. After all, a handicap shotshell capable of breaking a target at 80 yards can certainly crush one at 20 yards.

The Shotshell as Choke

Then there’s the school of sporting clays shooters who change their chokes depending on the range of the target. For example, targets shot at about 20 yards could be hit with a skeet choke, while an 80-yard target could require a full choke. There’s no end to the debate about choke diameter.

But there’s another school of sporting clays shooters that make their own virtual choke by changing the size of the shotshell.

For close shots they’ll shoot number 9, for medium shots they go to number 8 and far shots call for number 7½. For them, it’s much easier to use different shotshells than change out chokes.

In the end, using the right ammunition can make the difference between a near-perfect score and a perfect score. Selecting the perfect shotshell should not be taken lightly.

Shotshell Reloading

The quest for just the right shotshell has driven some shooters to actually make their own through a process called reloading.

For the most part, people who started reloading in the early days tried to save themselves some money. A reloaded shotshell was always cheaper than store-bought. Basically, you took a spent hull, bought some pellets, primers, wads and gunpowder, then built a shell using a specialized press.

But another segment of the reloader population found just the right formula to make the perfect shell. And with the price of ammunition and reloading ingredients skyrocketing due to rising lead and gunpowder costs, it could end up that making the perfect load is the only reason to make your own shells.

Does it Pay to Reload?

The economics of reloading weigh in favor of store-bought shotshells in the larger gauges. Given the economies of scale for shotshell manufacturers, they can outprice the individual consumer these days to provide cheaper 12-gauge and 20-gauge shells. The sheer volume of these particular shotshells will likely dictate lower prices than homemade for the foreseeable future.

But get down to 28-gauge or .410 and reloading makes a compelling economic argument. Even with the surging prices of lead, gunpowder and primers, you still may be able to save 50% on reloads versus store-bought shotshells.

(If price is a driving issue for you to reload, check out this wonderful Shotshell Reloading Cost Calculator. It will save you lots of time and AA batteries for your calculator.

Safety Guidelines for Reloading

Once you become proficient at reloading, you can crank out a flat of shells or more in an hour -- depending on your machine.

Please adhere to these safety guidelines when reloading:

  1. Stick to existing shotshell formulas as provided by manufacturers. Don’t change the formulas. If you find a specific formula is not working for you, move on to a different one.
  2. Never try to experiment with a larger quantity of gunpowder than called for by the formula. Stick to the recommended bushing size for dispensing powder into the hull.
  3. Please don’t smoke while reloading.
  4. Don’t try to salvage a scrap shell for its components. You can either cut yourself with a sharp tool or accidentally ignite the primer. It’s just not worth the risk.
  5. Carefully inspect hulls before reloading for tears, splits and singeing.
  6. Avoid mixing hulls from different manufacturers. The volumes of the hulls could vary from brand to brand across the same gauge. Several directories are available for determining the right formula for each brand of hull.
  7. Always keep your work area clean. This is important to both maintain quality shells and for keeping your reloading supplies clearly marked and organized to prevent dangerous mistakes.
  8. Store your gunpowder in a cool, dry place.
  9. Never mix different kinds of gunpowders. Each gunpowder has its own properties, which can be altered when diluted with a different type.
  10. Always clean up spilled gunpowder with a brush. Vacuum cleaners are to be avoided, since the switch or cord can spark and ignite the powder.
  11. Keep your primers in the original package. Dumping primers into a bigger container risks detonation.
  12. Don’t argue with your reloading machine. If it won’t accept a primer, hull or other component, don’t force the press. Carefully investigate the source of the problem before continuing.
  13. Don’t over-lubricate your reloading machine. Too much lubricant accumulates residues that make the machine difficult and hazardous to operate.
  14. Pay attention! Your reloading machine can accidentally discharge too much powder or shot, putting the shooter at risk.
  15. Don’t substitute lead shot materials. For example, if a formula calls for lead shot don’t substitute it with steel. Different types of shot exert different pressures in the hull -- posing potentially hazardous conditions.
  16. Safety glasses are advised.
  17. Don’t eat while reloading. Your hands and your workspace have accumulated lead and gunpowder residue that easily could find its way into your food.
  18. Make sure the completed shell is properly sized.
  19. Keep children away from your reloading area.
  20. Always wash your hands after reloading.
When all is said and done about finding the right shotshell, perhaps the most important thing is this: be honest with yourself. If you continue to miss shots, switching around between different shells probably won’t make that much of a difference. Using the right shotshell will make you a more effective shooter, not necessarily a better one.

For safety’s sake, please don’t carry different gauge shells in the same pouch. In the heat of the moment, it could be easy to accidentally grab the wrong shell and drop into the breach. Also, be very careful about shooting reloads made by another person. Their quality could be dubious and you end up the one suffering.

Safety issues aside, perhaps the most important concern when it comes to shotshells is having a comfortable shooting experience. Heavy loads will kick and could cause bruising. You don’t need a macho load to break a target. You simply need the right shotshell.

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