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Ammunition Reloading – For Shotguns

Thursday, 07 March 2013 03:00 Written by 

When viewed in a self defense / survival role, few can dispute the effectiveness of a shotgun as a short distance “equalizer” or a mid-range hunting arm. A shotgun is capable of firing a single “slug,” projectile, a cluster of small projectiles called “shot,” or a variety of special purpose projectiles such as “breaching” rounds and pyrotechnics.  But, it’s the shotgun shell that gives the shotgun the versatility to take down small game, large game, and the occasional misguided reprobate or assorted urban zombies. Just like the pistol and the rifle, a shotgun is a “must have” in the prepper’s weapons arsenal.


(1)    The reloading of ammunition holds certain inherent dangers capable of causing personal injury or death. Understand and follow all safety precautions when storing and handling gun powders, primers and lead projectiles.
(2)    Modern smokeless gun powders are considered a propellant, not an explosive. However, when ignited in a confined space, burning gun powder generates extreme pressures capable of causing an explosion hazard. Additionally, burning gun powders can inflict severe, deep tissue damage when in contact with the skin. Gun powders should not be stored or handled in the presence of open flames, cigarette smoking or extreme heat sources.
(3)    Primers are an explosive and should be stored and handled away from open flame, extreme heat sources and impact hazards. Primers should be properly stored in metal cabinets, separate from gun powders.
(4)    Lead is known to cause serious, even terminal health problems. Lead or lead based reloading components should be handled in a manner that will limit exposure by way of skin or inhalation.
(5)    Reloading components should be stored so as to keep them out of the reach of children.
(6)    The information, views and opinions contain herein are purely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Prepper Link administrators, or the Prepper Link community.

Shotshell Components

Just like with metallic cartridges used in pistols and rifles, shotgun shells are becoming harder to come by, or are being sold at premium prices where they are available, due to recent panic buying prompted by threats of government bans. Especially for preppers who have been stocking up on shotshells, and their future long term availability being uncertain; purchasing shotshell reloading equipment and supplies may be an option worthy of serious consideration.

Again, just like metallic cartridges, shotshells are reloadable, albeit not as many times as metallic cartridges. However, as I mentioned in my previous article, “Ammunition Reloading 101,” the reloading of shotshells is a whole separate world from metallic cartridge reloading and requires its own unique equipment and supplies.

Where metallic cartridges are made up of four components:

  • (1) a case
  • (2) a primer
  • (3) the powder charge
  • (4) the projectile

Shotshells are composed of:

  • (A) a paper or plastic case
  • (B) a primer
  • (C) the powder charge
  • (D) a plastic, paper, or fiber wad
  • (E) the projectile.

Note: A few European countries and some specialty shotgun shells use metallic cased hulls. I believe these to be impractical for the purposes of this article, and I will not be addressing their uses or reloading data / details.

The Purpose Of Shotguns

Shotguns were originally designed for the specific purpose of hunting game birds, especially while the birds are in flight. Firing a cluster of small pellets that spread out ahead of a flying bird greatly increases the odds of bringing the bird down. Being of a very small size, the pellets do minimal damage to the bird, providing for a more optimum yield of edible meat. This was the birth of “birdshot.”

Where pistol and rifle bullet weights are measured in the weight unit of “grains,” a shotshells shot capacity is measured in terms of ounces. Without going too deeply into the science of ballistics; launching a heavy shot payload necessitates the use of light charges of slow burning powders. Otherwise, the pressures behind the charge will build too quickly and potentially bulge, or burst, the shotgun barrel before the shot column can leave the barrel. Thus, you have the reason why shotguns are effective primarily at shorter ranges than pistols and rifles.

As a shot column leaves the barrel, the column almost immediately begins to separate; growing wider the further out it travels. What leaves the barrel the size of roughly a quarter may spread out to more than three feet in diameter at 20 yards distance. Over time, it became obvious that shotguns were a good means of taking small game like rabbits and squirrels, while again causing minimal loss of meat.

By creating larger shot pellets, but limiting the number used to avoid ballistic problems, it soon became apparent that shotguns could be used for taking big game, such as deer, at close distances (Buckshot). After that, came the realization that a single heavy weight projectile could be launched from a shotgun, also for the taking of big game (Slugs).

Of course, it didn’t take long to figure out how effective a shotgun could be against those occasional reprobates and zombies. In closer ranges where the shot column remains particularly dense, wounds can be extremely devastating, even when using birdshot. And since the individual pieces of bird shot lack significant weight, they expend their energy fairly quickly, preventing through and through penetration wounds, or penetration through exterior walls, or solid core doors (Something to consider if using a shotgun for home defense).

A verbal Cross Section Of Shotshell Hulls

As previously mentioned, a shotshell case, or “hull,” is made of either a paper or plastic tube with a brass or brass plated steel head attached to one end. A primer pocket is drilled into the center of this head and is where a primer is seated during loading. Some heads are a bit longer than others and are commonly referred to as either “low brass” or “high brass.” The length of the head will not alter ballistics as long as all else in the reloading process remains the same.

Although not as common today, but still available, paper tube shotshell hulls have a short reloadable service life of generally two reloadings (the original loading and two reloadings,  providing for a three shot total lifetime) before the hull should be discarded; as the hull is considered no longer safe to use.

Plastic tube hulls can usually withstand five or six reloadings, but the hulls should be carefully inspected for signs of possible deterioration damage after being reloaded more than three times. Of course any damage found means the hull is no longer safe and should therefore be discarded.

There are several different types of hull bases (the portion of the hull that attaches to the head) and this is a very critical consideration in the reloading process since these differences affect the internal capacity of the hull, which in turn alters ballistic performances.

Without going into the specific hull base differences or the reasons behind it, suffice it to say, it is extremely important that you are able to identify them and segregate your hulls accordingly because reloading data (powder, wad, and shot weight listings) is predicated around the hull base type.

Unlike metallic cartridges which are designated by the word caliber, shotshells are referred to by “gauge,” (i.e. 12 gauge), except when speaking of the 410 shotshell. Technically, the 410 is referred to as “bore” (i.e.  410 bore shotshell).  Another difference between shotshells and metallic cartridges; the bigger the number (12 gauge – 16 gauge – 20 gauge, etc.) the smaller the shell. A 28 gauge shotshell is about ½” in diameter while a 10 gauge shell is a little over ¾” in diameter. 

Shell length is another important aspect to consider since:

  • 10 ga. shell is 3 ½” long.
  • 12 ga. shells come in either 2 ¾”, 3” and 3 ½” lengths.
  • 16 ga. shells are manufactured in 2 ¾” lengths.
  • 20 ga. shells are made in 3” and 2 ¾” lengths
  • 28 ga. shells are in 2 ¾” lengths.
  • 410 bore shells come in either 3” or 3 ½” lengths

It is critical then that you further identify and segregate shells that you might purchase as “once fired” from bulk sales sources, or otherwise obtain from shotgun ranges.

As is the case with 12 ga. shotshells, you can fire 2 ¾” and 3” shells from a gun with a 3 ½” chamber, but you can’t reverse that order. Always check to be positive you’re using the correct length shell. The proper shell length is stamped on the side of the shotgun’s barrel.

Note: Hull length measurements are the approximate length of the shell prior to the end of the case being folded closed on the mouth end. Therefore, the shell is slightly shorter after component loading. When fired, the folded portion is forced out to its full length again. If you load a 3” shell into a 2 ¾’ chamber, it will just fit. However, upon being fired, the folded portion will now extend and exceed the length of the chamber and create excessive chamber pressures.

It should be noted here that shotshell hulls made in the U.S. are of standard dimensions between the numerous U.S. manufacturers. European manufacturers, on the other hand, make their primers and hull primer pockets .001” larger in diameter than U.S. manufacturers. Using a U.S. made primer in a European made hull will result in the primer falling out of the pocket. Using a European primer in a U.S. made hull will work, BUT it will stretch the pocket out and U.S. made primers will no longer seat tight. There is a simple solution to prevent potential problems; INSPECT THOSE HULLS!!!

And Now A Word Or Two About Shotshell Projectiles

Well, in truth, it could take a small book to cover the subject as it relates to the various stuff that is launched from the business end of a shotgun. But, the important information is; there are several different shapes and weight sizes of slugs. There are several different sizes of buckshot (000, 00, 0, # 1, # 2, # 3 and # 4). There are twelve sizes of birdshot, from # 1 to “dust.”  Shot is usually sold in 25 pound bags. When telling the kid behind the counter you want a bag of # 4 shot, without specifying # 4 buckshot, don’t be surprised if you are handed a bag of # 4 birdshot, or vise versa.

Just like the difference between caliber size and gauge size, the same holds true for shot sizes. Triple ought, or “000” buckshot is larger in diameter and heavier than # 4 buckshot. Likewise, # 1 birdshot is larger / heavier than dust birdshot.

In my youth, I had on occasion heard of shotshells being loaded with rock salt. It was designed to cause extreme, but short term, discomfort. More recently, I have seen videos on YouTube made by the walking brain dead (or perhaps true visionaries), showing young folks loading anything from dimes to CR-123 camera batteries into shotshells. I suppose if the weight of the impromptu projectile is a safe pairing with the powder charge, the hull, the primer and the wad; it might not exceed the pressure limits of the shotgun. I personally don’t condone it, nor recommend it. 

Lastly, there are slugs that are designed to be fired out of smooth bore shotgun barrels only and some that are designed for use in rifled barrels only. Then there are a few that are safe to be fired in either. Know your barrel type and the slug design you plan to use. 

Shotshell Primers

As I previously mentioned, there is a size difference between American made and European made primers. But, for reasons I really don’t understand, American primer manufacturers do not make a standardized primer chemical formula that is used by all. For this reason, primers produce different pressures when switching between each of the manufacturers. The differences are known and loading data listed in reloading manuals will show different loads using the proper brands of primers. This is not the case with metallic cartridge primers though.


In the days when shotshells and I were in our infancy, and hulls were made of paper, component separators inside of the hulls were also made of paper or a fiber material. After loading a powder charge inside the hull, a wad would be pushed down the tube to hold the powder in place. Another wad or two would then serve as a buffer and then the shot would be added. After that, another wad would be put into the tube, then the tube sealed closed with a star type crimp. Or, a paper wad would top the load and a roll crimp made over that.

Note: Shotshells use a six pointed star crimp or, an eight pointed star crimp, or a roll crimp. Each crimp type affects chamber pressures differently.

More common today is a one piece plastic wad that covers the powder, buffers the space between the powder and the shot, and provides a cup for the shot to be placed in. The construction of the space between the powder cup and the shot cup provides a flexible “piston” that helps to push the shot column a little faster and a little farther, without effecting chamber pressures.

The shot cup portion of the wad is designed to not only hold the shot in a tight clump while leaving the barrel; they are also designed to separate from the shot at predictable distances after being fired so as to control the amount of spread in the shot pattern. This is accomplished in part by the lengths of cuts in the cup walls.

Every manufacturer of shotshell wads has several different models in each shell gauge they produce. And of course, each model has its own unique characteristic which changes chamber pressures.


There are numerous powder manufacturers and everyone has several different models with very different characteristics.  Some burn hotter and faster than others while producing different pressures, shot velocities and felt recoil. In truth, powder choice is more a personal one rather than based upon a scientific evaluation and elimination process. Many reloaders find a powder that gives an acceptable result and never bother to refine their results from that point. Others are just loyal to a particular brand name.

It should be pretty obvious by now that every single shotshell reloading component affects chamber pressures in one way or another. How does one determine the correct combination of reloading components to use without risking turning their favorite shotgun barrel into, well… a pipe bomb?

Get Yourself a Reloading Manual

I fully realize that many who are reading this article are bleeding from their eyes and talking to themselves by now. The reloading of shotshells sounds like such a complex pain in the dorsal portion that it doesn’t make sense as to why anyone would want to get themselves involved with it. Well, I’m here to tell ya, it ain’t that big a deal.   

All you have to do is buy a good reloading manual, read it and make your component decisions from there. I highly recommend the Lyman 5th Edition Shotshell Reloading Handbook.

The Lyman 5th Edition provides an excellent overview of shotshell reloading, explains the function of each component, shows cross section drawings of the various hulls and then lists dozens of “recipes” for making your own shotshell reloads by specifically naming the model designation of each component. Considering the current state of affairs in regards to finding supplies, the hardest part of shotshell reloading will be finding all of the components recommended in the manual.

Every component can be found online. But purchasing powders and primers has its particular caveat. Common carriers such as UPS, USPS and FedEx charge sellers a hazardous materials fee of about $28.00 for up to fifty pounds of those materials delivered per address. Naturally, the seller includes this fee onto the buyer’s purchase price. Therefore, if you buy one pound of powder for $22.00, the haz-mat fee pushes the price up to fifty dollars. Try wrapping your head around ordering a one hundred count pack of primers for $3.50 but paying $30.50 after the haz-mat fee is included.

You could find other folks who are willing to combine an order to yours and share the haz-mat fee as long as it is all coming to the same address and doesn’t exceed fifth pounds. Of course, you would have to confirm that the complete order will be shipped out the same day. What I usually do is order sixteen to twenty pounds of powder and 5000 primers at a time. By then, the added haz-mat fee really doesn’t cause me to flinch quite as bad.

Shotshell Reloading Press

If you are really into shotgun sport shooting and go through several hundred shells per month, you would be best served spending hundreds of dollars for a top of the line reloading press (Or a couple thousand dollars if you want an electric powered progressive style press). But, if you are a prepper on a budget, who might load a hundred or so shells every couple of years, you would probably conduct a quick cost analysis and suggest I do something with myself that is physically impossible (At least for me).

But fear not my prepper brethren and sistern. The fine folks at Lee Precision make an all in one, gauge specific shotshell reloading press for less than $100.00 plus shipping.                         

The Lee Load All 2, though made mostly out of plastic and aluminum, weighs about three pounds and comes complete with everything you would need to turn out quality shotshell. According to Lee Precision, the Load All 2 has a service life of about 50,000 shells and they provide a pretty decent fix or replace policy.

Of course, being gauge specific, you would have to buy one for each shotshell gauge you would be reloading. For the price though, it’s not like you will break the bank.

In Conclusion

So there you have it in a nutshell or two… Shotshell reloading demystified. Well, at least I hope explained enough so as to give you the kind of information to make a logical decision on whether you would want to consider adding shotshell reloading to your prepping bag of tricks or not.

Last modified on Tuesday, 09 April 2013 22:20
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