Blast From the Past: Shotshell Reloading

Editor’s note: The following is from Gun Digest in 1959.

The army of shotshell reloaders grows daily – it’s easy, simple, and you can save folding money!

A lone pintail drake beat in toward my decoys against a stiff southwester, cupped his wings and began to spiral down behind the seaward dunes. Then a shot flatted out against the gray December sky, from a blind to my right, and he flared. I took him at a full fifty yards for a clean kill, watched as he winged over in a slow roll to drop, breast up, on the red, swamp-stained waters behind the sand dunes at Floras Lake, southwestern Oregon.

That shot was literally in the making for several weeks before I put out my few decoys and hunkered down behind my white, storm weathered driftwood hide. It was a hand-load carefully matched to the neat little 20-gauge double I carried. It was the end product of methodical testing and experimenting to find just the right combination of powder and shot for this particular gun.

The loading I used that day on those coastal dunes was 260 pellets of number 6 shot. My powder was Alcan’s AL8. The ultimate pattern showed an extremely full choked barrel throwing 80% of the load in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. The modified barrel delivered a uniform 68% pattern – and all this in a gun which, with factory loads, never produced more than 65% in the full choked barrel, and only slightly more than 50% in the modified barrel. But here, with handloads, I was getting 12 gauge performance from a 20 gauge.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. I have seen 12 bores step right up into the Magnum 10 class by careful hand-loading. Quite often in matching handloaded shells to a particular shotgun, pattern percentages can be improved as much as 10 to 15% over ordinary run-of-the-mill factory loads. And these percentages can be achieved with safety.

Gunners considering handloading usually approach the problem with several questions in mind. The foremost, generally, is the one of economy. What savings can be made by handloading shotshells? How big an investment in tools is required to turn out acceptable shotshells? Are the mechanics of reloading hard to learn?

The Alcan Company of Alton, Illinois, gives this breakdown of cost for a box of 12-gauge shells, using a 3-dram, 1-ounce hunting load in Western Trap tubes:

This is a saving of about 57% over the retail price of 12-gauge factory loads. You can save up to 70% in reloading for Magnum 10, 5-dram 2-ounce loads, using Western once fired tubes. My 20-gauge loads cost me about $1.00 a box.

Once fired cases, which can often be found around a Skeet or trap field, may be reloaded two, often three times, depending on the make. The best domestic brand for reloading is Western-Winchester; their tubes will stand repeated reloadings. With light, upland loads, I have used them as many as four times with perfect results. The Remington high base, low brass tubes are also excellent, and will stand up under numerous handloads. The Remington low base, high brass cases, however, will take no more than one reloading, their bases tending to separate from the paper after two or three loadings. When this happens the next shell pushes the paper tube remaining in the barrel up into the forcing cone, not a nice complication.

Best, of course, is to start your reloading operation with new cases. These can be obtained from any supplier of reloading components. Those designed for magnum loads will permit four to five reloadings. They cost around $6.00 a hundred for 12 gauge, about $9.00 for the 10-gauge Magnum. Tubes for 16 and 20 gauge cost about $5.00 a hundred. All these prices are for empty, primed cases. Over the life of the tubes they are very inexpensive. Cheaper tubes, about $3.00 a hundred, can be used for lighter loads.

The most economical reloads, however, can be obtained by using brass cases. These can be used almost indefinitely. They are excellent for normal upland and field loads. But, being only 2? inches in length, they give somewhat more open patterns in guns chambered for 2?-inch cases. Use brass cases, preferably, with loads requiring small wad pressure, for the reason that brass cases can’t be crimped without subtracting from their life – and it’s crimping that maintains heavy wad pressure.

Good, practical shotshell reloading tools can be had, with all the dies necessary to reload for one gauge, for less than $30.00. More expensive tools are available, but as in reloading rifle ammunition, the degree of perfection one obtains is more a matter of technique than of tools. A poor craftsman will turn out mediocre ammunition with the most costly tools; a careful, painstaking handloader will work up excellent shotshell reloads with any of the inexpensive tools available.

The Thalson shotshell reloading tool is an excellent example of the comparatively low priced reloading tools available. Both tool and dies for one gauge can be obtained for less than $30.00. Dies for another gauge, using the same tool, cost only $13.50. Where one is reloading for two or three gauges, such as a long range Magnum 12 for wild-fowling, and perhaps a 20-gauge for upland shooting, this tool is a very wise choice.

The old standby, the Lyman shotshell reloading tool, is another very good, inexpensive tool. So is the Echo shot-shell reloading tool. The difference in these tools, when compared with the more expensive reloading presses, is largely one of speed of operation.

The Acme reloading tool is a very wise choice, if you are going in for a more extensive reloading setup, for this tool loads lots of cases in a hurry, some 150-200 an hour. Another excellent choice is the C-H reloading press.

You need a good accurate powder scale, generally a powder measure as well, for your reloading operations. My setup, which I have found to serve admirably, consists of an electric powder measure manufactured by The Shooters Accessory Supply Company, and a Pacific powder scale. The electric measure pours the charge directly onto the scale pan to a predetermined amount. It automatically shuts off when this charge is on the scale.

This enables me to weigh each charge without trouble to one-tenth of a grain. (Some tools, such as the Acme, come with powder and shot measures with fixed-charge cavities for a certain load. With these, you simply change to a different “measure bar” when going to another load.)

There are several of these excellent measures on the market, some quite expensive. The electric powder measure I use, however, carries a modest price tag of less than $15.

How about the mechanics of shotshell handloading? Other than a good grade of common sense, there are no specific requirements. Essentially, it is a matter of keeping your various shotgun powders separate, of knowing the burning characteristics of them, and loading balanced loads.

Powders break down into three classifications: ultra progressive such as Alcan’s AL8, and AL7; progressive, such as AL5 and Herco; faster burning powders, such as Super M, AL-101, and Red Dot. The progressive powders are used for heavier shot charges and high velocity. The faster burning powders, such as Red Dot and Super M, are for trap loads.

As one drops down in gauge, more progressive powders should be used, even for the light hunting loads. In the 20 bore, using ?-ounce of shot, I find AL5 an excellent powder. This same AL5, however, is used in a 10 gauge, behind 1? ounces of shot. Probably the best all-round powder for 12 gauge light field and trap loads is the new Alcan powder AL-101. This powder is a perfect companion for their new primer, number 241. In many ways it is like Super M Bal-listite, though you get better, more uniform ignition with AL-101 powder and 241 primers.

Homer Clark, Jr., president of the Alcan Company, once told me that “not over 1% of all the handloaded shotshells sent to their ballistics laboratory for testing were rated as unsatisfactory. Of the loads rated unsatisfactory, a great majority of the trouble was equally divided between: (1) Improper selection of powder-primer combination as compared to the weight of the shot charge used. (2) Using an unsatisfactory wad column.” Just a few inexperienced reloaders fail to realize the importance of a proper wad column in shotshells. If the wad column isn’t right, you won’t get good patterns or velocity in your handloads.

The most critical point in wad seating is pressure. Over- powder wad pressure must complement the type of powder used. Burning characteristics of shotgun powders vary, and so does the pressure needed for proper combustion. This will range from as little as 20 pounds for some of the fast burning powders used in light trap and hunting loads, to as much as 95 pounds pressure for some of the progressive powders.

Improper wad pressure, as well as improperly balanced loads, often are indicated by a loud, sharp, rifle-like report when fired. Such reports in a shotgun indicate that powder is tunneling down the barrel, unburned, and is burning* in the air at the muzzle of the gun.

Basically, a wad column should contain at least one over-powder wad .125? thick, and at least one half-inch spacer wad. These are minimum requirements. Better, more uniform results are obtained when at least two over-powder wads are used, a .125? and a .70? being a good combination. And as the loads permit, at least two felt or fiber spacer wads should be used.

Well made spacer wads, as well as nitro wads, can be bought at a quite modest price. In spite of this, some shot-shell handloaders make their own. A breakdown of some of these reloaded shells submitted for testing has turned up everything in the way of wadding from corn meal to newspaper. None of these efforts is conducive to best ballistic performance, as you may well imagine.

A wad column must do five things for best gunning results. (1) It must seal the powder gases away from the shot column. (2) It must lubricate the barrel properly to prevent leading. (3) It must put the right pressure on the powder for proper combustion. (4) It must cushion the shock of the initial explosion to prevent shot distortion. (5) It must space the entire load for proper crimping. These cannot be obtained without the use of proper nitro over-powder wads, and well constructed felt or fiber spacer wads.

Thalson Model 3 Shotshell Loading Tool, inexpensive but efficient, handles both star and roll crimp shells.

Fortunately, only a small fraction of 1% of the loads tested by Alcan were actually dangerous. Shotshell hand-loads which are dangerous come about when some ambitious gunner decides to make a super-super magnum load for his shooting iron. The mistake is rather progressive. First he develops a mere super magnum load. This is usually a fair overload, but modern shotguns being superbly constructed, he gets by with it. His next step gets him in trouble. He adds a bit more powder, a bit more shot and he has a “blue pill” indeed. But, again fortunately, he has enough doubt in his mind about his effort to send in a few for testing, and they are caught before they do any harm.

Shotshell reloaders must remember that there is no absolutely sure way of detecting dangerous pressures in a shotgun except in a ballistic laboratory equipped to take both pressures and velocities.

Don’t forget this, despite some of the homespun specialists who look knowingly at a shotshell primer and decide what pressures they’re getting. Expansion of a shot-shell primer shows nothing, even under a magnifying glass, which lends itself to a correct interpretation of pressures. Indeed a barrel could conceivably be blown up without excessive breech pressures.

Just about any shotgun breech,from the old Damascus types on up through all those mild steels formerly used, will stand any normal modern shotshell load – if the barrels would hold. They are first to give way when using modern progressive powders. The blowup usually comes about a foot or so in front of the breech. What causes this type of bursting is the sustained pressure curve of modern progressive powders. Pressures are carried farther toward the muzzle, and the gun is under pressure for a longer time. That means heavier barrels for modern loads. Examine a Model 12 Winchester 12 gauge designed for 3-inch Magnum loads and you’ll find the same breech action that is used on the regular 12 gauge, Model 12, 2?-inch chambered gun. The only difference is in the heavier barrel of the Magnum 12.

There is a terrific safety margin built into all domestic shotguns, and most of the present day imports. With reasonable, common sense care, handloading for a shotgun is absolutely safe. Shotguns, however, do fall into certain classifications – light field-guns for upland gunning or snipe shooting, long range heavy wildfowl guns designed for maximum loads, others in between. No amount of hand-loading can alter these facts. You cannot safely stuff a super-super magnum load into a shell designed for those ultra light, five-pound upland doubles, nor should you try. It is much more important to try for a successful matching of gun and load for the type of shooting you do.

This entails careful search and testing for just the right size shot for your particular gun. In doing this you must get away from any preconceived notion about the best shot for any specific game bird.

Recently I read a very learned article in which each gauge had its assigned shot size. This authority recommended nothing larger than number 7 shot for a 20 gauge. Nice informative article but – I have one 20 bore in my gun rack which will, with careful handloads, put 85 per cent of its shot in a. 30-inch circle at 40 yards, when loaded with 1?-ounces of number 5 shot. I have seen 16 gauges come to their best pattern with an ounce of number 6 shot. I have patterned 12 gauges which handled number 7 shot to the exclusion of all other sizes.

The point is, if you have a 12 which doesn’t pattern size 4 shot properly, try number 5. If you find number 5 shaping up on the pattern board, try different recommended handloads. Perhaps you have geese in mind. A close pattern of number 5 shot, nipping around 80%, is a better goose load than an erratic pattern of either 4s or 2s! This is the gist of your handloading – finding just the right combinations for your gunning.

You want long range, close shooting loads for your wild-fowling. You also want light loads for your upland shooting. If you are a one gun man, as many handloaders are, it is entirely possible to find both these requirements filled by proper handloads.

You get about what you put into your reloading effort. Careful attention to detail will give you loads fitted to your individual gun no factory shell can duplicate. You shouldn’t settle for less.