As promised, an article on the basics of reloading shotgun shells! If you read the previous article on centerfire ammo reloading, you’ll notice quite a few similarities. You’ll also notice that there are some differences in construction. Shotshells do follow the basic process of other ammo reloading in that you still have a case, called a hull, a primer, propellant, and a projectile (actually a lot of small projectiles). We’ll add to that list a wad, also known as a shot cup. This is a small plastic device to hold the shot together and protect it from hot gases on its trip down the barrel. Once the shot and wad exit the barrel, the wad has served its purpose and will fall to the ground while the shot continues on to your target.
Another difference between shotshells and centerfire cartridges is the equipment used to reload. There is shotgun specific reloading equipment that won’t work for centerfire reloading. Initial investment can run about the same as getting set up for centerfire reloading, so a lot of people choose to start with one or the other. At the time in my life when I started reloading, I was doing a lot of shotgun shooting, and I mean a LOT. It was normal for a couple of buddies to get together and shoot three cases of shotshells over a weekend. I was lucky enough to have a friend’s dad be a former skeet shooter that no longer wanted to reload. I was able to buy his press and enough components to reload 3 cases of shells for a hundred dollar bill. I never did the math on return of investment, but I would imagine it paid for itself within a week with the amount of shooting I was doing.
Polyformed versus Compression Formed Shotshell Hulls.
Before we get into the actually construction and process of reloading shotshells, we need to look at the types of hulls commonly available. The two most common hulls on the market differ in the way they are made, and this has a huge impact on reloading. Polyformed shotshells are the most common in factory loaded ammo because they are cheaper to manufacture. These are easy to identify because the plastic part of the hull has a slight ribbed texture to them. Most companies offer these type in their less expensive game and target loads. They can be reloaded, but the results are less than stellar. You have to find load data specifically for them to be safe, and the crimps don’t hold very well, so you might have shot leaking out in the box or in the magazine of your gun. These hulls are also slightly weaker, so they are prone to cracking or tearing when reloaded. In my opinion, it’s best to leave them out when selecting hulls to reload.
Compression formed hulls are smooth to the touch (they lack the ribbed feel). These hulls are used in factory loaded ammunition and usually cost quite a bit more. A couple of examples of factory ammo that use compression formed hulls are Remington STS and Winchester AA. These offerings can sometimes cost twice as much as other shells. The compression formed hulls are considerably more durable and can be reloaded several times before they need to be replaced. These hulls hold a crimp well and offer a better reloading experience. It’s best to stick with these types of hulls for all of your reloading needs.
The Construction and Operation
Shotshell construction differs quite a bit from rifle or pistol cartridges. This is the main reason for the difference in equipment. The concepts and a few components are the same, but shotshells add another component that centerfire cartridges don’t have, the wad. A wad is a plastic device that looks similar to a badminton birdie. Its main purpose is to hold the shot charge while it travels down the barrel. It also serves to protect the shot charge from the hot gases from the burning powder. Without a wad, the shot pattern of the shotgun would be awful, and the hot gases would deform a lot of the shot, even further destroying the pattern and accuracy. The next component is the shot charge. Rather than a single projectile, shotguns offer a charge of small, round pellets that spread out once they leave the barrel. Shot comes in all sorts of sizes and materials to suit the needs of the shooter. Since reloading data is measured by weight, what size you use can be determined by your needs. There isn’t load data specifically for individual shot sizes, but rather how much shot you add. Examples would be a 7/8oz load or a 1 1/8oz load. Load data will be the same for the 7/8oz load whether you opt for small #8 shot or larger pellets like #4.
Now that we’ve covered the differences from centerfire, we can look at the similarities. Shotshells use a primer to ignite a powder charge to generate the force to propel the shot charge down the barrel. This concept is identical to centerfire cartridges. The primers are larger, but they serve the same purpose. When you shoot a loaded shell in a shotgun, the firing pin strikes the primer to ignite the powder which burns to create a lot of hot gases. These push the wad containing the shot charge down the barrel. Once the wad and shot charge leave the barrel the shot charge continues on to target while the wad falls to the ground. Wads are disposable, one-use pieces, so there’s no need to go find them and attempt to re-use them. Luckily they are very inexpensive.
Most shotshell presses offer “stations” that perform each step. Some require each hull to be moved manually to the next station and some will automatically move the hull for you. One feature most offer is that you can have hulls in each station at the same time so as you are completing the first step on one hull, the next station is completing its step on another. This really speeds up the process.
1. Depriming and resizing.
This step only applies if you are using hulls that have already been fired. You can skip this step if you are using new hulls. Basically it is exactly as it sounds. The spent primer is forced out of the primer pocket and at the same time the brass portion of the hull is forced back to factory specified size. This ensures your hull will fit the chamber of your shotgun.
Once you have a hull prepared, the next step is to seat a new primer. Shotshell reloading presses have a specific station just for this because primers contain small amounts of explosive mixtures. You have to use the specialized tools on the press to do this. If you try to install a primer by hand, it’s very possible to ignite the primer. Different presses have different ways of delivering the primer under the hull, but mine is simple. I set a primer in a small recess and the press pushes the hull down onto it.
3. Adding the Powder Charge.
Once you have a primer in, you add the gun powder. Most shotshell presses have a slide bar that you move to one side to drop a pre-measured powder charge. Once you slide it over, it uses gravity to deliver the powder through a tube into the hull.
4. Inserting the Wad.
On most presses, this step is completed in the same station as adding powder. You set the wad at the open case mouth and pull the lever to force the wad into the hull. There are varying amounts of pressure to seat specific wads, so you’ll need to make sure the seating force is set properly on the press. Once the wad is seated in the hull, you proceed to the next step which is usually done in the same station.
5. Adding the Shot Charge.
With most presses, that same slide bar that adds the powder will add the shot charge. you simply slide it the other way to gravity feed the shot into the hull on top of the wad. If you’ve added the proper amount of charge, there should still be a small amount of empty space at the case mouth of the hull.
Crimping the case mouth serves to close off the case mouth to hold in the shot charge. This step should seal up the end of the hull well enough that shot stay in, even with some rough handling. From the factory, most crimping dies are set pretty well and don’t require much fine tuning to get a good crimp. Occasionally, you might need to adjust the crimp die. In my personal experiences, this can be a headache. Set it too deep and the end looks like a funnel that lets shot out. Crimp too shallow and you have a funky looking dome that lets shot out. Adjusting the die just right should result in a crimp that looks identical to factory loaded ammunition. If you have to adjust the die, plan on screwing it up a few times while you fine tune it. Patience (which I rarely have) is paramount on setting the dies!
Some Thoughts on Specialty Reloading.
The process I’ve just described works for most of your shotshell needs. I’ve reloaded for target shooting like trap and skeet as well as game loads for dove and small game. The shot charges are measured in ounces and the press will automatically load the proper amount if you install the correct bushing in the slide bar.
Buckshot varies from the process in that it cannot flow well through the slide bar on most presses. Once you get to the point of adding a charge of buckshot, you will need to count the individual pellets and add them to the hull. Larger buckshot requires that you stack it in the hull in a certain way so that the proper number of pellets will fit. Buffer material is usually added to the shot charge to provide cushion to the lead pellets. This prevents deformation which can lead to poor patterns. I recommend using commercially available buffer material. You might find some load data that recommend using all sorts of things including corn meal. Just don’t. It might have been good 80 years ago, but we have better options today. Cornmeal and other materials might get damp and clump up or bind together. It is best to use the best materials available for reloading.
Some people are going to want to load their own slugs. I’ve never loaded slugs so I’m not willing to offer advice on the subject. There is a lot of information available from other sources, so if you want slugs you are on your own. I might learn the techniques at some point and cover it in a later article, but for now I’ll leave it alone.
As always, I have some comments on safety. When reloading any type of cartridge, you will be dealing with gunpowder and explosive primers. Safe handling procedures are paramount. I don’t want to hear about any of my readers losing a finger or starting a fire in their garage. Please pay attention and follow all the rules and processes carefully. As I stated in the article on centerfire cartridges, only use PUBLISHED load data. There is a lot of data people offer up on the internet, but unless it can be verified as safe, stick with the data from component manufacturers.
If you want to start reloading for shotshells, make your first purchase a reloading manual. This will get you all the load data you need and lots of great information on reloading in general. For shotshell reloading, I highly recommend the Lyman Shotshell Reloading Handbook. It has great load data and step by step instructions for safe reloading. This is the book I rely on most for my shotshell reloading needs.