Shotshell is the formal name of the cartridge used in a shotgun. A typical modern shotshell consists of the following parts:

  • Shotshell (commonly referred to as a hull) — this is the actual container/casing for the remaining items below. Today, these are mainly made from plastic, with some paper shells still being produced.
  • Head — this is the actual brass, or brass plated piece at the end of the of the tube which houses the primer and keeps the tube of plastic or paper together.
  • Primer — this sits in the base of the hull and, when struck, creates the ignition of the powder.
  • Powderpropellant (not to be confused with an explosive) that as it burns builds up pressure (through the resulting gas byproduct of the burning powder) to push the wad and shot out of the barrel.
  • Shot — typically made from a mixture of lead and antimony, these are spherical pellets. Some shot is plated in copper and nickel.
  • Wad — container for the shot charge. These have been made from materials such as felt and cork to the modern plastic wads we have today.

Shotshells can be loaded for any of the clay target games, such as skeet shooting, trap shooting and sporting clays. Shotshells are also loaded for hunting and self defense.

***

One of my first memories is that of a shotshell. A 20 gauge Winchester, to be exact. Yellow in color and with a red primer. Little did I know that at such a young age, I would be bitten by the shotshell bug. I found it in a box next to the rest of the ammunition my father was collecting up for a skeet shooting tournament. I remember thinking this thing was dangerous, but pretty. I remember stealing one away to look at when the mood struck me. However, after hiding it away for a couple of days, my guilt got the better of me and I returned it to the storage locker.

From there on, I encountered shotshells when I would be shooting in skeet tournaments or for just informal plinking. At the time, though, I did wonder about the ways the shotshells were made; just what exactly is the meaning of those figures on the box (the figures tell you what gauge, the amount of shot, the size of shot and velocity, I later learned)? I just bought what I was told to and that was that.

At some point, I came into my own, shooting wise, and read a great many books on the subject. While many people are interested in the history of shotguns, the beautiful engraved shotguns (especially those of British manufacture, such as Holland & Holland and Purdey), the history of the different games and so on, I was really interested in one thing. The shotshell itself. Shotshells do not command the same amount of fascination that the guns themselves do. This should not be a surprise because it is the shotshell that is thrown away into a bin once it is used and then promptly forgotten. There is a history to the shotshell proper — its development in terms of construction and material, the various lengths, the propellants, the wads and shot within them. Without going into the specifics of each gauge, however, I would like to focus on the hull, the shotshell itself.

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In the history of shotshell development, there were primarily three different materials used for construction of the actual cartridge housing, or hull, in the vernacular (others not so popular include zinc, steel, and copper — to name a few). The first was made using all brass construction. The second was a wound paper tube, impregnated with wax, affixed with a brass head. The last to be developed are those made of plastic.

Brass

One might have thought paper was the first cartridge case material to be used in shotshell making, but this is not the case. Paper was a close second to brass, making it onto the scene in the 1870 's, or so. Regardless of who was first, brass cases were not without their own difficulties. The problem was not just one of getting the brass, it was a problem of getting the brass machined correctly. American machining techniques eventually could make a single cartridge from brass, but it took more time than to make a paper shell. Expense was terrible, even then. But, these shells would reload and reload until they would crack. Brass shells are also the best to use with black powder, as the clean up process is much easier with brass than it is with plastic or paper. (Some shotguns cannot shoot anything but black powder, due to pressure considerations of the steels by which they were produced). Brass is an excellent metal for making any kind of cartridge, which is why it is still used for rifle and pistol cartridges today.

Paper

The second casing material to be developed for the self contained shotshell cartridge was that of paper. Paper was wound into tubes, impregnated with wax, had the head affixed upon one end, loaded, and ready to fire. While there were many attempts at paper based shotshells and different priming systems, the one shell that is the most modern representation of the attempt in the centerfire shotshells (instead of its predecessor the pinfire cartridge) would be that from Frenchman M. Pottet's version. This process did not change from when it was introduced in the 1860's for at least 70 years after. Why mess with a good thing? Paper shells are reported to shoot "softer" (meaning less recoil) than their plastic brethren. They are supposedly easier to reload due to the paper hull not presenting as much friction against the reloading die (though, many people still use shotshell reloading equipment that does not require the use of a die). A big problem with paper shells is that they are not waterproof and have a shorter reloading life than their plastic and brass brothers. You still find some people who use paper constructed shotshells, but their number is small and growing smaller, due to the cost considerations of a shrinking economy of scale.

Plastic

I was born in the plastic age, though I have seen all three examples of the respective shells. And of the three, the one most people shoot day in and day out are those of plastic manufacture. Plastic shells, developed by Remington and introduced in 1960, can be had readily and are cheap. Plastic hulls give a better reloading life than paper shells and can withstand much more rigorous handling than can paper, too. And speaking of wet shells, a paper shell must be stored in a climate controlled area, lest it absorb too much moisture to be workable for reloading, and in some instances, shooting! Plastic shells give very good ballistics and seem to be more consistent than paper shells; though, this is because after a few loadings with a paper shell, it will suffer degradation much quicker than a plastic one will.

***

There are, of course, proponents of each kind of hull. Each claim theirs is the best for any number of reasons. After a significant amount of testing with both paper and plastic hulls (and no significant amount of testing with brass), I have come to at least my own conclusions:

  • In terms of longevity, it is the all brass shotshell that lasts the longest. Followed by plastic and then paper shells.
  • In terms of recoil, there is no real difference between either plastic or paper shotshells, all else being equal.
  • Paper shells do have a unique scent once fired, whereas the plastic ones do not.
  • All paper shotshells are straight walled in manufacture — meaning, there is no slight taper on the inside of the shell as there is with many plastic shells. However, many plastic shells of today are straight walled in design, so do be careful if reloading and choose your components for the right hull.
  • In terms of reloading, neither shell reloads better than another. (Brass would be the most difficult to reload, however.)
  • Lastly, there is no perceptible patterning (what all the little pieces of shot do to a piece of paper at 40 yards, or, the two dimensional representation of where each pellet strikes and the resulting density of coverage) difference between either paper or plastic hulls, all things being equal.

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