I remember many a summer operating a hydraulic reloading press to keep my father and me with plenty of shotgun shells. Some people fish together, some play sports together; my father and I shot together.

I was barely eight years old when I first remember sitting on his lap and watching him work the hydraulic pedal which actuated the press. My job was to put the wad in the wad guide. I would grab a handful and dutifully place them in the empty slot and grab more to be ready (he would gently scold me when my mind wandered). The machine would ram them home and I felt like I was part of something larger than myself. And I was, really. I suppose you could think of the whole experience as child labor, unpaid. I prefer to remember it as a warm and tender place, where the dutiful daughter helped out the old man.


The reason many shooters (including those of the pistol and rifle disciplines) reload their spent shells is to help offset the cost of shooting. Assembling ones own shells can knock the price down, sometimes considerably. Usually, any savings that may be realized (that is, paying for well sourced and cheap components as compared to new, factory made shells) are in turn used/actualized to shoot more often. Therefore, one can shoot more often for the same amount of money as opposed to what one would otherwise spend on new shells.

To begin, one needs a reloading press, of which there are several varieties and brand names. There are many manufacturers of reloading presses. Dillon, Ponsness-Warren, and MEC are some of the better known brands. Reloading presses come in two basic forms: single stage and progressive. Single stage presses are cheaper than their progressive counterparts. This is due to the fact that progressive reloaders are able to preform multiple functions on many different shells at once; single stage reloaders preform only one function to one shell at a time.

In addition to a reloading press, one needs to have on hand the following materials to make shotshells:

  • Hulls — this is the actual container for the remaining items below. Typically made of plastic, though some paper hulls are still manufactured.
  • Primers — this sits in the base of the hull and, when struck, creates the ignition of the powder.
  • Powder — propellant (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 out of the barrel.
  • Shot — typically made of lead and antimony, these are spherical pellets. Occasionally, one can find them plated in nickel and copper which can result in better penetration on game and better patterns.
  • Wads — container for the shot charge. Also, any material that keeps the shot charge and powder separate from each other.

So then, what are you going to use the shell for? Recreational target shooting, hunting or self defense? This will be what dictates your needs in regards to the components necessary for total assembly. For instance, modern plastic wads only work in the proper gauge hull for a specific amount of shot. Primers have to be matched to the powder chosen; the primer brisance has a very large impact in the combustion process. The powder itself is perhaps the most important component — choosing the wrong powder for the specific application (i.e. using a target powder for a hunting load can result in more pressure than the shotgun was originally proofed to handle.) can lead to catastrophic results. Reloading manuals are available from powder companies, among others, who have already done the work of matching components together properly. It is important to follow the manuals exactly as mismatching components can lead to severe injury and even death.

Since there are many different machines and configurations of said, it would be difficult to give a step by step account of how to operate each machine. However, they all work towards the same end. Here is the process that each machine must do in order to properly reload a shell:

  • A reloading press knocks out the spent primer in the empty shotshell. This is done with a ram/punch that enters the mouth of the hull and punches out the old primer.
  • A new primer is seated in the primer pocket. This is done in many different ways, but the gist is that the primer is seated by lowering the shell on the primer itself. The primer is corralled appropriately so that it will not go off during this part of the process.
  • The primed hull is then ready for a powder drop. This is normally achieved by placing the hull under a tube which dispenses the powder when the handle of the reloading press is pulled. When the handle is pulled, it actuates certain bushings which dispense the correct amount of powder.
  • The primed and powdered hull is then ready to receive a wad. The wad is placed into the hull through the use of a ram. With modern plastic wads the wad only needs to be gently seated over the powder charge. With felt wads, one needed to seat the wad with quite a bit of force.
  • Now we are ready for the shot charge. This is done in the same manner as the powder drop, above. Here again, the pull of the handle actuates a bushing which dispenses the correct amount of shot.
  • Crimping process. There are two steps in the crimping process. The first is the pre-crimp; this is where the shell mouth is gently semi-closed to help aid in the final crimp. The final crimp finishes closing the mouth of the hull and adds a slight taper to the end of the shell so that it will feed better into a shotgun.
  • Final shell knock out. The finished shotshell is the knocked out of the machine, ready for shooting.

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