When it comes to reloading ammunition, most people immediately think of handgun and rifle cartridges. What many don’t realize, including a avid shooters and firearm enthusiasts, is that shotgun shells can also be reloaded. Whether you’re looking to save a few cents per round loading your own shells for sporting clays, or you’re seeking to develop a specialty load, shotgun shell reloading could be the answer you’re looking for.
Reloading once-fired shotgun shells isn’t necessarily more difficult than reloading pistol or rifle cartridges, but it is different. To start with, there are three main types of shotgun cartridges: brass, paper, and plastic hulled. Plastic and paper cartridges may have “high brass” or “low brass” or the brass may be replaced with zinc coated steel. Additionally, plastic hulls can be a one-piece or multi-piece construction and have a six or eight point crimp. All of this is in addition to the obvious variations of the length and gauge of the hull.
The process for reloading the shotshell itself is actually not that complex. Just as you would with a rifle or handgun round you start by cleaning and inspecting your hulls. If you find any splits or cracks in the plastic, or if the brass has been deformed or caked with dirt, the hull should be discarded. You can clean the hull and the brass using a tumbler and soft media such as corn cob, but this isn’t strictly required.
The process of depriming spent shells is virtually identical to that of a metallic cartridge, and in most cases you will resize the hull and brass base at the same time. Resizing here isn’t a huge deal the way it is with metallic cartridges however. The brass base on a shotshell doesn’t expand much at all, zinc coated steel bases have virtually no expansion, and the plastic hull is flexible enough that crimping will generally force it to the correct shape and size. At this stage in the process resizing basically opens up the mouth of the hull where it was previously crimped shut.
Most presses have a combination priming and charging station where a new primer is pressed into place and the powder charge is dropped. At this point, things get a bit different than what a traditional rifle or pistol handloader might be used to. Shotshells require a wad to separate the shot and powder. The wad also serves to take up any extra room in the shotshell, and to protect the barrel from steel shot.
There are a few different ways of seating the wad. Most presses use a sleeve that slips over the shell, or some other device that will hold the shell open while guiding the wad into place.
With the wad properly seated, the shot charge is dropped and then the shell is crimped shut. The art of the crimp is something that is easy to learn, but takes a bit of practice to get just right. A good press will have 3 separate stations for the crimp: one station to start the crimp, a second one to close it, and a third one to finish it and make a nice rounded lip.
Shotshell powders are fast burning powders and are usually compatible with pistol loads as well. I use Alliant Red Dot and Blue Dot in most of my handgun caliber recipes and try to use the same powders on my shotgun loads just to make the number of different components I have to keep in stock down to a bare minimum.
Hornady, Lee, and MEC pretty much make up the “big three” when it comes to shotshell presses. My first shotshell press was an old Lyman Easy Loader. Lyman no longer manufactures shotshell presses, and I’m pretty sure this one was older than me when I picked it up. Lee Precision’s Load-All II is probably the closest comparable press manufactured nowadays.
Obviously you’ll spend a bit more on a progressive press, and they take a little longer to set up, but you’ll be able to crank out the shells very quickly afterwards. I personally prefer to have multiple multi-station presses like my Lyman or the Lee Load-All. They’re inexpensive enough that I can keep multiple presses ready to go with each set up for a specific load.
Shooting 2 1/2″ blackpowder shells out of my Remington 1894? I can go right to that press and crank some out. Do I need 2 3/4″ loads that will
run reliably in my autoloader? I just go to that press and get to work.
How you choose to set up your own press is of course a personal choice. If you shoot your scatterguns often, whether it’s busting clays, hunting waterfowl, or competing in 3-gun matches, loading your own shells may be something you should look into.