Reloading Shotshells Start to Finish
Everything you need to know to get started hand rolling your own shotgun ammo.
Handloading can be an extremely rewarding pursuit for any shooter, but it can also be very intimidating for someone who doesn’t have an experienced hand to teach them. But, as with so many things, the Internet can act as that experienced hand. In this story and its accompanying piece, Bryce Towsley, a man with decades of reloading experience with every kind of ammo you can think of, offers his expertise on the basics to you can get started on your own.
In this piece, he teaches you how to load shotgun shells. In his companion stories, he explores the actual process of reloading a metallic cartridge step-by-step and he breaks down the the most basic tools you’ll need to get going. Shake of your trepidations and start rolling your own ammo!
Why reload shotshells? Well, a big reason is the satisfaction of “rolling your own.” There is something special about breaking a clay bird or taking a grouse with a shotshell you built.
Also, I find reloading to be great stress relief. My time at the loading bench recharges my psyche and helps chase off the stresses of modern life.
What You’ll Need To Start
• To start reloading shotshells, you will need a press, a scale, and a solid bench to bolt or clamp the press to.
• Materials needed are: hulls, primers, plastic wads, powder, and shot.
• Shotshell presses come in either single-stage or progressive models.
• Single-stage presses don’t cost much and let you load one shell at a time, manually moving the hull through each stage of the process.
• A progressive reloader works on several shells at once. As one shell is being crimped, the one behind it is being pre-crimped, the one behind that is having the shot cup filled, etc., with each pull of the lever.
• Once a press is selected, other accessories can be chosen, like an automatic primer feed, which saves you from fumbling with tiny individual primers.
The 7 Steps of Reloading Shotshells.
1: Size and Deprime the Case
2: Seat a Primer
3: Charge with Powder
4: Seat a Wad
5: Charge With Shot
6: Start Crimp
7: Finish Crimp
Getting Into It
While less a factor today than in years past, the primary reason for getting started in reloading shotgun shells remains cost savings.
With 12 gauge, the savings margin is a bit thin these days. Baseline target ammo has become inexpensive, but you can still save money with handloads, and you will likely end up with a better product. You can save more money loading your own hunting loads, and if you shoot sub-gauge shells, you can still save plenty.
Cost of Components Breakdown
How much can you save? Checking with Brownells, I find that primers run about $32.00 for 1,000 or 3.2 cents each. Wads run about ten dollars for a bag of 500, or two cents each. The cost of shot rose dramatically after the Obama administration forced the closure of the last lead smelting plant in the US in 2013. A 25 pound bag of shot was about twenty bucks then; today it’s $50.00 or more.
Shot is the most difficult component to find in local gun shops today. Buying online hits you with huge shipping costs as this stuff is heavy. However, if you wait until they are running a free shipping special, Brownells is perhaps the best place to order shot online.
A 25 pound bag will have 400, one-ounce loads. That breaks down to a dime per charge.
Hodgdon’s Titewad powder is $16.19 a pound. You can load about 440 rounds and that breaks down to 3.7 cents per load, so to reload a hull will cost about $ 0.19 per shell.
That amounts to $4.75 per 25 round box. Most budget priced 12 gauge target loads run about $6.00 per box, so your savings is $1.25 per box. It’s not much, but it adds up if you shoot a lot, and if you look around, you may find components for lower prices than listed above.
However, if you compare to quality target loads, which is the ammo you are reproducing, the cost is much higher. Top of the line target loads run about $10.00 or more per box.
That means you are saving $5.25 per box. Hunting ammo is even more expensive. With anything other than 12 gauge, ammo tends to be pricey. My 28 gauge shotguns have a caviar palate, with some hunting loads eating a twenty dollar bill and a few of its lesser relatives for just one box.
Shawn Wozniak at MEC Outdoors (A major producer of shotgun loading equipment) told me that they have seen a rise in the popularity of loading sub-gauge ammo. That is anything smaller than 12 gauge including, 16, 20, 28 and .410. That’s because ammo is often very expensive for them.
I don’t count my time, as I enjoy the process. A single stage loader from Lee costs $57.99 from Brownells so, based on the 12 gauge target loads, you cover that cost with less than a dozen boxes of ammo. For me that’s a weekend of shooting.
You can buy a MEC 600 JR press similar to the one in the photos for about $200, so you will need to load about 38 boxes of ammo to break even. That sounds like a lot, but serious competition shooters can go through that in a few weeks.
If you shoot a smaller gauge shotgun, it takes even fewer boxes of ammo to break even.
Shotshell handloading equipment needs are fairly simple. Most will be well advised to start with a single-stage press. Single-stage presses not only allow more control over the process, but they educate you to the nuances of shotshell reloading far better than the more expensive automatic, progressive presses.
Progressive presses are great if you are going to set up with one load and stick with it, but changing to a different load can be a lot of work. If you are a target shooter who needs thousands of rounds all exactly the same, a progressive press is for you.
However, for the handloader who may be switching regularly from target loads to hunting loads or experimenting with recipes, or a handloader on a budget, a single stage press is the way to go.
It is important to have a reloading manual. The Lyman 5th Edition Shotshell Reloading Handbook is an excellent choice as it provides a lot of information as well as plenty of load data on shotshells. It also has sections on loading buckshot, slugs and steel shot which may interest you as your skills advance. Hull identification is very important and this book has an excellent chapter on that.
Hodgdon Powder has an interactive website that contains a lot of load data, including data on loading slugs, steel and bismuth.
The best shotshell loading advice I can give you is to follow the recipe exactly. The maximum pressures for shotguns are very low when compared to metallic cartridges and there is no practical way for reloaders to gauge when the pressure is becoming dangerously high.
Flat primers and sticky extraction might be indications of rifle loads that are too hot, but you cannot visually measure shotshell pressure and even a small change in components can cause a large change in pressure. Stick with the recipes and everything will be fine.
The components you will need are: hulls, primers, powder, wads, and shot.
The new primer is inserted into the base of the hull, which is then filled with propellant powder, a wad, and then shot. The hull is then crimped to keep everything in place, but we’ll get to that part later. First, let’s talk about the most prominent component, the empty hull itself.
The Hull and Base Wad
The first and very important step is to sort and properly identify your empty hulls. Don’t rely on a simple visual inspection of the outside of the case.
Many cases can appear the same when in reality they can be very different. The height of the base wad on the inside of the case can greatly influence case capacity, which in turn influences pressure.
The base wad is the wad that forms the thick bottom of the case on the inside; it is what protects the bottom of the case from the pressure and gas as the shell is fired.
The base wad has little or nothing to do with the height of the brass base; brass height serves primarily for a visual identification for the factory load and its intended use.
Despite the persistent myth to the contrary, brass height is not a reliable indicator of which base wad is used in the case, or the power of the shotshell.
It’s easy to see into a shotshell with a flashlight, so make a visual check of the base wad to positively identify the hull you are loading. You can use the Lyman or other reloading manuals to confirm the hull is correctly matched with your loading recipe.
The type of case is important. Compression formed, one-piece hulls are the best for reloading. The base wad and plastic hull are all formed from one piece of plastic. The result is a base wad that will not deteriorate or slip from its position within the shell. These cases can be reloaded several times, usually until the crimp fails.
The other common hull style is a plastic tube case with separate base wad, sometimes called Reifenhauser or polyformed cases. Because the base wads are a separate piece of material they can deteriorate or slip free from the base of the hull after repeated use.
These cases are fine for reloading, but they should be inspected carefully and should only be reloaded twice for a total of three firings before discarding. The same applies to old-school paper hulls, two reloads and toss them.
Shot and Powder Charge Weight
Always double-check the charge weight of both the powder and the shot charges after setting up your press and before reloading. Shotshell loaders typically use pre-set shot charge bars and bushings to measure the shot and powder by volume.
With my MEC loader the bar is dedicated to a specific shot charge weight while the powder bushings can be changed to accommodate several powder options. You change the bushings to change the charge weights, but as a rule, they are not adjustable.
The bushings are only approximate and the charge weights can vary, so it is important to weight-check your set-up before loading. For that you will need a good handloading scale. Electronic or balance beam, both are fine. Just be certain that it has the capacity to weigh shot charges of at least 1-1/2 ounces.
Most shotgun scales need a weight capacity of at least 1,000 grains to allow weighing shot charges.
After the initial set up of the loader is complete, find the charge bar and bushings that fit the recipe you are using. Then install them in the loader. Throw several charges to settle everything. Simply dump the powder or shot back into the appropriate hopper. Then throw a charge and weigh it on your scale to verify the bar and bushings are correct.
Shot charge bars are based on use with several shot sizes and actual charge weights will vary with the pellet size. A charge of larger shot will likely weigh slightly less because the pellets will not pack as densely and there is more air space.
For example, one of my 1-1/8 ounce charge bars lacks about 18 pellets from a full 1-1/8 ounces when using #7-1/2 shot. With #9 shot, it’s on the money. Either way, it’s fine.
Additionally, powder bushings may not give exactly the charge weight specified in the chart, as there are many variables. Even humidity can affect charge weight.
To check the powder charge weight, cycle the shotshell loader as if loading ammo so that the “vibrations” are the same. This accounts for how the powder is “packed” and how the charge weights result.
After several cycles to settle the powder, weigh at least five charges and average the weights.
If the weight of the powder charge is less than the maximum listed in the book, and within 5% of your selected charge weight, you are ready to load. If not, you should select another powder bushing and start over.
The Shotshell Loading Process
After sorting and inspecting the cases, and verifying the charge weights for both the powder and shot are correct, you are ready to load. Always follow the instructions for the loading tool you are using as to the specifics of how each step is completed. In a single stage press, the shell is manually moved from station to station on the press for each step of the loading process.
Once you learn the process and develop a rhythm, this moves fast and the time from start to a loaded shotshell is remarkably short, but don’t go too fast. Always be cautious and careful.
Resize and Deprime
The first step is to resize and deprime the empty shotshell. This is usually done in one motion with the loading press.
The sizing die or tool will squeeze the outside of the case back into the correct dimension while the depriming rod will push out the spent primer.
Add Primer, Wad, and Powder Charge
Next a new primer is inserted into the case and seated under pressure with your press to the correct depth.
The powder charge is then dropped into the case, followed by inserting a wad and seating it with the proper pressure using your press.
When I first started loading shotshells back in the 1960s we were using fiber and cork wads. They had to be combined for the correct height and then compressed in the case to a specified pressure.
Modern plastic wads aren’t so fussy, but they do need to be seated with enough pressure to squeeze all the air out of the powder charge.
Most sources recommend, at minimum, 20 lbs. of seating pressure. (Check your manual to see how to adjust wad pressure on your loading press.)
The next step before closing up the hull is to add the correct amount of shot to the wad cup.
Crimp the Hull
The next stage starts the crimp and shapes it in preparation for the final crimp and the last stage forms the finished crimp.
Beginning the crimp with your press will basically fold the edges of the hull where it needs to be folded to bring it into a star shape. The final crimp will bring all those folds down together tightly so as to keep the shot in the hull.
The crimp is probably the most important aspect of the finished shell. It must provide enough resistance to allow the powder to ignite properly, but still open cleanly to release the contents of the shell.
Make sure you have the correct tools in your press for the type of crimp on the hull you are loading. Most target loads use an eight-point crimp, while field loads often use a six-point crimp. You must match that with your crimp dies.
The crimp is where most shotshells will fail first. If you see any indication of splitting or crimp failure, that hull has served its life. Trash it. When hunting or shooting in an important match, it might be wise to use fresh hulls that have not been stressed with multiple loadings.
Keep the seasoned hulls for practice sessions.
It’s all a lot simpler than it sounds and easy to learn when you have it in front of you. The bottom line is that shotshell handloading allows you to shoot more and no truly great shotgun shooter I have ever met achieved their skill without burning a lot of powder.
The LEE LOAD-ALL II is a popular, solid, and inexpensive single stage entry level shotshell reloading press. Below is a video showing you how to use it to reload a shell from start to finish, as well as some tips and tricks regarding the quirks of this particular press.