Reloading your own shotgun shells is a time-honored method of reducing the cost of shooting. While reloading can be done in many ways, today we will look at how to reload shotgun shells by hand versus purchasing a machine.
Disclaimer: Reloading is a precision task. Do not attempt to load your own shells without consulting and understanding a published reloading manual or being trained and mentored by an experienced reloader.
Table of Contents
Loading Your Own
Reloading by hand can be done with simple improvised tools. The primary components of a shotgun shell are the hull, primer, powder, wadding, and shot. The only parts that you must purchase are primers and hulls. All of the other components are much simpler to use when factory-produced but, can be manufactured at home with varying degrees of difficulty and hazard. I do not recommend making your own powder unless the situation is desperate.
Shotshells loaded in an improvised manner may not function in some pump or semi-automatic shotguns. The brass base of the shell expands during firing and will not feed in some guns unless resized. The brass can be resized by hand if you have a lathe and can turn yourself a tube the appropriate size to force down over the brass to swage it back to the correct diameter. Primitive handloading techniques work best with single-shot or double-barrel break-open guns where the shells can be “helped” into the chamber if needed.
Steps to a Finished Shell
1. De-Priming / Priming
The first and easiest step. Find a block of wood and drill a 3/8-inch diameter hole through it. Mark the outline of the base of your shotshell, centered on the hole, and center the shell over it. Using a small punch and a hammer, gently drive the primer out of the hull into the hole in the board. NEVER ATTEMPT TO PUNCH OUT A LIVE PRIMER!
Now take your live primer, set it on the board and place the shell onto the primer so that it starts into the hole. Using a dowel, gently tap the hull down onto the primer. Make sure that the shell stays perpendicular to the board so that the primer stays straight as it goes in. If the hull is not straight, the primer could be crushed on one side and detonated. A drill press with a level table could be used as a press to ensure that the shell is pushed down straight.
2. Opening the End
Next, take a dowel, socket, or some other object of the correct diameter and use it to open up the crimp on the end of the shell so that you are able to insert the wad easily. If you have access to a wood lathe, you can turn a hardwood dowel with a short taper on the end. This seems to be the best tool for the job. For a 12-gauge hull, this tool needs to be at a .730-inch diameter. For other gauges, please consult a chart.
For this step, you will need some way to measure the powder. Lee scales or Dipper kits are an affordable option. If you are only loading a handful of shells, a friend with a scale can weigh out charges and put them in separate small containers like a seven-day pillbox. Follow the factory load data, and don’t decide to cook up your own magnum loads or substitute powders! If you choose to load your shells with black powder or a substitute like Pyrodex, then the powder measure for your muzzleloading rifle may suffice.
Store-bought wads are the easiest to use. Purchase the ones that will hold the desired charge of shot and push them into the shell down onto the powder. A set of Mec Wad Guide Fingers will make this task easier and are available from MECOutdoors.com. To use the fingers, place them on the open end of the shell and push the wad through them into the hull. No fighting to get the wadding past the crimp.
Wadding can be hand-made instead of purchased. With a sharp punch of the proper diameter, you can cut wads from felt, heavy cardboard, or card stock. The total thickness of wadding needed is determined by the size of the shot charge. Less shot will equal more wadding. For this, an older shotgun reloading manual is worth its weight in lead. Remember to cut an extra piece of card stock wad to put over the shot.
5. Shot Charge
While you can load almost any projectile to fire out of the smooth bore of a shotgun, lead shot is the preferred choice for most work and recommended for older shotguns to prevent damage to the choke. Lead shot is expensive ($50 for a 25-pound bag at Cabela’s at the time of publication). If you load 1 ounce of shot per shell, this gets you 400 rounds. Other methods of acquiring shot are to make it yourself by drop-shotting (pouring through a screen with a long fall into water), cutting cube shot from sheet lead, or purchasing scrap lead shot used as ballast. Recycled ballast is not very clean but can be a cheaper choice.
To get the shot into the shell, measure it by weight or volume and pour it into the hull to fill the wad. Add the over-shot card to help keep the shot in the shell, and this step is complete.
Crimping the end of the shell closes the fingers of the crimp and holds the shot in the shell. This step is made easier by using a MEC crimp starter but can be accomplished by hand. Start the fingers of the hull inward and then press down firmly on the center. A Quik-Grip-type clamp can help with this. If you are loading a roll-crimp-type shell, then a special tool needs to be purchased to make the crimp.
If you want to load by hand but not have to improvise your equipment, then hunt down one of the fine kits made by Lee many years ago. These kits were a giveaway item when I was a kid but are now going for $100+ on eBay. X-Ring USA sells a similar setup called the Survival Loader for around $90. These tools are easy to use and take up little space. The provided powder and shot dippers remove any guesswork in measuring the charges.
There are also several kits from Russia that involve a small hand press. I have no experience with these tools, but they get decent reviews and do not require a mallet.
Reloading your own shotgun shells is a pastime that can save you some money and gives additional satisfaction when you take game using shells you packed yourself. The advantages to knowing how to reload shotgun shells by hand are that you can load rounds as needed for the task at hand, and they will cost you 25-30% less than the price at the store, especially in the smaller gauges.
A single box of good hulls can be reloaded many times, and the space occupied by a bag of shot, can of powder, loading tools, primers, and a box of hulls (basically a “Fat 50” ammo can) is far less than the space required for the 400 single-use rounds that the bag of shot equals.
It is always a good time to get the shotgun out for some practice. Maybe next time, you’ll be using your own hand-rolled rounds on those clays in preparation for fall.