Handloading Brass Shotshells Pt. 1
Date: Jul 01 2010
In the study of shotshells, perhaps the least understood segment of this most interesting subject is that of the all-metal shell. While our modern plastic-tubed shells were preceded by paper-tubed shells, it is not true that all-metal or brass shells preceded those with paper tubes. Early on in the development of breech-loading arms, self-contained ammunition was bound in paper or linen. In shotguns, the earliest shell that the modern shooter would instantly recognize had a brass head, a paper-tubed body and an external primer.
At the same time – the latter half of the nineteenth century – well-traveled sportsmen were taking to the field with 12, 10, 8 and even larger bore rifles that used brass shells. These self-contained shells were sturdy, easily transported and waterproof. “Why?” asked many a waterfowling hunter, “can’t we have a brass shell, too?” Waterfowlers, to a greater extent than most others, felt the need for a waterproof shell. Actually, the paper shells of the day were intentionally moisture-resistant to varying degrees. The absorption of moisture into the shell was a very real concern, as it could dilute the effectiveness of the black powder, and the paper shells could swell to the extent they could not be chambered. Still, the waterfowlers had a point and while manufacturers continued to develop more moisture- resistant paper shells, attention was turned to the development of all-metal shells as well.
The earliest attempts simply substituted drawn brass tubes for the paper tubes, affixed them to the brass heads and turned them in to secure the overshot wads. Wax or shellac was typically used to waterproof the shell mouth. Drawn, one-piece shells followed as did the use of other metals such as zinc, aluminum and to a lesser extent steel. One particularly interesting attempt employed a thin paper shell with a zinc liner actually longer than the paper. The zinc liner was then crimped in a pie or star crimp that we would recognize today. All these shells, however interesting and effective, had their drawbacks. The brass shells had a larger interior capacity than paper shells and required larger wads. True pie-crimping could only be accomplished by the ammunition factories, and the ever increasing cost of metals would eventually make the price prohibitive.
The concept of the all-brass shell attracted the attention in England of Dr. Charles J. Heath, at one time president of the British Waterfowlers’ Association. Dr. Heath developed two precepts of shotgunning science that, in differing forms, are still with us today. One was a “chamberless gun” that might be thought of as an early attempt at backboring. Dr. Heath reasoned that with the thin brass tube shotshell there was no need for the heavy forcing cone required of a gun shooting the paper shells of the day and that it could be essentially removed and the bore enlarged to much the same size as the interior of the brass shell. Of course, such a shell would require much larger wads and, for waterfowlers, hold more powder and shot. At the same time such loads would not be suitable, perhaps even unsafe, for use in a gun of standard dimensions. Few chamberless guns, as Dr. Heath envisioned, were ever built.
The second development of Dr. Heath was what today we think of as the “high density-low velocity” principle in which more and larger shot were paired with a lower-than-normal velocity for a very effective and useful load. In the 12-gauge, 21⁄2-inch brass shells, Dr. Heath was able to push as much as 2 ounces of BBs at 800 fps with what he claimed to be astonishing results.
All the above, admittedly a skimming of the highlights of the era, took place in England and Europe. In the U.S. similar activities flourished but with a decidedly American flavor.
In the 1878 E. Remington & Sons catalog of breechloading rifles, shotguns, pistols and ammunition, the company had this to say:
“Of late years, the reloading brass shells for shotguns have come much into use, and we recommend every sportsman to have some of them on hand, as they can always be loaded in places where it might be difficult to obtain paper shells. They are also better at taking a larger wad in the same size chamber, and giving more penetration, and are less liable to injury by wet. . . . We are prepared to furnish metal shells that we know are suitable for our guns. They are made with a solid head, or flange, and fitted with a steel cone, upon which the primer is placed, and exploded by the firing-pin of the gun. These shells are put up in boxes containing twenty-four shells, with primer extractor . . . for removing exploded caps; also in boxes containing ten shells, without extractor.”
In comparing the above, in England and western Europe, shotshells were typically purchased from an ammunition manufacturer or from one’s gunmaker. In the latter instance, the gunmaker purchased empty shells, paper or metal, and loaded them for his customers, often to the customers’ specifications. In the less settled America, the need to be able to load, or reload, one’s own shells far from any settlement was of paramount concern. Fifty years later, in 1928, Maj. Charles Askins, in his Modern Shotguns and Loads, was rather dismissive of both chamberless guns and brass shells: “Whatever the chamberless gun may or may not do in the way of patterns, it is not a practical arm. We are not going back to black powder nor to brass cases, which must be hand-loaded and carefully handled as was true fifty years ago.”
In spite of such feelings, which were no doubt shared by many, the all-metal shell held on. In the first
annual edition of Handloader’s Digest, edited by John T. Amber of Gun Digest fame and published in 1962, are depicted tools for loading brass shells. The book also contains the “ALCAN Shotshell Reloader’s Manual, No. X.” In it are several pages devoted to all-metal shells and the reloading of them. These include the Alcan-Metal shotshell, which was a four-piece shell: a steel head, aluminum tube, basewad and a metal overlay cup that served to reinforce the tube in the powder area. Also listed were a solid brass shell for use with smokeless powder with Remington-type 57 primers and a Berdan-type solid shell for use with black or smokeless powder and Berdan primers. Each was available in gauges from 10 to .410, including 24 and 32 gauge. All-Metal shotshell reloading kits were available in 12 gauge. In the book’s section on Remington components were listed all-brass shotshells in 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauges and .410 bore. All but the .410 used No. 21⁄2 large pistol primers. The .410 used No. 11⁄2 small pistol primers. Our military used these in 12 gauge as guard shells with buckshot. Winchester provided a similar product. All well and good, you say, but surely this is still the dim past. Not quite. Today there are at least two sources of brass shotshells for U.S. reloaders and two sets of reloading dies. There also are components galore for loading brass shells with either black or smokeless powder.
The first all-brass shotshells are headstamped “CBC (and the gauge)” and are manufactured by Companhia Brazileira De Cartuchos in Brazil and imported into the U.S. by MAGTECH Ammunition Co., Inc. of Minnesota (1-800-466-7191). They are available in 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauges and .410 bore. Other sizes are manufactured but may not be available here. These are drawn brass, one-piece shells with the primer pockets protruding into the shell interior. Shell length is nominally 21⁄2 inches. The 12-gauge shells on hand measure from 2.440 to 2.465 inches. In type, they are very similar to the thin brass shells of Dr. Heath’s time and the Remington shells manufactured into the mid-twentieth century. The primer pockets are, or were, sized for the 6.45mm (#56 Tupan) primer. In the early years of their availability, we were informed to use small pistol primers. At some time this changed, at least for those shells imported into the U.S. Current CBC shells take a large pistol primer. An attempt to learn more about the change was unsuccessful.
The second all-brass shotshell is manufactured by Rocky Mountain Cartridge, LLC of Cody, Wyoming. These shells are turned from solid brass and have the same interior capacity and shape as a typical straight-walled paper shell. Primer pockets are cut for the modern 209-style battery cup primer. Dave Casey, proprietor, makes these shells to order, and gauge or bore and length are up to the customer. Casey will also cut primer pockets to accept large rifle primers, but he does not recommend it. Twelve-gauge shells on hand are 25⁄8 inches (2.625 inches) in length. Headstamp is “RMC (and gauge).”
When it comes to tools available to assist the reloader in loading brass shells, there are two. The first is from RCBS, called the Cowboy Shotshell Die, part number 99060, and is available only in 12 gauge. It consists of a simple aluminum die body with a screw-in steel sizing ring, a removable, steel decapping assembly, a crimping insert and a steel lock ring. The die comes with a shellholder that fits any standard metallic press ram. The die body is threaded 11⁄4x12 and will fit most presses with a removable die bushing. This tool is designed to be used with the CBC shell and shot charges only. There is no seating stem for ball or bullet loading. Priming and depriming are done with the die set on one’s metallic press. Powder, wad and shot insertion are either done by hand or on a shotshell reloading press or some combination of both. If the brass shell is to be crimped, the Cowboy Shotshell Die is again employed.