Handloading Brass Shotshells Pt. 2
Date: Jul 01 2010
Next is the loading procedure. One of the things uncovered in all this is that brass shells can generate higher velocities than paper or plastic, all other things being equal. So if you plan to create a 3-dram, 11⁄8- ounce, 12-gauge load of 1,200 fps, for example, you might not need anywhere near the called for amount of powder.
A lot of things factor into such events, such as barrel length and diameter, chamber length, atmospheric conditions, powder brand and grade, wad column and so forth. Waterfowlers might rejoice, but if you are competing in a timed event where recovery between shots is important, this is a good thing to know. Typically, this occurs in the CBC shell only with black powder. With smokeless powder, performance is degraded. In the RMC shell, higher velocity occurs with both types of powder.
The actual loading of brass shotshells differs from that which we are accustomed to with either metallic cartridges or modern shotshells. We have the luxury of loading one shell at a time as we typically load shotshells on a single-stage press or batch processing, i.e., completing one step on all the shells to be loaded before beginning the next step, as we usually load metallic cartridges. Either way the first aid we should obtain is a loading block. It is indispensable. We’ve already reviewed the complexities of the priming and depriming process. Charging with smokeless powder can be done by weighing each charge or setting up the powder measure or dispenser to drop the required charge. We also can use a regular shotshell reloader for this purpose if we wish. Black powder can be weighed, dispensed by a measure specifically designed for black powder or even dipped with a suitable dipper of the correct size and proper technique.
Plastic wads (in the RMC shells) can be seated with a standard shotshell loader or by hand with a dowel. Wad pressure is not an issue, as it will be released when we relax the seating effort, but wads must be fully seated on the powder.
Card wads, in either shell, must be securely seated with up to 100 pounds of pressure. This can be done on a shotshell loader or by hand with a dowel of the appropriate size. If a dowel is used, a cap of some sort on the dowel will be helpful. A bathroom scale will help in consistently seating wads to the same pressure. The old Lee Loader hand tool for shotshells is an excellent tool for loading brass shotshells. It can decap the RMC shells, assist in seating primers in both shells and has its own seating ram. They haven’t been made in years but are frequently found at gun shows. Card wads are seated one at a time: the over-powder wad or wads, each filler wad and finally, the over-shot wad or wads.
Shot is weighed or dipped or dispensed from a shotshell reloader. Any protective shot sleeve is inserted into the shell on top of the last filler wad and before dropping the shot.
Over-shot wads allow for some flexibility. My preference is to use two, .025-inch wads. The first is epoxied by running a bead around the edge of the wad and seating it on top of the shot with moderate force. The second is similarly seated on the first. In RMC shells, wads must be of the proper size. With the CBC shell, in the 12 gauge, for example, the over-shot wads can be 11 or 10 gauge. The 11-gauge wads must be epoxied; the 10-gauge wads should be. The latter do not make quite so neat an appearance.
When using two-part epoxy that dries in five minutes, only five or six shells can be completed before the epoxy sets up. This is assuming that all the loading except for the over-shot wad is completed on all the shells and the wads are all laid out. With 30-minute epoxy, a full box of 25 shells could be completed assuming the same conditions, but it’s best to work in small batches at first. Other adhesives will require similar techniques and planning.
The over-shot wad also is useful for identification. Especially if several different component mixes are being tried, a simple lettering system can prevent unwanted mix-ups.
In the loads that follow, the typical built-up, card wad column consists of a 1⁄8-inch over-powder wad, a 1⁄2-inch filler wad and two .025-inch over-shot wads.
When using black powder, pressure is sufficiently low to allow for considerable experimentation. Two over-powder wads, or a thin card wad under and over the filler wad or even two filler wads are all options. Some shooters put a Tyvek® disk under the shot to prevent any pellets from being imbedded in the filler wad upon firing. The filler wads employed here are fiber. Felt wads are considered best but are very hard to find. Cork wads are also available and perhaps should be sandwiched between two card wads of moderate thickness. The choice is yours and should be dictated by need – either to improve patterns or shot-to-shot consistency. Because we are not crimping the shell, wad column height is generally not important.
In the process of developing this piece, I asked Steve Coach of RCBS’s engineering department what the company’s response was to those who asked about shooting smokeless powder in these (CBC) shells. He responded that no one had ever asked the question. This says that most of us interested in loading brass shotshells view them as a blackpowder component only, although this is not historically correct. Indeed, there is nothing inherent in the design of either shell that would preclude the use of smokeless powder, assuming the gun the shells were to be fired in was proofed for smokeless powder. The only problem is there is no laboratory-tested pressure data available, as all modern labs are set up for paper or plastic shells. That said, there are several smokeless powder loads included herein.
Generally speaking, assuming the same shot weight, selecting a powder charge published for a plastic shell and one-piece plastic wad and dropping it in a brass shell with a built-up card wad column will produce conflicting results. The brass shell will result in higher pressure and velocity; the card wad system will result in less. The net result may be a wash, but not necessarily. In the CBC shells, the smokeless powder charges produce considerably reduced performance because, in effect, we’re dumping a 12-gauge powder charge in an 11-gauge shell. The increased volume as the wad column moves forward keeps pressure and velocity low. Black powder, on the other hand, with its greater volume of gases simply overcomes the shell volume, and velocities tend to be higher.
In the RMC shell, being of the same interior volume as paper and straight-walled plastic hulls, both smokeless and black powder produce higher velocities. As higher velocities are ac companied by higher pressures, reloaders must be prepared to make adjustments in the powder charge based on velocities obtained, making allowances for barrel length, etc. If we are using the RMC shell, of course, we could even use one piece plastic wads, duplicating a published smokeless load, except for the over-shot wads. Here pressure certainly would be higher than experienced with a plastic shell, and powder charges would have to be cut accordingly.
If we are shooting brass shells in guns with chambers longer than the shells – 21⁄2- or 25⁄8-inch shells in 3-inch chambers, for example – results might not be satisfactory. It is imperative that the top of the wad column be well started into the forcing cone before the bottom leaves the shell mouth. In the end, for the majority of us using brass shotshells, black powder or a replica is the way to go, both aesthetically and practically.
Now let’s take a look at some actual load data. I began by establishing bench- marks for my gun and conditions with paper and plastic shells. The gun, a Model 1897 Baker 12 gauge, has exposed hammers and is a delight to use in the field. The bores are a bit rough with some pitting near the breech. With a favorite black- powder load in paper cases, the more open right barrel will pattern 70 percent; the tighter left barrel, 76 percent. With a standard built-up card wad column, patterning drops to 68 and 61 percent, respectively.
My first benchmark load used a paper shell and smokeless powder. It looked like this:
12 gauge, 23⁄4 inch
Federal paper hull
Federal 209A primer
Federal 12C1 wad
11⁄8 ounces of lead shot
18.0 grains of Red Dot
Velocity: 1,117 fps
The powder charge is a bit under the standard 23⁄4 dram equivalent 1,145 fps, and it showed in the results. A full 3-dram equivalent load (1,200 fps) of 19.7 grains of Red Dot was chronographed at 1,179 fps. In all chronographing, the midpoint of the start/stop screens was 6 feet from the muzzle. The results suggest near, but slightly under, projected performance.
When a plastic hull was used, results were very similar. This is how the load was assembled: