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The Ultimate Reloading Manual
Wolfe Publishing Group
  • alliant reloading data
  • reloading brass
  • shotshell reloading
The Ultimate Reloading Manual
load development

Handloading Handgun Shotshells

Author: John Haviland / Wolfe Publishing Co.
Date: May 31 2013

Unique is a great powder for loading handgun
shotshells in .38 Special and .357, .41 and .44

If the occasional snake is the only vermin you want to handily dispatch with a handgun, look no further than CCI’s shotshell loads. However, handloading shotshell cartridges for handguns is much easier on the pocket if pack rats continually build haystack nests in the barn, or if you’re like me, you enjoy shooting airborne targets.

CCI’s .38/.357 and .44 Special/ Magnum shotshell loads were recently used, and the No. 9 lead shot they fired produced dense patterns 12 feet from the muzzles of my revolvers. The shooting costs $1 per shot for the .38/.357 shells and half again as much per round for the .44 Special/Magnums. Speer Bullets, CCI’s sister company, sells the same shotshell capsules used in CCI loads. At the loading bench, these plastic containers were filled with my own lead shot and loaded much as I would a regular bullet in .38 Special and .44 Magnum cases. These capsules are still a bit pricey, about 15¢ apiece for .38s and twice that for .44s. To lower that cost, I started searching for commonly available wads that would allow me to make handgun shotshells on the cheap.

CCI Shotshells

CCI’s .38/.357 load contains approximately 135 No. 9 pellets, and the .44 Special/Magnum, 170 pellets. The capsules are designed to break on contact with the rifling. Shooting the .38/.357 loads through a Smith & Wesson Model 19 .357 Magnum with a 4-inch barrel resulted in 55 pellet holes in a pattern shot 12 feet from the muzzle. The pattern shot with the .44 load contained 119 hits. Both pattern targets had two holes in them from the shot capsule and base wad. The papers were big enough to catch all the pellets, so perhaps some of the pellets remained inside the container.

Speer Capsules

Ballistic Products’ .410, .125-inch thick Nitro
Cards, split in half, make great, inexpensive
wads for the .41 Magnum.

The Speer Reloading Manual #14 contains instructions and powder and shot weights for loading empty shot capsules. Unique powder was used for all the loads. The only trick to loading the capsules is to put in the correct amount of shot, so that when the base wad is snapped into place, the shot is tight in the container. I cut off a .38 Special case to hold 109 grains of No. 9 shot in the .38/.357 capsule, but after awhile I became pretty precise at filling a capsule just short of full so the shot in the capsule was tight with the base wad snapped into place.

Speer suggests using .38 Special cases originally factory-loaded with wadcutter bullets, because those cases have straighter internal sidewalls that better accommodate the long capsules. The loaded capsules can be seated to nearly the correct depth with thumb pressure in those cases. Using a seating die was much easier and precise. Plus, the capsules require a crimp to keep them locked in place during recoil produced by shooting other cartridges.

The first time I loaded .38 cases I set the seating die to apply a roll crimp on the capsules, but the crimp wasn’t tight enough because two of the capsules pulled out of the case when the first shot was fired. Back at the bench, I cringed turning in the seating die a smidgen at a time to increase the crimp, for fear of breaking the plastic containers. But the containers held up, and the next time out the capsule stayed in place in the last cartridge remaining in the revolver’s cylinder after firing five rounds.

Cheap Shooting

The nice thing about Speer capsules is they extend beyond the case mouth to hold more shot compared to what only a case will hold. Using a thin wad to separate the powder and shot and another wad on top of the shot, only 92 grains of No. 9 shot fit in a .357 Magnum case, 110 grains in a .41 Magnum case and 122 grains in a .44 Magnum case.

CCI 44 Spl/Mag shotshells are loaded with No. 9 lead shot.
They fired dense patterns 12 feet from the muzzle
of a Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum revolver.

Copper gas checks intended for cast bullets make good wads, because they are thin, take up little space and tightly seal the bore. I used to load 5.0 grains of Unique in a .44 Magnum case, seated a gas check with its lip up over the powder, added shot to just below the top of the mouth and seated a second gas check, lip down, over the shot. A crimp on the case mouth held everything in place. However, the cost of gas checks has skyrocketed in recent years to the point they add nearly a dime to the cost of each cartridge. Plus, gas checks will punch right through half-inch thick plywood at 20 feet. That rules out pack rat shooting inside a shed or barn. Hard, cardboard wads work just as well, and they’re cheap.

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