There's a lot of rubbish talked about cartridges and I think I've heard most of it.

To be honest, there's not much to a cartridge - just five components and no moving parts. So not much to go wrong. Thanks to modern manufacturing, malfunctions are rare.

Here's some of the twaddle you might hear along the way...

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8 things you should know about cartridges – myth vs reality
This product is featured in: The danger of mixing cartridges.

1. Cartridges are expensive

Even bearing in mind the increasing cost of lead, cartridges are still cheap. The price of lead has quadrupled in the past few years and yet the rise in shotgun ammunition is around 35% across the board.

The cost of shells hasn’t even kept pace with inflation in the last 20 years. So we’ve had it good for a long time.

2. A fast cartridge is better

You get better patterns with slower cartridges. For those longer targets, use a mid-range shell with a higher than average antimony content to give you better patterning and harder hitting killing power. You will also get less recoil.

Speed isn’t everything in cartridge choice. Even with the fastest loads, the pellets are travelling at subsonic speeds only 20 feet or so from the muzzle.

Here’s something to think about: For a target crossing at right angles to the shooting position at a speed of 40mph and 30 yards distance, the difference in lead required for two cartridges that performance wise are 100fps apart (say the difference between 1375fps and 1475fps) is less than three inches.

When you think that your total pattern diameter is roughly 30 inches without taking into account the shot string effect, this is so small as to be virtually impossible to detect from the shooter’s point of view.

3. There’s no such thing as an all-plastic cartridge case

Well Gamebore came up with one years ago.

4. Brass it isn’t

The head of the cartridge may be called ‘the brass’ but it is actually electroplated steel, which is why it rusts. In fact, a cartridge doesn’t need an external brass head at all – it’s just cosmetic.

So what does a big brass head do? Well it adds unnecessary cost but it does look pretty, doesn’t it? Shooters complain about extraction problems, blaming it on the length of the brass whether it be short or long, in equal numbers.

There will always be problems with extraction and it does not necessarily relate to the length of brass, it is usually a particular gun/cartridge combination. Given the differences in tolerance that guns and cartridges are manufactured to, this is hardly surprising.

5. Stored carefully, cartridges will work for a lifetime

This is true and it’s worth considering where you keep your cartridges as in ideal conditions, they will last and last. This means somewhere not too warm and not too cold (because they will underperform).

After firing your normal cartridge in freezing or damp conditions, take a look up your barrels. You’ll almost certainly see a certain amount of unburnt powder that you wouldn’t spot on a hot summer’s day.

Think of your cartridges like good wine – and store in dry conditions at room temperature. Don’t store them in the airing cupboard or in the garage.

6. Fibre or plastic wads?

Plastic wads give better pattern performance at range and less recoil than fibre variants. They are usually less expensive too. However, fibre wads are eco-friendly and sales continue to outstrip plastic.

7. Shot size is a matter of personal choice

I know a chap who swears blind he can tell the difference between a shot size 7½ and 8 just by firing them at sporting clays. I know another guy who maintains that his normal shot size 9 won’t break the second clay on station 4 at skeet.

Both of which are total rubbish.

Shot size is a matter of personal choice. Use what you are comfortable with.  A miss will rarely be the cartridge’s fault, it is usually down to operator error.

A word of caution though. Ensure you are acting humanely when shooting game or vermin by choosing a shot size that will do the job at the range intended.

8. Your cartridge is unlikely to be at fault

Statisically mechanical failures are very rare – so your cartridge will rarely let you down.

Missing the target or having a malfunction is generally due to a gun/cartridge combination or pilot error. In which case you better make sure you have your excuses ready.

These could include issues like: the sun was in your eyes, you were too hot, too cold, you were wearing the wrong coat/hat. Anything you can think of that was a distraction.

  • Richard Atkins

    The cartridge case head, whether plated steel or real brass (as some still are) is actually an essential part of modern cartridge cases. It joins them all together and ensures integrity.

  • Richard Atkins

    Point 4: “…. In fact, a cartridge doesn’t need an external brass head at all –
    it’s just cosmetic.”

    Sorry, but COSMETIC ONLY the metal head most definitely IS NOT!
    Modern parallel plastic tube Reifenhauser (and paper) cases comprise of THREE components: 1 = the plastic (or paper) tube; the plastic (or compressed paper) base wad and 3 = the METAL HEAD.
    The base wad is inserted into the main tube and these two components are HELD TOGETHER by the addition of the metal head, which is pressed precisely and tightly together to form one strong, safe and gas tight cartridge case. Quite literally without the metal head the three part case that is now basically the industry standard case type used by all UK (and the vast majority, possibly all, European) makers COULD NOT FUNCTION! The tube would just tear away from the base wad.
    In addition the metal head *brass or plated steel) fulfills several other vital functions:
    The case RIM is formed so that the cartridge sits into the gun’s chamber the correct depth (and inside the rim is where the end of the tube and the flared edge of the base wad are clamped tightly together.
    The metal head helps retain the primer cup tightly, which can otherwise back out of a plastic only head particularly with semi-auto shotguns; this has been tried in the past.
    The metal head DOES help ejection, especially in semi-auto shotguns.
    Plastic only rims tend to tear in semi-auto shotguns and this is why even the immensely strong Winchester A-A and Remington RXP one-piece plastic ‘Compression Formed’ cases also have metal heads. In CF cases the case IS strong enough to withstand all the pressures of firing without any metal support, but the plastic rims will NOT resist tearing by ejector claws on semi-auto shotguns.Even with these cases and despite them being strong enough otherwise, the metal heads are NOT just cosmetic even in the (super-reloadable) CF cases.

  • Richard Atkins

    The ‘All-Plastic’ cartridge cases once used by Gamebore (in their Hi-Tech range) and referred to in this article are, in fact NOT all-plastic because the head is reinforced by a steel insert that is coated in plastic. Activ cases were, and still are, made by the Activ cartridge company in Argentina. Their construction is explained (in Spanish but easily translated in Google Translate). Also, the sectioned drawings show the plastic case (in yellow) AND the steel insert within the case head.
    Check it out here:

  • Richard Atkins

    Interesting. I should point out though that ‘Mythbuster’ point 3 is itself is, unfortunately, also a myth: Gamebore did not invent an ‘All Plastic’ cartridge case so far as I am aware. They DID introduce their ‘Hi Tech’ range of cartridges using a case that had an all-plastic exterior, somewhere around the 1980s if I recall correctly. BUT, two points: 1): The ACTIV case was actually made by an overseas company, possibly of South American origin. These ACTIV cases were certainly neither invented nor made by Gamebore. 2): Although these appear all-plastic, there is in fact a metal disc within the head of the case; this added to strengrth for case integrity and helped prevent the rims tearing when ejected from semi-auto shotguns.