In recent decades, shooters have had it easy. The cost of ammunition, at least until last year’s hike in the price of lead, has been so low compared with other aspects of the sport that the small savings to be gained in manufacturing one’s own cartridges have made the process barely worth the hassle.
Plentiful supply and cut-throat competition in the cartridge market have combined to keep the price of basic 12-gauge sporting and competition loads at rock bottom. In two areas of shotgun shooting, however, homeloading can reap considerable savings.
“It’s increasing very fast. I’ve just had the best year’s business I’ve ever had in my life,” said Ian Charlton, who runs Clay & Game Reloaders in Lincolnshire, one of the principal suppliers of reloading equipment and materials.
“Today the reloading market is being driven by non-toxic and magnum loads for wildfowlers, particularly in steel shot and by small gauge cartridges, especially .410 and 28-bore. You’ll be lucky if you save £10 per 1,000 in 12-bore 28g to 32g lead loads and you can only do that by buying big quantities of components. But you can save up to 60% on 3in .410 cartridges and if you want to make steel shot work then you’ve got to load it yourself. The wildfowling element now comprises about 70% of my business.”
Homeloading has been part of shotgun shooting since the earliest days of the breechloader when the only way a sportsman could guarantee a supply of ammunition was to turn out the cartridges himself. This was often using hand tools supplied by the gunmaker along with a new gun. It is still the case that for unusual bore sizes and chamber lengths hand-loaded cartridges are required simply because factory loads are not available.
I long ago gave up loading 12-gauge ammunition, but I kept my collection of large-bore wildfowling guns in active service for 30 years by hand loading cartridges geared to their own particular dietary requirements.
Homeloaders are permitted to possess up to 5kg of nitro propellants. For those wishing to load black powder, 10kg is currently permitted if you are also holding nitro, but for those holding only black powder a total of 15kg is permitted.
An explosives licence, which is simple for shotgun certificate holders to obtain, and for which there is no charge, is required for black powder. No special authorisation is needed for nitro propellants. Enthusiastic shooters wishing to start homeloading are well advised to do plenty of background research and preferably get some first-hand advice from an experienced homeloader.
It is enormous fun to produce your own cartridges but there are obvious dangers and if you want to keep intact all the requisite portions of your shotgun, not to mention your hands and face, it is absolutely essential that quantities of powder and shot, as well as every other component part, are exactly as specified in a recognised loading table. Proven and tested loading data is available from reputable suppliers such as Clay & Game Reloaders and the newcomer to homeloading should stick exactly to the guidance they provide. However, they should be able to turn out cartridges which can exceed the quality of factory loads.
It is possible to produce small batches of cartridges using simple hand tools. A de-and re-capper removes the old primer and inserts a new one so fired cases can be reused. Accurate powder and shot balances or measures are required to weigh or measure out materials and a turnover tool is required to seal the end of the loaded case.
With such basic equipment you can turn out first-rate cartridges. The serious homeloader who wants to manufacture shotgun cartridges in significant quantities, however, would be well advised to buy a reloading press. The MEC range, manufactured by the Mayville Engineering Company of Wisconsin, in the US, has been around for decades and even with the basic MEC 600 it is possible to turn out up to 10 boxes of cartridges per hour.
The processes involved are simple enough but the essence of homeloading is that each must be carried out with total accuracy and consistency. First a supply of once-fired cases must be found, which is not normally a problem for the active shooter. If the cases have been fired through the shooter’s own gun and he intends feeding this same firearm with his homeloads then re-sizing should not be necessary, as the metal cartridge bases will fit exactly into the chamber. Otherwise, it may be necessary to re-size the case by forcing a hardened steel die over it.
Once this is done, the spent primer may be removed and replaced with a new one. Like all other reloading components, primers must be selected to conform with reputable loading data.
Like Indian curries, they come in various grades, from mild to hot, and the wrong primer can make a significant difference to the pressure levels developed by a particular load. In general, hotter primers are best suited to the slower, more progressive burning powders used in heavy or magnum loads. Once the primer is properly seated, the propellant can be introduced.
This can be as an individually weighed charge as might be the case when a small quantity of cartridges are being loaded with hand tools or by means of a measuring bushing inserted into the charge bar of the loading press. When the bar is slid across, a precisely measured charge of powder is dropped into the case. However, since the bushing measures volumetrically and not by weight, it is important that the powder charge is verified on a balance. Humidity or even the amount of powder left in the reloading machine’s reservoir can affect the weight of the charge thrown by the press.
The range of propellants is huge and the speed at which new products have been developed over the past few years is mind-boggling. At one end of the spectrum are the fast-burning powders, which develop their full potential pressure very quickly after ignition.
At the other end are the slow-burning or progressive powders, which accelerate the shot charge at a slower rate thereby generating more manageable pressures.
This makes these powders particularly suitable for magnum loads and steel shot. Indeed, there are some very exciting new progressive powders available for steel shot users, such as UEE CSB0 and Alliant 381 and 386, which provide velocities in excess of 1,600ftps for steel shot while maintaining pressures of 700 to 800 bar.
Don’t forget, though, the trusted and traditional technology. Hercules Blue Dot powder, old-fashioned though it may be, still works superbly well for me in my big bore guns with bismuth shot. Furthermore, if the gun is proofed only for black powder, the homeloader has to make use of a propellant, the roots of which can be traced back more than six centuries.
THE WAD AND THE SHOT
Next in is the wad, the function of which is to seal within the bore the expanding gases generated by the burning propellant and to act as a piston, accelerating the shot up the barrel.
When I started reloading, there was a fairly limited range of fibre wads and card discs. But these days the range of wads is phenomenal. Variations on the plastic monowad are the most popular. Plastic obturator discs may be used both to seal and lengthen the wad column, thereby enabling the loader to adjust the length of the load in relation to the cartridge case. When the wad has been pressed into position, it is time to load the shot charge.
For generations this simply meant a measured portion of lead shot. These days though lead may meet the needs of the roughshooter or pigeon shooter, it is no longer out on its own, especially for the wildfowler who is keen to produce high quality shells for long-range work on the foreshore or under the goose flightlines.
As well as ITM, steel, bismuth and Hevi-shot there is the new power shot, a tungsten product wrapped in annealed iron.
Ian Charlton said, “It is belting stuff, I’ve yet to hear anybody criticise it.” Due to the escalating price of lead, fowlers are starting to look at non-lead alternatives in a new light, especially steel, which if carefully hand-loaded can produce shells which far outperform commercial factory loads.
CLOSING THE CASE
The final step in the production of a hand-loaded shotgun cartridge is the closure. In most cases this will be a crimp, though some of us still use the overshot wad and roll turnover. Indeed, for solid brass cases, an overshot wad and a twist of silicone bath sealant around the mouth of the case produces excellent results.
So with the help of a loading press or a few hand tools, plus a supply of inexpensive and readily available components, the shooter can keep his gun fed cheaply throughout the sporting year. And of course it’s not just about saving money. Ask any regular reloader and he’ll confirm that making shotgun shells can become a hobby in its own right.
It really can be huge fun, especially when you take those carefully manufactured cartridges with you to the field or marsh and have an absolutely blinding day with them.
I’m not a fisherman, but I suppose that it must be something like catching that big trout or salmon on a fly you have tied yourself.