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Homeloading shotgun cartridges: what you need to know

Loading your own shotgun cartridges can become a rewarding hobby and will give you a greater understanding of your sport.

Steel shot for pigeon shooting

Homeloading shotgun cartridges: what you need to know

Homeloading shotgun cartridges

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. For unusual bore sizes and chamber lengths hand-loaded cartridges are required simply because factory loads are not available. (Read “Can I load ammunition for a friend?”)

Legal requirements 

Government guidelines from HSE

An explosives licence is required for black powder. (Read black powder licences – what you need to know.) Enthusiastic shooters wishing to start homeloading shotgun cartridges are advised to do plenty of background research and preferably get some first-hand advice from an experienced homeloader. You can read Government guidelines on explosives here, which have changed since Britain left the EU.


If you want to keep your shotgun intact, 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.  Newcomers to homeloading should stick exactly to the guidance. However, they should then be able to turn out cartridges which can exceed the quality of factory loads. (Read parts of a shotgun cartridge explained.)

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 scales are needed 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.

Homeloading shotgun cartridges 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.

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.

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. (Read more about how a shotgun works.)

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.

These days the range of wads is phenomenal.  When the wad has been pressed into position, it is time to load the shot charge.

As well as ITM, steel, bismuth and Hevi-shot there is now a tungsten product wrapped in annealed iron.


The final step in the production of a hand-loaded shotgun cartridge is the closure. In most cases this will be a crimp.

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 a 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.

This article was originally published in 2008 and has been updated.