I want to introduce a method of loading shotshells that is so stupid easy that when finished you are going to sit back, shake your head and smile. Reloading always seemed out of reach to me. Something that I saw people do, seemed interesting and advantageous but nothing I could ever do.
Let me first say I don’t think you can save much money loading shotgun shells. There could be some savings on some of the higher end turkey loads and exotic shot, but for most loads not much gain there. I think the big gain from loading custom shells is that you can get loads that aren’t available commercially. These loads using shot, payloads or velocity that nobody is loading for.
Consider this post a primer to get you started. I decided to split this into two posts. One focusing on shotshell loading. The second on shot types and the extra steps on shotshell reloading. We are going to go down a couple rabbit holes in the future. We need to set some ground work for those more specific posts.
At some point in the last couple years I joined a group on Facebook called the TSS Shooters Discussion. That wont make any sense to you now but it will when I’m finished. The guys on this group were using hand tools to load shells, no shotshell press required. I followed along until I gained an understanding of what was required.
I want to start with reloading manuals first. I recommend 3-5 manuals. The manuals give specific recipes for most shot types. You will find there are specialty manuals that will be nice to have. Some dedicated to non toxic shot, buckshot, or buffered shot loads.
Really one manual will do. But if you have several it gives you a couple benefits. It lets you compare recipes between manuals. Sometimes you see patterns. Sometimes it raises questions. It also gives you many options for powder.
We are fortunate. Powder is in good supply. It is available through numerous sources. There may come a time one day in the not so distant future when powder is scarce. Wouldn’t it be better if you could pick from 20 different powders than 5. Being resilient means being resourceful.
There are three tools that are a must. Plus another 3-5 that are nice to have and make the process easier. This process assumes you have a hand drill or a drill press. There is no reason if you are this deep in diy that you shouldn’t have a drill press. The three tools that are an absolute must are;
- A scale that measures grains, either digital or analog
- A hull vice
- A roll crimper
You will need a way to measure powder and shot. You need a small scale that is accurate to within a 10th of a grain. I had a digital scale I got from Amazon for $15 that I used to measure salt and cure for curing meats; hams, bacon, jerky. It works perfectly for this application too. Shot is prescribed in ounces, but a quick calculation gives you grains. You will want to print out a chart to hang above your bench.
A hull vice is a small device that pinches the shotshell hull to keep it standing. It holds the hull while you roll crimp it on the drill press. You will use a clamp to secure it to your drillpress table. You can buy them commercially made from aluminum. I made mine from some scrap plywood for the cost of a couple hours and a $6 toggle clamp.
The roll crimper is a tool that chucks into your drill press. Its spinning motion rolls the plastic on the hull which presses against a cardboard overshot card sealing your shell.
I told you it was simple. Really that’s all there is to it. Start with a new primed hull, weigh and drop your powder. Stack whatever wad they specify in the recipe. Then weigh and drop your shot. Add a card and roll crimp. Not high volume, but low cost, low tech.
These are some nice to have items too. Things that will make the process safer, more consistent, more efficient or all three.
- A powder funnel
- A powder pan
- Shell blocks
- A scale verification weight
- A punch set
A powder funnel will help you drop powder and shot in the hull. A powder pan sits on the scale and has a convenient spout on it to aid in dropping powder and shot. A scale weight is a way to verify your scale is accurate. We are using very small powder charges, sometimes in the 20 grain range. You need a way to test your scale for accuracy. A small weight or series of weights of a known size are a way to do that.
Shell blocks are square wooden blocks that hold a box of shells. Typically 25 holes to safely hold 25 hulls. Usually they are used in pairs. As each hull gets charged with shot, wad, or powder it then transfers to the other block. This is a way to prevent double charges and the like. It is a system of checks and balances. They also provide a convenient way to hold shells while you work. The base is heavy enough to prevent shells from turning over.
As you get further in the reloading game you may find you want to buy less components from a store. You can get a hollow punch set that will allow you to punch wads or cards from different materials. Things like cork, felt, or cardboard. These are items you may have already or can get in sheet form from local sources. These components were used in smooth bore guns for hundreds of years.
Sequence of Operations
Your load recipe will specify exactly what powder, and how much, wad stack, shot and weight to use. You need to gather these components in order to start. You shouldn’t deviate from these recipes as a beginner. As you gain experience you will see things to tinker with. Things like similarities or patterns in recipes from one manual to the next. Generally, as long as you do not deviate on payload weight you can exchange shot size as long as the specie of shot is the same. Ie; lead 9s, 6s, or buckshot. Never sub steel for lead, vice versa or any shot specie other than what the recipe specifies.
Start with your empty hulls in your loading block. Assuming you are using new, primed hulls. Start by measuring out your powder on your scale. Using the funnel and pan, charge a shell, then move it to the second block. This should ensure you don’t double charge.
Once all the hulls are charged, do the same operation again for the wads. They aren’t as critical because you can easily see a wad is there and only one can fit anyway. Make sure the wads are firmly seated.
Lastly, drop your shot. You can use the powder pan and funnel again. If you have an adjustable shot scooper, you can standardize that process after you measure the first load. After all the wads are charged with shot place an overshot card in each shell.
Take the block of shells to your drill press. You are going to ruin a few hulls before you get this process perfected. You will find some recipes just don’t fill the hull quite right. Most recipes are developed for a star or fold crimp which is what the shotshell presses make. If your load just doesn’t crimp right you might have to fiddle with it by using a card, felt or cork under the shot in the wad. But you need to understand what you’re doing here. This writeup by Ballistic Products on roll crimping is worth reading.
Give shotshell loading some consideration. It opens up an entirely new set of shot and shells that are not available commercially. You should be able to make the investment in equipment for $100. Possibly another $100 to get hulls, powder, shot and wads. It can make the sub gauges viable contenders for waterfowl or turkeys. Plus the self sufficiency and pride you get from doing it yourself. It will be a good skill to have in the case that we are unable to buy shotshells at the store.