There are several reasons why someone would choose to reload shotshells the first is that it is cheaper to reload your own shells versus buying factory shells. How much cheaper depends on the type of shells and the gauge, the traditional 12ga target reloads will generally have little difference in price compared to factory promotional shells, while I save over $13 per box reloading 28ga field loads. The above holds true for steel shot as well you really are not going to save money reloading factory 3" 12ga loads, reloading however allows one to utilize none commercial loads that are more effective than factory steel shells.
As previously stated a reason one might get into reloading is that the desired load is not commercially produced such as a 16ga skeet load with #9 shot. It might also be that a shell is commercially produced but is a niche product in high demand. A perfect example is Nice Shot which has both loaded shells and bulk shot of their proprietary Nice Shot. Their products are in such high demand that many of the shells and shot sizes are sold out. The best course of action in a situation like this would be to buy a decent quantity of shot when a production run of the size of shot you want happens. Perhaps more than you would in normal circumstance but it is not like the shot will go bad and that way regardless of the fluctuation in product you always have shells on hand.
A lot of people considering getting into reloading are often scared away by the sheer cost of everything involved in getting into reloading. At one time a person could get into reloading for under $100 that is not the case anymore. The bulk of the cost lies in the cost of components; I will again use the 28ga target loads I reload for comparative purposes. The cost of the components I use at the cheapest run about $113 for primers, powder, wads, and shot, this calculation came from Ballistic Products Inc.'s website prices without factoring in hazmat or shipping using the smallest quantities possible. While this number is inaccurate for online purchases it should give a fair estimate of what it would cost to buy locally. Add to that price the cost of a press and associated gear you’re looking at a price in excess of $300 to reload for the 28ga.
This article focus on how to reduce that cost though budget friendly alternatives to a reloading press. These methods are not recommended for everyone, if you intend to do much shooting suck up the cost and purchase a MEC press. If you are only reloading a couple of boxes of shells per year then the methods discussed here might be for you but be forewarned I can say from personal experience they are slow, tedious, and erratic crimps might result, though they certainly are friendly on the wallet.
This first method has the least amount of equipment and supplies, you simply open the crimp on an existing shell, pour the birdshot out, replace the shot with a different size of birdshot or buckshot, and recrimp the shell. At this point I will say that one must only substitute shot of the same composition. Never put steel shot in a lead shell, bismuth shot in a lead shell, or any sort of combination of shot types. Only put lead in lead, steel in steel and so forth. Also never add or subtract anything from the shell this is why I recommend using only standard loads for this method without buffers or wraps.
Along that line is the principal that makes this method safe to use that being the principal of weight for weight. Meaning if I replace an ounce (1oz) of #9 lead shot with 1oz of #6 lead shot or 1oz of #4 buck shot I would be perfectly safe. Since I did not change the weight of the shot charge nor did I change the shot composition.
The one exception to the above is when one uses a shot charge or projectile that weighs less than the original shot charge weight. Such as I would be fine in replacing a 1 1/8 oz (492 grains) of #7 1/2 lead shot with a .678 round ball made of pure lead (469 grains) since I am using less weight. The only problem with this is that if one uses too little weight the wad gets stuck in the barrel which is extremely dangerous, one also runs into issues with poor crimps.
Tools for method #1
The tools needed for this are few, cheap, and common enough that you probably have most of them at home. The tools you will need for this method of reloading are a straight pick, a wooden dowel, a small to medium-sized screw driver, and a set of pliers, I prefer needle nosed. Of course you will need the birdshot, buckshot, or round ball you wish to use. You will also need a way to measure your shot weight.
There are a couple of ways to do this the cheapest is to weigh the shot by volume, a cut down shotgun hull will work fine for this. Simply open a shell as described below and pour the shot into an empty hull. Next mark the edge of the shot with a line and cut down the plastic to that line; this gives a dipper that is fairly accurate if your cut is straight and even, though really the shot weight needs confirmation with a scale.
The other is to weigh each charge with a scale by hand this of course being the more time consuming but consistent method. When purchasing a scale make sure it has the necessary features to measure shot since postal scales are not accurate enough and some cannot measure the weight of the larger loads. One does not need an expensive scale a basic digital one will be plenty, Amazon offers one from Franklin Arsenal for around $28.
Now you have everything to begin the most basic form of reloading.
1. You insert the straight pick into the center of the crimp where the folds come together. Then you work the folds to open them up slightly.
2. Next you can either use the screwdriver or pliers to further open up the crimps. Try to keep the folds in as good of condition as you can.
3. Pour the shot out of the shell. Be sure to keep the shot that you removed; it can either be sold , reused as is or cast into something else.
4. Pour your measured amount of desired shot into the wad.
5. Lastly use your fingers to work the folds back into a proper crimp. To do this apply pressure to the creases in the folds of the factory crimp. Once the folds are close enough together either using finger pressure or a wooden dowel of similar size to the shell, an estimate would be (12ga = 3/4, 16ga/20ga = 5/8, 28ga = 1/2), press the folds down into a complete crimp.
This method is known as roll crimping and involves more material than the first method but is genuine reloading, allowing for a greater variety of shells one can produce. There are some tools that you will need before roll crimping, since this method does not work well with star crimps and many factory shells feature star crimps. One can always purchase factory new hulls which do not have a crimp for the purpose of roll crimping but they are expensive when you can get an unlimited number of 12ga 2 ¾” hulls free at any shooting range.
So you will need to cut down the empty hulls you have by about a quarter of an inch, this also makes it so the load components will stack correctly with standard data. What I mean by that is that one can use load data for a 2 3/4” fold crimped shell and it will generally work fine in a 2 ½” rolled crimped shell. Here is what you will need to cut down a shell, a wooden dowel cut into sections of around 12” in length of a diameter that will fit snugly in the hulls you want to cut down, you will also need an exacto knife blade along with a drill and bit.
First you will want to insert the dowel into the hull and scribe a line at the top. Next measure the length it will take to remove the fold crimp from your hull, about 1/8” to 1/4” and scribe a line that distance below your first line. Then drill a hole through that second line a diameter that allows the exacto blade to fit snugly when place tip first through the hole while still exposing the edge. To use simply have one hand apply pressure to the rear of the exacto knife blade while the other rotates the hull to allow the blade to cut. This is why it is important that the dowel fits the hull since any sideways movement will vary the depth of the cut which we want consistent. You can also add a screw to the bottom of the dowel to allow for adjusting the amount of plastic removed from the hull.
Left to right, drill, decapping block, hull cutter with exacto blade, recapper, decapper, clamp block, inner tube, and roll crimper.
Now that we have hulls that are usable it is time to get into the actual reloading process. I will not get into load data in this article but I would refer anyone interested in shotgun reloading to buy a copy of Lyman’s 5th edition Shotshell Reloading Handbook as a guide for the process of reloading as well as load data, among other useful bits of information.These are the basic tools that you will need a decapper, decapping block, hammer, recapper, powder dipper, shot dipper, scale, small vise, clamp block, rubber inter-tube, roll crimper, and a drill. Several of these items are easily made by hand for little to no money.
The decapper can simply be a large nail or a piece of a dowel with a nail driven into it and epoxied in place with the head cut off. Basically anything that will efficiently knock out the dead primer will work. To be able to knock out the primer you need space to drive the primer out as well as a surface that will offer resistance to the hammer blow. This is where the decapping block comes in. This piece of equipment consists of a wooden block with a hole drilled through it big enough to allow a primer to fall though, enlarge one end of this hole to the diameter of the brass head of the hull. A flat metal washer of the same diameter is then placed in the hole to provide a flat surface since the drilling will leave the hole a concave shape. Drill the other side of the hole to whatever size you want the purpose of this is to allow accumulation of the primers you knock out.
Next comes the recapper which allows for repriming the hull. The recapper takes the shape of a dowel with an optional hole drilled in the middle to avoid contact with the live primer. Next you will need a shot dipper as described in method #1. Lastly we have the clamp block which is a block of wood with a hole drilled through it cut in half. Use a large enough hole to allow the hull to slide easily in it but not so large you can push the hull through the hole.
On the subject of roll crimpers there are several types some designed for presses others are not. The three that are pertinent to this article are the old bench mounted crimpers and the newer drill crimpers. The old crimpers like those produced by Bridgeport Gun Implement Co. were a self-contained unit that could be attached to a bench; one inserted the hull into the crimper head and held the hull in place by pressure applied from an arm. The handle was then cranked, turning the crimper head and putting a roll crimp on the hull. These old roll crimpers are in many people’s opinions still the best option for roll crimping shotgun shells. I would agree with that opinion but they really can only be found in 12ga and most people seem to think they have some collectors’ value because they are old. With some asking $70 for ones in good condition or in a subgauge; though you can find them for cheaper if you do some leg work.
The modern crimpers are cheaper and easier to find especially in subgauges. They come in two flavors those made by BPI and those by Precision Reloading. The ones made by BPI are either a single pin or double pin design but I would not bother with either of them. Precision Reloading offers a design based on the Lyman roll crimper which is long out of product and is a better design than those made by BPI and both cost the same. If you can find an actual Lyman crimper at a good price so much the better.
Differences between a roll crimped hull (left) and a fold/star crimped hull (right). With two different styles of OS cards in foreground.
Now that you have everything to roll crimp shells here is the process you should follow.
1. Place a hull on the decapping block, insert the decapper into the hull and give a swift whack with a hammer. This should knock the spent primer out of the hull.
2. Place a live primer on a clean, flat, hard surface such as steel or tile. Then set the hull on top of the primer with the recapper inserted inside the hull. Strike the recapper with a hammer to drive the primer into the primer pocket. Many assume that this is dangerous what they fail to consider is that shotgun 209 primers are considerably harder to accidentally to ignite than metallic rifle or pistol primers. As long as the surface is hard, clean, and flat you will not accidentally set a primer off.
3. Next charge the hull with powder, either weighted by hand or it could also be dropped with a powder dipper. A powder dipper is simply a scoop designed to throw a prescribed amount of powder. These are either handmade with metallic pistol cartridges as the scoop with wire soldered to them or a plastic powder measure kit is available from Lee Precision on Amazon for $8.79. So for my money I would buy the kit and make any additional scoops as needed, in either case you should weigh the powder drops for the first several shells when you first start reloading. Once a consistent drop is established weigh the drops when switching between bottles of powder to determine any lot to lot differences.
4. Seat the wad on top of the powder charge.
5. Fill the wad with shot of the desired size.
6. In order to roll crimp your shells you will need an over shot (OS) card. These are either store-bought or made by punching out cardboard cereal boxes with a hollow punch of the correct size. The OS card is then placed on top of the shot.
7. A rubber inner tube placed around the bottom end of the hull will hold the hull in place while crimping, a piece about an inch long will work fine. Insert the hull with the inner tube around it into the two halves of the clamp block, then clamp the clamp block into the vise.
8. Affix the roll crimper to the drill just like any drill bit. One can optionally place a drop of 3 in 1 oil on the crimper head as well as preheat the head with a heat gun or hair dryer for better crimps. A warm crimper head works best too much heat will melt more plastic than advisable. Lastly apply crimper to the hull according to the directions provided with the tool. Some modification of the directions may be required to achieve acceptable crimps.
9. Optional, one can at this point mark the OS card with data such a shot size as well as sealing the space were the roll crimp contacts the over shot card to water-resist the shell.
Small vise with drill for size comparison.
A quick note on steps 2-5, never deviate from published load data unless the substitution is approved by a reliable source such as a powder manufacturing company or you send the new load(s) off to get pressure tested. A company such as Precision Reloading will test loads for pressure and velocity. They charge at the time of this article $25 per five shot string if two or more strings are tested.
Reloading is not for everyone but if interested in loads not available from the factory or looking for a way to cut costs so you can do more shooting, or you just like to tinker with things, reloading might be the hobby for you. Stay tuned for part two which will cover the Lee Load All along with a couple other methods. Remember keep your powder dry and stay safe.
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