by R.K. Campbell
Recently, my son and I entered into an interesting discussion concerning shotshell loads. He thought the CCI Speer shotshell cartridges I keep around the home looked like Contact Cold Pills, but probably work a little faster. With that light-hearted beginning, we began to study the utilitarian shotshell, something most handgunners take for granted. Frankly, I have kept them around the homestead and relied upon them without exploring their effectiveness.
A bit of study shows that the concept, if not the cartridge itself, has been around for some time. Shot loads were used in flint and percussion pistols with a buck and ball load pretty common. Since these pistols were for short-range use, they were often loaded with multiple projectiles.
Then, we have the LeMat with a shotgun bore barrel under the pistol barrel. But these aren’t handgun cartridge shells by any means. True shotshells were yet to come. I don’t think specialized smoothbore “shot revolvers” and single shots are really in the spirit of this discussion as they were purpose-designed for shotshell use and poor choices for ball ammunition.
Before the turn of the century, there were numerous variations on the theme of handgun-caliber shotshells. Some featured wooden or cardboard cards that held the shot and were roll crimped for utility. Other cartridges were designed for single-shot firearms and the overall length made them too long to be loaded in revolver cylinders.
These longer versions used paper or wooden capsules that resembled modern shotshell loads in profile and delivered a larger payload than the pistol-specific cartridges. Old literature refers to break-open firearms firing pistol shot cartridges as “pocket shotguns.” There were purpose-designed firearms of all types chambered for these cartridges. These special handguns and rifles were delivered with smooth-bore barrels.
In those halcyon days, a fellow armed with a .44-40-caliber firearm could carry shotshell, a light gallery load, standard loads and perhaps the “rifle only” load, and be prepared for just about anything that came his way. The shotshells had a certain use, albeit circumscribed by range, in taking small game and ridding a homestead of pests. But the most stupendous use of shotshells was by Wild West Shows. Firing off horseback and hitting glass balls was no mean feat, shotshell or no, and eliminated safety concerns that included shooting holes in the roof of a tent.
At that time, glass balls were used as targets in the cowboy shows. The roar of blackpowder and the eruption of a glass ball were quite a sight and not one easily forgotten. While this is quite interesting, in modern times we view shotshell loads in a more utilitarian manner. They are for elimination of pests around the home, and to effectively eliminate vermin such as field rats and snakes. I don’t think many of us seriously consider hunting with such cartridges.
The .45 ACP shotshell used by the military was once a standard issue in survival packets, and was intended to allow downed aviators to take game with the pistol in an emergency. While a good effort, the range would have had to be short indeed. The recreational use of shotshells, such as firing at aerial targets, is limited because of the expense of such shells, but we can address the expense of shotshells by loading our own.
First, a word on the effectiveness of shotshells for handguns. I have found as a rule that calibers smaller than .38 Special simply are not worthwhile. The .22 just isn’t enough to provide the power needed to reliably down varmints, at least from a pistol barrel. I have used more .38 Special loads than anything else in this genre and they will do anything that needs to be done with a handgun. A big plus is that cycle reliability is not a concern as it is with the autos.
My formula for loading .38 Shotshell is simple. I load a .38 Special case with a charge of 3.6 grains of Bullseye powder, then insert a .357-caliber gas check. I fill the case with Number Nine shot until it touches the mouth, then I tamp it down and place another gas check just over the load and crimp the gas check in place. The second gas check is loaded cup down. This load has proven pretty potent against little critters. You can go a little hotter with a full length .357 Magnum case, but for convenience I load all my .38/.357 shotshells in .38 Special cases.
For some reason, the .357 Magnum does not pattern as well with a heavier charge, perhaps the higher velocity blows the pellets around more severely. In any case, performance with the .38 Special load is just fine. The shot charge makes one ragged hole at 3 feet or so, then begins to spread on the order of 1-inch per foot. From most revolvers we have a not very dense 10-inch pattern at 13 feet. Eight to 10 feet would be the maximum effective range for turkey necks if we were hunting so the pistol with shot charge won’t work there.
A single 25-pound bag of shot will supply you with the necessary lead to load about 3,000 .38-caliber shotshells more than I have fired in my lifetime! If you fancy shotshells for recreation, there you have an inexpensive model. If you choose to load the .44 and .45 as well, a 25-pound bag of shot is not a bad investment. I use the same technique for loading the .44-40, .44 Special, and even the .45 Colt. These voluminous cases will take five to six grains of Bullseye. Five and one half grains of Unique and a similar charge of WW 231 can produce good results, but take care in experimentation. The semi bottle neck case of the .44-40 works OK with gas checked loads, but not so well with the Speer shot capsules. The taper requires some experimentation.
This brings us to the next part of our treatise on shotshells for handguns. By far the most convenient resource for reloaders is the Speer Shot Capsule, available in .38- and .44-caliber. Loaded cartridges are available in: .22, .38, 9mm, .40 Smith & Wesson, .44 Special, .45 ACP and .45 Colt. The revolver cartridges use these blue shot cartridges, and we will discuss the .45 ACP, a different type of shotshell altogether.
The shotshell capsules are supplied empty, and are of a brittle type of plastic, pre-cut to insure disruption in flight. I fill the capsules with shot then place the supplied base wad over the back of the capsule. Remember, if the base wad is not tight and properly seated, the shells will rattle. This is an aggravation in the wild. Factory loaded shells do not rattle.
I load these with the same powder charge as in loading my homemade types. I have gone up to 6.0 grains of Bullseye in the .44 Magnum with good results. The patterns of the big bore loads are sometimes good, with a reasonable concentration on the aiming point at 15 or 20 feet. When crimping these capsules in place, take care not to crack the case. A moderate crimp works well.
Recently I had the opportunity to test examples of factory loaded shotshells from CCI Speer. The results were generally comparable to my handloads, but the .45 ACP performed better than my personal handloads, and with much less trouble. The .22 lived up to its nick name “dust shot.” Frankly, this is not a very useful load. The pattern at 15 feet had gaps when fired from my Ruger 4&Mac186;-inch barrel handgun. The results from rifles are much better, but then I am not interested in rifles so much as the handy, light packing handgun.
The density left much to be desired, with several pellets off the target. Still, I have dusted off quite a few rodents with the .22-caliber load. The value of these shotshells is that hits are more sure at moderate range than with ball ammo. At very short range, the point-of-aim of handguns changes and many of us are not familiar with these changes. Shot can more or less make up for this deficit when the target is a small rodent. They are also much safer than ball ammunition.
Ricochet is unheard of with such small pellets. The chances of serious injury from the ricochet of a load of .22-caliber “dust shot” is slim. Just the same, respect them as much as you would a full bore Magnum and be certain you know which load is in your gun. Mike Venturino told of a valuable cow accidentally killed when a farmer thought his shotgun was loaded with birdshot, but in fact the man had loaded a slug in the firearm. Treat every firearm with the same respect and you will have a safe shooting career.
Moving to the .38 Special, I saw more shot on the target and a great dispersal, but not the concentration I would like on the aiming point. There were little if any more pellets in the X-ring than with the .22. Overall, the chances of striking a scooting rodent are greater due to the heavier load, but the shot pattern concentration was not impressive. My handloads generally perform better than these loads.
The .44 Special was especially disappointing. The pattern was no better than the .38, and while dispersal was about the same, there were fewer pellets near the point-of-aim than in the case of the .38. Guns are individuals and another may perform better, but the showing of the .44 was not impressive.
Moving to the .45 ACP, things changed dramatically. As the illustrations plainly detail, the .45 ACP was the best performer by a wide margin. The .45 must be loaded hotter in order to properly function the semi-auto action and is the strongest load to fire, but the results are excellent. There is no wide dispersal; rather the shot is well concentrated at 15 feet. This load would shred a good sized rodent.
Basically, it is as effective at 20 feet as the .38 is at 10. The rub is, most of us don’t carry a .45 as a field gun and prefer the easy handling of the revolver. Still, if you remember to keep a magazine filled with these loads around the home, you have excellent, even potent short-range vermin medicine. The load is simply ideal. You have a much greater chance of striking the target, with an area many times that of a .45 ball cartridge, but with a sufficient concentration of shot that the load should prove effective.
This load differs from the others in using a long cartridge case that is almost into the rifling of the pistol barrel. This is done because a shot capsule would never survive being butted up the feed ramp of the semi-auto. It does seem to be the superior system, just as my personal shot cup .38s work better than the factory product. The Speer load actually outperforms my home loads in the .45 ACP, and I am glad for that.
The home grown shotshell load in .45 ACP is an involved thing that many do not wish to tackle. The load must be put up in cases especially formed from .308 rifle brass. The .30-06 could be used, but the .308 has a wider extractor groove, which is important for use in semi-auto handguns. A special RCBS case-forming die is used to manufacture the shotshells. A special wad is placed over the neck of these cases. I have counted upon a friend to supply mine, but now rely upon Speer for my .45 shotshells. The home grown versions are quite effective and cycle reliability is outstanding, but the factory product is readily available.
Unfortunately, the 9mm and .40-caliber shotshells are single-shot propositions, not cycling the actions of any handguns we tested, so we do not consider them viable. The 9mm uses a shot capsule rather than an elongated cartridge case, but this doesn’t really matter since the cartridge must be hand fed. It is in .38 territory in performance.
The .45-caliber shotshells normally cycle, but a few old model handguns with a short ejection port will sometimes catch the ejected case of handloaded cases formed from rifle brass. Our old Ballester Molina simply ran off a magazine of either type without difficulty, but a test of the load’s feed and cycle reliability is demanded.
After some thought, we think that testing the shotshells at 13 to 15 feet is unrealistic. A reptile that presents a danger to us will be encountered at perhaps half that range. At five to six feet, the .38 and even the .22 have a much better shot concentration and are capable of knocking off these pests. I have done so on many occasions, and found them viable, but when I conducted the 15 foot test wondered how I had done so! The answer is simple. I fired at close range.
A snake under the awning was one such use, but it took two .22s to effectively take this bugger out. The awning’s paint was only slightly disturbed. The .45 would shred the largest rodent to the possum class at this range, and retains an effective pattern to at least 15 feet. But the .38 is probably going to do the business for you in just about any realistic situation.
Shotshell loads are an interesting option for the handgunner. They offer a sure hit with a moderate degree of marksmanship, safely flatten on light cover, and offer light recoil. While they may not be the most versatile of loads, they fulfill their mission ideally.
No Defense Role
I have read several reports by gunwriters in which they state that the shotshell load would be a good choice for the first round or two, “until I get on target.” His words not mine! Shotshells do not offer sufficient penetration at even point-blank range to be considered an effective defense load. Even if they were effective inside 10 feet or so, at longer range, you would be in the situation of throwing away the first shot if the opponent were firing at you from 20 feet or so.
Then, we ran across the recommendation to fire for the eyes. This is a frightful thing, as I would be as reluctant to blind a man as to kill him. And a blinded man is still dangerous if armed. Shotshell loads will not penetrate light clothing at point-blank range, so the robber you shoot may not be aware he has been shot, but he will be aware you have shot at him. It is possible that a hit to the exposed skin area would simply enrage him.
Far better to “get on target” with the first shot with an effective anti-personnel load and that is really what it is all about. If you don’t get your man or get to cover in the first few seconds of a gunfight, your battle is over. And, to cap off the debate, I have seen a report of a disturbed individual who attempted suicide with a .22 loaded with birdshot shells. He was seriously injured by a head wound but not killed. Enough said on that subject!
Our penetration test showed that most birdshot loads would penetrate about &Mac251;-inch of soft pine at point-blank range. When firing the loads into rolled up clothing, we were able to shake the pellets out. The pellets did penetrate a cardboard box but were found flattened on the inside. For protection against felons or large dogs, shotshell is a very bad idea. At bedroom distance let body aiming and experience with the handgun produce hits, not relying upon a shot pattern that will be no real aid at point-blank distance.
On the other hand, with safety always foremost, shotshells can be great fun in impressing friends with your fast draw and firing and bursting balloons from the hip. You can effectively strike and burst a balloon at up to 30 feet with shotshell if you develop a modicum of skill. However, fast draw artists use blanks to burst balloons to about 15 feet, so this is no real show of power. Strange as it sounds, a blank cartridge has been known to do more damage to a body at contact range than a birdshot shell.