The History Of Shotgun Cartridges

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When you pick up a box of shotgun cartridges you very rarely reflect on what it was like before. Just over a hundred years ago it was paper or brass cases and before that black powder. The thought of shooting and collecting brass cases to be reloaded wouldn’t cross my mind as an option today. I have shot paper cases on a shoot with lots of livestock and they are a nice alternative to plastic. Wads have changed too, from cork then felt to wool to plastic to fiber and now biodegradable. In the past 100 years, we’ve moved on immeasurably for better performance and environmental impacts.

Black powder game shooting tweed cartridges

Image from Shooting UK

Traditional Shotgun Cartridges

Brass cases were used as a modification of rifle cartridges of the time. Rifle cartridges were already being built en mass for rifle shooting so changing the size wasn’t complicated and became viable for shotgun use. Very sturdy and reloadable the brass cartridge left shooters with a framework to load their own loads for them. More powder and bigger shot sizes for taller birds and less powder smaller shot to put more lead in the air. As you can imagine having that much brass to carry around is heavy and expensive. The progression was to move onto paper cases. Far lighter than brass and cheaper to this opened up the market to shots from all demographics. The paper wad shotgun cartridge became the standard for most of the 20th century.

Vintage shotgun Cartridges with brass cases


At the end of the 1950’s we began to see what we would recognize as a modern shotgun cartridge. Plastic cases became common and we saw plastic wads come to the fore. This avoided the pitfalls of paper cases like their lack of water resistance and low chance of reloading them. Plastic wads were sturdy, light and weather resistant. These are 3 keys to successful shooting, especially in the British isles. The ease of manufacture gave many shooters a more affordable option and a reliable product. The plastic case and crimped seal meant cartridges were unlikely to spoil the powder if they became damp. This stable base allowed other components to be improved including primers and powders. The plastic wad also gave consistent shot patterns and reduced the recoil over previous felt or wool wads in brass cases.

Gamebore shotgun Cartridges cross section

Gamebore Wool and Fiber wad

Modern Cartridges

This brings us to the cartridges that we use today. 99% of the cartridges we see today will be plastic cases and brass based with a primer. Some wildfowlers still use brass for bigger bores and specific homeloads which are situation specific. However, you’d be unlikely to see wildfowlers bring their 8 bores to a driven day as the weight and cost of shooting a full day would be financially and physically crippling. The modern cartridge is more versatile than before. Manufacturers are capable of loading all sorts of cartridges for clay shooting and game species of any size. These are options that we haven’t experienced previously and whatever target or species you’re looking for there will be a cartridge ready for you. We are currently in the process of transition towards an environmentally friendly future. We have manufacturers experimenting with biodegradable cases and wads. Eley has brought out their Bio Wad and Gambore has just released their Quad seal. Both of which have been released to reduce the impact shooters will have. As only the wad isn’t collected when you shoot this innovation means they’re now biodegradable! Perfect for the Semi Automatic shooting wildfowlers out there looking for more cartridge options.

Shotgun Cartridges crimping manufacturing

Crimped Shotgun cases


From weighty brass cases to bio degradable shot components. Advances in powder technology have allowed us to up performance and reduced recoil. It has also seen the plumes of black powder from the traditional hammer guns of old become part of history. While older cartridges have a nostalgic feel to them we are certainly moving in the right direction. Shooting a brass cartridge has a unique feeling, Through a side by side it gives you a sense of what it would have been like to shoot before heavy over and unders and well made cartridges. Its certainly rudimentary and not even half as pleasant as a well manufactured modern cartridge. However, it does give you an understanding of how far we’ve come. A light side by side with an old cartridge feels wonderful until you pull the trigger. The old cartridge is dirty and harsh and while certainly capable it doesn’t feel you with confidence. It’s massively refreshing to load the same gun with a modern cartridge and feel instantly like everything how it should be. Light guns wont be complemented by heavy loads but they feel excellent with the right cartridge. To compare them side by side shows in the starkest manner how much progress has been made in cartridge manufacturing. The prospect of shooting a slab of vinage cartridges vs a modern alternative isn’t even a question. Whether you want to hit more clays or consistently shoot more game there’s no denying that’s more possible now than ever before.


If you want to read more about the history of shotgun cartridges please click Here.

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