Choosing a Shotshell Recipe by Randy Rowley


You’ve done it! After hours of reading, contemplating, praying for guidance and seeking the counsel of hunters, skeet shooters, reloaders and witch doctors, you have bitten the bullet and selected the perfect reloading tool for your hunting and shooting habits. You thought that only self-employment taxes could be harder or more complicated. You were wrong (hah-hah)! Now you get to make the arduous choice of choosing a shotshell recipe!

At the time of this writing, there are no less than four major manufactures of primers (CCI, Federal, Remington and Winchester), four major manufactures of powders (Dupont <Remington>, Alliant (formerly Hercules), Hodgdon, and Winchester), six major manufactures of wads (Activ, Federal, Pacific, Remington, Uniwad and Winchester) , four major manufactures of shot (All American, Lawrence, Remington and Winchester <Olin>) and four major manufactures of shotshells (Activ, Federal, Remington, and Winchester). As you will note from the above list, Remington and Winchester are the big players in shotshell components, followed by Federal and Activ. Of course, there are other manufactures but their components are difficult to locate and usually expensive. When you consider that each of these manufactures has several different components to choose from, the possible component combinations begin to become mind numbing. However, if the reloader takes the mountain climbing approach (start at the bottom and work your way up) the task can be conquered.

In the world of components “bottom” is the hull. When choosing a shotshell consider the following three factors: 1. Price, 2. The number and type of recipes that the shell can handle, and 3. The performance of the shell type in your shotgun.

Most serious reloaders prefer Winchester AA or Activ hulls for reloading. However, hulls are the costliest component of a shotshell. This investment can be reduced substantially or completely eliminated by friends and fellow shooters. The simple fact is the vast majority of shooters/hunters do not reload. Most of these shooters/hunters leave their empties lying in the field or at the range where they land. However, many will be kind enough to let you retrieve their empties or even collect them and give them to you.

A dove hunt or clay target shootathon in the country is a great way to acquire empty hulls. The vast majority of the guys that I hunt with shoot Remington Shur Shot Heavy Dove loads (Remington plastic hulls – sometimes called Unibody or RXP) that they buy at discount stores. When a hunt/shoot is over and the area has been policed for empties, trash, etc., I usually take home a big sack or two of Remington hulls. The Remington plastic and Winchester AA are very similar hulls. They both have a one piece internal plastic base wad. The Remington’s are usually green and the Winchester’s are usually red; other than that there is not a whole lot of difference between the two. I usually get seven reloads per hull.

The number and type of recipes that the hull can handle, is a major factor for obvious reasons. If you are planning on reloading pheasant loads but the hulls that you have are designed for target and light hunting loads then you have made a significant error, as low brass target/light hunting hulls do not do perform nearly as well with heavy field loads as high brass hulls. Choose a shell that is versatile, time proven, and able to handle what you have in mind.

The performance of the shell type in your shotgun, is also a major factor for obvious reasons. If your semi-auto jams when it is fed a diet of various 1 ounce shells then you should not consider reloading such loads.

Now that you have chosen a hull you can get on to choosing the rest of the components for your recipe. Again the primary factor is what do you want to do with the shell. Components for a dove load will be vastly different from a heavy turkey load. For the sake of discussion lets say that you are wanting to load a heavy dove/quail/clay target load in 12 gauge. That would mean 1 1/8 ounces of shot and a velocity of around 1255 fps (the equivalent of Federal’s Field Load, Remington’s Shur Shot Heavy Dove Load and Winchester’s Heavy Dove Load). Checking your reloading manual you note that there are more than a dozen recipes with more than two dozen components to choose from that deliver 1 1/8 oz shot 1255 fps or 1250 fps in a Remington plastic hull. Now, what do you choose next – primer, powder, or wad? The answer is powder.

Powder is to shotshells what gasoline is to cars. Unfortunately there are almost as many to choose from. Currently Dupont offers six types, Alliant seven types, Hodgdon four types, and Winchester six types of shotshell powders. That’s over 20 types to choose from! Fortunately the load that you are wanting will eliminate many of the powders from consideration. Rather than discuss the pros and cons of each powder, I will limit the discussion to what the different types will do for you.

Generally the manufactures all offer at least one fast burning powder that are useful in light field loads and target loads. Dupont manufactures “HI-SKOR” 700-X and “HI-SKOR”800-X, Alliant makes Bullseye and Red Dot, Hodgdon produces Trap 100, and Winchester manufactures WST and WSL.

These powders leave less residue in your gun and, therefore, result in fewer malfunctions. You can shoot 100 shells loaded with these powders and your barrel will be almost as clean as when you started. They also do not “kick” as much or require as much powder per shell as compared to the powders designed for heavy field and magnum loads, thus enabling the reloader to load more shells per pound of powder. The one major drawback for the fast burning powders is that they are not suitable for heavy field and magnum loads.

For heavy field and target loads, the manufactures produce slightly less fast burning powders. These medium burning powders include Dupont’s PB, Alliant’s Green Dot and Unique, Hodgdon’s HS-6, and Winchester’s WSF. These powders leave more residue (resulting in more jamming in autoloaders), kick more and require more powder per shell than the fast burning powders mentioned above. However, they enable the reloader to load a heavier load than the fast burning powders are capable of producing.

The manufactures also produce powders that are designed for the heaviest field and magnum loads only. These slow burning powders include Dupont’s SR 7625 and SR 4756, Alliant’s Herco and Blue Dot, Hodgdon’s HS-7, and Winchester’s 540 and 571. These powders leave a lot of residue, make guns kick like mules, and require lots of powder per shell. However, they are the wisest considerations for large game birds.

Going back to our goal of loading a heavy dove load. Our powders are whittled down to Dupont PB and SR 7625, Hodgdon HS-6 and HS-7, Alliant’s Unique and Herco, and Winchester’s WSF and 540 (now we only have eight to choose from). The choices can be further reduced by choosing the faster powders that offer less recoil, less residue, and require less powder per shell. This still leaves PB, HS-6, Unique and WSF. All of these are excellent medium speed powders, although there are fewer applications for HS-6. My advice here would be to experiment with the various powders (using a proper recipe, of course) to determine which powder does the best job for you. I have been reloading with Alliant Unique for years and will continue to do so. Unique is their middle of the line powder. It delivers consistent patterns and is the most economical in it’s class. It is also relatively clean burning. There are 1, 1 1/8, and 1 1/4 ounce recipes for it.

The rest of the component selection is fairly easy. For shot, regardless of which brand you choose, get magnum shot. This shot is harder (and is rounder with less deformities) and delivers more consistent and tighter patterns than soft lead shot. It’s only about $2.00 a bag more. I buy either 8 or 7 1/2 magnum shot (I’ll use the latter if I’m going to be hunting a lot of whitewing dove). Magnum shot is harder and delivers more consistent patterns. As for the brand, as far as I’m concerned, shot is shot.

The same can be said about primers. There is not a whole lot of difference between the various choices. Remington primers tend to be a little smaller than their competitors so be careful using Remington primers in non-Remington hulls. The primer may actually fall out! For primers, I let the powder and the amount of powder make my decision for me. For example if one recipe calls for 24.0 grains of Unique and a Remington 209 primer and another recipe calls for 22.0 grains of Unique and a Federal 209 primer (both loads have a velocity of 1255 fps), I would go with the 22.0 grain load due to the fact that I will get more shells for my bucks and less kick (because of less powder).

Of course there are fine points that the knowledgeable reloader should know. Some interesting facts include: CCI 109 and 209 primers are interchangeable (the only difference being the 109 is plated to protect from the elements and is a little more expensive), some primers are larger than others and reduce the amount of powder that can be placed in the shell and some primers are “hotter” than others (designed for magnum loads).

Wads are also not a major consideration. I prefer the Federal, Remington and Winchester one piece wads. These wads almost always remain intact during their flight down the barrel and, therefore, protect the barrel from being damaged by the lead shot. They also provide consistent patterns and shot strings by acting as a shock absorber. Avoid “card” style fiber or paper wads if at all possible.

Now that you have all the pieces of the puzzle, it’s time to put it together. Buy in quantity (like at Sam’s). It’s much cheaper that way. For the curious, the load that I use (and have used for at least the last 15 years) is as follows: 12 gauge Remington plastic Unibody (RXP) hulls (black or green that I acquire from friends and by picking up my own empties), 24.0 grains of Alliant Unique powder (MEC bushing #35), Remington 209 primers, Remington RXP12 wads, and All American magnum 8 or 7 1/2 shot. The load delivers 1 1/8 ounces of shot at 1255 fps which is the equivalent of the Federal Field Load, Remington Shur Shot Heavy Dove Load, and Winchester Heavy Dove Load. In addition to being a great dove and quail load it is also a great trap, skeet, and sporting clays load.

For manuals, I recommend The Handbook of Shotshell Reloading by Kenneth W. Cougar. Dupont, Alliant, and Winchester offer free small reloading components catalogs but they have considerably less information than a reloading manual. It’s also a good idea to purchase a good powder scale because powder bushings/bars are not always 100% accurate.

I hope that this article clears up some of the confusion on shotshell reloading. It was not intended to be all inclusive but as a basis tool to help you get started. Remember always think safety first, never exceed the recipe’s recommendations for the amount of powder, and never create your own recipes or substitute components in a recipe (the results can be explosive). I will be happy to further discuss your own particular scenario with you.

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