History of Brass Shotgun Shells

We don’t see them as often as we once did, but brass shotgun shells remain in the shooting world as a novelty for some, but a necessity for others.

If you have an odd gauge, heirloom shotgun, brass shells are often your only choice in finding ammunition to fire.

Brass Shotgun Shells History

Brass shotgun shells had a brief history in the bird hunting world. They replaced muzzle loaded shells beginning in the late 19th century.

Hollywood is famous for its portrayal of guns in films. There is a scene in the movie McClintock where John Wayne’s character is seen hunting pheasants and reloading brass shells. They were the preferred choice of shotgun ammunition

Brass shells were uniform, compared to early paper shotgun shells. The untreated shells of the 19th century tended to absorb moisture and swell, making them impossible to load.

That extra moisture they often absorbed from the surrounding ambient air, dampened the powder inside and often led to dud shells.

As technology advanced, waxed coatings on the paper shells solved most of the water problems. But over time, they could still swell and dampen the powder.

A friend’s uncle ran a Minnesota shooting club. After a trip home to Minnesota, Frank brought back two dozen boxes of 12-gauge shells that have been used for clay shooting at the club.

They were a tight fit inside my single-shot Iver Johnson, and most of them fired just fine, but about every fifth or sixth shell just made a slight pop as the primer fired, never igniting, or only partially igniting the powder.

The result was a load of lead shot dropping five to 10 feet from my shotgun. It fouled the barrel heavily too.

That’s why brass was such a better, more reliable option than paper shells when open breech shotgun firing boxed shells hit the market.

Are Brass Shotgun Shells Still Used?

They are still around with niche markets supplying brass hulls (a hull in an empty shotgun shell) and reloading supplies. You can still purchase them online, but they are made in limited runs by small, targeted manufacturers.

Some hunters prefer the elegance of a brass shell. It is a stark, unique image compared to the standard plastic coated shells most of us shoot.

Brass hulls, provide reloading enthusiasts the option of using the same shell dozens of times. You can’t reload plastic or paper shells more than a couple of times reliably unless you’re a reloading wizard who has figured out how to reduce the wear and tear on the business end of the shell.

Full brass shotgun shells can handle higher levels of powder than traditional shells, and can be custom loaded with the shot of the shooters’ choice.

At present, you can buy boxes of 12, 16, 20, and 28-gauge shells for about $40 per box.

That’s much more expensive than its plastic rival, but with reloading equipment, some pistol primers for the hull, along with powder and shot, you can reload shells on your own at a much reduced price.

Another interesting thing about brass shells is that archaic gauges like the 24, 32, and 40-gauge shotgun still have brass made for these antiquated gauges.

You’ll have to dig deeply on niche websites to find ready-to-fire shells in these sizes, but reloading suppliers carry the brass for you to load shells at home.

They even offer the smaller .410 in brass, and the obscure 40-90 Ballard. You’ll pay a substantially higher price for shells like these than traditional shells, but if you’re a collector, or have an heirloom shotgun in these obsolete sizes, it is your only option in ammunition.

Brass Shells vs Plastic Shells

Brass Shotgun Shells

In terms of performance, you’re not going to see any difference between brass and plastic shells. It’s not the hull material that determines the performance of a shell, but rather the primer, drams of powder, and shot the shell is loaded with.

A brass shell loaded with the identical configuration as a plastic shell shoots exactly the same. If your plastic shell delivers 1300 feet per second with the same combination of primer, powder and load as a brass competitor, it will pepper a 30 inch target at 50-yards with the same amount of pellets.

High Brass vs Low Brass

Shot gun shells need a metallic base to set the primer in, and a secure mounting for the plastic or paper shell attached to it.

The most common metal for this important function is brass, but you can find shells made with steel bases too.

Brass is preferred because it was the first metal to be used for shotgun shell bases and took the market. Steel based shells work just fine, but they’re never made the inroads into the shooting market that brass shells have.

With plastic or paper shells you’ll encounter the terms, “low brass” and “high brass.” They’re not talking about trombones or trumpets, but rather the level of brass on a shotgun shell.

Brass works to contain the explosion of powder after the firing pin on your shotgun hits the primer, starting the explosive sequence that will send pellets screaming out of the end of your barrel.

Low Brass

The higher the level of brass, the more drams of powder it can hold and the higher the explosive charge driving the wading which propels the pellets out of the gun.

It’s easy to see the difference. A low brass shell has just a slight rim of brass at the base and is primarily plastic.

Low brass can have just a quarter-inch of brass on the base and two to three inches of plastic hull depending on the length of the shotgun shell.

You’ll find low brass shells at gun clubs, loaded with 7 ½ or 8 lead shot. They’re cheap, have the range for clay shooting, and are reliable.

  • Less expensive
  • Good for target shooting
  • Less powerful
  • Not good for larger game birds

High Brass

High brass can handle more powerful explosions from greater amounts of gunpowder. They have shiny brass bases extending to an inch or slightly more. They cost more than low brass shells as well, since brass costs more than plastic, and the level of powder inside is higher, so it costs more to load the shell.

If you’re a turkey or good hunter, you’ll want high brass, with heavy #2, BB, T-shot, or buckshot loads. Pheasant and duck hunters prefer high brass in #4 or #6.

An old hunter’s trick to cut down on cost while retaining performance is to load the first shell in the magazine with a high brass shell, loaded with a shell a size or two larger than the other two shells you slide into the magazine.

The first two can be low brass, smaller pellet size since the birds you aim at are close and these lighter energy shells will do the job at close range.

If you’re using a pump or semi-automatic, you can get three shots off if you’re quick with your gun. That final shot, the one with the high brass, heavier pellets increases the effective range since the birds will be rapidly flying away from you.

  • More powerful
  • Larger pellet size
  • Good for large game birds
  • Good for deer hunting with slugs
  • More expensive

Final Thoughts

There is a pleasing sensation when firing brass shells. It’s a link to the past, with an elegant appearance that separates you and your gun from the other hunters or shooters you’re enjoying the day with.

They can be a conversation piece in 12, 16, 20 and 28-gauge shotguns, or an absolute necessity if you own an obscure gauge like the 24, 32 or 40.

A final note is that some serious, long-range goose hunters load those monstrous four-inch 10-gauge shells made of brass with number four buckshot, or BB loads.

The extra powder and heavy shot increase the range of a 10-gauge equipped this way well beyond any load a 12-gauge can deliver.

Brass shells still retain their utility long after they were first invented.

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