feature By: Terry Wieland | February, 20
The U.S. is now at the tail end of a remarkable 40-year period that saw the renaissance of the side-by-side shotgun. It began in 1981 with the publication of The Best Shotguns Ever Made in America by Michael McIntosh. It continued through the resurrection of great American guns like the Parker and Fox in the 1990s, and on into the wholesale importation of thousands of older British guns with names like Purdey, Boss and Holland & Holland.
This odyssey, admirable on the whole, was accompanied by the usual perversions of exorbitant prices, extravagant claims, a little outright fraud and not least, the butchering of many fine guns in order to accommodate perceived “American tastes.”
One of the manifestations of the latter was lengthening chambers of English 12 bores from their standard 2.5 inches (2½) to our 2.75 inches (2¾). In the 1990s, sellers could charge a premium for a gun with longer chambers; today, however, it’s considered a mistake and such a gun brings less money. This change of attitude reflected two facts: Knowledgeable shooters had discovered the joys of shooting original English loads in their original English guns, and 2½-inch cartridges had become available from a half-dozen sources, both imported and domestic, largely eliminating the convenience factor.
Equally important for those who like to shoot a lot, data for reloading 2½-inch shotshells as well as the wherewithal to do so – hulls and wads – had also become widely available.
Today, we are facing a different situation. As far as old side-by-sides go, the bloom is off the rose, prices have dropped back (drastically, in some instances) and demand for cartridges to shoot in vintage guns has declined. A quick search for 2½-inch 12-gauge loads revealed only two: Kent Elite low-recoil, low-noise, and several varieties from RST. Not only does this mean the shooter of factory ammunition has fewer choices, it also means there are fewer suitable hulls for reloading. Since using fired hulls is a major economic factor in reloading shotshells, this is no small thing.
A handloader might ask, if this is the case, why not just go ahead and lengthen the chamber of any shotgun where it’s safe to do so, and be done with it? There are several reasons not to. First, it would put the gun out of proof unless it was returned to England, at great expense, to have that done, and the alteration will almost certainly reduce its value. Second and more important, the gun might very well not shoot as well as it used to.
A case in point: In 1994 I bought a Joseph Lang double with lengthened chambers. Even with mild 2¾-inch loads, the two barrels did not shoot together. Only when I found some 2½-inch cartridges comparable to those with which it had been regulated did the gun perform the way it was intended. This doesn’t happen in every case, but it happens often enough and there is no way of knowing in advance. Having barrels re-regulated is no cheap or easy fix even if you can find a gunsmith qualified to do it. This is something to keep in mind, too, when buying a shotgun with chambers that have already been lengthened.
Is there a ballistic advantage in the longer American cases with heavier powder charges and heftier pay loads? That’s debatable at best, but the answer is absolutely not if the shot does not go where it’s supposed to. Nor will it be an improvement if the patterns are poor.
The English rule is that for tolerable recoil, a gun should weigh 96 times the weight of its shot charge. A one-ounce load matches a 6-pound (96-ounce) gun. The English standard 11⁄16-ounce load calls for a gun that weighs 6 pounds, 6 ounces, and 11⁄8 ounce translates to 6 pounds, 12 ounces.
Every year, a group of friends gather in South Dakota to hunt wild pheasants on private land. We all shoot older English guns, and we all use either Eley shotshells (no longer, being imported) or delve into our remaining hoard of B&P High Pheasant ammunition (also no longer available) loaded with one ounce of No. 7 shot at 1,160 fps. When we hit them, they drop; when we miss, they fly on. These are wild birds, not pen-raised. A pheasant is not a pterodactyl. No hunter needs a super-magnum to drop a pheasant, or any other upland bird, for that matter. As for pen-raised quail, chukars and the like, an ounce of No. 7s does the job admirably.
Along with the dearth of both 2½-inch loaded ammunition and empty hulls, there is also a shortage of components and suitable loading data. As with any loading project, caution is demanded. Unlike metallic cartridge loading, where cases from different makers are mostly interchangeable, shotshell hulls are individualistic. They have different capacities, and this has to be taken into consideration along with the amount of space occupied by the wad, and all combined with the different burning rate,
Shotguns may work at much lower pressures than rifles, but you can’t play fast and loose with a shotshell any more than you can with a .270 Winchester. When it comes to older guns, whether American or foreign, there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by subjecting them to undue stress.
The solution seemed to be some new data. Ron Reiber at Hodgdon offered to work up some suitable loads for me using hulls I had available. I sent him 40 of each kind, and about two weeks later, back came the data for loads tailor-made to the older English guns for which I needed them.
The hulls I sent were from RST, Kent and some of my treasured B&P High Pheasants. I can’t bring myself to throw these away, and this hoarding paid off since I can now load the hundreds I have squirreled away. The RST hulls are actually made by Cheddite (France), and the Kent hulls have exactly the same capacity. The loads published here for RST-Cheddites can be used for either. This super-light Kent ammunition is readily available, inexpensive and high quality, so buying some and then reusing the hulls makes excellent sense.
According to Hodgdon, the best – in fact, the only – suitable wad for the purpose is one from Ballistic Products, made by Gualandi in Italy. It’s called the CS12S Comp Special Short.
Load development was carried out with both Fiocchi 616 and Cheddite CX2000 primers, but with no American-made primer. Why? Because the European primers are of slightly larger diameter than American brands. They not only fit the European primer pockets better, they also make a snug fit in hulls that have been reused several times.
With the data from Hodgdon in hand, I went looking for components. The wad was out of stock at Ballistic Products, except in cartons of 5,000 – gulp. It’s only money, and even including the shipping it reduced my unit cost and now I won’t have to worry for quite a while. Fiocchi primers were readily available, but Cheddites were out of stock everywhere except a company in Kansas called Powder Valley, Inc. I ordered 2,000. Including the hazmat fee and shipping, it came to about $76, but when you need something, you need it.
The foregoing highlights a great truth about loading any old cartridges, not just 2½-inch 12 gauge. When you do manage to find something that is not normally readily available, it pays to lay in a supply. In the case of primers, the shipping and hazmat fee is the same whether you buy 100 or 5,000. Since primers don’t go bad given reasonable care, you may as well get a bunch.
Hodgdon also determined that of its powders, Universal was the best for my purposes. Since it’s available in 8-pound containers, that problem solved itself.
I asked Ron Reiber to outline the process of shotshell load development used at Hodgdon, one that he developed for the company some years ago:
1. Choose cases.
2. Choose appropriate primers for the cases being used. Foreign cases require foreign primers due to difference in diameter versus American primers.
3. Choose wads designed expressly for 2½-inch shells and chosen shot weights.
4. Choose powder(s) of correct burn rate for 2½-inch cases.
5. With the use of a pressure gun, find the maximum load and minimum load, then through linear regression, calculate in-between loads in even velocity increments.
6. Follow this procedure for all combinations of cases, primers and wads with the chosen shot weights.
Reiber then added a personal warning:
“This procedure can only be done with the use of a pressure gun. Shotshell pressures do not show up by simply starting low and working up. Case head pressure signs appear too late for a safe load to be developed, leaving both the gun and personal safety at risk.
“The consumer should use data EXACTLY as shown, with absolutely no substitutions! If he stays within the range of loads listed, he will be safe at all times.”
For testing purposes, I set up a MEC Sizemaster with MEC’s adapter kit for shorter shotshells. All three cases use a six-segment pie crimp, which is an easy switch of crimp starters. I loaded sample rounds of four different loads; two were one ounce, two were 7⁄8 ounce; two used Cheddite primers, two used Fiocchi. The one-ounce loads used No. 71⁄2 shot and the 7⁄8-ounce loads contained No. 8s. That gives approximately the same number of pellets in each case. The only discernible difference was that I got 12.5 percent more loads from a bag of No. 8s. Given the cost (and cost of shipping) of lead shot, that can be significant.
By and large, recoil was negligible with all loads, and when I hit the clay, they broke it. All of them left a noticeable amount of residue in the barrels, which turned out to be mostly unburned powder. According to Ron Reiber, this is to be expected using a slow-burning powder like Universal, but that is what they had to use to develop such low-pressure loads.
When reloading, there was a noticeable difference between the two charge weights. Neither fills the case to the point where you get a really tight crimp, so getting a good crimp is tricky, especially with the smaller shot charge. Crimps tended to “dish” down into the shot. I suggested using a thin over-shot wad to help take up the space and provide some resistance to the crimp. This would also increase pressure slightly and promote more complete burning of the powder, but Reiber vetoed it on the grounds that it would not accomplish much and might adversely affect the pattern.
Other than those minor problems, the loads I tried all worked like a charm. As well, with such low pressures the hulls looked like they could be loaded and reloaded almost indefinitely. The loads were tried in three different guns, a Charles Lancaster from 1891 with 30-inch Damascus barrels; an E.M. Reilly from about 1895, also with 30-inch Damascus barrels; and a W.J. Jeffery from between the wars with 28-inch fluid-steel barrels. None have recoil pads, all weigh in the 6.5-pound range, and shooting in hot weather with T-shirts, we fired box after box after box. Recoil? There was none to speak of. The shooting was pure as befits such thoroughbred guns.