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Developing Effective Handgun Shotshells

Handgun shotshells are more complicated than one might think. Developing them brought many challenges, and handloading them brings even more.

Developing Effective Handgun Shotshells
Pests can be problematic, and handgun shotshells are an excellent answer at short ranges.

My predecessor at Speer, the late Dave Andrews, used to hunt upland birds in the Snake River Canyon with his buddies. An Idaho state pistol champ, Dave usually packed a custom Colt Government Model, but one day he showed up with an “entry-level” S&W .38 Special revolver on his hip.

In camp, Dave finished a soda and conspicuously examined the empty can. When he had everyone’s attention, he tossed the can in the air, whipped out the revolver, and fired. The can sailed away, obviously hit. His friends tried to play unimpressed.

About 20 minutes later, Dave repeated the feat with another can. Someone found the cans. They were peppered with little holes and dents. The then-new CCI/Speer handgun shotshell line had gone public.

Centerfire handgun shotshells were neither new nor effective and virtually disappeared after World War II. In the early 1970s, Speer developed a better version but faced the real challenges of keeping the powder gases behind the payload, achieving a useable volume of pellets, creating a capsule that allowed reliable pellet dispersal, and achieving acceptable patterning from rifled barrels.

One factor made the first three items possible: Vernon Speer’s earlier decision to invest in plastic injection-molding equipment. It handled flexible plastics like polyethylene and rigid ones like polystyrene. A skirted over-powder wad of flexible plastic created an excellent gas seal, thereby addressing the first challenge.

Maximizing pellet volume without inventing a special cartridge case was fairly easy. We needed a capsule that hangs outside the case while not exceeding max cartridge length and that allowed a respectable volume of No. 9 shot. The base wad snapped into the capsule.

Material for the main body of the capsule was the greatest challenge. It had to contain the pellets and survive manufacturing and handling but break against the rifling on firing to release the pellets. It also had to stay in large enough pieces to reduce pellets scuffing in-bore. In-house molding gear let the team test many varieties of rigid plastics to find one that worked.

Achieving acceptable patterns was strictly ballistic—shot size and velocity. The faster a capsule goes down a rifled barrel, the faster it spins its payload. Too much spin slings the pellets into a wider pattern. No. 9 shot and a velocity around 1,000 fps from a 6-inch barrel proved the break point for acceptable grouping in the fastest revolver twist rates of the time.

Later, Speer added .44 Special/.44 Magnum and .45 Colt and non-capsule shot loads for .45 ACP and .40 S&W, all loaded with No. 9 shot. There is also a capsuled load for 9mm Luger loaded with No. 12 shot. Velocity exceptions are the versions for semiautomatic pistols. These shotshells are loaded faster than 1,000 fps to achieve semiauto function with light projectiles.

Speer also sells empty shot capsules to handloaders, leading to some interesting variants, including one that the team informally tested during the development stage.

Bullet swage dies have a bleed-hole releasing excess lead called “sprue,” soft wire about 0.040 inch in diameter. Manufacturers have bins full of it. Some of the team cut sprue to lengths that would completely fill a .38/.357 capsule, leaving room for the base wad. Techs reported that at 10 feet, these made one very ragged hole—4 to 6 inches across. The dense cloud of twisted wire cleared everything out. So why not sell it? Easy: cost. Wire-filled capsules had to be tediously hand-assembled, making this “super-shedder” load prohibitively expensive.

A friend handloaded .38 Special Speer capsules with three No. 3 buckshot pellets and asked me to pattern them. They put all three balls into roughly an 8-inch circle at 20 feet. Interesting to be sure, but the launch velocity was about 900 fps, and each No. 3 buck pellet weighs only about 24 grains. That’s under .22 Short performance per pellet.


Another benefit of empty capsules is that users needing larger shot sizes (more penetration) can handload them accordingly. Those who don’t handload can now buy CCI/Speer shotshell ammo factory-loaded with No. 4 shot. Called “Big 4,” these are available in 9mm Luger, .38 Spl./.357 Magnum, .44 Spl./.44 Magnum, and .45 Colt.

Empty capsules mean you can make effective shot loads where such factory loads are not available. A friend used .38 Spl. capsules to make shot loads for his British Enfield revolver chambered for the .380 Revolver cartridge (.38 S&W). My next project is to use .45 Colt capsules to make .45 Auto Rim shot loads for my “custom-carry” S&W Model 25-2 revolver.

Handloading Tips

When creating shot loads for other cartridges, weigh the filled capsule and then look up load data for regular bullets of that weight. I achieve best patterns with fast-burning handgun propellants loaded close to the recommended start load.

Seat so the capsule faces are at least 0.125 inch short of the cylinder face as gas from one firing can break long-seated adjacent capsules. Depending on how “hot” your load is, you may need to seat deeper.

Separating seating and crimping operations is a must for shot capsules unless you enjoy dozens of little pellets underfoot around your workbench. A taper-crimp die works very well for this. Just don’t get carried away.

Now for a section I call “The Truth Is Out There, But Not Always on the Internet.” Researching for this column, I found some internet forum posts saying that one needed to glue the capsule to the case to get it to stay. Others say they use finger pressure to seat them and that capsules are bore, not groove, diameter. In reality, they are in-between for best patterning. I just measured some, and the .38/.357 capsules are 0.352 inch. Minimum bore diameter of a .38 Spl. is 0.346 inch; .45 Colt capsules measure 0.448 inch, and the minimum bore diameter for that cartridge is 0.442 inch.

I’ve seated hundreds of these capsules and never encountered these issues. If you have to reach for the glue or seat with your fingers, you are doing something wrong. I suspect those in the “glue and fingers” contingent are not resizing their cases. I recommend loading capsules in new cases or those cases that have been full-length resized for best results.

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