Before Plastic, There was Paper and Brass

Shotgun Shells and Wad Columns

Until the introduction of plastic shotgun shell by Remington Arms in 1960, paper had been the material of choice for the manufacture of shotgun shells for almost a hundred years.

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Made from a wax impregnated paper tube fastened to a case head made of brass, a paper shotgun shell casing was considerably cheaper and easier to manufacture than the other alternative available at the time, the all brass case.

photo of old paper shotgun shells

From Left to Right - 410 ga 2 1/2 inch paper shell, 20 ga, 12 ga low brass, 12 ga high brass, Winchester brass 00 Buckshot load.

Originally paper shells were rolled crimped. A disc of cardboard would be placed over the shot and a tool would be used to crease the end of the tube to seal the shell. Today the folded crimp is used on virtually all paper or plastic shotgun cartridges except for some slug loads.

Cut away view of old design paper shell with roll crimp
1. Over shot card
2. Lead Pellets
3. Wad column
4. Powder charge
5. Brass base with paper basewad

Papershells and Moisture

One of the greatest drawbacks of paper shell casings is their tendency to absorb moisture and swell when they get wet or are stored in a humid area for long periods of time. Sometimes they will even swell to the point where the cartridge will no longer chamber in a firearm.
There is also a tendency for the primers in paper cases to lose some of their potency as well when exposed to wet conditions.

A case in point, a few years ago, I purchased a mixed bag of a few dozen 12 gauge paper cartridges along with some other reloading components from an estate. These dust covered shells had been kept in an large coffee can in a damp basement for some time, perhaps even a few decades. Of the eight loaded shells that I tried to fire, only two went off. Outwardly these cartridges were unblemished and appeared to be in very good shape. However when I cut them open to salvage the shot, I found that the lead pellets had a heavy white patina of lead carbonate, indicative of long exposure to damp conditions.

Should you ever have the opportunity to purchase any old pre-owned paper ammunition you should do so with only the expectation of salvaging the lead shot or for its value as a collectible.

Seen by many as a quaint curiousity of a bygone era, shotgun loads using paper hulls are still manufactured today by Federal and Fiocchi for clay target shooting. Despite their drawbacks, there are still a number of shooters who believe that paper shells produce less felt recoil than the same dram equivalent load in plastic. I have used both paper and plastic 12 gauge ammunition and I have never been able to discern any difference in terms of recoil produced but that is just me.

The Why of High Brass and Low Brass Case Heads for Shotgun Shells

When smokeless powder came into widespread use for loading shotgun ammunition, it was observed that the sharper pressure curve of the new propellent was causing the paper tubes of shotgun shells to sometimes separate from the brass case head when the shell was fired. It was found by Winchester that adding corrugations to the brass head would allow for expansion of the case head and prevent the paper tube from detaching. In addition the brass case heads were lengthened for some the heavy game loads of the time to give more support to the casing .

Cutaway view of Winchester 12 gauge paper rifled slug load and Remington paper buckshot load

Pictured here on the left are a highbrass Winchester Super X and Cutaway Winchester Western Rifled Slug Load. While labeled differently both have the same constructions. A thin cup shaped waxed overpowder wad with two thick wood fiber wads are used. The projectile is a one ounce hollow base rifled slug.
On the right handside of the image is a green ribbed Remington paper buckshot load which uses a much thicker overpowder wad made of resin impregrenated felt and a second felt filler wad.

Top view of Winchester 12 gauge paper rifled slug load and Remington paper buckshot load

While outwardly the cartridges pictured here appeared to be in good condition, the white corrosion on the lead is a tell tale sign moisture within the shotgun hull.

Todays plastic shells have a much greater tensile strength than paper hulls of the past so that there is no real difference in strength between high and low brass cases for a given brand. However the public perception is that high power loads will have a high brass case head and so manufacturers still use high brass case heads on shells for their high power and magnum loads to comply with this perception.

Cut Shells - The Poor Mans Shotgun Slug

A sometimes discussed technique for hunting big game with inexpensive bird shot loads is the use of "Cut Shells". Hunters would take ordinary game loads containing bird shot and using a very sharp knife, they would partially cut around the circumference of the shell between the wads of the wad column leaving only enough paper uncut so that the cartridge could still be loaded intact into the chamber of a shotgun. When fired the pressure from the propellent would cause the top half the shell to detach, causing it to be propelled as a single projectile similar in effect to a shotgun slug.

Known as a "whistler" or "zinger", this actually is not an infrequent albeit an unintentional occurence on the skeet field particularly with 410 and 28 gauge shells which have been reloaded one too many times.

The use of cut shells grew in popularity and in gun folklore during the Great Depression but the technique appears to have been in use for some time before then. In the book, Guns and Gunning published in 1908, author Bellmore Brown goes into a great deal of detail about the method which he refers to as split shells. He also cautions against using these modified shells in a tightly choked shotgun. The illustration on the left which was taken from that book shows approximately where to make the perforations.

Edward Crossman in an article entitled "Blowing Up Your Gun" published in 1917 suggested that there is about an equal chance of success or blowing off the end of your shotgun barrel.

Personally, though I have never tried it seems to me that it would be a short range proposition at best, perhaps up to 25 yards. Hardly worth damaging a good shotgun or myself just to satisfy my curiosity.


1. "The Why of Corrugations" Outing Magazine Nov. 1919 p. 106 Google Books
2. Edward C. Crossman "Blowing Up Your Gun" Illustrated World Sep. 1917 p. 142 Google Books
3. Bellmore H. Brown "Guns and Gunning" J. Stevens Arms & Tool Co. 1908 p.35-36 Google Books