Black Powder Shotgun Shells

The conventional shotgun cartridge is designed for black powder. It was invented around 1870 when black powder was the only kind of gunpowder that anyone had ever heard of. They didn't even call it "black" powder. It works just fine with black powder, and can still be loaded with black powder today. Here is how.

This Web page is not a complete treatise on reloading and is only about the unique problems caused by substituting black powder for smokeless powder in shotgun shells. The reader is assumed to be familiar with the tools and procedures for loading modern shells.

The main problems with black powder relative to smokeless powder are:

Cutaway view of shotgun cartridge. Black Powder is a simple mixture of potassium nitrate, sulphur, and charcoal. The proper granulation is named 'ffg'. It is also called '2F'. Anything finer is dangerous because it burns too quick and the pressure climbs too high. Courser granulation burns too slow. Buy black powder from muzzle loader dealers. Most general gun shops do not stock it anymore; keep shopping. Some brands of powder will produce little red-orange beads of molten sulphur that melt small holes clear through a plastic case. Try another.

Now we have digital cameras with "35mm equivalent" lenses. Will it take us another 100 years to stop doing that?
Modern factory loads are often labeled in 'drams equivalent'. That means that whatever charge of whatever kind of smokeless powder is in there is supposed to produce the same shot velocity as with so many drams of black powder. The peak gas pressure is not the same and nether is the pressure curve.

The avoirdupois dram is the unit of weight used to measure black powder. There are 256 drams in a pound avoirdupois, 16 drams in an ounce, and 7000 grains in a pound. Take care not to confuse 'dram' with 'drachm' or 'dram apothecaries' which are not the same things at all.

1 ounce = 16 drams = 437.5 grains.
1 dram = 27.34375 grains = 1.772 grams.
1 gram = 15.432 grains = 0.564 drams.

Conversion Table
3 1/8855.53
3 1/4895.76
3 1/2966.20
3 3/41036.64

Charge Table
Adapted from various old books and catalogs
.41025 grains3/82 inch shell
.41030 grains1/221/2 inch shell
.41035 grains5/83 inch shell
281 1/23/4 
202 1/47/8 
202 1/21 
162 1/21Light
162 3/41Normal
1631 1/8Heavy
126Blank1 thin card wad over powder; nothing else
122 1/21Light
1231 1/8Normal
123 1/21 1/4Heavy
108Blank1 thin card wad over powder; nothing else
1041 1/4Normal
104 1/21 1/2Heavy
812Blank1 thin card wad over powder; nothing else

Blanks loaded this way are plenty loud; actually too loud to be realistic. The thin wad is just to avoid spilling the powder. No confinement is necessary or desired. Only real black powder will work; the modern substitutes will not burn fast enough at low pressure. Even with no projectile blanks are dangerous at short range so be careful.

Here is what to do if you take a notion to exceed these loads: FORGET IT.
If you want modern magnum ballistics you go buy a modern magnum gun and leave the old guns alone.

Many of the loads above were swiped from the 1894 Sears Catalog and from the 1903 Sears Catalog.

Powder Density I made a cylindrical powder measure with a depth of 1.000 inch, a diameter of 1.128 inches, and a volume of one cubic inch. I measured and weighed all the powders I could get ahold of, and measured some power dippers.

Density of Black Powder
PowderSizeGrains per
cubic inch
GOEXCtg252Surprisingly Dense
FFFFg23270 years old and good as new

242Antique powder dipper
2481970's T/C powder measure

Quite a variation. That is why you measure powder by weight and not by volume. The average seems high to me; 235 is the value that I would likely use when making a powder measure.

Chamber Length. Many old guns have short chambers. You will have to trim the modern shells to fit. If a long shell is fired in a short chamber there will not be room for the mouth of the case to open and the pressure will increase dangerously. Shells are measured while open; not when crimped. Old barrels are seldom marked with the chamber length; you must measure them to find out. The modern 2 ¾ inch shells were introduced in the 1920's along with the star crimp.

Forward Chamber Diameters

Some of the common chamber lengths were:

To measure the length of a 12 gauge chamber make a metal bar 0.798 inches in diameter; the size of the forward end of the chamber; and about 3 inches long. Slide it into the chamber and measure how far it goes in relative to the breech face. Round that down to the nearest standard size. Don't guess! Consult a gunsmith if you can not perform this absolutely indispensable step by yourself.

The table gives the chamber diameters at the forward end, just where the mouth of the shell lies after firing. These are the modern minimum SAAMI dimensions.

A simple chamber length gauge may also be made from a bit of heavy sheet metal. This one is double ended; the pictured side is 12 gauge and the other side is for 16 gauge.

Also note that old shotguns often have chambers that are shaped differently from modern ones. Here is a Cerrosafe chamber cast of a Parker gun made in 1890. There is hardly any forcing cone; the chamber simply ends with an abrupt step at 2 5/8 inch just like a rifle chamber. It's diameter at the case mouth is right at the modern minimum of 0.798. This is meant for a brass shell.
Cerrosafe is a bismuth based alloy that melts at about 180°F. Just hold the barrel horizontal, clap a bit of wood at the breech with your fingers to make a dam, and pour it right in. Avoid the extractor. This makes a nice cast image of one side of the chamber and you can see the reamer marks and rust pits and everything. Get it at

Standard Bore Sizes
Lead = 709 lbs/ft³

Bore Size. The table shows the nominal bore sizes of the various gauges.

The gauge number is the number of bore sized lead spheres in a pound. (.410 is the only common exception.) This is a holdover from the old days before good micrometers were invented. They could make lead balls that were pretty near round and they could count them and weigh them but they had a hard time measuring them accurately. A 12 gauge gun takes a ball that weighs 1/12 of a pound; a 16 gauge takes a one ounce ball. You can shoot round balls in a cylinder bored shotgun but don't try it with a choked bore because the ball will stick in the muzzle and that would be very bad.

Modern guns usually have bores that are very close to the correct size but you cannot count on old guns being bored right. Even when they were made right when new they might have grown later. It was common practice to re bore guns that had leaded or rusted bores in order to improve their shooting. A choke could be added to a non choked gun by boring it out and leaving the muzzle the original size.

Re boring thins the barrel walls and weakens it. In Europe a gun that had been re bored had go to straight the Proof House for test firing before it could be returned to it's owner.

Sometimes a gun will be found with bores that are actually undersize. English 12 gauge guns are sometimes found with 13 gauge bores, and marked that way by the Proof House.

So it is important to measure the actual bore size of any old gun before deciding whether to fire it or not. If it is much over size then don't shoot it. The modern SAAMI tolerance is 0.020 inch oversize.

Proof Marks. Most of the large European countries have proof laws. Birmingham definitave Black Powder proof mark. B=Birmingham P=Proof New or repaired guns must be submitted to the official proof house where they are fired with very heavy charges. Those that do not happen blow up are given Proof Marks. They can tell you all sorts of things about where and when the gun was made and what sort of load it was designed for and sometimes even the original bore diameter and chamber length. The decipherment of proof marks is a very large subject and if your gun has any you really should get the book The Standard Dictionary of Proof Marks by Wirnsberger and read up on them.
The Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House is still in operation and on The Web.

The United States does not have a proof law; each factory has it's own private marks but they are boring and no where near as elaborate as the European ones.

Plastic Shells. Plastic shells get sort of melted on the inside when fired with black powder and will not take a crimp after about 2 or 3 firings. Just accept it and throw them away. Paper shells work fine; they were originally designed for black powder.
I normally use plastic. It is easier to obtain and is easier to trim and crimp.

Plastic Shell Trimming trick. Make a brass disk 0.25 thick and 0.72 inch diameter (for 12 Gauge). Drill and tap it with a ¼ x 20 screw thread. The soft metal is so it does not scratch up your knife.
A brass disk with a threaded hole in it. Ram it down on top of the over shot wad in an untrimmed plastic shell. Hold the assembled shell tight in one hand and with your other hand run a sharp pen knife around the case flush with the disk. The blade lies flat on the disk and your thumb slides on the outside of the case to guide it. It is sort of like peeling an orange. Check the shell length to make sure it is correct for the chamber.
Thread a ¼ inch stove bolt into the disk and pop it out leaving the over shot wad in place with ¼ inch of excess case. It is now ready for a roll crimp.

Solid Brass Shells. These used to be popular as they last dozens of firings and are easy to load with simple tools. I have not actually loaded any brass shells but here is what I have read:
In Shotgun Digest by Robert Stack ISBN 0-695-80497-9 there is a so-so 10 page chapter (mostly pictures) entitled "Brass Ain't Crass".
In The American Rifleman October 1964 page 32 there is a much better 3 page article "Loading Brass Shotgun Shells". It describes the various brass shells that were available brand new in 1964 and the various primers to fit them. Tells how to seal the over shot wad with water glass (sodium silicate). This stuff is still sold in big drugstores as an egg preservative. Mix with 2 parts water and put it in with an eyedropper and let it dry. Alcan used to make special oversize wads just for brass cases; they don't any more, but Circle Fly does. Black power is mentioned like it is normal.
Here is that article as three .gif files:
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Here it is again in TIFF format which might be better for printing:
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If your web browser can't print these files and get them to fit on paper then you might try saving them to disk and printing them with some other program that can.

And here is another article from The Dope Bag of November 1931.

Here is a picture of a 12 ga Brass shell. The wall thickness is 0.011 - 0.012 inches and the length is 2.53 inches. Takes a Small Pistol primer. It has a balloon-head and there is no base wad so there is plenty of room inside.

You can make brass shells for the .410 shotgun by fire forming .303 British, .444 Marlin, or 9.3x74R rifle cases.

Low base wad. The 'base wad' is located down inside the shell around the primer. It has nothing at all to do with the amount of brass on the outside. A low base wad is desirable because it leaves more room for the black powder.

Primers. Black powder is extremely easy to ignite. Any old primer that fits the pocket will do. There will be no difficulties with poor ignition.

Wads. The modern plastic wads take up too much space in the shell so you will probably have to use the old fiber wads. Fiber wads can still be bought from dealers in muzzle loading supplies. High quality fiber wads can sometimes be obtained from Trap shooters who have long since converted to plastic but who could not bring themselves to throw them away.

Wad Pressure. Black Powder should be packed pretty tight but that is not critical. Even if left slightly loose it will not give 'squib loads' like smokeless sometimes will.

Roll Crimp. If there is sufficient space remaining in the case after the shot is added then just go ahead and use the modern star crimp. If the shot leaks out through a star crimp a nice trick is to stick a ¾ inch square of paper over the shot and then crimp over it. That will seal the case without spoiling the pattern.

Picture of an old hand-cranked shell crimper If the shell is too short for a star crimp you will have to use the old fashioned roll crimp. Get yourself an old roll crimp tool. This is a typically a little machine that clamps on the edge of a workbench. There is a chamber to hold the shell, a lever to press it in, and a crank to turn.

Crimpers can often be found in antique shops; they are about as common as parlor stereoscopes. The price seems to depend on whether or not the shop owner can figure out what the hell it is; an item labeled "Quaint Olde Tyme Vintage Tool" always seems to cost more than a "Shell Crimper". They can also be found on eBay. There is a separate size tool for each gauge.

The head of the Star Crimper made by Lyman can be chucked in a drill press.

Picture of an old Ideal shell crimper
Old Ideal shell crimper

A roll crimp requires a special over shot wad. It is made of thin but strong cardboard; strong enough to stand recoil in a double gun but thin enough that it will not spoil the pattern. This pattern spoiling is the main reason why modern shells use the star crimp. Stick the card wad over the shot and get it nice and level. There should be about 1/4 or 5/16 inches remaining in the case. Put the shell in the crimping tool and press it in with the lever. Turn the crank until a nice crimp is formed.

If you get a few bad crimps just load them in the right hand barrel and shoot them first. Save the good ones for the second shot. You don't want the crimp opening up under recoil and leaking shot down the bore.

Picture of ll old shells showing the wad labels
Wad Labels

Cases that have never been star crimped are easier to roll crimp. Shells that once held rifled slugs work nice. Star crimped shells that have been shortened work OK. Star crimped magnum shells work fine after shortening because all of the original crimp is removed.

You can write your load data right on the over shot wad. I use a black "china marker". Consider having a special rubber stamp made.

The finished shell may be rendered watertight by painting the wad and crimp with shellac, or hot wax, or cheap nail polish, or water glass, or whatever.

Loading Presses. Modern loading presses are mostly usable. The main problem will be with the powder bushings which seldom come large enough for black powder. Get around that by measuring the powder by hand with a dipper. That's safer anyway. The other problem will be with the star crimping die. It might have to be cut off short to work with a shortened shell. A roll crimp will avoid that.

Velocity. Shot velocity is about 1000-1300 feet per second; same as modern loads and the same as it has been for the last two hundred years. There is just no point in driving small shot much faster than the speed of sound because it will just slow right back down again. It's not called the 'sound barrier' for nothing.

Recoil. Recoil is somewhat greater with black powder than with an otherwise identical modern load. It has to do with the greater mass of gas and dirt being ejected from the muzzle. Initial acceleration is sharper due to the large initial surface area of the grains which decrease as they burn. Fiber wads are heavier than plastic too. Get used to it.
Modern smokeless powder is advertised as 'progressive burning' giving 'lower recoil' and 'low flame temperature'; black powder has none of these modern advantages.

Noise. Black powder is a lot louder than smokeless. Get used to it.
It is good for scaring people in the trap squad. The first time I tried it it even startled the guy in the concrete trap house.

Dirt. Black powder burns dirty. Learn to like it. Expect the bore to be lined with a thick coat of crud.
The chamber however will remain clean, there will be no gas leaks at the breech, and there will be no jamming problems even after hundreds of shots without cleaning.

Black powder substitutes. I normally use only real black powder, but for extra money there are a few modern powders to consider:

Pyrodex®. Substitute it for black powder by volume, not weight. Use the 'RS' grade. Pyrodex® is very hard to ignite. It must be packed very hard or else it will not burn correctly. Consider adding a little real black powder next to the primer to help it catch fire. It is very light and spongy stuff and can be squeezed down to about 2/3ds of it's original volume. I guess it is made that way to mimic black powder's bulk. The residue is said to be even more corrosive than black powder's.

Black Canyontm powder was crap. They don't make it anymore.

Clean Shottm powder is OK stuff. It behaves about like black powder. Contains no sulphur so there is less stink and no holes burned in plastic shells. Dissolves instantly in water. Less fouling, and what there is is not so hard and crusty. Substitute by volume not weight. It must be packed tight to burn well but not so very tight as Pyrodex®. It's shelf life is only a few years; after that it changes color, gets crusty, and stinks.

American Pioneertm Powder. Seems to be the same company as Cleen Shot; has same street address anyway. Rich Knack says "Clean Shot/American Pioneer powder fouling WILL corrode brass! I use the stuff for Cowboy Action Shooting, and I make sure I soak my brass in a diluted mix of vinegar and table salt when I'm done shooting, then rinse with straight water and dry in the oven at 200 degrees."

Clear Shot. Made by GOEX. It's strange looking stuff. I haven't tried it yet.

Modern Factory Load. Here is a picture of the insides of a modern 12 gauge Gamebore brand cartridge. The case is red paper with a thin plastic base wad, 65mm (2½ inches) long and roll crimped. The base is plated steel. Overshot wad is cork with plastic film on both sides; it should disintegrate on firing. Shot is 28g (1 ounce) of #6. Fiber wad also has plastic film on both ends. Powder weighs only 2½ drams and looks like FFFg. A very light load.

Clean Up. The fouling from black powder is corrosive. It must be cleaned out very soon after shooting or the bore will rust.
The fouling is water soluble; it will not dissolve in oil. Only water will work. You can buy various special cleaning products for black powder if you really want to but their active ingredient is water.
A typical late 19th century breech loading shotgun will have a removable barrel containing only one movable part, the extractor. Water will not harm this thing; it was designed to be cleaned in water every day. If it is all rusty inside that is a sure sign that one of it's former owners did not use enough water.

Make sure that the gun is unloaded. Remove the forend. Remove the barrels. Wipe off the breech face and oil it; You are done with that part. Take the barrel outside. Squirt water down the bores with a garden hose to remove half of the dirt. Stick the muzzle in a wooden (or plastic) bucket of cold water and run a wire brush through a few dozen times. Change the water and repeat. It is now clean. Note that the cleaning part is done with cold water. Now get some very hot water. Pour a gallon or so down the bores. The point of this is to heat the metal so that water will evaporate fast and dry before rusting. If you don't feel like boiling water on the stove then just take it in the bathroom and tie a sock around the breech and hang it under the hot shower for half a minute like I do. Dry it inside and out while hot, let it cool. Oil the bores, extractor, and lump. Oiling the outside is optional; you might want to build up a nice patina. Reassemble. Done. Easy.

I have never had any rust problems with guns cleaned this way; but then I live in California and this severely limits my experience with corrosion.

Without the new-fangled plastic shot cup the shot will rub on the bore and lead it. Turpentine helps to clean it out.

Required Reading:

Out of print books can often be found at or

FAQ   (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: Is my gun safe to shoot?
A: I don't know!
I can tell you little about a piece of machinery that I can not see, touch, test, taste, measure, or fire. Even if you were to send me a complete description of your gun giving each and every single important detail, measurement, and test result you would - by definition - be qualified to render your own judgment on the matter. My standard advice is to take your gun to your local gunsmith and have it checked out and - if he concurs - go ahead and shoot it with moderate black powder loads. If you live in a country that has a Proof Law then submit it for proof and see if it comes back in one piece.

Q: Where can I buy factory loaded Black Powder Shells and other weirdo stuff?
A: Try these links:
The Old Western Scrounger. You might have to look in the paper catalog.
Gamebore Cartridge Company Ltd. In England.
Ballistic Products has bismuth shot, roll crimpers, and loaded black powder shells.
Rocky Mountain Cartridge makes brass shells one at a time on a CNC lathe.
Circle Fly Shotgun Wads sells wads in many odd sizes. They bought the machinery of the old Alcan Wad Company to make edge-lubricated wads.
Ballistic Products Inc. sells card wads and many other useful things.
eBay often has old shell crimpers and sometimes old fiber wads.
Republic Metallic Cartridge Co. makes loaded black powder shotshells, including bismuth loads.

Q: Where can I buy Black Powder?
A: In fine stores wherever black powder is sold.
Coonie's Black Powder, Inc.
Hobbs, New Mexico
Get your friends together and buy a 25 pound case.
Powder Inc.
The Maine Powder House

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Last Update: January 28, 2005