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The story of how shotgun ammo was developed is rich and varied, much like so many stories in firearms history. From the first time black powder was ignited to propel a projectile out of a tube, ideas have evolved for improving the reliability and effectiveness of the process. It all started more than a hundred years ago, when shooters discovered that shot pellets were most effective for hunting birds and small, fast-moving game. Military shooters found applications for shot pellets as well. However, shotguns did not change much until there were some significant advancements in technology, powder and firearm design.
The evolution of shotgun ammunition really took off with the arrival of breech loading shotguns, which initially fired two types of shells – brass and paper. Brass shot shells first appeared sometime around or after 1865, and were either loaded by an ammo company or by the shooter. These quickly became popular since it was possible to reload the brass many times over. Shot shells with paper hulls also appeared in the mid to late 1860s, and were produced in large volume by the Union Metallic Company, which contributed to their notoriety.
Soon after UMC started producing their shells, Frank Chamberlin developed a machine that loaded between 1,200 and 1,500 shotshells per hour. Those numbers are impressive for the mid 1880s, but Chamberlin was now competing directly with the company that supplied his components. This led to his supply getting cut off, eventually forcing him out of business – which Remington bought in 1933.
Federal Ammunition began color coding their shotshells, a practice that became an industry standard in 1960. They did this in order to prevent loading the wrong shell in a firearm, specifically the loading of a 20 gauge shell into a shotgun chambered for 16 gauge.
Later in the 1960s, Remington introduced the next significant innovation in shotgun ammunition – plastic shells. These plastic hulls were superior to paper in that they resisted moisture better and they could be reloaded more times. Another innovation that was soon developed, the one-piece wad, helped pellets create more uniform patterns and reach longer ranges by protecting the shot from being deformed as it passed through the barrel.
Shotgun shells themselves come in many different varieties, and the different choices of shotgun ammo are what make it such a useful tool. Small game and birds can be hunted with the smaller shot sizes such as #7, 7.5, 8 and 9, while deer-sized game can be hunted with larger shot such as 00 buck through #4 buck. Slugs are solid projectiles designed to be fired from a shotgun, and they are useful for hunting larger-sized game. Sometimes slugs have rifling cut into them, and sometimes they travel down the barrel in sabots that encase the slug. Both of these methods improve performance, and the right shotgun may have an effective range greater than 100 yards.
There is a large variety of materials used for shot, and an even larger variety of shot types available – each with their own claims and specific purposes. If you are a hunter, competitive shooter, citizen seeking a self-defense application, a law enforcement officer or military member, there is probably a cheap shotgun shell to meet your specific need.