El Cheapo Shells

Dear Technoid,

Here in the great people’s republic of California, reloading components are expensive. So is rent, overhead, etc. In order to make reloading cost-effective, I would need to order huge quantities of shot, primers, wads, and powder from various places. I shoot a lot, but not *that* much. Makes me wonder if it’s worth the bother.

With that in mind, Walmart sells 100 round economy packs from Federal, Remington and Winchester. I’ve shot through plenty of these boxes, and so have many of the people at the local ranges. CHEAP!

I’ve called Remington: they say the lead in their Walmart loads is the same lead as their other shells. Federal says their gold medal loads are 6% antimony, and their Walmart loads are 4% antimony. Haven’t heard back from Winchester (no customer service number! just email)

I’ve heard from many people that reloading produces better loads, because the big three put cheap, pure lead shot in these loads. Maybe so, but hasn’t been my experience. When I miss, I don’t blame the Walmart shells.

Since I can’t reload as cheaply as I can buy at Walmart, the only thing I can do is reload to higher velocities. The Walmart shells are 1 1/8 ounces at 1200 fps. The ATA trap rules allow 1290 fps. I can duplicate this with Hodgdon International Clays.

Now then . . . is there really anything to be gained by exceeding 1200 fps? or has diminishing returns set in??? thanks in advance


Dear Martin,

I’ve not tested the Wal-Mart Federals for a number of years so I don’t know what they are putting in them today. I’ll guarantee that the quality of the lead changes with the contract as might the components. Wal-Mart buys in enough bulk so that Federal will make them a special run of contract specific shells.

The ONLY way to tell whether or not you are getting a shell that meets your need is to pattern test. Pattern testing comparative shells is pretty easy. Start with a known quality, like any one of the standard premium target shells. Shoot three paper patterns at 40 yards using a Full choke. I test on 36″ wide “red resin flooring paper” available at any home supply store. Then draw your 30″ circle so as to include the most pellets possible and count the pellets. Do exactly the same with three of the Wal-Mart shells, assuming that they are the same payload and pellet size. Compare pellet counts. It doesn’t really matter if they start out with slightly different pellet counts due to slight sizing differences, just count the hits in the 30″ circle for this rough apples-to-apples test.

Now you will know what “penalty”, if any, there is for shooting cheap loads. You can decide whether or not it is an acceptable penalty. The two dimensional pattern sheet doesn’t show shot string, but if the pattern of one shell is much more open, you can assume it has a longer shot string.

How much difference can there be? Dunno. Years ago with the original Federal Wal-Mart “All Purpose” shells, I found them to pattern exactly the same as the excellent Gold Medals. Since that time I know they have tinkered with the antimony content of the lead, but I don’t know where they have ended up.

I did once test Remington STS premium target shells against the cheapo Remington Gun Club ammo. A barrel that tested 65% with the STS gave me about 55% with the Gun Clubs. Clearly, the Gun Clubs of that time had “poorer” performance, but in certain circumstances they were still a very useful shell. Softer shot and more open patterns isn’t always worse. It just depends on what you want.

It’s interesting to note that many of today’s el cheapo shells have reduced shot weight and increased velocity. I’m seeing a lot of hot 7/8 oz loads in promo shells now. I believe that this is because shot, even cheap shot, costs more than powder in the scheme of things. When the lower the shot load to save money, they have to increase the powder in order to have the shell function with certain automatic shotguns. A light shot load coupled with a light powder charge would be even cheaper to make, but wouldn’t work some autos.

Why does “magnum” or hard shot cost more than “chilled” shot? The hardening alloy antimony is very much more expensive than lead. That’s why good shot in the target sizes will run about 6% antimony and the cheap “chilled” shot usually has only 2%. You need some antimony to properly manufacture shot. “Pure” lead doesn’t drop right and form a proper pellet the way shot is made today. The larger the pellet, the less antimony you really need for good performance as the larger shot can resist deformation better based on sheer size factor. #7-1/2s and #8s are where you see the 6% antimony. #9s and #6s often get 4%, even in high quality shot. These percentages may vary slightly with the manufacturer, but those were Lawrence’s numbers a few years ago when I talked to them at the SHOT show.

Is there anything to be gained by increasing velocity to “make up” for lower pellet counts? Dunno. The Olympic guys certainly think so as the standard 24 gram (slightly less than 7/8 oz load) is usually moved out at 1350 fps for the US team’s shells. They are using only absolutely the highest quality, often plated, shot too. With those little tiny loads and the possibility of a 50 yard going away bunker bird for your second barrel, you need all the help you can get. Some sporting clays shooters also like very fast loads for the long distance presentations. Others don’t.

All things being equal (if there was ever a loaded phrase, this is it) the faster you drive the shot, the more shot deformation or set-back there is. Ain’t no free lunch. Cheap, soft shot suffers more than hard, expensive shot, but they all suffer. The more deformation you have, the less reliable your pattern is. Yet faster loads do get to the bird sooner and do retain slightly more energy. It’s all a trade-off. I think it’s probably more of what you get used to. If you know your leads with a 1200 fps load, then drastically changing that speed one way or the other may throw you off.

So them’s the facts, or at least my twisted version of them. You have to make your own decision as to whether reloading standard 12 gauge loads is worth it. Personally, I sort of like reloading. It’s fun to fuss with the machinery and experiment, but not everyone feels the same way.

Best regards,

Bruce Buck
The Technoid writing for Shotgun Report, LLC
(Often in error. Never in doubt.)

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3 Responses to El Cheapo Shells

  1. Glenn Jurek says:

    “The larger the pellet, the less antimony you really need for good performance as the larger shot can resist deformation better based on sheer size factor. #7-1/2s and #8s are where you see the 6% antimony. #9s and #6s often get 4%, even in high quality shot.”
    You lost me here. Do the 9’s get only 4% because they are a close range load and pellet deformation would allow the pattern to open up more?


    • Bruce Buck says:

      No misprint. #9s do get less antimony than target grade 7-1/2s and 8s. Dunno about 8-1/2s. I think that Jurek’s reasoning is right. #9s are close range pellets and are built to open up a little sooner. It might also be something to do with antimony percentages and size. I don’t know how much antimony you can get into a #9 and still have it drop correctly formed.



    • Gerald Elwood says:

      Check your score with each. Your score at the end of the day is what counts. It makes a lot of differents which game you play.


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