Pistol Caliber Shot Loads

May 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Trail Boss Articles

Any outdoors-man who carries a handgun afield routinely should carry a few shot loads for contingencies. Whether you handload your own, or buy them, just get a few. I don’t use very many, maybe a half-dozen a year, but when I get surprised by a rattler in the woodpile or outhouse, they are comforting. Then, there’s always the hope a fat grouse will appear under my tree stand during deer season…

Handgun shot loads have been used to kill small game for camp meat as long as there have been handguns. Single-shot, muzzle loading pistols were commonly loaded with multiple shot or “buck & ball” to improve hit probability.   Prior to 1900 ammunition factories loaded shot cartridges in most large-bore revolver calibers.  In frontier days   many people loaded their own.  The .44-40 Winchester was especially popular for such use until after WWII. Smoothbore “shot revolvers” or break-open single-shot pistols such the H&R Handy Gun and Marble’s “Game Getter” were quite popular among outdoorsmen until they became subject to Federal regulation in the 1930s.

Common .22 rimfire “snake shot” are almost useless beyond about 5-6 ft. They don’t hold enough shot to throw a useful pattern. The .38 Special is the smallest handgun cartridge for which a shot load really makes much sense.  Improvised shot cartridges for the .38 Special assembled with 3.5 grains of almost any fast-burning powder, such as  Bullseye, placing a gascheck cup-down over the powder, then filling the case with No.9 shot and crimping another gascheck into the mouth of the case. They will kill snakes and small rodents IF range is less than 10 feet.  Loading shot larger than No. 9 defeats the purpose, it reduces pellet count is needed for adequate patterns. In the .357 Magnum you can add a pinch more shot with 4 grains of any fast-burning pistol or shotgun powder.

Handgun shot loads spread about one inch per foot of range. Ten feet is their maximum effective range unless you are into calibers larger than .40 which hold enough shot to add about 5 feet to effective range. Load 5 grs. of Bullseye or WW231 in the .41 Magnum with a case full of No. 9 shot, or 6 grains of powder in the .44 Magnum or .45 Colt.  Improvised shot loads of unprotected shot lead bores and produce patchy patterns.

MUCH better are the factory-loaded Speer cartridges or handloads assembled with Speer shot capsules in .38/357 or .44.  The Speer manual provides good instructions for loading these. Nothing I can say here can improve the manufacturer’s recommendations.  Speer .38/.357 shot loads were introduced in 1972. In .38 Special they hold 105 grains or about 147 pellets of No.9 shot.  Patterns are more even than the improvised loads using gascheck for wads. In NRA testing 85 percent of shot hit within a 15″ circle at 15 ft.  Velocity is 1140 f.p.s. from a 6″ revolver and 960 f.p.s. from a 2.” From an S&W Chief’s Special shot penetrate about 1/2″ into soft pine. Fired from a 6″ revolver a dozen or so shot will completely penetrate and exit a 3/4″ pine board at 10 feet.

While handgun shot loads are dangerous, they are NOT effective defense loads. I keep a few Speer .38 shot loads in my survival kit and never “leave home without them”. A shot load is carried first round up in the cylinder when in snake country. I’ve also put rabbits and birds in the pot with them, but you must be CLOSE, not farther than 10 ft.!  Speer .44 Magnum shot cartridges carry enough more shot to have potential as a small game load in survival situations and kills rabbits positively to 20-25 feet.

Those who favor the M1911 pistol can either buy factory loaded Speer cartridges or load their own using the RCBS die set.  These are modern replacements for WWII-era loads once packed in aircrew survival kits.  By the Vietnam area the WWII survival shot loads were becoming scarce/ They were less than ideal for survival-evasion use because they did not feed from the magazine or provide semi-automatic functioning of M1911 pistol.

While on active duty in the early 1970s, I developed a hand-loaded .45 ACP shot cartridge at the request of Harry Archer, a CIA officer then assigned to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). The resulting cartridges were used successfully by Air America crews and Army Special Forces.  Unlike the WWII-era cartridges, these improved rounds were effectively waterproofed, could be mixed interchangeably in the magazine with Ball ammunition and would feed and cycle the M1911 pistol and M3 greasegun.  I refined the load a few years later and described it in American Rifleman, April, 1976 p.20, reprinted in the NRA booklet The .45 Automatic.

The RCBS .45 Shot cases are made by trimming and reforming from .308 Winchester or 7.62 NATO brass, using an extended shell holder which pushes lubricated cases into the forming die, which are cut off with a fine-toothed hacksaw, filed flush to the die body, and inside deburred in the die. Use of .30-’06 cases or others with a narrow extraction groove may cause extractor breakage in the M1911 pistol, but would function in the M3 SMG when a 00 buckshot was crimped into the case mouth, instead of a top wad, to increase recoil impulse, improve ruggedness of the cartridge and to enhance feeding. Cases should NOT be annealed because the extractor may tear through the rim, due to the mouth objurgating into the rifling upon firing. The original handloaded versions would place over 70 percent of the pattern into a 15 inch circle at 25 feet, with an average of 10 shot in a 5 inch diameter circle at that range, individual pellet energy of 2.4 ft.lbs. and a pellet count of 125 No. 9 shot, which would reliably kill snakes, birds and monkeys at jungle ranges and would do as well for rabbits, etc.

To prepare cases for loading they are outside deburred, full- length sized, primed, and flared slightly. The recommended starting powder charge is 6.2 grs. of WW231. No changes powder substitutions or changes other than minor adjustment as needed to obtain reliable functioning, to reflect lot-to-lot variations in powder, are recommended. The exact powder charge should be adjusted to the individual pistol. Not all gun will function reliably with the same charge.  Best function and patterning is obtained in worn bores which do not have sharp rifling. Start with the suggested charge and load only one magazine full to try.  If they cycle, great. If they don’t, examine fired cases carefully.

Too heavy a powder charge will cause case mouths to obturate into the rifling, increasing extraction force and causing a stovepipe jam. This is difficult for some reloaders to understand.  Everyone thinks more powder, heavier recoil, better extraction – but, it AIN’T always so! If fired brass shots distinct rifling marks on the mouth, particularly if accompanied by rim distortion from hard extraction, reduce the charge 0.3 grain and things will work better. If you get jams from short recoil (most jams in this load will be stovepipes regardless of whether too little or too much powder) with smoky case mbody and NO marks on the mouth of the case, that means the powder charge is too light. Increase it 0.3 grain and try again. If the powder load is JUST right, you should have very light rifling marks on the case mouth, with no obvious rim distortion and the gun will cycle with near perfection.

The only correct wad to use is the Remington SP410 shot cup used for 1/2 oz. .410 bore skeet loads. Others do not fit properly in the cut-off rifle brass. Seat the wad over the powder charge seating with a 3/8″ dowel tapping lightly with a plastic mallet. Then trim the protruding wad tabs off flush with the case mouth using a sharp knife. The case holds about 105 +/- 5 grains of No.8 or #9 shot.  For a fiber top wad use Walters wads from Midway http://www.midwayusa.com/browse/BrowseProducts.aspx?brandId=1780 Good results can also be had using a .35 cal. gas check for the top wad. Just fill the case and shot cup full to 1/16″ below the case mouth and place the gascheck cup down on the top of the load. The gascheck will find its way to the right place and the case will crimp onto it giving a finished shell with a nice appearance.

Typical velocity is 1200 f.p.s. in the M1911A1 pistol. Patterns average 70% in a 15″ circle at 25 feet. and define the maximum effective range for this load for snakes or small game. You get 9-10 pellet hits with No.9 shot and 6-7 with No. 8 in the 5 inch circle at 25 feet.   An instinctive handgun shot schooled in Applegate Method can break clay birds from stations 1, 7 or 8 on a skeet field easily. No. 8 shot is a sure killers on cottontails to 10 yards.  Do not use shot larger than No. 8 because patterns are too thin. These .45s pattern about as well as ordinary Speer .44 Magnum shot shells in a Contender pistol, except thatt you have a 7-shot semi-auto!

The dies for forming the cases and reloading this .45 ACP shot shells are available from RCBS, but are a bit expensive. CCI offer factory loaded .45 ACP shot shells for occasional users who can’t justify the expenditure of time and money to set up and make their own.

While on the NRA staff preparing the above referenced article I wanted to find some of the WWII-era military loads to photograph.   I called a friend at Washington Field Office and he inquired to the FBI Firearms Laboratory knowing that they probably had some in their excellent ammunition reference collection.  They did.  Upon my arrival Special Agent Rodger D. Goldsberry brought out the WWI-era shells, plus another box in plain brown wrapper, gloating just a little, “I ’ll bet you’ve never seen any of THESE!”.

I looked at the box, laughed and said, “MACV 1972.”  He said, “You’ve GOT to be kidding, we thought they may be CIA, but nobody at Technical services, 11th MI or FSTC would confirm.” I told him, “If they are real, I probably loaded them. Hell, you’ve got my prints on file, steak dinner if you get a 6-point match.” A few days later I got the phone call, asking if the Quantico officer’s club was OK, because it was closer to home.  I said, “Sure.” Rodger closed the call by saying, “Ed, when you do that kind of stuff you REALLY should wear gloves, or you might get ID’ed at a crime scene, it could be a little hard to explain when your alibi is supposed to have plausible deniability…”

C.E. “Ed” Harris is well known to readers of American Rifleman, the Gun Digest and the Cast Bullet Association’s Fouling Shot magazine.During 12 years on the Technical Staff of the National Rifle Association he was a consultant to numerous military, law enforcement and firearms industry organizations and was officially commended by the U.S. Marine Corps Development Center, Quantico, Virginia for  expert technical assistance provided during the Development and Operational Testing of the M16A2 rifle. He is a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, holds the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Professional Development Certification in Emergency Management and for 22 years he has worked for local government in Northern Virginia.



One Comment on "Pistol Caliber Shot Loads"

  1. Steve in Merritt Island on Mon, 10th May 2010 12:45 PM 

    Great article (like always Ed!).

    Was wondering about the .41 Mag shot loading. I seem to remember being told in eternity past, that full length shot cartridges could be made from .303 Savage brass (I know, good luck finding that! LOL). From my memory’s sketchy past, I think that the cases were shortened to fit the cylinder and the rims were turned and trimmed from the front. Can’t recall what I was told about the wads or howcases were sealed. I know this is the (really) odd duck here.

    Steve in Merritt Island

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