Handgun Shot Loads

By C.E. Harris

Shot loads have been used as defensive expedients or to kill small game for the pot as long as there have been handguns. Single-shot, muzzle loading pistols were often loaded with multiple shot or "buck & ball". The Civil-War-era LeMatt revolver featured a 20-ga. shotgun barrel and was favored by foraging Confederates. In frontier days shot loads were common for large-bore revolvers. The .44-40 enjoyed a particular variety of factory loads up until about WWII. Specialized smoothbore "shot revolvers" or break-open guns like the H&R Handy Gun and Marble's "Game Getter" were popular among outdoorsmen until they became subject to Federal tax stamp requirements in the 1930s.

Handgun shot loads in calibers smaller than the .38 Special are virtually useless because they can't hold enough shot to throw a useful pattern. The .38 Special is the smallest handgun cartridge for which a shot load makes any sense. Shot loads for the .38 Special can be improvised with 3.5 grains of Bullseye, simply placing a gascheck over the powder, filling the case with No.9 shot and crimping another gascheck in the mouth of the case. These are effective on snakes and small rodents within about 10 feet. In .357 Magnum brass you can add a pinch more shot with about 4 grs. of a fast-burning, dense pistol powder such as W-W231, or Bullseye.

These loads spread about one inch per foot of range, so the patterns are ineffective beyond about 10 feet until you get to the larger calibers. Cases over .40 cal. hold enough shot to add about 5 feet of effective range. You can load 5 grs. of Bullseye or WW231 in the .41 Magnum with a case full of fine shot, 6 grs. in the .44 Magnum or .45 Colt.

In improvised shot loads unprotected shot lead the bore, and are scattered into a patchy pattern by the rifling. Gaschecks aren't very effective as over-powder or over-shot wads, but cardboard or felt don't give much improvement either.

Far better are the Speer shot capsules, because patterns are more even, and bore leading is no longer a problem. Speer provides complete instructions for loading these, and nothing I could say can improve much on the data provided by the manufacturer.

Factory loaded .38/.357 Speer shot loads were introduced in 1972 and hold 105 grains or about 147 pellets of No.9 shot. Like most handgun shotloads, they spread about 1" per foot of range, but their patterns are even and 85 percent of the shot hit within a 15" circle at 15 ft. Their velocity is about 1140 f.p.s. from a 6" revolver and 960 f.p.s. from a 2." From my S&W Chief's Special the shot penetrate about 1/2" into soft pine. From a 6" revolver a dozen or so shot will exit a 3/4" pine board at 10 feet. While these loads are certainly dangerous at short range, I do not recommend them as defense loads, because they are not a sure incapacitant on anything bigger than a rabbit. I keep Speer .38 shot loads in my kit and never "leave home without them". A shot load is always the first round up in the cylinder when in snake country. I've also put rabbits and birds in the pot with them, but you have to be CLOSE!

The .44 Magnum can carry carry enough pellets to have real potential as a small game load. The Speer .44 shot loads intended for revolvers will kill rabbits positively at 25 feet. Better choices for the serious handgun hunter are the specialized .44 Hot Shot or .45/.410 rifled shot barrels for the T/C Contender pistol. Standard .45 Colt ammunition is not very accurate from the .45/.410 shot barrel. However, in my experience, standard .44 Magnums lead or jacketed rounds give normal accuracy in the T/C .44 Hot Shot barrels.

If you will use your T/C shiot barrel mostly as a shotgun, buy the .45/.410 so you can use regular .410 loads which are cheap, and plentiful. If you intend to use the thing mostly with standard bulleted cartridges, and use shot only occasionally, the .44 Hot Shot is a better deal. Just remember to remove the choke tube with either of these before firing solid ball! These have a detachable choke tube and give patterns better than many .410 bore skeet guns! Their wide, even patterns, are easy to hit with. But, like any .410, their small 7/16 oz. payload limits them to about 20-25 yards, but within those limits they are quite effective!

In the early 1970s, while serving in the military, I developed a handloaded .45 ACP shot cartridge which was used by friends as an aircrew surevival load. It could be mixed interchangeably in a magazine with Ball ammunition, which would feed and operate the pistol semi-automatically. I refined the load later and described it in American Rifleman, April, 1976 p.20. This article is also reprinted in the NRA booklet on The .45 Automatic.

These .45 Shot shell cases are made from .308 Winchester or 7.62 NATO cases, by using an extended shell holder to push lubricated cases into the forming die, which are cut off with a fine-toothed hacksaw, filed flush, and inside deburred while in the die. Use of .30-'06 cases or others with a narrow extraction groove may cause extractor breakage. Cases should NOT be annealed because the extractor may tear through the rim, due to the mouth obturating into the rifling upon firing.

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 adjustments to obtain reliable functioning, are recommended. This exact powder charge is gun specific as not all will function reliably with the same charge. This load functions most reliably in slightly worn bores which do not have a sharp origin of the rifling. Start with the suggested charge and load just a magazine full to try. If they cycle, great. If they don't, examine the fired cases.

A too heavy charge causes the case to obturate into the rifling, causing stovepipes from hard extraction. This is the hardest to convince reloaders of -- everyone thinks the more powder, the better the extraction -- it AIN'T always so! If you can see distinct rifling marks on the case, particularly if accompanied by rim distortion, 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) there are NO marks on the mouth of the case. That means the charge is too light, so increase it 0.3 grain. 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 firmly over the powder charge using a 3/8" dowel and a few light blows 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.

Good results can be had using .35 cal. gas checks 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 and patterns average 70% in a 15" circle at 25 feet. This produces 10 pellet hits in a 5" diameter target, simulating a small game animal, and defines the maximum effective range for this load on snakes or small game. A good handgun shot can break clay birds from stations 1, 7 or 8 on a skeet field fairly easily. I have found with No. 8 shot they are sure killers on cottontails to 10 yards. I don't recommend shot larger than No. 8 as the patterns are too thin. The .45s pattern about as well as ordinary .44 Magnum shot shells (not the longer "Hot Shot") in a Thompson Contender with choke tube, but 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 pricey. Remington and CCI both 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.

To sum up, any outdoorsman who carries a handgun afield on a routine basis needs a few shot loads occasionally. Whether you handload them or buy them, get a few. I don't use all that many, maybe a half-dozen a year, but when I get surprised by a copperhead or rattler in the woodpile or outhouse, they are sure comforting! And then, there's always a chance that a grouse may appear under my tree stand during deer season...

In Home Mix We Trust, Regards, Ed