The average League athlete fires about 1,400 shotgun shells each year. With more than 30,000 student athletes in 2019, that’s about 42 million shells! We buy them in boxes of 25 and in cases of 250, but oftentimes we don’t really pay attention to this key part of our sport beyond putting them into our shotgun’s action, aiming at the target, and pulling the trigger.

Shotgun shells were initially developed in the 1860s, but instead of the plastic or paper shells we see today, the original shotgun shells were completely made out of brass. It wasn’t until later that manufacturers started experimenting with other materials. Today, shotgun shells are made of a combination of brass and either paper or plastic.

A shotgun shell consists of five key parts:

  1. Hull
  2. Primer
  3. Gunpowder
  4. Wad
  5. Shot

The hull is what holds the shell together. It’s made of two parts: a brass ‘head’ that encloses the primer and the gunpowder charge, and the plastic or paper casing that encloses the rest of the shell. The brass head also has a rim that holds the shotgun shell in place so it doesn’t fall through the barrel.

The primer is what ignites the gunpowder charge. This small metal canister has a very tiny amount of explosive that is activated kinetically (physically) as the firing pin of your shotgun strikes it. This small explosive charge ignites the gunpowder.

Gunpowder consists of a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate. When the gunpowder ignites, it begins to create pressure which needs to expand. As the pressure builds and expands, it pushes up against the wad. The more gunpowder in a shell, the faster (and louder) the shot speed is. The wad is essentially a cup that holds the shot.

The wad helps create a seal so that the shot is pushed out of the barrel equally. The wad, which is lighter than the shot and far less aerodynamic, quickly falls away while the shot continues towards the target. Without a wad, the gases and pressure would escape around the shot instead of pushing it out toward the target.

Shot are the small metal BB’s that are projected out of a shell that hit the target. There are different BB sizes and quantities in each shell depending on the size (gauge) of the shell.

While they might not get much of an athlete’s attention, shotgun shells are a basic design that has gone through more than 150 years of refinement in order to help you blast your targets out of the sky accurately and safely.