Papers Please – Paper Shells for your Shottie

Paper shot shells were used in early shotguns and are making a comeback.
April 4, 2018  
Categories: Musings

Paper shotgun shells — do you need ’em or just want ’em? Are they good to go, or a proven pain in the ass? Mike the Mook tells you what he thinks.

Paper Shotgun Shells: Need, or Nostalgia?

The shotgun is one of the oldest types of firearms (blunderbuss, anybody?), and one of the most widely used. Like its forebears the harquebus, musket, and blunderbuss, the “shottie” or “scattergun” features a smooth bore and is intended to fire loose shot as opposed to a solid projectile. As smaller calibers and more importantly rifled barrels were introduced, the shotgun emerged as a distinctive firearm in its own right.

Like all early firearms, the earliest shotguns were muzzle loaders. Powder and shot was poured down the barrel and the charge ignited by a spark created by the flint striking the steel of the flash pan. In fact, it was it was the flint shotgun that led to the invention of the percussion cap, as those of you familiar with Scottish Presbyterian minister Andrew Forsyth’s desire to increase lock with a flintlock fowling piece probably remember.1

“Two barrels full of buck-shot make a trustier dose, perhaps, than any single ball for a squad of Indians, when within range, or even in unpracticed hands for wary venison.” Frank L. Olmsted, Texas, 1853

The world moved on to cartridge firearms around 1860, and shotguns followed suit. Those original shotgun shells were made of brass, which made them heavy as well as expensive, so there were many people looking for an alternative. By 1870 they’d solved the problem by adopting a paper hull instead of a brass one.

Paper Shotgun Shell from Gun Auction

Wax impregnated paper improved the reliability and ubiquity of the shotgun shells, but it wasn’t a perfect answer.

It wasn’t an entirely new idea. Cartridges consisting of a paper-wrapped bullet and powder charge had been used more than a century prior, but early paper shotgun shells were disappointing. They would notoriously swell up when wet and could not be reloaded nearly as much as brass cases. This improved, however, as manufacturers began infusing the paper casings with wax.

There were other issues to be dealt with as well; for instance, the tendency of black powder to eat away at the paper shells from the inside. This problem is actually what gave us the brass height system used to this day, where the brass end of the case extends longer (High Brass) for hunting and defensive loads so the brass rim protects the powder.

Interestingly, the use of paper wasn’t limited to shotshells. As an example, the Peters Company created “riot control” ammunition that consisted of compressed, paper wrapped snakeshot. They were released in the 1920s and built specifically for the Thompson sub-machine gun. The Peters Rustless Rio Cartridge .45 Auto Shot looks, at first glance, like a regular .45 casing with an oddly long bullet, but actually required special magazines and use (they “splashed” the shot up as a ricochet rather than employing direct fire). Forgotten Weapons talked about those right here

By the 1960s the plastic shotgun hull had been developed and paper shells went into remission.2 Very few manufacturers offer paper shotgun shells these days, though there is a still a demand for them (and it seems to be increasing).

No, this demand isn’t strictly born of the nostalgia felt by hunters who grew up in the 50s and 60s and are still incensed they took Happy Days off the air. The primary reason is for safety, specifically for use in older shotguns that were designed with paper hulls in mind. The star crimp on a plastic shotgun shell makes these rounds slightly longer, but long enough that an unsafe level of pressure can be reached inside the chamber. Paper shotgun shells usually lack the star crimp and use a flat cardboard wad at the tip of the case with a roll crimp instead. This is a significant difference.

Also, plastic shotgun shells are prone to melting. They can leave a melted plastic residue behind that is difficult to remove. Paper shells produce no such mess.

Yet another reason some shooters prefer paper shotgun shells is that the shells are somewhat biodegradable. A hunter can fire and forget them without returning to police spent hulls. In fact, cruise ships that offer trap shooting over water exclusively use paper hulls because international agreements prohibit the dumping of plastic in the ocean.

Lastly, there are many thousands of top-level hunters and shooters who swear by the paper shotgun shell. They point to better accuracy, patterning, and reliability over the plastic hulls. This, if for no other reason, will always keep paper shells relevant.

For more interesting reading, take a look at

Shotshell Cartridge History, by Ronald B. Standler,

The Evolution of the Shotshell, by James McLaughlin,

Shootin’ Shot, by Phil Spangenberger, or 

Shotgun Life: Shotgun Shells

We’ll close with a little shottie. In 1884, British intelligence officer Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, a former officer in the Royal Horse Guards household cavalry, took part in the Sudan Campaign. He was described by contemporary accounts as fighting off large numbers of Mahdists with a double-barreled shotgun at the Battle of El Teb.

1 Whether the trigger was pulled or the hammer dropped or the priming powder ignited before the main charge; the ducks, geese and grouse in Forsyth’s sights took off. His research and development lead to percussion ignition in 1807 with his scent-bottle lock; this was a small container filled with mercury that ignited when struck with the hammer of the shotgun. More on this later.

2 This may have been exacerbated by a decreasing number of shotshell manufacturers during that time frame. The only ammunition manufacturing plant in the USA operating in the year 1900 that was still extant in 2000 was the Western Cartridge Company in Illinois.  Thankfully that trend has long since reversed.


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Mike Searson

Mike Searson

About the Author

Mike “the Mook” Searson is a veteran writer who began his career in firearms at the Camp Pendleton School for Destructive Boys at age 17. He has worked in the firearms industry his entire life, writing about guns and knives for numerous publications and consulting with the film industry on weapons while at the same time working as gunsmith and ballistician. Though seemingly a surly curmudgeon shy a few chromosomes at first meeting, Searson is actually far less of a dick and at least a little smarter than most of the Mad Duo’s minions. He is rightfully considered to be not just good company, but actually fit for polite company as well (though he has never forgotten his roots as a rifleman trained to kill people and break things, and if you look closely you’ll see his knuckles are still quite scabbed over from dragging the ground). You can learn more about him on his website or follow him on Twitter, @MikeSearson.


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