Shotshell Cartridge History

Copyright 2006 by Ronald B. Standler

My interest in collecting shotshell cartridges dates back to 1959-62, when my father took me hiking in the El Paso, Texas area (see my webpage on ghost towns) and also during 1956-66, when my father took me hunting.

Aside from conventional history of technology, there are other persistent themes in a history of ammunition manufacturing in the USA:
  1. corporate cannibalism in mergers and acquisitions
  2. environmental pollution at manufacturing plants from lead – as well as mercury compounds used in old, corrosive primers
  3. marketing of one company's products under a tradename or brand name formerly associated with another company (e.g., selling Remington's cartridges under the Peters brand name).
Owing to factors (1) and (2) above, only one ammunition manufacturing plant in the USA that was operating in the year 1900 was still operating in the year 2000 (this plant was the Western Cartridge Company at East Alton, Illinois).

General

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were many different manufacturers of shotshells in the USA. As with many other industries in the USA, mergers and acquisitions resulted in just three major manufacturers of shotshells in the USA by 1960: (1) Remington-Peters-UMC (owned by DuPont), (2) Winchester-Western (owned by Olin), and (3) the smaller Federal Cartridge Co.

Shotgun cartridges were invented in the 1860s. Most early shotgun cartridges had a brass case, just like rifle and pistol cartridges. A few manufacturers during 1870-1900 offered shotshells with paper cases, but the early paper cases swelled when wet and paper cases could not be reloaded as many times as brass cases. Paper cases were later impregnated with wax, to make them water resistant. In 1960, Remington introduced shotshells with plastic cases.

Most shotshells in the USA had a red color, but Remington used a distinctive green color and Peters used a distinctive blue color. In 1960, Federal introduced purple 16 gauge hulls and yellow 20 gauge hulls, to help prevent inserting a smaller diameter shell into a larger diameter shotgun (e.g., 10 or 12 gauge), with consequent barrel blockage and explosion of the barrel. Soon after, all brands of 20 gauge shotshells were yellow.

Early shotshells used black powder, which produced lots of smoke and relatively weak pressures inside the shotgun barrel. In the mid-1890s, Peters introduced so-called smokeless powders that were more powerful. Since the mid-1930s, nearly all commercially loaded shotshells have used smokeless powder. However boxes of shotshells continue to the present day to be marked with the number of drams of black powder that would deliver equivalent muzzle velocity. (1 dram = 3.89 grams)

Shotshells with paper hulls often developed pinholes where the powder burned through the paper hull. To prevent such pinholes, the brass base was extended up the side of the case to cover the entire volume of powder inside the case. Shotshells with large shot for hunting larger animals (e.g., ducks, geese, turkeys, and with buckshot: deer) had a high brass base, because of the larger volume of black powder inside these shells. Shotshells for games (e.g., trap and skeet) as well as hunting small birds (e.g., doves, quail) had a low brass base, to cover the smaller volume of black powder inside these shells. Modern smokeless powder requires a much smaller volume than the equivalent amount of black powder, so that low brass bases would be adequate for all shotshells today. However, because of tradition, long-range shotshells continue to have a high brass base.

SHOTSHELL BRANDS IN THE 1950s
Manufacturer low brass high brass
Federal Monark Hi-Power
Peters Victor High Velocity
Remington ShurShot Express
Western Xpert Super-X

General Links:
  1. Jon Farrar's Article on history of shotshell boxes. alternative link

  2. Curtis Steinhauer's shotshell headstamps

  3. collection of shotshell boxes

  4. International Ammunition Association: collecting shotshells and their boxes

  5. Richard Hamilton's list of historical dates for firearm and ammunition companies in the USA

  6. In the 1800s and early 1900s, lead shot was manufactured by pouring liquid lead through holes in a copper sieve and letting the liquid lead fall more than 100 feet, which formed small spheres of lead. Finally, the solid lead spheres hit a pool of water at the bottom of the tower. The tall buildings where the liquid lead was poured and fell were called shot towers. Richard Hamilton's history (alternate version) and photographs of shot towers in the USA.   Walter Minchinton's article.

  7. .410 caliber shotgun resources, includes page on .410 shotshells from 1950 Peters catalogue for 2-inch shells (a 2.5-inch shell was on a catalogue page not shown at this website), 1952 Western catalogue for 2.5- and 3-inch shells, and a 1939 Eley catalogue for 2-, 2.5-, and 3-inch shells.   This website also has photographs of .410 cartridge boxes: Federal,   Peters (also shows blue cartridges),   Remington (also shows Remington catalogue page from the 1930s),   Winchester/Western.   Note all .410 cartridges had high brass, even when small diameter shot was used.

  8. Michl's website on German cartridges, including shotshells.

  9. Outdoor Nebraska article on shotshell history by Jon Farrar.

Manufacturers

Remington - Peters

Remington

In 1888, Winchester and UMC jointly purchased Remington, a manufacturer of firearms and ammunition. Eight years later, in 1896, UMC purchased Winchester's share of Remington, and then UMC was the sole owner of Remington. In 1933, DuPont acquired 60% of UMC and Remington. In 1980, DuPont purchased the remaining stock in Remington, and Remington then became a wholly-owned subsidiary of DuPont.

In 1970, Remington began making ammunition in a new plant in Lonoke, Arkansas and Remington closed its historic plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Webpages about Remington:
  1. official history

  2. Remington shot tower in Bridgeport, Connecticut

  3. Remington Society photographs of old ammunition boxes and advertisements.

  4. Peter Elk's photographs of the now abandoned Remington ammunition plant in Bridgeport.

Peters

Peters Cartridge Corp. was founded in 1887 near Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1934, Remington purchased Peters. In 1944, production at Peters plant in Ohio stopped. The buildings are now abandoned. After 1944, Peters ammunition was made in Remington's plant, and was identical to the Remington product, except for the cartridge cases and boxes. The Peters brand shotshells, with their distinctive blue color, continued to be sold separately until the late 1960s. The continuation of the Peters brand for more than 30 years after the merger with Remington is testimony to the strength of the Peters trademark and earlier reputation.

Webpages about Peters:
photographs of abandoned buildings at Peters plant in Ohio. shot tower,   Former Peters buildings now used as a Halloween "haunted house".

More photographs of old Peters buildings.

Union Metallic Cartridge Co. (UMC)

Union Metallic Cartridge Co. (UMC) was originally formed to provide firearms and ammunition to the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. UMC was reincorporated in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1867. UMC began to sell unloaded brass shotshells in 1868, which is said to be the first commercially available shotshell in the USA. Twenty years later, in 1888, UMC began to sell loaded shotshells.

Today, the UMC brand continues only for rifle and pistol cartridges for military use (e.g., copper-alloy fully jacketed bullets).

Webpages about Union Metallic Cartridge:





U.S. Cartridge Company

The U.S. Cartridge Company in Lowell, Massachusetts began producing shotshells in 1879. U.S. Cartridge went out of business at the end of 1926, although Winchester continued producing shotgun shells in Connecticut under the U.S. brand for a few years, until sometime around 1931 or maybe 1936.   U.S. Cartridge shotshells were sold under their brand names of Defiance (inexpensive, low brass), Climax (medium brass) and Ajax (high brass).

Webpages about U.S. Cartridge:

Winchester - Western

Winchester

Winchester ammunition was made at New Haven, Connecticut, beginning in 1866.

In 1926, Winchester purchased the U.S. Cartridge Co. from National Lead.

In 1931, Olin, the owner of the Western Cartridge Company, purchased the Winchester company. The former Western plant in East Alton, Illinois continues to make Winchester brand ammunition today.

Winchester sold shotgun cartridges under brand names Ranger (low brass) and Leader (high brass). These retail shotshell brands were discontinued in the 1940s (?). Thereafter, the Western shotshell brands (e.g., Xpert and Super-X) were sold under the Western name, then the combined Winchester-Western name, and more recently only the Winchester name. Currently, the Ranger brand name is used for Winchester's cartridges that are intended for use by law enforcement personnel.

Webpages about Winchester:
  1. unofficial history of Winchester firearms

  2. official history of Olin

  3. official history of Winchester ammunition.

  4. In 1981, Winchester sold its shotgun and rifle manufacturing operations in New Haven, Conn., to U.S. Repeating Arms Corporation. In 2006, the historic New Haven, Connecticut rifle and shotgun manufacturing plant was closed. History of Winchester firearms from Save Winchester organization.

Western

In 1898, Franklin W. Olin established Western Cartridge Co. at East Alton, Illinois, to add to his existing powder manufacturing business. In 1931, Olin purchased the bankrupt Winchester company. In the mid-1960s, the separate Western brand of cartridges was discontinued, and only the combined Winchester-Western name was used thereafter.


Federal Cartridge Company

Federal Cartridge Company was founded in 1917 in Anoka, Minnesota. In addition to selling cartridges under its own name, Federal made cartridges that were sold by Sears Roebuck & Company, Montgomery Wards, Gambles, Western Auto Supply Company. Most large towns in the USA had at least one of these stores.

Webpages about Federal:
  1. official packaging history






firearms archaeology

Identification of old cartridges is a useful part of archaeological research on sites in the USA since approximately 1860. For example:

This document is at   http://www.rbs0.com/shotshell.htm
created 7 June 2006, revised 7 Sep 2010

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