Just for the hull of it

IMG_0820Shotshell hulls of many different brands and configurations show up in the reload pile, but I use only Winchester AA hulls. This is a narrow, biased, personal prejudice.  Forty-plus years of reloading has given me a terminal case of OFS (Old Fudd Syndrome), characterized by diminished ability to reason and increased irrational outbursts such as “I’ve always done it this way!” 

Just for the hull of it

The thermometer on the deck reads twelve degrees below zero on this sunny but “brisk” March morning in the North Country. The farm is covered by thirty-some inches of accumulated snow as we near the end of winter, and an Arctic wind is gusting at twenty miles per hour as I venture out in shirtsleeves with the dogs, cup of hot coffee in hand, to grab a chunk of red elm firewood for the stove.

In short, this is a perfect day to retreat to the warmth of the workshop and fuss with the shotshell hulls waiting to be reloaded.

From April through September, time and weather permitting, I shoot a couple thousand rounds of shotshells at skeet, trap, sporting clays and five-stand ranges. Unlike my wiser friends who do all their clay target shooting with one gun, or at least one gauge, I usually shoot my field guns –double guns in 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauge. So on this winter day, as I enter the “reloading season,” a multi-colored mountain of shotshell hulls in plastic bags lies piled on the floor in front of the reloading bench.

Empty shotshells are called “hulls,” because… well, there must be some plausible explanation of how the word “hull” came to be applied to shotshells, probably derived from the definition of hull as “the hard shell or outer covering of a seed or fruit.” And hull is much quicker and easier to write than “cylindrical, straight-walled, poly-composite tube attached to a circular, rimmed base of brass.” So, “hull” it is.

Preparing hulls for reloading brings out my latent obsessive-compulsive tendencies. This madness takes hold with the first step in the process, sorting and culling a couple thousand hulls, first by gauge and then by brand and type. Dividing them into piles of 12, 16, 20 and 20 gauge is fast and easy; sorting them by type takes longer.

Hulls of many different brands and configurations show up in the reload pile, but I recognize only two categories: Winchester AA hulls and junk hulls. This is a narrow, biased, personal prejudice. Forty-plus years of reloading with Winchester AA hulls has given me a terminal case of OFS (Old Fudd Syndrome), characterized by diminished ability to reason and increased incidence of irrational outbursts such as “I’ve always done it this way!”

A less hidebound reloader would accept the truth that Federal produces excellent hulls, as do Remington, Fiocchi and Cheddite. But all my reloading machines are set up for Winchester AA hulls, so, dammit, that’s the only brand I’m going to use! The exception is 16 gauge hulls. Since Winchester no longer produces them, I use Cheddite Multi-Hulls purchased from Ballistic Products Inc. in Minneapolis (http://www.ballisticproducts.com).

A hull has to go to great lengths to prove to me it is not longer worthy of service

A hull has to go to great lengths to prove to me it is no longer worthy of service

Now comes the more agonizing part of the process: eliminating the hulls that are damaged, worn, or otherwise unsuitable for another reloading. I fuss over the piles of battered hulls for an hour or more. Although I want to credit this mania to my being a meticulously safe and careful reloader, the truth is that I am just a tightwad. It pains me to throw away a 10-cent piece of plastic (14 cents if it’s a 28 gauge hull!) that may be in good enough condition for one or two more reloadings. A cloth soaked in Armor All vinyl cleaner is always at hand to perform a sort of emergency CPR on hulls that show any spark of life. An ailing hull has to go to great lengths to prove to me it is no longer worthy of service.

Alas, despite my best revival efforts, about ten percent of the hulls will have to be discarded each season. Any that have a crack or split in the shaft will be immediately rejected, of course, but that is a rare occurrence.

IMG_0823A hull will also be weeded out if it has a black ring around the primer, evidence of an expanded primer pocket that could result in a gas blow-by that could injure the shooter’s eye.

A more likely danger is that a primer will slip out of a shotshell’s loose primer pocket at a “Murphy’s Law” moment – during the feed-and-chamber cycle from the magazine of a semi-automatic gun. The escaped primer will wedge itself under the feed pawl and jam the whole works, forcing you to take the entire action apart to extract it. Not that this has ever happened to me. At least not twice.

Now come the tough decisions: which hulls have become too weary to hold a tight crimp? Throw out any hull that has splits in the rim of its mouth, where repeated crimping and firing have cracked the plastic.

What about those hulls with rims that are intact but frayed, paper-thin, soft, or brittle? If the top edge is burned black and looks a bit ragged from multiple firings, it’s easy to toss the hull. The demons are the ones that still appear shiny and smooth and firm – with just one or two little creases or incipient splits. Those treacherous rogues will promise to seal tightly but will slowly open on a hot day, spilling their charge of shot to rattle around in the bottom of the ammo box. I prefer light target loads, but not “unintended” light loads.

One more step: lightly wipe each hull with that Armor All-soaked cloth to remove any grit or grime you do not want to introduce into the action or chamber of your shotgun. Do not get too finicky in this process; there are a couple thousand of these things to clean, and you have but one lifetime.

So, at last, you are done and can gaze down with satisfaction at a half dozen plastic bags full of hulls ready to be reloaded. While you were engaged in these hull preparation chores, your shooting buddies have car-pooled to the sporting goods store, each purchased four flats of bargain-priced shotshells, and are sitting around a tall table in a sports bar, drinking beer and watching a basketball game on a big screen television.

Take heart in the knowledge that the cheap “factory loads” they have purchased will be sadly inferior to the loads you will produce with these nicely prepped hulls. But I will have to expound on the art and science of shotshell reloading in a future essay. For now, I can’t stand to look at another empty hull.

_____________________________________________________

If you enjoyed this essay, you may like reading my book: Hunting Birds – The Lives and Legends of the Pine County Rod, Gun, Dog and Social Club.

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About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer; indifferent wing shot. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Novelist and short story writer. Freeholder: 50-acre farm with 130-year-old log house. Husband, father, grandfather. Retired teacher, coach, mentor. Vicious editor. Blogger.
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