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The History Of The Shotgun Cartridge

On a recent Facebook post we shared some lovely images from Mucky Boot Photography of some stunning old cartridges. We had a great response and wanted to take a trip down memory lane to see how cartridges have changed over the years.  Featuring some of our followers' very own finds and the background of them. 

We are going to take a look at the shotgun cartridge history and how it’s developed into what they are today. When shooting we rely on cartridges to deliver success, whatever the target,  after all no matter how impressive your gun is it is only as good as the ammunition you put into it. 

The Start Of Shotgun Cartridge 

Early Shotgun cartridges were brass just like rifle and pistol cartridges but from the mid-1870s paper cases became more common. From this a few manufacturers during the 1870-1900s offered shotshells with paper cases. However, they found paper cases swelled when wet and paper cases could not be reloaded as many times as brass cases. 

A thinner walled cartridge offered many benefits requiring less of a step from chamber to bore, resulting in the ‘chamberless gun’ concept that was influential for a while. Brass was more popular with  re-loaders. 

Eley launched their first paper-cased Grand Prix in 1903 which would change the shooting industry as they knew it. To make sure their cartridges did not get damp they varnished the outside of the cartridge to combat the issue people found with not being about to reload as many times as brass cases.

(Photo Credit: Wayne Clynes)

However, they still faced many problems. An essential part to your shooting kit was a cartridge extractor just in case the cartridges became stuck. Another issue which arose was  corrosive primers. The fulminate that was used to generate ignition affected the steel in the barrels and the breech face. Unless the gun was cleaned carefully after every use the gun would cease and break.  This problem was not resolved until the early 1950s. 

(Photo Credit: Etsy)
By 1895 waterproofing paper hulls were quite effective when Eley produced the Pegamoid case. This featured five layers of paper, bonded with water-resistant adhesive. Later on in the 1960s Remington introduced plastic cases and Eley started selling a plastic-cased version of the Grand Prix in 1974. They soon became the craze outselling paper case sales. 

As this all started to improve so did the components inside. Blackpowder, traditional powder used in old firearms that is coarser and less refined, was phased out to a new ‘smokeless’ powder during the last decade of the 19th century. 

(Photo Credit: Wayne Clynes)

In 1886 Paul Vieille invented a smokeless gunpowder called Poudre B. It was made from gelatinized nitrocellulose mixed with ether and alcohol. It was passed through rollers to form thin sheets which were then cut with a guillotine to flakes of the desired size. During this time gunmakers still hand-loaded huge numbers of cartridges for their customers however this came to an end when specialist manufacturers industrialised the process and took over the business.

Smokeless powder

Gunpowder is quite basic, slow burning, dirty and leaves behind a corrosive residue. Black powder produces a lot of smoke which obstructed the shooter and took time to disperse. With a number of guns shooting at a given time this posed a major issue. In the 1840s a cleaner and more efficient Gunpowder started to come into play. They wanted to increase visibility as well as less corrosion damage to the guns. 

The Development Of Wads

Wads have also changed over the years too. Some manufacturers started off with thin felt wads with cork between them. Pre-war wads were made from plastic and dense, greased felt, with cards glued to either end. Vegetable fibre, paper pulp were also tried.

Fibre wads are still used by many shoots. However, one-piece cushioned wad and shot cup found in many high-performance cartridges is the highest point of wad development to date. Just like plastic shell cases, it creates a problem with littering.

However, almost 50 years on we have just seen a major change to shooting with Eley Hawks first biodegradable eco wad.


Facebook Followers Finds/Collections

Wayne Clynes

A few of our Facebook followers messaged in about what they have found or kept over the years. Below is an image sent to us by Wayne Clynes of glass gun oil bottles. He told us it has taken him over 30+ years to find these.  W.E pape Newcastle Gun Oil Bottle are a mega find especially as they are in such good condition. W.R Pape’s business was bought by his shop managers in 1935 who changed the name to Bagnall & Kirkwood. These bottles could be almost 100 years old!

These are metal cased 28/b shotgun cartridges made in Belgium.  Wayne Clynes is not sure when these date back to but they would be over 80 years old at least.
The original Alphamax were made in 1936. These  were 3" and loaded with no less than 1 3/4 oz. They contain Neoflak powder. At the same time the original 2 1/2" Maximum cartridges were loaded with the same then-new powder and 1 1/4 oz shot.

Post-war the load in Alphamax went down as low as 1 3/8 oz so the Eley Magums introduced in the 1970s looked like really a heavy load at 1 5/8 oz in 3".

Lastly these are the final box fromWayne Clynes that he has in his collection. 


Vic Scott

Another follower is Vic Scott he told us that he has been interested in old cartridges since he was a kid admiring two candle holders that were in fact .50 cal BMG cases that came from the local airbase that the Americans had during WW2. What a story! 

Vic researched these cartridges on the left. It turned out it was made at the Dominion Arsenal company Quebec City Canada and dated 1938, in .303

Dominion Arsenal, the first government cartridge, shell factory and proofing facility  was established in 1882 at Québec and provides the Canadian Militia with ammunition.

A second arsenal was built in Lindsay, Ontario, during WWI and another during WWII by the Department of Munitions and Supply. In September 1945 these were brought together as Canadian Arsenals Limited.

The next cartridge is made from brass made by Rival. Rival ended production in 1929, WRA was the Winchester Repeating Arms and Company.

The Winchester Repeating Arms and Company was a major producer of the .303 Pattern 1914 Enfield rifle for the British Government. 

It also produced a similar .30-06 M1917 Enfield rifle for the United States during World War One.

The final cartridges that Vic sent into us were these Eley Grand Prix Cartridges. 

Grand Prix, launched in 1903, was the fore-runner of the modern shotgun cartridge. The original Grand Prix had a plain orange case and the head stamp of “E B London No. 12”. The powder is similar in texture to Smokeless Diamond, however the colour is much darker.  In 1918 this was replaced by Smokeless Diamond. This was a 33-grain faster propellant.

The cases started off orange but during the 1930s they changed to red, green and yellow. Likely a temporary measure when orange was not available. During WWII cartridges were not allowed and had to be plain, unprinted and unvarnished cases.

However, their components were identical to those of Grand Prix. Post-war, any leftover boxes were used up and labelled “Wartime Emergency Packaging Grand Prix Cartridges”. 


These are Baton round or so called plastic bullets. These date back to 1975. 

A plastic bullet or plastic baton round is less-lethal when fired.  Plastic bullets were invented in 1973 by the British security forces for use against rioters in Northern Ireland. 

They were developed to replace their rubber bullets in an attempt to reduce fatalities.

Mark Chegwidden 

Another follower Mark Chegwidden sent an image of these Supreme cartridges G.L Woods and Sons. 


Katie Roberts
Gunstar Editor
Published on 13-03-2020
Katie is one of our newest member to the Gunstar marketing team. Katie's aim is to build a community on Gunstar to not just be your go to marketplace but a hub of knowledge across all shooting disciplines.