Ending the High-Brass, Low-Brass Shotshell Strength Debate

Ending the High-Brass, Low-Brass Shotshell Strength Debate

In this article we’re going to address what continues to be a very controversial topic among shotshell reloaders; the high-brass/low-brass strength debate.  For those that don’t reload shotshells or are just new to the practice, the argument I’m referring to is that high-brass hulls are somehow stronger, or more powerful than low-brass hulls.  Well, *Spoiler Alert*; that’s just not true.  This has got to be one of my biggest pet peeves as far as firearms go, and to be honest, it boggles the mind that with all the cheap reloading manuals and reputable online resources available, many folks still don’t know the truth about this subject.  With that in mind, I thought perhaps we could but this nonsense to rest, once and for all.

What makes you right?

Before I go any further, let me be the first to say that I’m far from the only person to claim to know the truth of this.  There are folks on both sides of the debate who will swear up and down they know the answer, which is why as with some of my articles on contentious topics, I’m going to be citing everything I tell you.

The History

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of this argument, lets take a quick look at where the myth comes from, so that we can understand it a little better.  Back before plastic was king, shotshells were actually made from brass or paper.  As you can probably imagine, brass was very expensive, so paper was where the industry moved.  With modern ammunition being much more heat-resistant we take it for granted, but old-school paper hulls were obviously flammable, and while they weren’t exactly bursting into flame when fired, the fact was that the powder charge inside the hull could cause small pinholes to burn through the sides.  For this reason manufacturers used brass on the outside of their hulls.

Many of the magnum shells produced during this period naturally had a larger powder charge, which of course sat higher in the hull.  Because of this, manufacturers increased the height of the brass to accommodate this, and prevent that nasty powder burn-through.  Since the majority of hulls using high brass were magnum shotshells, people naturally started to equate high-brass hulls with ‘magnum power’, and as Ballistic Products Reloading Curmudgeon says “thus a fantasy was born!”

Ballistic Products Inc
Reloading Notebook: Hulls (In General). Retrieved January 16, 2017.

Some of you are probably still saying to yourselves “Ok sure, that may all be true, but brass is stronger than plastic, so even if that wasn’t the intention, high-brass hulls must still be stronger than low-brass ones.”


The Science

What a lot of folks fail to remember/recognize, is that shotshells don’t operate on their own, they’re chambered into a shotgun.  The internal diameter of the chamber in that gun is only a couple thousands of an inch larger than the shell itself; when the gun fires, the hull is only going to expand as far as that thick steel chamber lets it.  Regardless of whether it’s made of brass, steel, paper or balsa wood, the brass isn’t what’s withstanding the force of firing– the steel chamber supporting it is.

Why do high-brass hulls still exist?

So if there really isn’t any difference in strength between high and low-brass hulls, why do they still exist?  After all, powder charges obviously aren’t burning through plastic hulls!  The truth is actually pretty simple; brass height, along with color, is just clever marketing designed to sell shotgun shells.  Manufacturers use differences in these features, as well as hull color and texture, to distinguish between different brands and models.  When manufacturers want to really make ammunition stand out aesthetically– for example with when distinguishing premium brands from their budget line, they often pull out all the stops, electing to use a shiny, high-brass hull that looks nice in a display case, magazine article or television ad.

So other than taking my word for how a shotgun operates how do you know that high-brass hulls aren’t any stronger than low-brass hulls?  That’s simple, you ask an expert.  Lyman produces one of the best known and most respected shotshell reloading manuals in the world.  I consulted several when writing this article, and here’s what they had to say:

Lyman’s 2nd Edition Shotshell Handbook states, on Page 41

“High or low outside brass is no indication of volume, strength, or loading potential.”

Ramage, C. Kenneth, ed. Lyman Shotshell Handbook. 2nd ed.
Middlefield: Lyman Publications, 1976. Print.

Lyman’s 3rd Edition Shotshell Handbook states, on page 66

“High or low outside brass is no indication of volume, strength, or loading potential.”

Ramage, C. Kenneth, ed. Lyman Shotshell Handbook. 3rd ed.
Middlefield: Lyman Publications, 1984. Print.

Lyman’s 5th Edition Shotshell Reloading Handbook states on page 23

“As long as shells have identical internal construction, the height of the outside brass head causes no ballistic differences.”

Griffin, Thomas J., ed. Lyman Shotshell Reloading Handbook. 5th ed.
Middletown: Lyman Publications, 2007. Print.

So there you go; the final, definitive answer on whether high-brass hulls are stronger than low-brass hulls; they’re not.  With that said, I would challenge anyone who disagrees with me on that to cite an example of any recognized industry authority on shotshells who has proof to the contrary.

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