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November 07, 2008

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Bourjaily: Bad Shells

My friend Dave recently became the range safety officer at my local wildlife area. Every Sunday evening, he stops by my house after work. I give him a beer, and he gives me a five gallon bucket filled with all the empty hulls he picks up at the range over the weekend. It is a sweet deal. I sort through the bucket, keep the reloadable hulls and toss the rest in the trash. In the last bucket he brought me, I found about 20 unfired buckshot loads. Every primer was dented, but not one had gone off. Out of curiosity, I tried them in my gun, to see if a weak hammer spring was to blame. They didn’t fire. Perhaps they had gotten very wet, or been stored improperly. Or, maybe they were just bad shells, loaded with a batch of dud primers. It happens.

Earlier this year I was surprised to hear a box of factory skeet loads rattling. Turns out the crimps in several of the shells had big enough gaps in the middle that the number 9 pellets could leak out. We all joke about shells without any shot in them when we miss, but a couple of these really didn’t have enough pellets left inside to break a target.

While patterning turkey loads this summer, I had a shell rupture, which was a first for me. The brass split, and enough burning powder escaped to melt part of the outside of the hull.  I sent it in to the manufacturer, who told me that a cracked die in the assembly operation scratched the shell, weakening it enough to burn through.

Given the speed at which ammo makers load shells and the sheer volume they produce, it’s surprising that more shells aren’t bad. But 99.9% of factory shotshells work fine. Let’s hear about the .1%. Share your bad ammo stories,  the duds, the squibs, the bloopers, and if anyone has a nomination for the worst shotshell ever made, I’d like to know about it.


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Jim in Mo

I've never had a shotgun shell fail due to the manufacturer. My fault yes. Its weird that so many of the buckshot were bad, in fact scary. Those are the ones we use for personnal defense or hunting large animals.

Mike in Kansas

I worked at a sporting clays range for a number of years in high school. I agree that most shells work just fine. The majority of shell problems that I encountered were from reloads. You can only reload a AA hull so many times before it cant handle the pressure any more. For me (not being a reloader.....yet) I have always beena Federal ammo user. I have never had a single problem with the brand and they are cheap enough for me to purchase without hearing my wifes voice in my ears when I'm standing at the counter buying them.

Never had a bad shotgun shell either. However if you want mis-fires just buy some of those FMJ 30-06's made in some obscure east european country that sell for $5 a box. In my experience you will have two or three duds out of twenty every time. .22's seem to have their difficulties but the sheer volume with which they are shot probably has more to do with that than anything. I suppose if I were to fire 1,000 rounds in a day of other calibers I would have the same result.

Dr. Ralph

Just noticed I left my name off the last one... also thinking back I can remember pulling shotgun shells out of the bottom of a boat we used to duck hunt in. These shells had sat under water for a good six months and we shot them at clay pidgeons the next summer. No problem.


I recently bought some core-lokt 7mm-08 rounds and the cases were dented on about 50% of them as if they were hit with a hammer or something. It scared me enough to switch to Federal(same price). For all I know, it could have happened in shipping or at the store, but they were in the plastic holder and I dont see how it could have happened from anything other than bad manufacturing. I'm not a fancy expensive bullet guy since I only hunt deer at short range and think soft points (although not as cool looking) are the best rounds for this type of thing being that long range expansion is not as important as short range integrity. I've used Core-Lokt for years with no problems, but the quality seems to have gone down. I am a Federal man now.


P.S. This (above) happened with three separate boxes.


And then there's the wonderful world of cheap .22LR. I find that I usually get a 4-5% misfire rate out of Winchester Xpert22...

Del in KS

When Remington came out with heavi-shot turkey loads the shells I bought would leak grex from the crimp area. They shot well and killed birds out to 64 measured yd with my SBE with Compn extended choke tube.


I've seen factory shells without shot in them before as well. A friend I used to shoot with would go through every shell before going out to shoot to make sure they had shot in them. We went out to shoot sporting clays. He went through the 100 shells he had bought and there were 2 that did not have shot. The crimps did not have any holes in them either. It's rare, but I've seen bad crimps before where shot could fall out.
I've had bad experiences with some remanufactured .223 from Ultramax or Ultramatch. I had a whole box that didn't seem to have enough powder as the bullet would hit the ground at about 100 yards or so and definitely didn't have the same sound as the other ammunition I had. I had a couple that the case came apart while ejecting from my Mini-14 also. I've never bought any more ammunition from them since.

New Age Bubba in Texas

Here's an ammo mystery for you guys: I bought a Rem 700 6.5mm (a.k.a. Rem 260) last fall, trading in my 30/06, thinking that it was time to use a cartridge less than 100 years old and enter the new age of hunting. I wanted something with a 308 case and at least a 140 gr bullet. Probably should have gotten a 7/08 but it wasn't in stock at the time. Keep in mind that this LSS rifle has a laminated stock and stainless action with a very skinny short (20") barrel. No target rifle.

After sighting in, I was puzzled by the groups: 1" with 120 grain, but 6" with 140 gr at 100 yards, three shot group. I used premium ammo for both bullet weights, and two well known brands--same poor results for the 140 gr.

I had planned to use 140 gr for hogs and was leary of 120 gr, so I was about to trade the rifle in for a 7/08 or a 308, but a benchrest shooter at my rifle range suggested trying handloads. He advised me to carefully weigh the cartridge cases and bullets, and get a digital scale, etc. I ignored this good advice (a trend?), and purchased a low end reloading kit, with a cheap scale, and just used my once fired cases, with Speer bullets without weight matching. My first batch of handloads, with Speer 140 gr bullets was 1.5", at 100 yards--fine for my hunting.

Problem solved? What's going on here? I asked Remington if my twist rate was to blame, and they said no. I don't know what to think except that I am buying several bags of new brass.

By the way, the Rem 260 is a pleasure to shoot, and the 140 gr bullets are death on hogs.



I can’t recall ever having a USA factory loaded shotgun shell fail to shoot, load, or eject. Foreign shells I’ve had a few fail.

I’m so confident of USA shotgun shells, I’ll always buy factory loads for when the chips are down.

Jim in Mo

New Age Bubba,
I've had the same experience using Federal Premium! Go figure. Everything else works great. All I can figure is its in the powder. BTW, when you handload try neck sizing only. You'll need another die but its worth it.


I had a bad Environmetal Hevi Shot Tungsten shell last year.

Waterfowl hunting, the third of three shells.

"Click...peep...ppffffffftt...phoomp" is the best way I can describe it. The load took about 2 full seconds to come out the barrel, and travelled about 15 feet.

Thank God it was the third shell, because if it was the first or second I could easily have pulled the trigger on the next shell before that load had left the barrel.

Edward J. Palumbo

I'd purchased a S&W Model 16 in .32 Magnum, and Federal was the only factory producing .32 Mag ammunition, so I purchased a few boxes and stocked up on components to reload the fired brass. To my surprise, each of the first cylinder of 6 cases split from the neck when fired, and I contacted Federal. They explained in a letter that it was traced to an oversight in their annealing process, which made me wonder about their QA, and promised to replace the box of cartridges if I shipped the unused rounds back to Federal. They provided shipping labels. Shipping ammunition was not a convenient matter and I opted to absorb that lesson.
Starline began making .32 brass, and I purchased their brass. No problems. My handloads with Hornady bullets and Starline brass proved very satisfactory.
Four years later, I purchased another box of Federal factory ammunition for the .32 Magnum because I had a shooting opportunity and no reloads prepared. This was a different lot number than the first, and I'd assumed they'd dialed in their manufacturing processes. Those cases split. Again, Federal promised to replace the box of ammunition if I shipped the unfired cartridges back. I decided to rely on the reloads that had proven reliable up to that point, and didn't want another box of Federal ammunition.
The Model 16 proved accurate and fun to shoot, but my Model 14 in .38 Special performed every bit as well, .38/.357 components are reasonably priced and available in a great variety. I traded the Model 16 for a stainless Ruger Model 77/22M rifle in .22 Magnum, and my son and I never regretted the transaction.
I have had excellent results with Federal's .38 Special and .45ACP ammunition in the past, as well as their shotshells and rifle ammunition, but I haven't purchased Federal ammunition in the past 6-7 years.
To summarize, we cannot trust factory ammunition implicitly. Stuff happens. Despite the automated processes and QA, some things slip through.


Last deer season I experienced a case failure with a .44magnum load in a Marlin rifle. The Buffalo Bore cartridge (Starline brass) separated about half way down the cartridge case. The rear half extracted normally, but the forward portion stayed stuck in the chamber preventing the bolt from closing with another round. A gunsmith removed the broken case for me. He said the chamber and barrel throat looked fine. I have since fired a half dozen of the same round in the rifle with no more problems. Buffalo Bore was contacted and provided close up photos, but could not provide and explanation.

Del in KS

NOS but timely. Last night my friend Billy was driving on I-35 and swerved to miss a huge Iowa Whitetail buck. The buck's head broke his side mirror and antlers scatched the side paint. They are rutting and all over the roads especially at night. Please drive carefully.
BTW The buck I arrowed (remember the pic) last week green scored 130 2/8.

Edward J. Palumbo

A case separated in a friend's .30-40 Krag. I don't know whose brass it was because I didn't see the base, but we put a cleaning rod and bristle brush in the barrel and used chips of dry ice in the chamber. What remained of the case shrank sufficiently to easily dislodge with the cleaning rod. It wasn't a convenient process, but a gunsmith would have been our next option. Another fellow checked the remaining cartridges with a dial caliper and said the neck-sized brass was too long. Apparently, the brass hadn't been measured and trimmed after a few firings.

WA Mtnhunter

I have had multiple misfires with PMC ammo. I bought some PMC .30-06 softpoints to break in a barrel and da 2 failures. Also had a couple of Hornady factory loads fail to go boom. Never has a Remington or Federal round misfire in that Weatherby Mk V.

Last summer, I bought a Savage 219 single shot .30-30 at the gun show and from another table bought a box of PMC 150 gr. softpoints. Three of the first four failed to fire! Firing pin? I think not. I shot 2 boxes of Federal loads through it with no malfunctions. I have also had misfires with CCI match primers in my .30-06. Never a failure with Federal, Win, or Remington primers.


I borrowed my uncle's 30-30 Marlin, and he gave my 40 old winchester rounds to plink with. If I fired slowly every other round wouldn't fire, but If I did my best John Wayne and worked the gun as fast as I could they fired flawlessly. I can't explain this one.


i shoot a lot of cheap .22 LR just for the fun of it. I buy the big bricks of 550 rounds. I used to buy remington golden bullets, but the last box i had gave me about 10-20 duds. I switched to Federal and have not found a dud yet.

Joe Flyrod


I run the skeet field at the local Fish & Game club. We have experienced numerous problems this season with bad primers in Remington Gun Club shells. In each case, the shell was struck several times, and often in two or three different guns to see if we could make it fire. A couple of others have had shell heads that were so concave that a firing pin couldn't reach the primers. I also had a shell that came out of the box with a hull that was so badly crushed that we could not get it into a chamber. I still have that one. If I knew how to use my son's digital camera I'd post a picture of it.

We go through cases of these shells, and usually have no problems. But when we do encounter problems, there are often more than one in the same box. Also, it seems to happen more with the 20s than 12s. Go figure.

Jim in Mo

Those bricks of Federal copper plated HP are fantastic! My Ruger MkII is most accurate with them and spits them out like nothing else.


Been shooting shotgun for years as a way to keep up on pulling the trigger and keeping use to the kick of a real gun and I never had a problem with factory shotshell ammo!

By the way did F&S ever think about giving you your own blog? ShotGun Nut would be a good start.

Take care and keep up the good work.




This past deer season, one of the guys at our camp had a nice deer in his sights but when he pulled the trigger all he got was a harmless click. So he ejects that one and the new shell he chambered did the same thing, as did the one after that! He was pretty pissed cause by the time he got through the 3 duds that deer was long gone, but the rest of us got a good laugh over it.

Tennessee Hunter Guy

The big 550 round boxes of Federal .22 lr shells are very prone to hang fires and no fires. Thats why I buy remington

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