Cut Shells

shotgun shells

Caliber Condition - LivingThere are many tips and tricks that have fallen out of use over the decades as firearms technology has evolved and improved. While most people will never need to learn how to “fan” a single action army or quickly reload a black powder rifle, there are some tips and tricks that are still useful today. One of them is cut shells. These improvised rounds are easy to make from just about any standard shotgun shell using target or birdshot loads.

What Are Cut Shells?

A cut shell is made by cutting into the hull of the shell just below the shot cup. The location needs to be directly over the power piston but not all the way through the hull. The goal is to leave a small bit where the hull is intact to keep the whole thing together. You can see the location I am referring to below on a royal 00 buckshot shell.

Example of where to cut to make a cut shell. However do not cut all the way around, some overlap is needed.
Example of where to cut to make a cut shell. However do not cut all the way around, some overlap is needed.

So why did people make cut shells? Well they are essentially “poor man’s slugs”.

Today’s shotgun slugs were not developed until 1898 by Wilhelm Brenneke. Before Brenneke’s slugs shotguns slugs had been loaded with musket balls or “pumpkin balls”. These were inaccurate and simply inferior to Brenneke’s slugs that would self stabilize without rifling.

However cut shells were a product of need arising out of the great depression. With so many poor and rural farmers looking to hunting to put food on the table, cut shells became a solution when hunting for small game and a larger animal came along.

Below you can see cut shells in action over at IraqVeteran8888’s channel.

The best candidates for making cut shells are birdshot loads, as the shot will penetrate and then rapidly disperse in a tight pattern, with more potential for a devastating wound at shallow depths. While a standard shotgun slug will penetrate much deeper than an improvised, cut shell. The cut shell will cause more damage during the initial wound track.

Now I’m sure that many of you are thinking, a shotgun slug with low risk of over penetration and dumping an entire birdshot load into a 12 gauge wound? Sounds perfect for home defense. Well not exactly. Cut shells have one major drawback that make them less than ideal for use in a home defense shotgun. Because the hull of the shell has been intentionally compromised the force of being transferred from a magazine would tear the cut shell apart, rendering it useless. So at best, any shotgun using a cut shell should be considered a single shot only. Obviously making it a poor choice for home defense.

So How Are Cut Shells Still Useful?

Much like they did nearly a century ago cut shells make an excellent alternative when hunting with limited resources. The usefulness of being able to transform a birdshot shell into something that will be far more likely to take down a deer a close range is undeniable. Furthermore at distances up to about 40 yards they provide greater accuracy than a simple ball slug.

One point that frequently comes up about cut shells is causing a pressure spike in the rifle. However I have been unable to find any evidence that shows that this is anything more than a rumor. The powder is not being compressed, which would definitely cause a pressure spike. Furthermore cut shells are normally made from low brass birdshot loads, not higher pressure, high brass, or magnum loads. If there is any increase in pressure from using a cut shell, any shotgun able to fire high brass loads safely should be able to fire cut shells safely as well. The issue with making a cut shell from a magnum load is not the higher pressure, but the absence of the power piston that helps stabilize the cut shell “slug”.

Below Barry from IraqVeteran8888 lays to rest a number of myths about cut shells to rest from his decades of experience using them.

Cut shells are also analogous to another, more modern bullet design, Glaser Safety Slugs. Both cut shells and Glaser slugs use the same basic principle. A wad of birdshot carried by a projectile that quickly dumps all of its energy into the target. Below IraqVeteran8888 again shows us how a cut shell using bird shot will perform when using target loads.

Hopefully this article has given you some insight into cut shells and added another trick into your survival bag. While not always the most practical solution for your needs, knowing about this little trick just might come in handy. So despite being a rarely seen tip, with the ease of creation, and ready availability of shells to make good cut shells, this little improvised round lives on.