Some of the methods discussed in this article are dangerous or even deadly. You attempt them at your own risk.
I feel like I need to tell you that I’m completely biased when it comes to shotguns. There’s just something about them - the satisfying click of the action, the roar of a big magnum load sending an ounce or more of lead downrange that satisfies me in a primal way.
If I could only pick one gun to take with me into the wastelands of post-SHTF America, it’s going to be a good old 12 gauge pump every time.
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When Your Ammo Runs Out
I’ve always been curious about one thing, and that’s staying power.
Even my shotgun, which should be easier than just about anything to keep topped up with handload ammo, isn’t any better than a Remington-brand club without lead and powder and primers.
How the hell are you supposed to take care of a weapon when supplies are short and times are tough?
Basic Shotgun Maintenance
If you’re prepared - and I imagine that the people reading this are better prepared than most -- you’ve got at least the bare minimum you need in order to keep your weapon operating.
But supplies don’t last forever.
As I see it, you’ve got five main concerns if you’re going to keep yourself stocked with shotgun ammunition after things go bad:
We’re going to tackle them in order.
Keeping a modern weapon running without the benefits of society is hard work. You might find it easier to buy a bow instead.
High-brass magnum shells aren’t a luxury you can afford when everything around you is going to hell.
In my opinion, and this is going to be a recurring theme, you’ve got to look to the past for answers. Before the 1960’s paper hulls were common. They were made around a sizing dowel by wrapping around layers of paper and glue and then sealing it up with wax.
Even the cartridge head and wadding can be made of paper if you get creative like YouTuber Tacome1942 did:
Now, there’s a reason why we don’t see paper shells much anymore. Even with a wax or varnish coating, paper shells are vulnerable to moisture.
They can swell up, stick in the chamber, or even squib out and fail to fire entirely if they get wet enough.
Recycling your old shells is probably the best choice, but if it ever comes right down to it you can make an entire shotshell out of paper, glue, and wax.
I’d think twice about putting homebrew paper shells in a tube mag, but aside from that they should shoot just fine.
Then only issue you’re going to run into is with extraction, by all accounts paper shells get stuck in the chamber a lot more often.
Homemade Black Powder
Smokeless powder represents hundreds of years of advances in chemistry and engineering. If everything around us is dusted, we’re going to have to get primitive.
Black powder is easy to make with ingredients you can stockpile or make yourself.
The simplest recipes use two ingredients:
With this mix, the charcoal acts as a fuel while the potassium nitrate is the oxidizer.
Combine the two, and you’ve got a crude explosive that’s powerful enough to send lead downrange.
Charcoal is easy enough to make, all you need to find is some wood and burn it in a reduced oxygen environment.
For instance, you could punch a small hole in the lid of a paint can, load it up with sticks, and toss the whole thing on a low fire for an hour or two.
Making Potassium Nitrate
Potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, is a little bit more complicated to make. Of course, you can stock up on it perfectly legally. But in order to make it at home, you’re going to have to learn a little bit of chemistry.
If you’re really dedicated, you can make potassium nitrate by peeing in a bowl full of wood ash and dirt.
Yeah, you read that right!
Dirt is home to bacteria that splits the ammonia in urine to simpler nitrogen compounds.
Wood ash is full of potassium hydroxide, which combines with simple acidic nitrates to make potassium nitrate.
After a few weeks, you can extract the mix with boiling water and leave it to evaporate, yielding crude saltpeter. In the Middle Ages, this is exactly how they made gunpowder.
Assuming your wife won’t be thrilled about having a bowl full of urine and dirt around the house, a better method is to use cold packs and salt substitute.
The NurdRage YouTube channel put together a quick guide.
After you’ve mixed your powdered charcoal and saltpeter, wet it slightly and run everything through a kitchen sieve.
This will yield a uniform powder that you can measure reliably and use it to load up your paper shells.
Making Your Own Primers
If you thought gunpowder was tricky, it’s nothing compared to impact-sensitive primers.
These things took hundreds of years to develop even after we figured out how to make black powder. The secret is coming up with a compound that will blow up when struck sharply, but won’t go off all on its own.
The easiest, is to use paper caps. You probably remember your cap gun when you were a kid, we’re talking about the exact same thing. It turns out that paper caps work pretty well as shotgun primers.
The real strength of a shotgun, at least in my opinion, is that you don’t need a precision cast and rifled slug to make a kill.
Casting shot is pretty easy to do, even when things are totally broken down and you’re working out of a boarded-up garage. If you’ve got a buckshot mold you can make beautiful pellets. But even if you don’t have one, you’re not out of luck.
See, molten lead can be dripped into water and it will form pretty perfect spheres if you do it right.
You’ll need to experiment a little to get the sizing perfect, but this is easy to do as long as you have a torch.
Here YouTuber gun nut shows us some tips and tricks:
Cleaning and Lubrication
Black powder shooters will tell you, muzzleloaders need a ton of cleaning. Even with modern powders, the rate of fouling and the amount of deposits left in the barrel are way more significant when you’re not shooting smokeless.
In order to keep your weapon clean, you’re going to need solvent and lubricating oil. Now, I don’t even want to consider a world without Hoppes No. 9, I like the smell too much.
But if things are dire you’ve still got options.
To remove powder and lead fouling, any of the below will work just fine:
Copper fouling is a whole different story, though. It’s not one we’re really focusing on with our hypothetical SHTF shotgun, but your best bet is probably just to scrub like hell.
Lubrication is another essential maintenance task.
You’re going to need some kind of grease or oil, just don’t mix and match. Here are a few options:
Just remember to clean everything up with solvent and then immediately lubricate to keep things from rusting up on you and your shotgun will be fine.
Is It Worthwhile?
I’ll be the first to admit, some of these suggestions aren’t super practical.
Making your own powder and primers is going to be hard work if you don’t have some sort of stockpile on hand. I still think it’s important that you know how it can be done.
If anything, it should give you a bit of appreciation for how easy we’ve got things right now.
Let’s hope that doesn’t slip away from us because when you consider how much we rely on society, the alternative is a pretty scary thought.