Bull Busters, Buck Busters, Poor Man’s Slug, Ringers. No matter the nomenclature utilized, all these colloquialisms refer to a method of shotgun shell transformation we’re going to call “cut shotgun shells.” These are shotgun shells which have been cut around the circumference of the outer hull. When these sliced shells are fired, they turn the shotgun shell itself (typically filled with birdshot) into a de facto “slug.” A neat idea, yes; but why would someone do this?
Why People Cut Shotgun Shells
The concept of the cut shotgun shell has been around for a very, very long time. My grandfather told me about when he was growing up in the Adirondack Mountains during the Great Depression, they couldn’t afford multiple guns and ammunition.
To keep meat on the table, the family’s lone single-barreled break-open Iver Johnson 12 gauge shotgun had to be used for everything from pest control to small game hunting to big game hunting. Usually all they had were birdshot loads to make do, so the old waxed cardboard shotgun shell hulls were transformed into cut shells, and used in lieu of slugs for whitetail deer hunting.
My grandfather bagged his first deer with a cut shotgun shell, and many other critters fell to him and that old shotgun using the same method. It was effective and inexpensive – two qualities that worked well in a poor region at a poor time.
And of course, this translates well into the emergency prepper mindset. Made do with all you have – and if all you have is a handful of #6 birdshot, this is a way of turning a less-than-lethal wounding hit with birdshot hit into a decisive, clean kill.
However, there IS a potentially severe danger involved. So, it definitely should only be used in emergency situations. Let’s dig deeper.
The “How” of a Cut Shotgun Shell
For Informational Purposes Only – Do Not Try This At Home.
How does one make a cut shotgun shells? Very simply, really. Take a convenient cutting tool and cut around the circumference of the shotgun shell, the round way. Make two cuts on opposing sides of the shell, all the way through the outer hull only. Don’t cut into the innards of the shell; you don’t want to disturb those. Make sure the two cuts don’t connect – leave a sliver of material between them, enough to keep the shotgun shell together.
However, you want to leave the remaining connecting material thin enough so that it will easily separate when fired. The best place to perform the cut is around the “shock absorber” portion of the inner shot cup wad – this way you don’t chance cutting through the wad petals and having a bunch of shot fall everywhere. Cut this way, there is also minimal risk of getting into the portion of the shell that houses the gunpowder propellant. Running a knife through there shouldn’t be a danger unless it sparks; the most pertinent danger is that gunpowder could be dumped out, igniting later at what could be a terribly inconvenient time.
A serious matter to note is that cut shells should not be used through a repeating shotgun, namely a pump, semi, or lever action. These almost always feed through tubular magazines, and the shells are raised into the chamber through a series of levers, arms, and cartridge stops. All of these parts are prime antagonists at catching and ripping your mostly-cut-through shotgun shell apart, jamming the action, or spilling shell contents everywhere. The cut shell concept should really only be used in break-open type shotgun actions for this reason. Better safe than sorry.
Why Cut Shotgun Shells?
Why would you do such a modification to a perfectly pristine and otherwise useful shotgun shell? Because a cut shotgun shell essentially transforms a column of birdshot into a single large plastic-cased bullet. Birdshot by itself has very poor penetrating qualities, especially when you get to ranges out past 10 or 15 yards or so.
At these distances, the shot turns from a relatively solid column of pellets into a rapidly-dispersing pattern that grows larger the further one gets from the target. While this is wonderful for shooting moving small game like a flushed partridge flying at full throttle, it is much less than optimal for dispatching large game. Small shot is very light and does not retain enough energy or velocity to penetrate deeply enough through heavier critters to do telling damage to bone structure or vital organs.
What the cut shell accomplishes is this. It keeps the mass of light shot coagulated together, encapsulated in the outer hull of the shotgun. This keeps the shot from dispersing, and creates a large, heavy, concentrated “slug” that can penetrate more deeply than just the shot on its own. I’m told that it acts very similarly to the shot-filled handgun rounds made by Glaser. It allows the projectile to penetrate, and then release a devastating array of shot once inside the target.
Related: Are Shotguns the Ultimate SHTF Firearms?
This causes massive tissue damage that would be hell to pay if anywhere near a vital soft organ. There are many stories online of people shooting deer in the boiler room with a cut shell, and the deer simply cease to carry on with what they were doing. Instantaneously. It’s a potentially tremendous advantage when you have an ammunition limitation, and worth a consideration when you’re in an emergency situation.
Why You Should Not Cut Shotgun Shells
Why just in an emergency situation? Because cut shells can be very dangerous. Not from the shotgun shells exploding or coming apart when you shoot them – but because of overpressure conditions.
How? Well, according to my trusty Vernier calipers, the outside diameter of a 12 gauge shotgun shell is 0.789”. The standard bore diameter of a 12 gauge shotgun is 0.729”. See where I’m going with this? The outside casing of the hull – the part that travels down the bore with the shot – needs to compress 0.060”, or almost 1/16 of an inch, while being booted down the bore by a tremendous pressure spike from the propellant behind it.
This compression isn’t easy to achieve, since the interior of the hull is filled with shot, and the shot isn’t exactly that compressible either. Getting the cut shell to accelerate down the barrel while being squished on all sides raises pressures ferociously inside a barrel that really isn’t designed to take a lot of pressure.
The Forcing Cone
Thankfully, most shotguns have what is called a “forcing cone,” which is a long, tapered length of the interior of the barrel. That gradually brings the shot down from the .79” or so of the chamber down to the bore diameter. If the bore diameter changed abruptly, you’d gave a 12-bore grenade on your hands. But this is the saving grace of the cut shell, if there was one to be considered; it allows the cut shell “projectile” to gradually be compressed.
However, one thing to keep in mind: Not all shotguns have equal forcing cones. What may work in one shotgun like greased lightning may put the boots to another. This is the reason I’m telling you not to do this unless you have an emergency situation.
The Shotgun Choke
You also have to remember the choke at the end of the shotgun barrel. The choke is another constriction in the barrel that helps regulate the cone of shot spread through more bore tightening. Improved cylinder chokes are minimal chokes and will provide the least constriction. Modified and Full chokes provide incrementally tighter bores – full choke bore diameters are .689”, squeezing that hull another .040”, providing that much more pressure. Granted, it’s at the end of the barrel and that alleviates the issue somewhat, but it still does cause a potential problem. The more open the choke, the better. Projectiles running through restrictions in the bore also increase recoil.
Another thing to watch out for is that the shotgun shell may become uncrimped as it travels down the bore, with the shot column pushing its way through the cut hull. This can leave the hull remnant INSIDE the bore of the gun. Pulling the trigger on another shotgun shell without clearing the bore will lead to the same results as having a bore blockage in a .30-06 or any other caliber. That means a catastrophic gun boo-boo at best, an exploding gun and wounded or dead shooter/bystanders at worst. So, this is problem number two with cut shells, and another reason repeating shotguns should be avoided if you need to utilize this trick. Always, always, ALWAYS check your bore every time after you drop the hammer on a cut shell.
Selecting the Shotgun to Use
This is a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” For the purposes of this article, I tried shooting cut shells. I decided on doing an absolute minimum number to do a single “danger test” and then to get a 3-shot group to test the accuracy.
I borrowed my brother’s H&R break-open 12-gauge shotgun, since it had a couple things going for it that would help my testing:
- it had no choke, as he had shortened the barrel to 20”,
- he’d found a very clever way to mount red dot scope, which provided me with a nice precise point of aiming,
- it was a single-shot break-open – no moving action parts to catch my shell and tear it open, and
- it was an inexpensive shotgun and if I blew it up testing it, I wouldn’t have to pull as much out of my wallet to replace it (provided my medical bills weren’t too high).
Testing the Cut Shell
We had a partially opened box of Winchester 2 3/4” shells, loaded with general purpose 7 ½ shot, low brass loads. I pulled out five of them, and using a utility knife, cut four of them up to test. Held up to the light, I was able to just see the dark band of the plastic shot wad. Using this as a guide, I cut just below it, about 1” up from the rim of the shell.
Related: Stuff that Works: Remington’s Model 870 Shotgun
I did find that the shell did sort of stretch out, if you will, when cut. I would say the wad is under a little bit of tension. This gave my shells a funky bent look – and definitely ensured that these wouldn’t be run through a repeating shotgun; they would have been torn open for sure.
My father came along to the pit to play photographer and to keep an eye on things in case they went awry. Better safe than sorry! We headed to the sandpit and dialed in some other firearms before digging out the H&R and the four mutilated shells I’d made. We set a couple paper targets up at 25 yards and dug out the camera. After a couple photos, I took the scope off in case the gun blew up (less expensive that way). I held the gun out at arm’s length, turned my head and body away while pointing it at the bank, and pulled the trigger.
Shooting the Shells
The gun went off, no problem. I stole a glance and was happy to see that there were no ka-boomed shotguns in my hands; everything looked fine. There was a divot in the bank where the projectile had hit, so I knew something came out of the end of the thing. I thumbed open the barrel. The gun opened smoothly but the ejector did not actuate, leaving me with a stuck shotgun hull in the chamber. Interesting. I had to assemble my range rod and plunked it out from the muzzle end.
An inspection showed that the cheap aluminum base of the shell had bulged slightly. It was just enough to stick the hull in the chamber and resist the pressure of the ejector. There were no barrel bulges nor where there stuck pieces of hull casing in the barrel; everything had performed as needed. Encouraged, I mounted the scope, loaded another cut shell, and lined up for some offhand accuracy work.
The results? Surprisingly good! The three shells landed on target in pleasingly close proximity. Not bad when you consider I made them with zero thought to precision while sitting at my kitchen table with a utility knife.
A group of three huge holes stood out glaringly from the target, in a cluster about 4” across. Recoil was very manageable, frankly much less than I’d expected. In fact, the recoil wasn’t much more than the follow-up standard birdshot control round I touched off immediately after. I then dug out the three Federal “Maximum” 2 3/4” 1 oz. slug rounds I had brought with me. I wanted to try these out as a control – to see if the accuracy of the cut rounds could match the accuracy of the real deal. As it turned out, the cut shells shot as well or better than the real slugs. This is probably due to decreased recoil – the 1 oz. slugs really booted out of that light little shotgun.
The real slugs were actually grouping almost off the paper, way off point of aim; the cut shells were just a couple inches to the left of point of aim. In the photo below, the group on the left was from cut shells, real slugs on the right. As a side note, the brass-based slug shells ejected out of the shotgun beautifully; I’m guessing the cheap Wal-Mart aluminum hulled shells don’t play nice with this particular shotgun.
Cut Shotgun Shell Conclusion
For the reasons I explained above, I will not use cut shells for general purpose use. My curiosity is satiated after trying them out for the purposes of this article. However, it is good to know that there is an alternative to the shotgun slug that can be had in dire emergency situations. Standard birdshot – even buckshot – is just not optimal for dispatching large game at longer distances. While I wasn’t able to do any ballistic testing (someone should forward me a recipe for ballistic gelatin!) or big game hunting with the cut shells, I have no doubt that they would be a vast improvement over birdshot when precise shot placement and deeper penetration is required. I’d hunt deer with these in a heartbeat if I needed to feed my family.
So, do me a favor – don’t do this unless it’s all you have and the chips are really, REALLY down. The possibility of blowing your shotgun or perforating your body just isn’t worth it. But keep it in the back of your mind, as a small trick that may someday keep you and your family alive or safe. Trust me, it works OK… in my brother’s shotgun. Come to think if it, let’s just shorten this to “Don’t do this.”
Want a wealth of information on shotguns? Read Shotguns: A Comprehensive Guide by fellow SHTFblog writer Steve Markwith.
- Markwith, Steve (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
Questions? Comments? Sound off in the comments!
I’m glad y0u mentioned the chamber / hull situation. When I look at the rear of the shotgun barrel chamber, I see the end where the chamber ends, the barrel begins. That line is where the hull crimp opens up to allow the shot wad to continue on. When that case passes that shelf . . . ???
Definitely makes me nervous.
I have read about cut shells before, and had been tempted to try them out. Thanks to your informative article, I’m going to leave this for an emergency. Most of us will be looking at a repeater for an emergency/survival shotgun, https://survivalcommonsense.com/the-top-three-firearms-choices-for-beginner-outdoorspeoplefeed/ so I hope everyone reads your whole story! Good post!
The correct (read safe) way of using a cut shell would be to cut off the shell at the wad, of a 16g shell, and insert it into a 12g shell. This is a little labor intensive which sort of defeats the purpose.
That’s dumb, then you’re wasting two rounds in a SHTF emergency survival situation.
really cool video of a cut shell in slow motion, fired into ballistics gelatin. It would seem that the penetration of the cut shell is poor; the cut shell just guarantees the shot all arrives at the same place at the same time.
Seems a bit iffy to me, a SHTF situation wouldn’t be the time to try new and potentially hazardous modifications IMHO. How about waxed slugs? I would appreciate an article on these. Thank you in advance! OR, maybe a shotgun insert that allows you to shoot say, .44 mag. out of your shotgun would be the ticket (at least for me)! Good Luck!
I don’t think there is a .44 Mag here, but there are quite a few others that will turn your 12 gauge into a multi purpose gun quick and easy.
Roger, I did a review a while ago for SHTFblog on a .38/.357 12 ga chamber adapter like you’re talking about. You can check it out here: https://survivedoomsday.com/13613/
that A snazzy little trick never seen that done before. I’ll have to try that out one of these days. thanks for the info.
If the front portion detaches from the rear of the shell, this means the pressure in the chamber is lower than it takes to open the front of the shotshell crimp. In the event the front portion of the shell did detach from the back, and get stuck in the barrel, wouldn’t the front portion open up, releasing the shot just like any regular time it’s fired?
It seems like barrel pressures would have to always be lower than they are normally. If they were greater, the front of the shotshell crimp would open, releasing the shot. Granted, it’d be hard to get the plastic shotshell casing out of wherever it got stuck in the barrel.
The hull opens into the forcing cone are of the barrel it’s wider than the rest of the barrel. It’s still really not what’s supposed to happen with a shotgun shell. Shoot enough of these and eventually something’s going to go horribly wrong.
If the front half of a cut shell did become lodged in the barrel, wouldn’t the pressure behind it simply open the front of the plastic crimp, just like any other shot would?
With a cut shell, it seems like your barrel pressures are lower than they are with a regular shell. If they were the same or greater, the crimp would simply open. (Granted, it would be hard to get the stuck plastic portion out of the barrel.)
Now a wax-filled shell would scare me, since if it did get stuck, and the pressure built up, the wax would have been melted onto the sides of the plastic, and might not just open the crimp the same way a load of shot would.
A red dot on a shot gun is not necessary. I understand this a modified “slug” but with a barrel that short I just do not see distance being beyond 25-30 yards. Especially with a cut shell.
It does look cool
The post about “Cut Shotgun Shells For Survival” is very nice.
This post tell about Shotgun, which is very necessary for survivals.
I have also watch the video and this is amazing.
Many many thanks for this post.
I beleive that the conclusion about the shell being incompressible and thus dangerous to be faulty in its entierty, i donot wish to lessen the writers most apriciated efforts nor debate werther or not it is dangerous.
Brenneke or slugs can be shot and squeesed through chokes with no issues to the best of my knowledge. The fins on tje brenneke is not there to add rotation theyre there to allow it to swage itself through chokes. Brennekes being invented at a time when shotguns had fixed chokes mostly were intended and used by these shotguns.
Non compressible pellets. Yes lets assume we use tungsten or steel pellets and allthoug steel and even tungsten is technically compressible lets just say its incompressible unlike the above obviously mentioned compressible lead fine.
Okay the pellets are pellets. Theyre in a compressible plastic or paper container, each imcompressible pellet or ball can slip and slide and just like a bag of marbles in your hand can be squeesed into another shape.
There is a way easier and safer way to do this. Additionally it works in a pump shotgun no problem. I use them in my 870 express all the time.
Step 1. Get a fine file or some sand paper, either some wax or tree sap.
Step 2. Take your shell use the crimped end that holds the shot in. Rub it on the file or sand paper until it is broken. Pull the end off and dump out the shot in a bowl or plate.
Step 3. Alternating between the two pour shot in a little at a time then wax then shot then wax. Repeating the process until the shell is full (leave roughly 1/8in at the end of the shell) . You should have some left over shot.
Step 4. Place a piece of thick paper or cardboard over the end of the shell. And allow to harden.
Step 5. Load them up and enjoy.
This way eliminates the need for the shells casing, thus eliminating the extra diameter issue. It also is slightly flexible allowing for compression. On impact they will essentially explode shredding anything in their path. You can find a video on YouTube illustrating this method and it’s effectiveness. I have never tried it with the sap however I’m sure it would produce satisfactory results. I just added it in to show an alternative on a situation demanding improvisation. You can find an article on Google easily for ballistic gel made from store bought gelatin. I can’t remember the brand they recommend or I’d post it too.
Cut shells were a lost art for a reason. That’s because they were improved upon. Not everything old was lost because folks have become pampered pussies. Great article though but with how much you emphasised the dangers I figured you would appreciate the modern alternative.
Well, stupid as it may sound, the cut shell would make a formidable slug from a homemade 3/4 pipe shotgun, as it would not be very compressed, if compressed at all (remember the gas column pushing behind, it can distort bullets, let alone a plastic wad and cut hull), the gas seal of the wad “could” expand to fill the bore and it could actually be quite accurate… So the best from out of about nothing…
I read a story in Field and Stream about a guy having to do this to shotgun shells. He was being stalked by a puma. Always wondered where the rimmed hole would be. He cut all the way around, but you two cuts seem better. Thanks
The reason cut shells actually worked better in years gone by is that we used PAPER SHELLS and paper compressed easily.
I haven’t checked lately but I know that some ammo manufacturers are producing new production paper shells. Modern paper shells from Rio, RST, and Federal would get you back to those times and far less chance of malfunctioning.