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The History and Art of Shotshells
Photos and text by Jon Farrar
During the early decades of the 1900s, shotshell boxes were graced with lovely typefaces and delightful artwork of game animals and hunting scenes.
MMMThe invention of gunpowder is attributed to the Chinese, probably before 1000 A.D. By 1250 A.D. it was known in Europe. Gunpowder was reported to have been made in America <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="RIGHT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD></TD></TR></TABLE> as early as 1675 but did not become an industry in the United States until 1802 when it was first manufactured by the E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company in Wilmington, Delaware. It was as inevitable as firecrackers that the invention of gunpowder would lead to firearm cartridges. Muzzleloading firearms were cumbersome and slow to reload. And, as soon as black powder cartridges were available, manufacturers began the search for a better gunpowder. When ignited, black powder produced clouds of dense smoke and it quickly fouled firearms. When automatic and semiautomatic firearms were invented in the late 1800s, the search for an alternative to black powder intensified.
MMMSeveral smokeless powders, also called nitro powders because their base ingredient was a derivative of nitroglycerin, were independently developed in Europe in the mid-1800s, including one by Alfred Nobel, the father of both dynamite and the Nobel Peace Prize. California Powder Works is credited with producing the first smokeless powder in the U.S. in 1893, but its use in sporting ammunition lagged behind military applications. Smokeless powder, unlike black powder, technically does not explode when ignited, but burns rapidly, releasing expanding gases. But gunpowder development was only one step to creating cartridges. First, muzzleloading firearms needed to be replaced by breechloaders.
MMMBreechloading rifles existed in the 1830s, and Union soldiers used them during the Civil War, accelerating their development and popularity after the war. Breechloading shotguns did not lag far behind. Before the 1870s, nearly all breechloading shotguns were produced by European gunsmiths and priced beyond the reach of the average American sportsman. Parker Brothers began producing shotguns in the U.S. in 1867 to make use of overstocked rifle parts left in warehouses when the Civil War ended. E. Remington & Sons and Dan Lefever foraged their first breechloading shotguns in the 1870s. Others followed. The development of affordable, American-made breechloaders set in motion an evolution of sporting shotguns. By 1900 the basic designs for shotguns and shotshells were established.
Brass Before Paper
MMMAll-brass shotshells were manufactured in America at least as early as the mid-1870s and could be ordered empty or loaded. There was much to recommend all-brass shells. Quality-grade shells could be reloaded almost indefinitely. Decades after paper shotshells had <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="LEFT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
Winchester first sold brass shotshells in 1877. Loaded brass shotshells were not sold until 1934, and then only as special orders. Brass shells could be reloaded almost indefinitely.</TD></TR></TABLE> claimed the sport shooting market, manufacturers continued to produce all-brass hulls because they were popular among shooters who either for cost or quality preferred to load their own. Until the mid-1950s they could be ordered loaded to a buyer's specifications in 10, 12, 16 and 20 gauges, but by then the less popular gauges had been discontinued.
MMMJust as there is no definitive answer as to who made the first breechloading shotgun, the first maker of paper shotshells with brass bases has long been debated. The C.D. Leet Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, is often credited with making the first paper-hull shotshells, perhaps in the early 1860s and certainly by 1869, when it obtained a patent. Paper-hull shotshells developed almost concurrently with all-brass shotshells, but the availability and popularity of factory-loaded paper shotshells lagged behind. During the 1870s and into the 1900s, sporting publications were filled with powder company advertisements, evidence of the continued use of muzzleloading firearms and that most sportsmen were hand-loading their own brass or paper shotshells.
MMMInitially, manufacturers sold primed but unloaded paper shells in boxes of 100. Sporting goods stores and gunsmiths often loaded shotshells for general sale or as special orders. Such boxes usually bore the seller's distinct label, and because they were produced in relatively small quantities are rare finds for today's collector. Two Nebraska examples are shotshells marketed by the Paxton & Gallagher Company and the Townsend Gun Company, both of Omaha. Such outlets introduced sportsmen to "store-bought shotgun shells."
MMMThe first machine-loaded shotshells are generally attributed to Frank Chamberlin of Cleveland, Ohio. In 1883 Chamberlin hosted J. Palmer O'Neil, president of the Pittsburgh Firearms Company, on a duck hunt. After dinner and over cigars, so the story was related in a 1908 Field and Stream article, Chamberlin said he had "built a machine that will load and crimp four hundred shells an hour." Chamberlin had one of his iron, brass and wood machines clamped to a table in a room where his shooting paraphernalia was housed and demonstrated its operation to O'Neil.
MMMField and Stream reported, "As a demonstration Mr. Chamberlin loaded fifty shells so speedily that his guest was astounded." Chamberlin later speculated on the thoughts passing through the industrialist's mind: "He saw before him a complete machine for loading shotgun cartridges, capable of operation by hand or power, and embodying devices for handling powder and shot in any desired charges, seating any number of wads up to four, crimping the shells and delivering them ready for use."
MMMIn 1884, Chamberlin patented his automatic loading machine and with O'Neil founded the Chamberlin Cartridge Company in Cleveland. An improved machine capable of loading 1,200 to 1,500 shotshells an hour was built at the cost of about $1,500. Chamberlin's machine was also sold to sporting goods houses that produced loads under their own name. Chamberlin's loaded shotshells swept the country, embraced by shooters who did not want the fuss of hand-loading or who saw the advantage of uniformly loaded shotshells. Sandy Griswold, the Omaha Bee's sporting editor, unabashedly endorsed them in an 1894 column, calling them "the best loaded shells in the country." As nitro powders came into common use in the late 1890s, uniformly loaded shotshells became even more desirable because improperly loaded nitro loads were dangerous in shotguns with weaker Damascus barrels.
MMMOther ammunition manufacturers could not ignore Chamberlin's popular shotshells at easy-on-the-pocketbook prices. Winchester marketed loaded shotshells perhaps as early as 1887 and Union Metallic Cartridge Company by 1890. Paper shotshells were quickly embraced by upland shooters, but waterfowlers clung to brass hulls that did not swell when wet, a problem eventually addressed with waxed and lacquered paper shells.
Chamberlin's success was also his undoing. He competed directly with two large ammunition manufacturers who supplied his company with unloaded shells and wads. Both soon suspended sales to Chamberlin. The only other sources for shotshell components were in Europe and tariff fees were prohibitive. By 1900, the Chamberlin Cartridge & Target Company was essentially out of the ammunition business. The company then concentrated on manufacturing mechanical traps and clay targets for the burgeoning interest in trapshooting. Remington Arms bought the Chamberlin business in 1933.
MMMWhile Frank Chamberlin's time in the ammunition business was brief, he left indelible footprints on the industry. Chamberlin and O'Neil introduced packaging 25 shotshells to the box. Before that time nearly all shotshells were sold unloaded in a pasteboard box accommodating 100. Several ammunition manufacturers produced ornately designed 100-shell boxes that came to be called "Christmas boxes" and were sold as gifts for the sportsman. Loaded shotshells, though, were heavy. The 100-shell boxes were prone to rupture, and retailers <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="RIGHT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
Shotshell boxes in the .410-caliber (67 guage, not 36 guage as indicated on the Peters shotshell box above) are especially valuable to collectors because fewer were manufactured and sold in that size. Early two-piece boxes such as those shown above are rare.</TD></TR></TABLE> demanded packaging for smaller quantities. Chamberlin and O'Neil quartered the 100-shotshell box and the first two-piece, 25-shotshell box was born. For years afterward such boxes were commonly called "quarter boxes," and they were shipped 20 boxes to the wooden case. A paper label revealing the contents and sealing the two-piece box set the stage for the delightfully ornate labels designed in subsequent decades. Chamberlin was also the first to sell shotshells loaded for specific game animals and feature artwork of those animals on the face of the pasteboard box, an advertising ploy revived by Remington in the 1920s.
MMMFrom the 1880s into the early 1900s, numerous brands of loaded and unloaded paper shotshells appeared on the American market. Some were manufactured and sold by major ammunition manufacturers, and many others by smaller companies that purchased components from suppliers and loaded their own. That period is a rich hunting ground for today's shotshell box collectors because many of the small company brands were short-lived and their cartridges were produced in small quantities.
MMMEarly-day shotshell makers that bring a glimmer of recognition to serious collectors include Austin Cartridge Company, Blatchford Cartridge Works, California Powder Works, Clinton Cartridge Company, American Buckle and Cartridge Company, Selby Smelting and Lead Company, International Cartridge Company, Standard Cartridge Company and dozens of others that had their time and vanished as large ammunition manufacturers crowded them out of the market or swallowed them up. One of the largest consumers of competition was DuPont, until stymied temporarily in 1912 by antitrust action. Some small makers of shotshells fought a good fight against the conglomerates. The Robin Hood Ammunition Company of Swanton, Vermont, for example, prominently displayed the words "Not Made by a Trust" in its advertising. The company's hope that American sportsmen would side with an underdog proved in vain. The Robin Hood Powder Company incorporated in 1898 and changed its name to the Robin Hood Ammunition Company in 1906. Robin Hood was sold to Remington in 1915. Shotshells were produced under the Robin Hood name until 1919.
MMMBy 1900, loaded paper shells were obviously the product of the future. Between 1887 and 1901 shotshell sales increased seven-fold. Six large American ammunition manufactures emerged from the fray in the early 1900s: Union Metallic Cartridge Company, Peters Cartridge Company, Remington Arms Company, Western Cartridge Company, Winchester Repeating Arms Company and United States Cartridge Company.
MMMThere remain many unknown details in the history of shotshells, and disagreement on dates and events. The records of most early manufacturers vanished years ago, some in fires, some discarded as smaller companies were absorbed into larger companies. It is clear, though, that the history of powder and ammunition companies in the U.S. is one of corporate cannibalism, of large companies swallowing up smaller companies that produced components they needed or were in competition with them.
Union Metallic Cartridge Company
MMMIn 1854, Jacob Schuyler, Marcellus Hartley and Malcomb Graham formed the Schuyler, Hartley & Graham Sporting Goods Company in New York City. Destined to become one of the largest sporting goods houses in the world, it provided cartridges and rifles produced by <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="LEFT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
The Union Metallic Cartridge Company merged with Remington in 1911.</TD></TR></TABLE> other manufacturers to the Union Army during the Civil War and amassed a fortune. In 1866, the company acquired two small cartridge companies, and the following year re-incorporated as the Union Metallic Cartridge Company (UMC) in Bridgeport, Connecticut. By 1900, Hartley was the sole owner of the company.
MMMUMC was probably the first U.S. company to produce and market all-brass shotshells in about 1868. In 1873, UMC acquired the patent rights to the C.D. Leet Company's paper shotshells and began manufacturing primed but unloaded paper shotshells in 10- and 12-gauge loads. Unloaded eight-, 14-, 16- and 20-gauge shells were added to the line in 1880, and four-gauge in 1883. UMC was probably the first American firm to manufacture paper shotshells in quantity. Some loaded shotshells might have been produced during this period but not on a commercial scale. UMC marketed its first factory-loaded Club shotshells in 1888. From 1891 through 1905, UMC added other lines of shotshells including New Club, Nitro, Smokeless, Lightning, Black-Club, Arrow, Nitro Club, Monarch, Majestic, Acme, Challenge, Expert, High Base, Magic and Primrose Club. Many lines of shotshells were sold both loaded and unloaded.
MMMIn 1888, UMC and Winchester purchased the E. Remington & Son's Gun Company. Remington cartridge lines continued under Remington's name. UMC bought Winchester's interest in Remington in 1896, and the merger of UMC and Remington was completed in 1911 under the name <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="RIGHT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
Winchester's unloaded Rival shotshells were first sold in 1884. Their 100-shell Christmas box, shown here, is highly sought by collectors.</TD></TR></TABLE>
Remington Arms-Union Metallic Cartridge Company. Beginning in 1910, Remington and UMC frequently shared advertising space noting the companies were: "Same Ownership - Same Standard of Quality - Same Management." The companies continued to operate independently until 1916 when the Remington Arms Union Metallic Cartridge Company incorporated. All of these corporate changes can be tracked on shotshell boxes and shotshell brass headstamps. Shotshell boxes produced by UMC during the 1870s and into the 1910s were plain, seldom employing colored artwork in the design except for the 100-round Club and New Club Christmas boxes. Game animals and shooting scenes were used on some early production Acme, Arrow, High Base, Nitro Club, Trap and Smokeless 25-round shotshell boxes.
Peters Cartridge Company
MMMThe Peters Cartridge Company was founded in 1887 by brothers Gershom and O.E. Peters and other investors. Gershom was the son-in-law of J.W. King, founder of the King Powder <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="LEFT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
The Peters Cartridge Company, founded in 1887, was sold to Remington Arms in 1934. A 1912 Outer's Book advertisement promoted Peters steel-reinforced shotshells.</TD></TR></TABLE> Company, one of the largest makers of explosives in America at the time. Gershom became president of the King Powder Company in 1881 upon the death of J.W. King.
MMMPeters claimed to be the first company to market "automatic machine-loaded shotshells," even though the company was founded three years after Chamberlin patented his shotshell-loading machine. In fact, Peters took Chamberlin's idea and made it better, bigger and faster. Unlike Chamberlin's invention, the Peters's machine was powered by a steam engine and did not require an individual to place components in the empty shell by hand. The Peters's autoloader, maintained by three workers, could produce 60 shotshells per minute, hour after hour, day after day. Because of reduced labor costs and volume production, Peters shotshells were immediately competitive on the market.
MMMLike Chamberlin, Peters initially purchased its paper shells from UMC, Winchester or U.S. Cartridge. When Peters moved to purchase the American Buckle and Cartridge Company of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1889, a manufacturer of unloaded shotshells, Winchester intervened and purchased the company. While Winchester acquired American Buckle and Cartridge Company, its machinery to manufacture unloaded cartridges was subsequently sold to Peters. By 1891, Peters was manufacturing its own paper shells under the trade name Prize. Winchester sued, but by the time the lawsuit was settled the patent had expired.
MMMIn 1895, Peters built its first shot tower to produce lead pellets, and soon was producing its own primers and wads. Because of its association with King Powder Company, a variety of gunpowders were assured. Peters had become a self-contained company independent of suppliers of shotshell components. By 1895 Peters was also manufacturing and selling loaded <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="RIGHT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
More than any other ammunition manufacturer, Peters Cartridge Company featured attractive art and designs on its shotshell boxes and in its catalog and calendar advertising.</TR></TABLE> metallic cartridges for rifles and revolvers. "The Company started originally with the single purpose of loading shells," Peters promotional material stated, "but the attitude of its competitors and the exigencies of its trade forced it into the manufacture of every thing pertaining to the ammunition business." At least in the short term, the big ammunition manufacturers had been their own worst enemies in squeezing Peters.
MMMBy the mid-1890s, Peters was selling cartridges loaded with black powder, smokeless powder and semismokeless powder, all produced by the King Powder Company located just across the Little Miami River from the Peters's factory at Kings Mills, Ohio, north of Cincinnati. Semismokeless powder, introduced by King in 1897, was a combination of smokeless and black powders. It was claimed to have the best qualities of both powders - the high velocity of a nitro powder with the low breech pressure of a black powder. King's semismokeless powder was nearly smokeless, did not foul firearms and was less susceptible to deterioration in storage than smokeless powders of the time. Peters discontinued using King's semismokeless powder in the mid-1930s, and the DuPont's superior Lesmok smokeless powder claimed the lion's share of the smokeless powder market.
MMMPeters's shotshells were the darling of shooters in the early 1900s, and many of its loads were legendary. Peters's League line was billed as a "capital shell for all ordinary purposes, strong and a sure killer." Referee shotshells were loaded with semismokeless powder and offered "a velocity equaling the best nitro powders, with low breech pressure" and could be purchased for slightly more than black powder shotshells. Ideal shotshells, with high brass and a cherry-colored paper, could be ordered loaded with all makes of smokeless powders. Victor shotshells had a medium-height brass, brown paper and were loaded with smokeless powder. Premier shotshells with high brass and blue paper were loaded with dense smokeless powder and were premium loads. High Gun shotshells, with medium-height brass and bright blue paper, loaded with dense smokeless powder were advertised as "medium price but high in quality." Shotshells in some of Peters's lines, as well as those of other manufacturers, were often made in more than one paper color over time.
MMMDuring the early 1900s, Peters's shotshells swept national trapshooting competitions and they were hailed by shooting editors. "The Peters Cartridge and Shotgun Ammunition company at Cincinnati, O., is building up a world-wide reputation for the superiority of their shells, and the perfect way in which they are loaded," wrote Griswold wrote 1894. "Their Quick shot shell is matchless, especially so when loaded at their factory. They have the largest establishment in the United States and are doing the bulk of the business in the line of loaded shells." Griswold repeatedly praised Peters shotshells, perhaps because they were arguably the best on the market or perhaps because of the influence of field representatives who made regular calls on underpaid sportswriters with a complimentary case of Peters's Victor or Ideal shotshells before each hunting season.
MMMPeters excelled at promoting its products in the early 1900s. Peters's advertising art appealed to shooters, especially the early Quickshot Christmas box showing nattily clad hunters shooting birds over their pointing dogs. Peters published booklets with information for shooters including game laws, lusciously illustrated calendars and magazine advertising. Peters was prominent at national trapshoots and trade shows and over the years sponsored a number of exhibition or trick shooters who traveled the country, among them A.H. Hardy, a Hyannis, Nebraska, native.
MMMWorld War I was an enormous boom for all firearm and ammunition manufacturers. Even before the U.S. entered the war, Peters supplied metal cartridges to the British and Russians. Peters modernized and expanded its factories, and soldiers guarded them around-the-clock for fear of sabotage. But Peters was also one of many victims of the Depression in the late 1920s and 1930s. Military contracts dried up and sportsmen tightened their belts. Peters spent heavily in the early 1930s developing improved cartridges, but the market did not reward the investment. Peters's plant slowed to three days a week. In the spring of 1934, all assets of the Peters Cartridge Company were sold to Remington Arms owned by DuPont, one of the nation's earliest and largest powder manufacturers. The Peters's factory at Kings Mills was closed by Remington in 1944. Remington continued marketing the popular lines of Peters shotshells - High Velocity, Target Load and Victor field loads - into the 1960s.
Remington Arms Company
MMMRemington Arms is said to have had its beginning in 1816 when 23-year-old Eliphalet Remington II built his own flintlock rifle on his father's forge in Ilion Gulch, New York. By the 1840s, E. Remington & Sons was building breechloading carbines for the U.S. government. In 1850 Remington developed machines to drill close-tolerance holes in steel blanks to manufacture barrels for rifles and shotguns, and was producing handguns. During the Civil War, Remington factories produced 40,000 rifles for the Union Army. Remington subcontracted the manufacture of metallic cartridges during the Civil War, but in 1871 began to manufacture its own and made brass shotshells as early as 1874.
MMMBecause of war contracts and sales of firearms to other countries, Remington expanded its operations rapidly. Sales plummeted after the Civil War and Remington diversified into peacetime products - sewing machines, typewriters, agricultural machinery and sporting firearms. Remington began marketing double-barreled shotguns in 1873. Still, the company teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1885, the cartridge works was lost in a fire. The following year Remington went into receivership managed by a board of trustees. In 1888, UMC and Winchester purchased the E. Remington & Sons Gun Company. It continued to operate independently and its name was shortened to the Remington Arms Company.
MMMThe manufacture of firearms remained Remington's leading business, although its line of cartridges were sold widely. Cartridges were the principal business of the company's UMC division. The names of the two companies were merged in 1911 to become the <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="LEFT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
The Remington Arms Nitro Club game-load series, produced from 1922 to 1934, featured wildlife species for which the load was developed. An advertisement for that line of shothsells was featured in the September 1930 Outdoor America magazine.</TD></TR></TABLE> Remington Arms-Union Metallic Cartridge Company and their products were advertised in one catalog. The name was again changed in 1916, to the Remington Arms Union Metallic Cartridge Company. Headstamps, box labels and advertising clearly identified the manufacturer as "Remington-UMC," which was displayed inside a red circle, the so-called the "Remington red dot" or with sun rays bursting out from it, the "Remington sunburst." Before UMC and Winchester acquired Remington, UMC had used a round red ball as its trademark.
MMMRemington expanded its operations in the mid-1910s, an investment that paid off in lucrative government contracts for arms and ammunition when the U.S. entered World War I. Part of Remington's expansion was the purchase of the Robin Hood Ammunition Company in 1915.
In 1920, the company's name was changed to Remington Arms Company Inc., but the combined name REM-UMC headstamp was used at least into the 1950s. During the 1920s, Remington began distributing and selling decorative patches with the company logo, expanded into the clothing and accessory business (discontinued in 1995), and registered a number of patents used to identify its ammunition - Wetproof, Hi-Speed, Express, Economy, Nitro Express, Arrow Express, Keanbore, Rustproof and Shur Shot. Remington's famous Kleanbore line of shotshells was introduced in 1926.
MMMIn the Depression, Remington again flirted with financial failure. In 1933 DuPont took control of Remington and its sunburst logo was dropped from cartridge boxes and advertising. Also in 1933, the new company acquired the Chamberlin Cartridge & Target Company (subsequently renamed the Chamberlin Target & Trap Works) for $66,000. In 1934 DuPont-Remington purchased the Peters Cartridge Company for about $2.5 million and the Parker Gun Company. In 1980 DuPont purchased the remaining shares of stock of Remington and the company became a wholly-owned subsidiary.
MMMRemington was the first American ammunition manufacturer to introduce shotshells with plastic hulls in 1960. For years, ammunition manufacturers had looked for a material to replace paper hulls. They experimented with aluminum and synthetic materials that were tougher, would not swell when wet, were less expensive and required fewer manufacturing steps. The production of paper shotshells was said to require more than a hundred separate operations. Dutch-made, all-plastic shotshells had been on the market, and functioned well enough except in semiautomatic shotguns. Remington's polyethylene hulls were prestressed by a "secret process to make them tougher than whang leather." The company claimed they could be soaked in water for a week or more and still fire properly. Furthermore, they could be reloaded many more times than paper-hull shotshells. In 1961, another year-marker appeared on all shotshell boxes manufactured and sold in the U.S. It was the warning "Keep Out of Reach of Children."
MMMRemington's most visually interesting and collectible line of shotshell boxes was the Nitro Club game-load series sold from 1922 through 1934. Harkening back to Chamberlin's similar series before 1900, 11 different shotshell loads were developed for specific game animals and the box of each adorned with artwork of that species, or of a species representing
a group, such as Dove Load, Duck Load, Grouse Load, Rabbit Load, Squirrel Load and Snipe Load. The rarest of the series is the Brant Load, made only in 1922, a box in good condition today fetching several thousand dollars. The skeet load was not introduced until 1928, and the 16-gauge heavy duck load was sold only in 1924 and 1925. Initially the game-load series was available only in Nitro Club loads but was expanded to Nitro Express shotshells beginning in 1926. The later loads did not identify the game for which they were intended on the top wad of each shotshell as had those in the earlier series. By 1934, Remington had begun to convert from two-piece boxes to one-piece boxes, and by 1936 all Remington shotshell boxes were one-piece.
Western Cartridge Company
MMMIn 1892, Franklin W. Olin, a Vermont-born engineer educated at Cornell University, and other investors formed the Equitable Powder Manufacturing Company at East Alton, Illinois, to manufacture black powder for use in area mines. Because the business was seasonal, Olin expanded his interests to ammunition and in 1898 incorporated the Western Cartridge Company. Western designed and developed a shotshell-loading machine, purchased a wad manufacturing plant, built a shot tower and invented equipment to manufacture empty shotshells. <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="RIGHT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
Western Cartridge Company merged with Winchester in 1931. Shotshells bearing the Western name were still advertised into the late 1950s.</TD></TR></TABLE> As Peters had done, Western became self-sufficient. In 1907 Western bought the Austin Cartridge Company of Cleveland, Ohio, and the National Cartridge Company of Belleville, Illinois, in 1908. Western also developed a method for making stable spheres of powder under water, a safer form of gunpowder patented as Ball Powder that eventually became the industry standard.
MMMBased on shotshell boxes shown in advertising, not an entirely reliable means of determining such matters, and Winchester records, it appears Western Cartridge was among the first, if not the first, shotshell manufacturer to abandon two-piece boxes for one-piece boxes in 1933. Some researchers suggest U.S. Cartridge Company began using one-piece boxes in the early 1920s. One-piece boxes were less expensive to manufacture, an important consideration in the 1930s.
In 1931, the Olin family risked much of its personal wealth and bought the floundering Winchester Repeating Arms Company to create the Winchester-Western Company. Western Cartridge Company continued to appear on ammunition boxes and in advertising, although Winchester immediately began attaching promotion of its firearms. Before the merger of Western and Winchester, Western shotshells bore the W.C.CO headstamp.
MMMShotshell lines produced by Western before the merger included: New Club, Sure Shot, Essex, New Chief, Climax, New Rival, Smokeless Special, Peerless, Marvel, Record, Field, Super-X, Xpert and Super-Trap Load. Western Super-X and Xpert shotshells were still advertised in national magazines as late as 1958. Olin began using the W-W headstamp in 1965 and by 1970 virtually all cartridges bore the Winchester-Western designation.
Winchester Repeating Arms Company
MMMAs with Remington Arms, the Winchester ammunition business grew from the manufacture of firearms for the military and sportsmen, especially its legendary repeating <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="LEFT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
Winchester's loaded Leader shotshells in two-piece boxes sold from 1894 to 1935.</TD></TR></TABLE> rifles. Founded in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1866, Winchester expanded to increase its ammunition manufacturing in 1873. Winchester empty, paper shotshells, with a W.R.A. Co. headstamp, were first advertised in 1877 and empty shotshells with WINCHESTER headstamps the following year. In 1883, the first Winchester shotgun cartridge line with a name, First Quality, was marketed. The following year Second Quality, Star and Rival lines were sold.
MMMMost Winchester shotshell production during the 1880s was confined to primed and unprimed brass and paper shotshells, wads and primers sold to sportsmen who loaded their own. Components were also sold to companies who loaded shotshells for sale. To control the manufacture and prices of ammunition, Winchester, along with other industry leaders of the time - Union Metallic Cartridge Company, U.S. Cartridge Company and the Phoenix Cartridge Company - formed the Ammunition Manufacturers' Association in 1883. During the 1880s, powder and ammunition companies were sprouting like mushrooms across the country. Some were selling loaded shotshells and Winchester's management saw the opportunity.
MMMThe first loaded Winchester shotshell was the Rival line in 1886, followed by Star in 1887. During the 1890s and early 1900s, many Winchester lines could be ordered with specific loads of either black powder or nitro powder. Some lines of loaded shotshells, such as <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="RIGHT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
Leader and Repeater were two of Winchester's most popular and long-running lines of shotshells. Artwork appeared on the boxes into the 1940s.</TD></TR></TABLE> Leader and Repeater, both introduced in 1900, were sold by Winchester for decades. Speed Loads were subsequently attached to the Leader line of shotshells. Speed Loads as a free-standing line followed and subsequently Super Speed loads.
MMMWinchester's frontline field shotshells in the late 1920s were described in company advertising: The high-brass Leader cartridge, "the finest smokeless powder shell science can produce;" the medium-height brass Repeater Speed Loads, "the utmost in long range, powerful loads;" the medium-brass Repeater, "a high grade smokeless powder shell that gives superior service at medium cost;" and the low-brass Ranger, "a dependable Winchester smokeless powder shell at a popular price." Increased velocity and range innovations dominated shotshell development in the early 1930s and Winchester heavily promoted its Leader Super Speed and Repeater Super Speed loads for "long range shooting;" and Leader, Repeater and Ranger shotshells for "average use." At the top of the list for Winchester shotshell box collectors are early Rival and Star 100-shell Christmas boxes adorned with colorful hunting scenes.
Winchester first marketed 25 shotshells to the box in 1904. Beginning in 1920, Winchester changed gauge designations on headstamps from, using 12-gauge as an example, "No.12" to "12 GA." Winchester adopted one-piece boxes in 1935. The most attractive of Winchester's 25-cartridge boxes are: New Rival boxes with art of two blue shotshells and Nublack black powder shell boxes with three flushing mallards, both in two-piece boxes; and the flushing
pheasant on Repeater loads, hunter and flushing quail on Leader loads and the pointing setter on Ranger loads from the one-piece box period. Hunting art was used on one-piece Repeater, Leader and Ranger boxes into the 1940s. In the years following the end of World War II, though, and certainly by the 1950s, Winchester shotshell boxes became distinctly uninteresting.
MMMWinchester, like Remington, was a more diversified company than UMC or Peters, whose primary product was ammunition. Perhaps as a consequence it often lagged behind in new production and component development. During Winchester's early years in the ammunition business, its automatic loading machines were considered inferior to Peters and UMC. Winchester is often credited with being the first American company to use smokeless powder in sporting ammunition in 1903. But Thomas Schiffer, in his book Peters & King, states that King Powder Company began production of smokeless powder in 1895 and Peters's 1896 catalog included shotshells loaded with it.
MMMIn 1926, Winchester bought National Lead Company, owner of the U.S. Cartridge Company. As Remington did when it acquired Peters Cartridge, Winchester allowed its subsidiary to maintain its identity in the eyes of consumers. The company name U.S. Cartridge persisted for many years on shotshell boxes for a good reason - many shooters were tenaciously loyal to particular brands and lines, and Winchester was more interested in controlling competition and harvesting profits than having Winchester shells in the pocket of every hunter and trapshooter.
MMMTo diversify and improve its profits, Winchester opened "franchise stores" in the 1920s selling a full line of hardware and recreation equipment, such as knives, flashlights, bicycles, tools and skates. The venture required large expenditures in the beginning of the Depression. In 1931, Winchester went into receivership and was purchased by Western Cartridge, becoming another Olin family industry. The new company was renamed Winchester-Western in 1935, only the beginning of ownership and name changes to come. In 1944 Olin Industries was incorporated and the Olin name added to Winchester advertising and products. Yet another merger in 1954 created the Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation, which was shortened to the Olin Corporation in 1969 with the clever corporate advertising line - "Call us by our first name." In 1981, Olin set Winchester off as a free-standing operation so it could better develop and market its products. The following year, Winchester shotgun and rifle manufacturing operations in New Haven, Connecticut, were sold to U.S. Repeating Arms, also in New Haven, under a licensing agreement with Winchester. Winchester continued to make sporting ammunition at its plant in East Alton, Illinois, and a smaller plant in Geelong, Australia. Today, Winchester claims to be "The world's leading producer of sporting and personal defense ammunition and produces small caliber ammunition for the U.S. Military and allied forces."
United States Cartridge Company
MMMThe United State Cartridge Company was incorporated in 1868 in Lowell, Massachusetts, by a group of investors including Benjamin F. Butler, a lawyer, entrepreneur and brigadier-general in the Union Army during the Civil War. His military record was checkered, as was his tenure as a U.S. Congressman, but he was an extraordinary money maker. By the early 1870s he had complete control of U.S. Cartridge Company.
MMMAlthough U.S. Cartridge never attained the stature of Peters or Union Metallic Cartridge, it suffered a similar fate. The National Lead Company purchased half interest in the U.S. Cartridge Company in 1910 and the remaining half from the Butler family in 1919. National Lead became a subsidiary of Winchester in 1926, but Winchester-Western apparently did not take full control of U.S. Cartridge until the mid-1930s.
MMMWhile U.S. Cartridge did not develop an extensive a line of shotshells, it had an army of loyal sportsmen. During the 1910s, U.S. Cartridge's advertising writers frequently referred to the company's ammunition simply as "the black shells" and many hunters, especially waterfowlers, would shoot no others. At that time, Romax, Climax and Ajax lines were all made with black paper hulls. By the 1920s, "black shells" ceased to appear in U.S. Cartridge advertising. Ajax Heavies, introduced in 1923, and Climax Heavies, introduced in 1927, were sold as "long-range loads." In the 1920s Defiance and Climax Heavies shotshells were made with red paper.
Ajax shotshells were the highest grade U.S. Cartridge shotshell with a one-inch brass base and available in either dense or bulk smokeless powder. It was promoted as: "Especially designed <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="LEFT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="344"><TR><TD>
Shotshells were sold under the U.S. Cartridge Company name from 1879 until 1931. Their Ajax Heavies loads were marketed as long-range shotshells and were popular with waterfowl hunters.</TD></TR></TABLE> for long-range work on ducks, geese and brant. Packed with the power of the thunderbolt, and lightning-fast" for "bringing down high-fliers." Climax shotshells had half-inch brass and were loaded with "most popular smokeless powders," either dense or bulk, and billed as: "Long the favorite of the shooter who likes to specify a particular powder. Comes in all standard powders and loads. Close-shooting, hard-hitting, game-getting…a high-grade, all-around shell that gives the shooter a choice of standard powders." Defiance was an inexpensive alternative: "A shell that gives a whale of a lot of shooting for little money. Loaded with No. 2 smokeless powder. Supplied in a variety of loads covering all shooting needs, a quality shell at a low price." Romax was U.S. Cartridge's black powder line with 5/16-inch brass.
MMMAdvertising in national outdoor magazines is a good, but imperfect, measure of when shotshell brands and lines were manufactured. Companies often continued to manufacture some lines because there was a large enough following among sportsmen to make it profitable, but they often did not advertise them extensively, if at all. The U.S. Cartridge Company name on shotshell boxes seemed to have vanished in outdoor magazine advertising after 1931, the same year Western bought Winchester, which owned U.S. Cartridge. In 1940 U.S. Cartridge won a substantial federal government contract to build and operate the St. Louis Ordinance Plant to make and store munitions during World War II.
MMMEarly U.S. Cartridge shotshell boxes featured a cut-away cartridge for illustration. Most had no more than a few words describing the contents and identifying the company. A small but ornate "US Ammunition" crest that appeared on some early boxes was later enlarged to cover most of the orange-colored box face. Ajax Heavies featured three Canada geese flying through a storm with lightning bolds, Climax Heavies had the bust of a happy hunter, Defiance loads had a pointing setter and the Defiance Trap Loads box showed a moving blue rock and shooters in the background.
Federal Cartridge Corporation
MMMFederal Cartridge was founded in Anoka, Minnesota, in 1917 by local investors after the Federal Cartridge and Machine Company had failed the previous year. The company closed for two years between 1920 and 1922 because of "production, sales and marketing problems," according to Federal's web site. In 1922, new management, which included Charles Horn, president of American Ball Company, assumed control. In 1929 Federal corporate offices were moved to nearby Minneapolis, but its manufacturing plants remain in Anoka to this day. In about 1930, Federal was acquired by Frank Olin and transferred to the Olin Foundation in 1938, probably to avoid antitrust regulations. In 1985 the company was sold to a group of private investors, and subsequent ownership changes followed.
MMMFrom the beginning, Federal seemed to have a single purpose - to produce firearm cartridges. Until 1924, when .22 caliber rim-fire cartridges were added to Federal's ammunition line, it produced only shotshells. Center-fire ammunition was not manufactured until 1963. Federal's most significant diversification came in 1975 when Champion Target Company and its clay target and trap business became a Federal subsidiary.
MMMFederal's first shotshells were sold in the 1920s under the trademark Hi-Power. Federal's growth was limited by the Depression and a market dominated by larger, well-established ammunition manufacturers. In 1923 Federal launched a marketing plan to sell <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="RIGHT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
Paxton & Gallagher Company of Omaha sold shotshells manufactured for it by another company.</TD></TR></TABLE> its ammunition in stores other than those specializing in sporting goods. For decades, Federal shotshells were on the shelves of mom-and-pop grocery stores, gas stations and cafes in small towns across the country. When convenience and discount stores appeared, Federal stocked their shelves, too. Today, Federal shotshells command equal space with the older ammunition manufacturers on the shelves of sporting goods outlets.
MMMAdvertising for all ammunition manufacturers was modest during the Depression. Federal's full-page conservation cartoons in outdoor magazines in the 1930s were one of the softest advertising sells ever in the shotshell industry. The only promotional words were: "We manufacture and sell excellent ammunition." Conserving natural resources and wildlife, and educating young shooters were Federal Cartridge themes from the beginning.
MMMWorld War II was a prosperous time for Federal, and the company emerged from the war more competitive. Federal was the first manufacturer to color code its shotshells by gauge in 1960, a convention soon adopted by other manufacturers. It converted from paper to plastic hull shotshells in 1965 and was in the forefront in the development of nontoxic shotshells, introducing its first steel load in 1973.
MMMFederal boxes did not have the variety or charm of some other companies. Federal boxes before 1920 featured a single green shotshell on a geometric starburst with a woodland lake in the background. Early Hi-Power two-piece boxes, and even later one-piece boxes introduced by Federal in 1936, were adorned with what became the classic Federal flying drake mallard. Trap load boxes and some .410 boxes featured the image of Charles Horn as a young trapshooter in a red shooting cap and sweater. By the end of the 1950s the trapshooter vanished, replaced by a bluerock being shattered and the flying mallard was reduced in a more modern box design.
Other Shotshell Retailers
MMMWhile ammunition manufacturers preferred to sell their own lines, they also produced shotshells to be sold under other companies' names. Out of this marriage came <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="LEFT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
Sears used art of a flying goose on shotshell boxes.</TD></TR></TABLE> shotshell lines sold by Sears Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Wards department stores, Gambles hardware stores, Western Auto Supply Company and others, widening the search for today's collectors for rare and unusual shotshell boxes.
MMMSears introduced its house brand of shotshells in 1906 and discontinued selling ammunition after 1983. Its Pointer line of shotshells initially featured art of a pointing dog with a quail in its mouth and later a staunch English pointer. Early two-piece
boxes had art of a flying mallard on the Mallard line and flying Canada geese on its Xtra-Range loads. The Clinton Cartridge Company, a subsidiary of Sears established in Chicago in about 1904, manufactured shotshells for the huge mail-order company in the early 1900s, as did Federal, Winchester-Western and American Ammunition Company of Chicago, Illinois, in later years.
Wards's Redhead line of shotshell boxes were graced with a flying Canada goose, in full color, a design later stylized as a silhouette. Sportsman Cartridge Company and American Cartridge Company, both of Kansas City, Missouri, produced Wards's shotshells in its early years, and <TABLE CELLSPACING="10" ALIGN="RIGHT" BORDER=0 WIDTH="200"><TR><TD>
Sears Roebuck & Company sold ammunition manufactured by a subsidiary, the Clinton Cartridge Company, from 1906 until the 1930s.</TD></TR></TABLE> Federal in later years. Low prices, not artistic design, characterized shotshell boxes sold by the Gambles hardware stores. Peters Cartridge Company made some shotshells for Gambles but in later years Federal was the manufacturer. Western Auto began selling sporting goods and firearms in 1931 and sold cartridges under the Revelation line, a name also applied to other sporting goods it sold from firearms to minnow buckets. Federal was also the principal supplier of Western Auto's shotshells.
MMMIncreasingly complex federal regulations controlling the sale of firearms and ammunition, and changing clientele, led to most general merchandize stores to drop their shooting sports departments and sale of ammunition.
End of an Era
MMMOnce shotshells boxes were graced with lovely typefaces, ornate designs and artwork of game animals, dogs, hunters and shooting scenes. They were something to admire during the lulls between decoying ducks. Today, some of those shotshell boxes, though fashioned only of wood pulp and ink, command prices of thousands of dollars as collectibles.
MMMThe number of shotshell brands, and lines within brands, declined as small manufacturers were consolidated into a handful of large companies during the 1900s. And, an agreement between ammunition manufacturers and the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1925 led to phasing out shotshell loads and standardized those retained. By the 1960s, the ammunition industry in America was dominated by two companies, both with early histories in the manufacture of gunpowder - the Olin and DuPont companies. Today there are essentially only three major ammunition manufacturers left in the U.S.: Remington, Winchester and Federal.
MMMVisually appealing shotshells boxes featuring game animals, vanished with the arrival of modern-design trends in the 1960s, and the control of ammunition manufacturing by corporations and investment groups whose directors probably never had seen a blue-winged teal in nuptial plumage. By the end of the 1950s, and certainly by the 1960s, shotshell boxes had become esthetically uninspiring. Ammunition manufacturers were eager to promote their product as new, up-to-date, modern, the best science and technology could conjure up in a laboratory of men in white smocks, and the design of shotshell boxes reflected that marketing philosophy. The magic and romance was gone.
MMMThe last breath for wildlife art on shotshell boxes came in the early 1970s on shotshell ammunition sold by Holiday gas stations featuring colored hunting scenes with mallards, canvasbacks, Canada geese, snow geese, cottontail and ruffed grouse painted by wildlife artist Les Kouba. Target load boxes depicted trapshooters and a bluerock being shattered. Holiday shotshells were initially made by the Alcan Cartridge Company of Alton, Illinois, and later by CIL Industries, a Canadian ammunition manufacturer.
MMMSomething intrinsically important was lost when hunting became yet another sport to be conquered by technology. The memories and dreams of times afield was diminished. Perhaps it is high time for a new Gershom Peters to appear on the corporate scene, call a meeting of his advertising staff and say: "How about we put a flying blue-winged teal on our shotshell boxes? I think hunters would like that." For shooters weary of technology, weary of fine print about foot-pounds-per-second, it would be a welcome step back in time.
~ ~ ~
Jon Farrar, author of this article, is a senior editor of NEBRASKAland magazine.
Shotshell boxes used to illustrate this article were provided by Marlenn and Clara Jobman, the 1897 Lefever shotgun by Lynn Stockall. Information about Peters Cartridge Company largely taken from Peters & King by Thomas D. Schiffer, Krause Publications, Iola, Wisconsin, 2002. Remington and UMC information was in part taken from articles by Jeffrey Hedtke that first appeared in Minnesota Waterfowler in 1995, 1998 and 2001. Additional information and critical review of this article was provided by Jeffrey Hedtke, Greg Champion, Victor Suelter, Craig Schainost, and Marlenn and Clara Jobman. Any errors in the article are the responsibility of the author.
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