Cut Shells and Other Shotgun Nonsense

    Shotguns seem to breed nonsense ideas more than any other type of firearm, except perhaps 1911s. That guy with a greasy John Deere cap who seems like his elbows are Krazyglued to the counter at your local gun shop is always happy to tell you about how shotguns are great because you can just rack the slide and criminals will poop and scoot. He may not have considered that scaring a person who is unstable enough to enter your home unbidden could have unpredictable consequences. Sure, they might just run away. Or they might empty their Hi-Point through your daughter’s bedroom wall. And greasy John Deere guy loves to tell you about how shotguns don’t need to be aimed. It’s almost like he’s never even fired one. Anybody who has spent five minutes with a shotgun can tell you that even a cylinder bore 18″ tube patterns tightly enough to cover with your hand at home defense range.

    But one of that hillbilly’s most favorite things to tell you about is how his pappy made cut shells that turned birdshot into slugs. Cut shells, if you didn’t already know, are a Depression era trick where you cut through the hull, but not through the wad of a shotgun shell in a spiral cut that barely overlaps but does not complete the circle. A small portion of paper or plastic still holds the hull together until, when it is fired, that part tears and the whole thing goes down the barrel: wad, shot cup, and hull.



    It does indeed hold the shot together on the way to the target but, as you can see above, it certainly does NOT function like a slug. When the assembly impacts the target, the shot instantly rips through the flimsy hull and the pellets penetrate about the same as they would if they were fired normally. That is, about 4″. That means that if you were afield when ruffians accosted you from a distance and all you had was birdshot, ringing the shells could make them a bit more effective. But it’s not remotely the sort of thing you should intentionally choose for defense, given other options. Not only does it penetrate far too shallowly to reliably incapacitate, the weakened hull can break in pump and semi auto shotguns, leaving tiny pellets to jam up the mechanism. Now this is the point where some folks are tearing their teeth out and madly typing a response daring me to stand downrange of a cut shell if I “think they’re so harmless”. Well, note that I never said they are harmless, just that they are far from a good choice. To achieve reliable incapacitation, you need to be able to get projectiles deep enough that they can put holes in vital organs even if they have to pass diagonally through a limb first or strike the torso at an odd angle or have to pass through bone. I mean, it’s not like the heart and lungs are encased in some sort of bone cage or something.

    It may seem that I’m being unnecessarily harsh here but these myths really need to die a brief but painful death before they get someone killed. Hopefully this article can also put to bed the oft repeated and equally stupid assertion that at close range birdshot behaves like a slug. This test was not only performed at close range, but the shot was physically held together by the hull until impact and the pellets still behave like, well, birdshot.


    Andrew is a combat veteran of OEF and has performed hundreds of ballistic tests for his YouTube channel, The Chopping Block ( He is an avid firearm collector and competitor and lives with his family in Arizona. If you have any questions, you may email him at [email protected]