No Russian hunter’s arsenal is complete without two dozen all-brass shells, oversized wad-cutter, a box of 1000 Berdan primers and a kilogram of black powder.
OK, I’m exaggerating, but only a little.
There were a number of reasons to use brass shells.
First, a brass shell can be good for up to 50 shots or more. So, even though they are more expensive than paper or plastic shells, the ultimate price per shot is considerably less. Besides, in the USSR a box of 1000 Berdan primers cost the same as a box of 300 Boxers, leading to more cost reduction.
Then, brass shells are more resistant to moisture, and cartridges can easily be made water-tight, while whoever made old Soviet paper shells couldn’t quite figure out waterproof coating. Finally, you don’t need sophisticated equipment to reload a brass shell, a stick with a nail at one side for removing spent primers will do.
Professional fur hunters preferred to get a few dozen of brass shells and reload them as needed – that also saved the weight and bulk of the load they had to carry to their hunting grounds. So did many country hunters, who lived a long way from shops and stores. Most city hunters preferred paper, but still kept a few brass shells as Plan B, because throughout the last century Russian hunters could never be sure they will be able to obtain factory ammo or reloading components for the next season. In the real bad days, especially in the country, the all brass shell was all a hunter could get anyway.
Today, brass shells are still used by some hunters, out of the same reasons (especially by small-bore lovers) but mostly out of nostalgia – “because that’s what Grandpa hunted with”. And so they’re still in production, along with cheaper but inferior bimetallic shells, in spite of their many drawbacks.
Brass shells are too heavy. They don’t work in most pumps, semiautos and even some ejector doubles, and even when they do, ejected shells are easy to lose, and you don’t want to lose brass shells. Besides, they require special oversized wads. More importantly, brass shells often pattern poorly in guns chambered for paper shells, as it’s more difficult for the shot column to work its way through the forcing cone, with more pellets deformed in the process.
Without crimping, it’s hard to secure the wads in a brass shell, which caused two problems. First, the front wad could get loose and the shot escaped; if it happened in the barrel (shell in one barrel shaken by recoil of firing the other barrel) this could damage the gun. Secondly, the load didn’t offer enough resistance to burning power to create the pressure buildup necessary for correct combustion of most Nitro powders. In big bores especially, Nitro loads in brass shells often resulted in hang fires, excessive muzzle blast and loss of velocity.
This is usually explained by the fact that Soviet Berdan primers were too weak for Nitro powders. Many ways to fix this problem were suggested, including enlarging the connecting holes and putting a few grains of Black powder under the primer.
Modern technologies could make living with all-brass shells much easier. For example, special top wads for brass shells, pictured above, work wonders for the tightness problem; I’ve used them extensively and never had an issue with eigher loose loads or powder combustion. But still the disadvantages of full-metal shotgun ammunition overweigh their disadvantages, and it’s small wonder these shells are not made or used anywhere else.