Throwback Thursday — Decoding Shotshell Markings to Determine Powder Charge

Winchester AA Tracker Shells

If you know only two things about shotguns—they go bang! and kick like a mule—you are only doing it half right. And, I am sorry to say, you know what it feels like to be kicked by a mule, but that is a story for another day. Not only does a shotgun NOT have to recoil like sledgehammer—it should not with the right ammunition and accessories.

Winchester AA TrAAcker 12 gauge shotgun ammo box
Winchester’s AA TrAAcker 12 gauge shotgun ammo. Note the 2 3/4 Dr. Eq.

Modern shotgun technology has incorporated several independent systems to reduce recoil; springs, dampeners, gels and rubber components are regularly used, sometimes in conjunction, to reduce recoil. Of course, the shotgun shell itself has a lot to do with felt recoil. The “secret” to determining the expected recoil and stopping power is printed right on the box.

If you’re lucky, occasionally you’ll stumble upon a box of shotshells that’s labeled “Low Recoil.” But most aren’t, which leads us to the one thing that’s still printed on nearly every box of modern shotshells produced today: Dram Equivalent.

The term “dram equivalent” is a holdover from the days when shotshells were loaded with black powder. Black powder is (or at least was) measured in “drams.” This is a weight measure, where 16 drams equal one ounce. At that measurement, 256 drams of black powder weighed one pound. (Trivia bonus! A pound of black powder is actually known as an “avoirdupois pound.”) All of that’s fine and good if you’re shooting a black powder shotgun—and that’s not likely. The shotshells you find on your retailer’s shelves today are, of course, loaded with modern smokeless propellants. These gunpowders are much lighter than black powder in the same volume, thus, loading a shell with smokeless powder using a black powder weight chart would be akin to shoving a small stick of dynamite in the barrel.

youth wearing orange safety vest and shotgun
Picking the right load for the shooter and need (target versus hunting or home defense) often dictates the difference between success and someone who will resist continuing in the sport.

What we end up with then is the term “dram equivalent.” The one word in that term that deserves the focus is “equivalent.” Paired with “dram,” this became a way for manufacturers to communicate to shotgunners the power of the charge in the shell. This gives the shooters an idea of how the shell performs—the amount of pressure generated by the smokeless powder compared to the black powder for which those first smokeless powder users had so long been accustomed. Those early smokeless shooters understood what 3½ drams of black powder in their shotgun felt like in terms of recoil and performed in terms of knockdown power. While there are few shotgunners today who know what shooting black powder shotshells really feels like, the rating system on boxes of shotshells stuck and is still used today.

The main takeaway you need to remember is the larger the dram equivalent, the larger the powder charge and more force the shell will produce.

For instance, most clay target sports mandate that shotshells be no more than “3 Drams Equivalent” in order to keep noise and the distance shot will travel minimized on public ranges. Clay target shooters also don’t want a heavy recoiling load, because such heavy loads will fatigue a shooter over a long day’s competition of 100 to 200 rounds or more. Many hunting loads carry dram equivalent markings quite a bit higher than that. Regardless, when you’re armed with the knowledge of what dram equivalents really are, you are better prepared to select the ammunition best suited for your intended shotgunning needs.

Have you ever considered the dram equivalent when purchasing shotshells? Know of another term that would be helpful to new or experienced shooters? Share them with us in the comment section.

This article was originally published in the National Shooting Sports Foundation First Shots Newsletter.

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Comments (27)

  1. Dave, I thank you for the time and effort that went into this, but as interesting as this history lesson is, it seems to me to be no longer fully relevant after a quick perusal of my 12 gauge ammo shelf. The only boxes that show dram equivalent are ones that were purchased quite some time ago. The Remington Target Load shows it, as do some older Winchester game loads. But they ALL show Feet Per Second. It doesn’t take a math major to understand that a load listed as 1600 fps is going to kick harder than one listed as 1200 fps.

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