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 shotgun ammunition needs” href=”” target=”_blank”>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.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (28)

  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.

  2. Thanks Dave, I enjoyed this recent article. It just so happened that I was in a Hunting / Fishing store looking for some target shells for trap shooting, when I noticed the marking “2 3/4 Dr Eq” on one box and “3 Dr Eq” on the other. I knew what it was referring too, but to be sure of myself I checked the Shot Velocity. The 2 3/4 compared to the 3 was 1180 to 1200. Assuming there is no deviation in type of powder, size of payload, or length of shell, the larger ‘dram eq.’ will have a little more kick than the smaller amount. Obviously, it will require more powder to behind the shot to make it go faster. Without any powder, the shot goes nowhere. The more powder in the shell the faster the velocity. Again, assuming you use the same size & weight shot. I read some of the other replies, but you have to remember who this article was directed towards. If you are just beginning and you’re worried about the “kick”, don’t get a shotgun and stick with your .22 cal rifle. On the other hand, if you are shooting 100 to 500 rounds in a day, yep it might make a little difference.

  3. Since as is pointed out, no one really has experience with shooting black powder loads out of a shotgun, drama has become a meaningless measure.

    Velocity in conjunction with shot size and weight is a better indicator of recoil.

    1. I agree .“Drama” is meaningless and so is the archaic “dram” measurement system.

  4. I will take issue with this information.
    Velocity is only half the equation.
    As a practical demonstration, a 2.75″ 00 buckshot shell providing an advertised velocity of 1300fps will only have about half the recoil of a 3″ 00 buckshot sell at the same velocity, because the payload is about double that of the 2.75″ shell (especially if the shells are from the same maker).
    It’s a lot more complicated than it looks at first blush.

  5. Hey, thanks Dave. I never gave it any thought at all. I just grab what’s cheap. The way we burn em up at my brother-in-laws range, cheaper is better. And cheap doesn’t seem to affect my Fury from cycling, so cheap it is. Although, now I will start looking, just for information sake.

    1. Enjoy Brother! And thanks for being a regular poster. I look forward to reading your comments. ~Dave Dolbee

  6. On one very lucky payday evening in 1973 I won a sawed off, double barrel, 10ga an several boxsof brass 00 shells. It was rather impressive. Pistol griped, 12.5” barrels, and those brass shells made a most satisfying sound as they slid into the breach. The busness end was akin to seeing the Hollond Tunnels as you are driving into them. I shot it exactly one time, nearly broke my wrist and if I’d not been holding the front with my other hand would have likely given me a scar in my forehead as well. The shells were black powder and very impressive. The 00 damage to the target 5 yards away was also … impressive. I traded it to a Marine Tunnel Rat for a very nice M3. I heard later that he was very successful with it in Tunnel clearing operations. Always wondered if he wore a wrist brace to fire it and how he breathed in those narrow tunnels once he discharged it! If that Corpral is reading this. Sure like to hear from you! Udon Thailand 73

  7. I just rechecked 3 of my boxes of shells. The Federals give drams. The Winchester and Remingtons do not give drams. They instead show velocity in feet per second. Many boxes that I have checked recently, no longer give the drams. Do you have any recommendations, or a crossover chart, on velocity?

    1. In my experience, something below 1300 fps is lower recoil, while above that is higher recoil. Common values I have seen are 1100 fps and 1285 fps, which I would put in the lower recoil category; 1330 fps and up to 1550 fps and beyond are higher recoil.

  8. Great article but there was also something very important left out. The weight of the shot or projectile. The heavier the shot load the more the felt recoil. So for those of you interested, a light load would be 2-3/4 dram equivalent powder load with a 7/8oz or 1oz shot weight in a 12ga. This can actually have less recoil than a 20ga. Since most 20ga shells are 7/8 oz but go out a smaller diameter bore the same load in a twelve gauge with a larger diameter bore will have less felt recoil. So if you are trying to teach a new shooter sometimes low recoil 12ga can be better than 20ga.

  9. Great article. I shoot Cowboy Action (though much less than in previous years) and low recoil is the holy grail, since in the shotgun stage you’d have to be pretty bad to miss the steel or the clay. In the old days, 12 Ga. non-reloaders would buy Estate low-recoil (or whatever it was called), which was a 7/8 oz. load of 7 1/2 shot, as I recall. Worked perfectly. Then Winchester reportedly bought out Estate and all that evaporated. Now we have “Drams,” which nobody understood. All anyone of us noticed was that recoil increased. That is just great for social work, but a downer for Cowboy competition. It used to be that folks who fixed things that weren’t broken did not mess with ammo. Now even that is sorta ruined. Hey, Buddy – If I like it, please leave it alone.

  10. The very first firearm I ever purchased was a 12 gauge shotgun. The only range anywhere near where I lived at that time only allowed slugs, no buckshot. I knew nothing at all about recoil: my family is not into owning guns, and I got into this on my own.

    Needless to say, that first time at the range was a serious learning experience. I came away from it realizing that I had to find a solution, which I did:

    A) I replaced the standard stock with a combination pistol grip/shoulder stock with recoil pad. Plus its adjustable, since at 6 ft and 190 lbs, I’m pretty much a medium size

    B) I exclusively use managed recoil shotshells. Seriously, you have no idea what a difference it makes. Especially for those of us who’ve had a scorching cases of arthritis since our early thirties 🙂

  11. Aside from dram equivalent and velocity, the other things people have suggested like the type of propellant are not really knowable by the consumer, so tenet don’t have much vague if you are in the store looking at a shelf of spot shells and trying to pick out a lower recoil load.As to the height of the brass case, you can have high our low recoil slugs or buckshot, both with the high brass case.

  12. Another thing that affects perceived recoil is the burn rate of the powder. Magnum shotshells generally use a slower burning powder which gives more of a hard push. The lighter loads use faster burning powder which gives a sharper, although lighter, kick. Now if I could just tame down a
    2 oz heavyshot blend turkey load.

  13. Re Dave Dolbee’s article on shotgun powder loads:

    Dave refers to recoil control techniques and devices and lists “dampeners”. I find it hard to understand how one can dampen (moisten or wet) to control recoil. Perhaps submerge the gun in water? I think the meaningful term would be “damp or dampers” (to suppress motion or intensity). Just a thought.

  14. I still load black powder shotshells with both lead and steel shot. My 10 gauge duck and goose load carries 5 drams of powder and is impressive on the shoulder…great fun.

  15. Another way to help get a general idea is if the shell is “hi brass” or “low brass”. The brass base on shotshells is not always the same. Lower power loads like those used for clay birds or some bird hunting is low brass, meaning the brass base is shorter. On heavier loads like buckshot, slug, or even some other types of hunting loads intended for things like geese that require a longer range have a taller base, allowing for a heavier powder charge. This is not divulged on the box, but popping open the top and taking a quick peek will reveal this. After you have seen the difference, it is obvious to a quick look.

  16. In the absence of dram equivalent ratings, I look at the velocity of the shot, which generally does appear on the box. Without getting into the finer points of physics that Leon pointed out, a velocity of 1185 or 1250 is low recoil, above 1300 and you get into the heavier stuff. Compare the velocities for the type of shot you shoot. The lower velocities for the same shot are the low recoil loads.

    1. As a shotgun shooting instructor, I agree with Jim’s summary on looking at stated velocities. And, the higher the weight of the shot loaded produces more felt recoil.

  17. Excellent. I am primarily a handgunner and really appreciate this feature. Added to my education.


  18. Robert,
    Other than contacting the manufacturer of your shotshells and asking what powder they use, if they’ll even tell you, no idea on that. On the other aspect of what info can help shooters estimate how much kick they’ll get in the shooting shoulder, I think of the physics involved. Without getting into the actual math, which is messy unless you have at least a Masters degree, just look at the weight of the payload and how fast it says on the box that the payload leaves the muzzle. Common example, a 12-guage 1oz. shotgun deer slug, in 2-3/4″ shell, in the famous green and yellow box, says it goes 1560 feet per second. That same weight slug in a 3″ shell, hence more room for powder behind it, with the big red W on the box, (darn, shot those all up) goes around 1700 fps, if I recall correctly. It takes more energy to move that same weight faster, given the same barrel length which gives almost the same powder burn time (shorter barrel=slightly slower velocity and more holdover required for same downrange target distance). Now, I also just compared two different companies’ products, so some of the added room in the 3″ might be occupied by a different wad design also, some of which are designed to try to soak up a tiny bit of the initial jolt when the powder first ignites … or it could be a hotter-burning powder formula … just sayin’ from my experience trying to zero scopes on my deer shotguns, before acquiring a rifle and having my area opened up to rifles by the state conservation folks.

  19. I have always wondered about why the dram weight was on shot shells. Thanks for informing me! Another question, if anyone can answer it for me is: is there any way to know what type of proellant( powder) is loaded into those shells? I hand load, and am having trouble finding pistol powder. I could preorder some, but I have found that shotgun shell powder and pistol powder are used for both. Meaning, could I , say, but a box of # 4 or buck shot, and use the powder from just that box, of course starting with a low charge, and work it up slowly? I also have quite a few . 38 special, .357 mag., and 44 mag cartridges that I have not yet “recycled” for the powder. I know it isn’t something that most would endorse to do as a regular process, but I am trying to get started on .357 Sig loads for both 124 and 147 gr bullets. Any opinions will be greatly appreciated. Thanks

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