Shotgun Reloading Like the Pros

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Shotguns – most people either love ‘em or hate ‘em, especially in action shooting sports like 3-gun.  It’s not so much the blasting away that bothers folks so much as having to load them.  

In most cases, shotguns have the most limited capacity of any gun used in an action competition.  At most, they’ll usually hold no more than 12 shells at a time.  That means that it’s likely that competitors will need to reload their shotguns with at least a handful of rounds in most stages.  Some competitors complain that their favorite multigun matches have become more of a shotgun reloading contest than anything else.  

Unless you are shooting a box magazine-fed shotgun like a Saiga, reloading a shotgun requires stuffing shells into a long tube.  And you’ll need to do that as fast as possible without dropping them because of course, it will probably be on the clock.  Fortunately, there are several good ways to do that.  

Load-Two and Quad-Loading

The most common way to load shotguns in modern action shooting is either the load-two (or duaload, or twin-load) or its close relative, the quad-load.  As their names imply, they are methods of loading two or four rounds into a shotgun at a time.  Load-two in particular is relatively easy to pick up even for new shotgunners and is a great place to start if you’re not sure what technique you should choose.

The equipment needs are fairly basic: a shotgun that has a loading port that supports load-two or quad-loading, and an appropriate shell carrier.

Shotguns not made for competition often have narrow loading ports that are good enough to get shells into, but not at the speeds and with the movements required to make these loading methods work.  You’ll need a gun that has a larger loading port with the edges smoothed and chamfered a bit like a magazine well on a pistol.  It’s also often a good idea to have the notch at the end of the lifter welded closed to avoid pinching your thumb.

Benelli Vinci, Benelli M2, Beretta 1301
The Benelli Vinci on top and the Benelli M2 in the middle both have modified loading ports, while the Beretta 1301 at the bottom has an enlarged loading port from the factory. The M2 also has a welded lifter, unlike the other two shotguns.

Load-two and quad-load carriers are designed to hold two shotgun shells end to end so that you can grab shells stacked together to be shoved into your shotgun one right after another.  With load-two, you’ll need to go back to the carrier after each pair of shells; with quad-loading, you put in two pairs of shells at a time.

Load-two carriers that are set up like the Taccom DuaLoad ($36) or the two-up setup Carbon Arms TWinS loading system ($72) can only be used for load-two.  

Taccom Duaload Shot Shell Caddy

Taccom Duaload Shot Shell Caddy

Prices accurate at time of writing

Carbon Arms TWinS loading system

Carbon Arms TWinS loading system

Prices accurate at time of writing

Quad-load carriers simply stack up load-two type mechanisms right next to each other. They can often be used for load-two as long as you can avoid accidentally grabbing extra shells.  Popular brands for those include Invictus Practical ($98) and Safariland ($85), as well as the Taccom and Carbon Arms quad setups.

Invictus Practical Shotshell Caddy

Invictus Practical Shotshell Caddy

Prices accurate at time of writing

Safariland Model 086 Shotgun Shell Holder

Safariland Model 086 Shotgun Shell Holder

Prices accurate at time of writing

Whatever loading system you choose, you’ll also need to pick between a belt-mounted option or a chest rig.  Belt-mounts are convenient because you’re probably already wearing one and carrying other gear on it. Chest rigs are helpful if you need to carry a lot of shells or if your belt is already full.

An Invictus Practical DeTurk Vest Lite Chest Rig Set Up for Quad-Loading
An Invictus Practical DeTurk Vest Lite Chest Rig Set Up for Quad-Loading

To actually perform the load, you need to decide which hand you want to use to grab your shells.  

Using your shooting, or strong, hand has the advantage of allowing you to use your (usually) more dexterous hand to grab shells.  Start by flipping your shotgun upside down over your shoulder, so that the loading port faces up, using your non-shooting hand to control the gun as you move. At the same time, you’ll grab two or four shells and slide each pair of shells into the loading port with a “petting” motion pushing the shells down and in.

The downside of loading strong hand is that the barrel can get very hot, so you may need to wear a glove on your other hand in shotgun-heavy stages.  And if you’re like me, you always run a minor danger of clocking yourself in the head with the stock of your gun.

Weak-hand loading is nearly the same.  Instead of flipping the gun up, roll it down and support it under your arm with your shooting hand.  Otherwise, the load is the same except with the other hand.  It’s a great option if you’re running your shotgun with your non-dominant hand.

No matter what you choose, the most important part of load-two and quad-loading is the grab.  Get a good grip on the shells in the carrier before pulling them out, and you’ll be set up for a successful load.

Caddy Loads

The old-school way of loading a shotgun, which you still see, uses caddies that stack three to four shells side by side.  The shells sit horizontal on the belt, and all three or four are grabbed at once with the strong or weak hand.

Normally, the hand not grabbing the shells supports the gun under the shooter’s strong side arm, but some shooters will continue just holding the gun on their shoulder as they load.  Either way, the loading port stays facing the ground or sideways as the rounds are fed into the gun.

Caddy loading requires a lot more dexterity and is a little bit slower than load-two and quad-loading.  Even with a lot of practice (and it’s needed!), it can be difficult to master.

It’s still a useful skill to have, though.  Caddy loaders are inexpensive and you can sometimes fit more shells on your belt with them than with other carriers.  They can also be a convenient way to separate out buckshot or slugs if you have a stage that requires just a few of those types of shells.

Just One More Round

The best tip I can give you to load shotguns like a pro 3-gunner is to minimize reloading in the first place.  That’s because misses are so costly in terms of the time needed to reload.  If you hit your targets one for one, you’ll be able to avoid spending extra time loading over what your competitors are doing on the same stage.  

However, it’s relatively common to need to load just one more round during a 3-gun stage.  It may be because of the dreaded miss.  But the stage designer may have included just one more target than the starting capacity of your shotgun in order to make you reload.  Or you might have run your shotgun dry and need to get a round in the chamber before loading more conventionally.  

In most modern, semi-automatic shotguns, the single-round reload is just a matter of getting a shell into the ejection port in the correct orientation and dropping the bolt.  The fastest way to do that is to use a MatchSaverZ or Stage Saver.  

They’re plastic clips attached to your shotgun’s forearm by a screw.  The clip holds a shell aligned with your ejection port so that the shell can be slid backwards off the clip and into the ejection port.  When combined with an oversized bolt release button, loading that one round becomes a simple sweep of the hand back and forth.  

Other One-Off Loads

Sometimes, the reason you need to load your shotgun is because different kinds of ammunition are needed in a stage.  You might need to shatter some clay targets with birdshot, hit some paper targets for score with buckshot, and whack a piece of long-range steel with a slug.  There can be penalties, or even disqualification, for using the wrong shells on the wrong targets, not to mention the frustration of trying to hit a 50-yard steel plate with birdshot instead of slug.  

One strategy is to “candy cane” load the rounds you need in the order that you’re planning on shooting the stage.  You’ll just need to keep count to make sure you’re using the right shells on the right targets.  

variety of shotgun ammunition
Color coding makes it easier to keep track of what’s what when you have a variety of ammo types.

Normally, though, you’ll load what you need as you need it.  It’s a good idea in most cases to segregate your “special” ammunition into a different carrier so you can remember to use that carrier to load those rounds.  You might also buy shells that are color-coded in some way – such as clear slugs and red birdshot.

In order to avoid switching back and forth too often, it can be wise to shoot all of the targets in a stage that require one type of ammo before going to the next type even if it might otherwise not be the most efficient stage plan.  

Taking the time to learn how to manage and keep track of ammo types while you’re shooting is a necessary shotgun skill in action shooting.  Keep it in mind while you’re practicing your reloading techniques.  

Shotgun loading might seem difficult and confusing, but it’s simpler than it seems…especially once you practice a little.  Dummy shotgun rounds ($30) are readily available and perfect for dry fire, so that you can learn the best way to keep your shotgun fed during a match without even going to the range.  

Brownells 12g Dummy Rounds

Brownells 12g Dummy Rounds

Prices accurate at time of writing

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