Artillery projectile, cartridge case, or shotgun cartridge. It originated in the 15th century as a container for metal or stone shot, dispersed when the container burst after leaving the gun. Explosive shells, in use by the 16th century, were hollow cast-iron balls filled with gunpowder and lit by a fuse. Until the 18th century, such shells were used only in high-angle fire (including mortars). In the 19th century, shells were adopted for direct-fire artillery, notably in the form of shrapnel. Modern artillery shells consist of a casing (usually steel), a propelling charge, and a bursting charge; the propelling charge is ignited by a primer at the base of the shell and the bursting charge by a fuse in the nose. In rifle, pistol, and machine-gun ammunition, the word usually signifies the brass casing that contains the propulsive charge. In shotgun ammunition, the shell is the entire cartridge, including shot, powder, primer, and case.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
For the full entry on shell, visit

Seen & Heard

What made you look up shell? Please tell us what you were reading, watching or discussing that led you here.