Safe and Sane Reloading
By Tom Wilson

If there is any activity that warrants safe practices, then everything having to do with firearms has got to be right up there at the top of the list. All involved with the shooting sports should have their own safety as well as that of all present, first and foremost, in mind at all times. As the title of this article indicates we are looking at safe reloading practices.

Shooters choosing to reload ammunition must avoid chamber pressure above the design working limits of the firearm being used. If the pressure is too high, catastrophic failure can result with many parts becoming unguided and potentially deadly missiles. Individuals reloading ammunition do not normally have means to measure chamber pressures. Therefore, reloaders rely on data from various reloading manuals. The firms publishing these manuals possess this highly specialized equipment and rigidly test the loads shown.

While this article deals with .45 ACP loads, these principles apply to all reloading regardless if it is for rifle, pistol or shotgun. This information is applicable to cast or jacketed bullets, and don’t think you can tinker with shotgun data and cram in just a little extra powder, shot or change any component and get away with it: you might, and again you might not.

Every reloading manual examined to date states something to the effect that “pressures and velocity will vary in individual firearms, start with the minimum load listed and work your way up carefully.” There are a large number of variables determining how much chamber pressure is developed from a particular load in a given firearm. It is often stated to use only the components published in the manual. Some primers are hotter than others, hotter primers result in higher chamber pressure. One reloading manual advises .45 ACP pistols can have varying barrel groove diameters from .451-inch to .453-inch. The proper procedure is to slug your barrel. If you are unfamiliar with this, the procedure is as follows; first make certain the firearm is unloaded. Obtain a pure lead ball or cast a pure lead bullet the same caliber as the barrel being checked, it should measure a few thousandths of an inch larger than the expected barrel groove diameter. First thoroughly clean the barrel. Obtain a wood dowel smaller than the bore and longer than the barrel being checked. Use a small hammer or mallet and carefully tap the test lead slug through the barrel. Arrange a towel for the test slug to drop onto so it will not be deformed. Next use an accurate caliper or micrometer to measure the diameter. Record your findings in your reloading notes. If the barrel slugs .451-inch it is best to use that diameter bullet. In the event someone tried to load .454-inch bullets (used in older .45 Colt chambered revolvers sometimes referred to as .45 Long Colt) in a firearm with a .451-inch groove diameter barrel this would be expected to increase the pressure. A recently manufactured .45 “Long Colt” chambered revolver barrel examined measured .451-inch. Other factors that result in chamber pressure variations include but are not limited to interior barrel finish, rough or smooth. With jacketed bullets the hardness and thickness of the jacket is a factor, also, is the bullet core pure lead or an alloy? The harder the bullet, the more force required to push it through the barrel. Cast bullet alloys will contain lead, varying percentages of tin, antimony, possibly silver, other trace metals and sometimes arsenic. Powder of the same brand and type can vary from lot to lot. Case capacity, the degree and type of crimp used, can affect pressure. These factors combined with individual firearm variables and we begin to see why widely varying results in chamber pressure can be seen with a given reload in different firearms.

While most reloaders can’t measure chamber pressure we can look for signs of excess pressure. Some signs are deformed cases, black carbon from escaping gas around the primer, excessively flattened primers, primers partially or totally blown from the primer pocket, difficult case extraction. Particularly with high powered rifle cases the case head immediately in front of the extraction groove or rim should not expand even .0005-inch, this is the area where the case head is solid except for the primer pocket and flash hole. These are just some indications. If you experience any one of these indicators it is time to back down. No one can look at a case and determine chamber pressure.

When developing a load, always cross-reference several reloading manuals. In recent discussions with a major component manufacturer as well as a very large mail order retailer, both representatives were extremely concerned with the attitude of some individuals (not all) just getting into reloading. They both speak with customers, on a daily basis, new to reloading. Some of these new reloaders have admitted to a dangerous practice of relying on word of mouth data from other reloaders. Others admit relying on data from Internet blogs. This is fine if you are trying out pickle recipes but not when it comes to reloading. Some seem to be willing to purchase a $1,500 firearm but are misers when it comes to buying reloading manuals. The only data to be trusted is from manufacturers of the component you are using, and then data must be double-checked, from at least two additional manuals. If you want to launch a certain bullet in your chosen caliber with a specific powder, look up the data in each manual and compare before loading your first round. Next, keep accurate records of the results obtained. You may think this triple checking as being overly cautious; however you will soon see why this is important.

The worst case reported came from an impeccable source; a gentleman employed as a firearms and tool mark examiner for a major metropolitan area. The incident involved a shooter new to reloading; he assembled loads for his high-powered rifle using a fast burning pistol powder. This careless reloader offered the first shot to a buddy. The firearm exploded killing the unsuspecting shooter. The reloader even had the powder type and weight marked on the box. The investigation determined that he did not deliberately try to do away with his friend - it was ruled to be a stupid mistake.

This article was prompted by the desire for a .45ACP load with a good terminal ballistic - a really good thump on the receiving end. The choice for this load development was a 200-grain cast lead alloy bullet and a desired velocity of around 1,000 fps. This would then become a predator load, as a 200-grain chunk of lead at that velocity will do a credible job on anything it hits. Now it was time to research the reloading manuals.

It is not implied that data shown here will be safe in any pistol other than the firearm tested. These loads appeared to be safe in the Colt 1911, all steel, U.S. made, 5-inch barrel pistol tested. The loads listed here very well may not be safe in any other firearm. Do not consider this article as a source of loading data because it most certainly is not. One set of data you will see shown here came from what would normally be considered as a reliable source. As you will see it is most certainly not acceptable.

First Manual Consulted

This is a current reloading manual published by a well-recognized manufacturer of reloading equipment. They advise a starting load for a 200 grain cast lead alloy bullet as 5.0 grains of Unique giving a velocity of a little under 700 fps. Their maximum load listed is 7.5 grains of Unique with a velocity of just under 1,000 fps.

Second Manual Consulted

This second manual was also from a very well known manufacturer of reloading equipment. It advised a starting load for 200-grain lead alloy bullet as 5.1 grains of Unique, with a velocity of just over 800 fps and that same 5.1 grains of Unique as their maximum load. This was interesting with their starting and maximum loads being identical.

It was interesting to note the wide variation in muzzle velocities published from the two aforementioned manuals. Only 1/10th of a grain powder difference reflecting muzzle velocity variations of over 100 fps. This is a classic example of different firearms with different 200-grain lead alloy bullets attaining a wide variance in velocity. The 100 plus FPS variance at 800 FPS is 12.5%, which is significant. It is a reasonable assumption that both results are reported correctly from these two manuals. The bullets, powder lot, possibly brand of primers, brass and different test firearms were not identical, and we haven’t even considered temperature, humidity, elevation or barometric pressure.

Third Manual Consulted

This data came from a well-known jacketed bullet manufacturer. It is generally accepted that a cast lead alloy bullet will seal the bore with less blow-by than a jacketed one. Therefore, data listed for cast bullets should never be used for jacketed ones. Comparing cast bullet data with jacketed bullet data is comparing apples to oranges. However, additional data was wanted and this prompted at least a look at this third reloading manual. It was expected that this data for a 200-grain jacketed bullet would show a little more Unique powder than the other manuals for lead alloy bullets. This manual showed a starting load of a little over 5 grains of Unique, no surprise here. The surprise came with their maximum load being a little less than 7.5 grains of Unique. Referring back to the first manual to confirm 7.5 grains Unique with the 200-grain cast lead alloy bullet as the maximum load. This was interesting and duly noted.

Fourth Data From The Internet

It was time to look at the data from another source since only two sources of loading data using cast lead bullets had been reviewed. Please note this information is from a well recognized reloading component manufacturer and not an Internet blog. They stated a starting load of 5.5 grains of Unique using a 200-grain commercially available lead bullet with no velocity shown. This is a heavier starting charge of Unique than the other sources of information but certainly nowhere near other published maximum loads. Next they showed their maximum load being 9.5 grains of Unique for a velocity of not quite 1,100 fps. This prompted concern as 9.5 grains of Unique is a lot of this powder inside a .45 ACP case. This was definitely an error. Fortunately the manufacturer caught the mistake and changed their information showing their top load recommendation in line with the above first two reloading manuals. This is a classic example showing the need to check double and triple check and if you see something suspect dig deeper.

After reviewing all of the reloading data it was time to head to the reloading bench. Starting load was 5.0 grains of Unique using the 200-grain cast lead alloy bullet. Loads were increased two tenths of a grain at a time. The charges from 7.0 and up to 7.5 grains of Unique certainly had the pistol speaking with authority. No load tested showed any sign of excess pressure. Every powder charge was weighed on an RCBS electronic scale. This scale has always checked out right on the money with test weights. As expected, the top velocity attained chronographed with an average just under 1,000 fps.

Reloading ammunition is a safe and fun endeavor if recognized data is used and it is cross-referenced. If three manuals will break you then sell your reloading equipment and buy factory ammo. Reloading manuals the author regularly refers to include; Hodgdon, Hornady, Lee, Lyman and Sierra. There are many other very good manuals available with reliable information - these are just the ones on hand. It has been printed repeatedly by many experts in the field: always start with the beginning load and work your way up cautiously. If you look at only one source of data and jump in at the maximum load you may have a startling surprise. Not enough can be said for check, double and triple check, after all it’s for your own good health.

Another good safety precaution to take when reloading is to have the cases upside down in the reloading block just prior to charging the cases with powder. As each case is charged start a bullet into the case to avoid the possibility of a double charge. This is quite possible with fast burning pistol powders. If using a progressive press have a light positioned to allow a visual check into each case after powder is dropped then immediately start a bullet into the case. There are several makers of powder level check dies that can also be installed on progressive presses for a visual powder level check.

Good shooting, make em all safe, and return to the range of field for another enjoyable outing.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (May 2012)
and was posted online on March 23, 2012


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