© 2014 Grant Cunningham Click to email me!

Nosler announces a new 6.5mm rifle cartridge - but will it sell?

The 6.5mm caliber offers tremendous possibilities but just can’t seem to make many inroads in the U.S. market. Can Nosler’s new hyper-performance iteration gain a following for my favorite mid-range bullet?

Head shots and ricochets.

Can you count on your bullets always penetrating? You’d be surprised how little it takes to send them someplace other than where you intended!

Would you use a .22 for self defense?

One of the interesting things to come out of Greg Ellifritz's study of ammunition effectiveness was how well the .22 Long Rifle worked - or, at least, appeared to work. By some measures, it performed better than the vaunted .45 ACP! There is a small but dedicated group of people out there who seized upon this data as proof that the .22 is in fact the most deadly cartridge ever made by man. After all, they insist, the figures don’t lie!

This is what's known as anomalous data: data which doesn't fit the expected distribution. How, then, do we explain it?

Ellifritz took this on in a recent blog post, and it's worth reading to understand all of the variables which go into something as complex as bullet performance - and why single numbers, as preferred by some researchers, are never enough to tell the whole story. Be sure to read the comments as well, as there are some very intelligent analyses being done by his readers too.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Testing gunpowder, circa 1850.

One of the modern conveniences which we take for granted is smokeless powder. It's stable, predictable, and stores for a very long time. It's also not hygroscopic, meaning that it doesn't readily absorb water - a really good attribute for a propellant!

This wasn't the case with early gunpowder, which we now refer to as black powder. (Even that's not quite accurate, as the black powder of today is considerably more reliably formulated than that which was available in the 19th century, let alone before.) In the days of percussion arms, powder was not as consistent as today - and that's before factoring in the non-dessicated storage conditions! As a result it was often necessary to test a keg of powder to determine how good it was. How do you do this without things like piezoelectric pressure transducers and electronic chronographs?

The answer was the eprouvette. While the form might vary from country to country (or from maker to maker), the idea was to fire a measured charge the suspect powder in a device that had a known amount of resistance. The amount of resistance that the powder charge could overcome was used to compare to other, known lots of powder.

Firearm Blog recently showed some great pictures of a Belgian eprouvette, and the concept is very easily grasped. These are quite rare today; they were made in very small quantities compared to firearms. Have a look and marvel at what our ancestors went through just to keep from blowing themselves to pieces!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Panic in the streets: ammo edition.

For the last couple of months I've been hearing rumblings about stocking up on ammunition for, well, whatever: zombie apocalypse, riots after the election, natural disasters, what have you. (I actually heard a non-gun-person refer to the "zombie apocalypse" just the other day. This is now getting out of hand.)

Rob Tackett over at the TacStrike blog has an
interesting article about panic buying and hoarding of ammunition. It's worth a read, and he presents an interesting point of view.

At the same time, I think we need to consider the possible actions of the prohibitionists who may try back-door gun control via ammunition restrictions. While I don't think ammunition can be outlawed altogether, a steep tax or purchase limits - either of which would likely pass Constitutional muster - would severely hurt our ability to train or engage in any favorite shooting sports. A stash of ammunition, properly stored, serves as a sort of buffer against such artificial supply constraints.

That buffer allows us to continue our favorite activities without worrying where our next box of hollowpoints are coming from. Think of it as a pantry; we have pantries so that we don’t have to go to the store every time we want so much as a snack. (Like a food pantry, an ammunition pantry - when purchased at normal cost - is also an inflation hedge, but not so much when bought at price-gouging panic prices.)

It's all a matter of perspective and priorities. If you're hungrily stacking cases of ammo in anticipation of widespread civil unrest, ammo that you're just going to sit on and fear the expenditure of even a few rounds, that's probably not terribly rational. If, however, you're buying moderate amounts on a regular basis with an eye toward having a back stock that allows you to train and practice without worrying about running completely out, I think you have your head set squarely on your shoulders.

-=[ Grant ]=-

The bullet jump controversy.

I got an email recently from a reader who asked about .38 Special accuracy when fired in a .357-length chamber. There is, as he noted, a lot of speculation on the topic: some saying they're less accurate, some saying it doesn't matter, and others saying that there is no way we'll ever know for sure.

I'm not at all convinced about that last one, but the first two opinions are both correct - under some circumstances. Some years ago I experimented with this, and what I found comes under the heading of "it depends."

The concern is that the unrestrained jump of the bullet from the shorter Special case causes instability and thus inaccuracy. A Magnum chamber is longer from the rim seat (the area at the back of the cylinder where the rim makes contact) to the chamber throat (the narrow area at the front of the cylinder that guides the projectile into the barrel.) When a Special cartridge is inserted into the longer chamber, the bullet has to travel a distance (called "jump") before it reaches the narrower throat. In this distance, it's thought, the bullet can yaw slightly.

I've done up this little graphic (greatly exaggerated and not to scale) to illustrate the situation:

Notice the area between the bullet and where the chamber mouth begins - that's the freebore area where the bullet's travel is unrestrained and, according to theory, starts to wobble to the detriment of accuracy.

A number of years back I did some experimenting by loading the same bullets in .357 Magnum and .38 Special cases, and adjusting the velocity so they matched. I found that sometimes the Specials did show a loss of accuracy, while at other times they didn't. (I had one case where accuracy with Specials actually improved.) Why the variance? If the bullet jump is responsible for accuracy degradation it should be consistent, and it certainly wasn't.

The answer is that the freebore is only part of the equation.

As I've written before, one of the most important contributors to accuracy in a revolver (and the MOST important when shooting lead bullets) is the chamber throat. Assuming that the bore diameter is correct, a throat which fits the bullet precisely will deliver greater accuracy than one which is oversized (or undersized to a great degree.)

If the throat is larger than the bullet diameter - say, .001" or better - accuracy drops off. If the throat and bullet match, accuracy will generally be at its best. If the throat is slightly (up to .001") smaller than bullet diameter, jacketed bullets will usually show a falloff in accuracy but lead bullets usually won't, at least not to the same degree. (More testing is needed in this area, however, as I don't have enough data points with smaller-than-bullet throats to reach a definite conclusion.)

When the throat diameter was the same as the bullet diameter, there was generally little to no difference in accuracy between the long and short. When the throat diameter was larger, however, the Specials were usually less accurate than the longer cases. Someone doing the same experiment but not taking into account throat/bullet diameter matching would probably reach different conclusions, which I believe is the source of the varying opinions and the reader's confusion.

More experimentation should be done, however, to eliminate other variables such as the angle of the transition between chamber and throat and any surface irregularities in that area.

I also would expect the same dynamics to apply to larger calibers such as the .44 Magnum and Special, though I have no experimental data to prove my supposition.

-=[ Grant ]=-


Evidence in the Trayvon Martin case - and how it affects you.

The Armed Citizen's Legal Defense Network (of which
you should be a member) has published an interesting look at the Martin/Zimmerman case in their June newsletter. The Florida courts, as their law requires, released all of the evidence related to the case a couple of weeks ago. In his article, Marty Hayes looks at a portion of that released evidence and makes some observations which might be useful to those who carry a firearm for self protection. I recommend you read the article.

One of the more intriguing bits was the condition of the area around the entry wound on Martin's body, leading to some speculation about the exact distance from muzzle to contact. This will, as Marty clearly points out, require ballistic testing of the gun and identical ammo to determine at what distance the test matches the evidence.

Since the court will likely not let the remaining ammunition in the gun be shot (that would be destruction of evidence), they'll need to get exemplar rounds (rounds which match exactly the ammunition used) to make those tests.

I point this out because there is still a vocal subset of people who insist that carrying handloaded ammunition for self defense is a perfectly good thing to do. (I do not know if Zimmerman did or did not; that probably won't be known until the testing progresses.) If Zimmerman did the smart thing and carried factory ammunition, all the defense will need to do is contact the manufacturer and get a box or two of the same ammunition, preferably with the same lot number. The results from firing that ammo in his gun should then match the results from the shooting, which will allow the defense to precisely determine the distance from which Martin was shot.

The testing could help validate Zimmerman's claim of self defense. Given his recent tribulations over bail revocation, he may need all the objective help he can get.

If this were a case where the shooter handloaded his ammunition, regardless of how carefully he kept records, the results of the testing would likely not be allowed into evidence. I won't go into detail as there is copious reading material available on this subject, but the bottom line is that the courts generally don't allow the defendant to manufacture evidence for his/her defense. If someone in a similar situation used reloaded ammunition, he'd be at a double loss: not only would the courts not allow the ammo in the gun to be used to support his claim, they wouldn't allow any other self-manufactured ammo to be used either.

It's not about what's "legal", it's about the rules of evidence - and they work differently than you might expect.

The supporters of handloaded ammo constantly repeat the refrain "if it's a clean shoot, then the ammo won't matter." Is the Zimmerman case a "clean" shoot? At this point I don't think anyone would be stupid enough to say that it was. It may turn out that he was completely justified (or not - we won't know until a jury comes back), but the arbiter of a "clean" shoot ultimately isn't you, or me, or the cops, or the DA - it's the jury. A shoot isn't "clean" until a jury says it is, and the ammunition used is going to be one factor in their determination.

It's something of a Catch-22: in a clean shoot the ammo wouldn't matter, but we don't know if it's a clean shoot until the jury has decided it was, and part of their decision making may involve having the ammo tested, which means the ammo DOES matter. See the problem?

This is why I only carry factory ammunition in my guns. I use my considerable reloading skill and experience to craft practice rounds that duplicate my carry ammunition in bullet weight, velocity, recoil, and point of impact, which I use only for practice or training. When I load the gun for defensive use, I put in ammunition made by someone who can supply a certified duplicate of what I've used should I need to shoot someone. Their word about the composition of the ammo will be accepted by the court, where mine wouldn't. This way I can practice cheaply and still have the backing of a reliable third party in case I need it in court.

This is also why I only carry ammunition from a major manufacturer. I don't carry "boutique" ammunition, the kind made by small speciality manufacturers, because a) those companies tend to go in and out of business with disturbing frequency; b) I don't know if they have the resources or motivation to keep samples of every lot produced in case it's needed by a court; c) I don't know if they have a credible witness who can get on the stand and testify to both the composition and chain of custody of the evidence they've provided. I know Winchester, Federal, Remington, and CCI/Speer can and do, and so I load my guns with their products.

(I also never use ammunition made by a company which is not a member of SAAMI, but that's another article for another day!)

-=[ Grant ]=-

Ed Harris: America's Greatest, The All-Around .30-'06!

(Editor’s note: Today I’m pleased to bring you another Ed Harris article - this time all about the .30-06 cartridge. As you’ll soon learn, Ed is a HUGE fan of the ’06 and has probably done more experimenting with it than any ten people you’re likely to find. In it are Ed’s recommendations for bullets and loads for an incredibly wide variety of uses. As always, any reloading data is used at your own risk; always start 10% below the listed charges and work your way up, watching carefully for pressure signs.)

America's Greatest, The All-Around .30-'06
By C.E. Harris (Rev. 7-8-94)

The most popular deer camp discussion for generations has been that of the proverbial "All-Around Rifle". What would be YOUR choice if you could have only one rifle? Forget the apocalyptic, "Red Dawn" scenarios and consider only the present, and the realistic future. For me, the answer is plainly obvious. A .30-'06 bolt-action, because there's not much a skilled rifleman and handloader can't do with it.

Some years ago I was invited with a group of gun writers to a "bring your own rifle" hunt in Texas. One of the scribes was intent on doing a survey of what the "experts who could pick anything their heart desired" did, in fact, choose. The fellow doing the survey had built his own wildcat, just for the occasion. Of the dozen or so "experts" in attendance besides our wildcatter, one was a fancier of the .270 Winchester, and the rest of the rifles in camp were all .30-'06 boltguns. Now THAT would have made an interesting article, but the wildcatter, who had embarked with other ideas, never wrote it, a shame to be sure.

My gun rack currently holds six .30-'06 rifles, if you don't count the half-dozen or so extra barrels for my switch-barrel silhouette, target and bench rifles. My first .30-'06 was a DCM M1903A3. My second was an M1 Garand. My third was a custom Winchester Model 70 target rifle with Hart barrel and stock by Roy Dunlap. I'm sure my early exposure to highpower rifle competition, ROTC, handloading, DCM ammo, a particularly fine lot of TW54 Ball, and some even better LC63 National Match ammo had something to do with my love for the .30-'06. But, 30 years later, as I inspect and care for the brass I've hoarded, it still makes sense.

The variety of factory loads in .30-'06 is greater than for any other American cartridge. When handloading options are added, the possibilities are simply staggering. To keep it simple, five classes of .30-'06 loads cover all possible uses for a rifle. These are: small game and gallery loads; light varmint and target loads; service rifle loads; long range loads, and big game loads. There is, understandably, some overlap, as a "service rifle" load with match-type bullet becomes a fine "big game" load, with the substitution of a hunting-type bullet.

I recommend the .30-'06 handloader keep a limited selection of powder and bullet types which have flexibility for multiple purposes. One "reduced load" powder, one "service rifle" powder and one "long range or big game" powder will do it all. Similarly, for bullets, one light cast bullet plinker, a 160-180- gr. gas-checked target bullet, a "general purpose" 150-168-gr. jacketed hunting or match bullet, and a heavier 180-200-gr. target bullet for the serious hunting or long range shooter rounds out the whole menu. This enables you to produce economical, safe, and effective ammunition without accumulating odd lots of components which cause problems for storage or disposal later.

With this goal in mind, I'll describe each load class, and make some recommendations based upon my experience.

SMALL GAME AND GALLERY loads are quiet and low-powered, intended for use at 25 yards or less. I use them for indoor target shooting, and camp meat for the pot. They are also fine for easing the transition of youngsters from a .22 rimfire to a big game rifle. Cast bullets are best for this purpose. Light, jacketed bullets may be used, but require caution, to ensure that the bullet's bore-exit is totally reliable.

Most rifles produce 3/4" groups or less at 25 yards or in proportion to 100 yards. A few shoot ragged holes at 50 yards after load refinement. Light .32 revolver bullets can be used, but more satisfactory are heavier bullets from 130-170-grs. I cast these of soft backstop scrap, and shoot them tumbled in Lee Liquid Alox, without sizing or gascheck. I use the same NEI-52A, Saeco 322, or Lee .312-155-2R bullets I normally use, but without the gascheck. The Lyman #311291 and RCBS 30-150FN also work well for these light loads. Typical charges for plainbased loads are 5-6 grs. of Bullseye, SR-7625, W231, Red Dot, Green Dot or 700-X.

You can safely increase these charges up to 2 grains as needed to get best accuracy, but they will lead above 1300 f.p.s. unless gaschecked. Some individual rifles with smooth barrels shoot quite well up to 7 or 7.5 grs. of these powders, but best accuracy is usually obtained when velocities are kept subsonic.

I generally look for a velocity of 1080 +/- 30 f.p.s. These loads will usually shoot 2-1/2" to 3" groups at 100 yards using minor visual defect culls, which is OK for practice. The minimum safe load which will always exit the barrel for indoor gallery work is about 4 grs. of the above powders.

More caution is required when assembling subsonic loads with jacketed bullets, because there is some risk of the bullet becoming lodged in the bore at near-subsonic velocities. You should not attempt to use less than 6 grs. of the above pistol or shotgun powders when loading jacketed bullets unless you check the bore after every shot and keep your hammer and ramrod handy!

There are important safety considerations for all reduced loads. I don't recommend heavier charges with pistol powders (even though some manuals list them) unless the particular powder is bulky enough (like Red Dot), that an inadvertent double-charge fills or overflows the case so an error is immediately obvious on visual inspection. Extreme caution must be used with dense powders such as W-W231 in reduced loads, because even a double charge is hard to see with all that airspace, so an error is not apparent. If you use fast pistol or shotgun powders in reduced loads, ensure the charge is light enough that a mistaken double- load will only blow primers, rather than destroying the rifle!

Spitzer bullets generally give poor accuracy below about 1600 f.p.s. due to gyroscopic instability, blunt round- or flat-nosed bullets are best. The 100-110-gr. .32-20, .32 H&R Magnum and .30 M1 Carbine bullets are often suggested for small game loads, but in my experience won't produce 1" groups at 50 yards, my accuracy criteria. Any decent .22 rimfire will shoot 1" groups at 50 yards, and a center-fire small game load should do as well, right?

The most satisfactory jacketed bullet reduced loads are assembled using my standard 200-yard target charges used with gaschecked cast bullets. Accurate boltgun practice loads which will shoot "on" at 200 yards close to your normal 600-yd. sight dope with either 150-175 gr. pulled GI bullets or 150-200 gr. cast, gaschecked bullets are: 12-13 grs. of Red Dot, Green Dot or 700X, 15-16 grs. of #2400, 18-20 grs. of 4227 or 21-23 grs. of 4198.

My favorite jacketed bullets for reduced .30-06 loads are the bulk Remington 150-gr. .30-30 soft points. This is because I keep them around to load .30-30s, but they are highly accurate at minimum velocities and are also suitable for mild '06 deer loads with 35 grs of 3031 or RL-7, which approximates .30-30 ballistics.

The 123-gr., 7.62x39 spitzer FMJ bullets give good plinking accuracy above 1600 f.p.s., using the above listed "200-yd. Target" charges.. Grouping is improved by increasing the charge, not to exceed 27 grs. of #2400 or 30 grs. of 4227 which approximates 7.62x39 ballistics. With 150-gr. .30-30 bullets, do not exceed 25 grs. of #2400, which gives 2100 f.p.s., a nice deer load for youngsters, women, or elderly hunters with pacemakers who can't take the recoil of a full '06.

"SERVICE RIFLE" loads approximate the performance, and accuracy of military "ball" or "match" ammunition for target shooting over the National Match Course. It is important that the powder charge, bullet type, and ballistic parameters not vary significantly from arsenal ammunition, in order to ensure they function as intended in semi-automatic, quasi-military arms.

The ballistics of Ball M2 service ammunition, (2740 +/- 30 f.p.s.) with a 150-gr. spitzer, flatbased bullet are approximated in GI cases with a charge of 47.5 grs. of current Hodgdon or IMR 4895, or 50 grs. of IMR-4064 or Olin's W-W748. Accurate Arms 2015BR and 2495BR are also suitable using the charges recommended by them. In commercial brass these powder charges intended for GI cases may be increased 1 grain. These are fine match loads for offhand and 200 rapid in the M1 using the 150-gr. Sierra MatchKing or the new 155-gr. "Palma" bullets.

Prior to the introduction of the 168-gr. Sierra MatchKing, the 125-gr. spitzer was favored for 200-yd. offhand and sitting rapid-fire stages of the National Match Course. These are highly accurate, and ideal for the reduced scale courses for use by junior shooters, to reduce costs and minimize recoil. The charges for 150-gr. bullets, listed above, function the M1 rifle and are accurate. They also make dandy woodchuck loads.

WITH 168-SIERRA OR PULLED GI MATCH BULLETS a charge of 46 grs. of 4895; or 48 grs. of 4064 or 748 approximates .30-'06 M72 match ammunition (2640 +/- 30 f.p.s). With 168-gr. match bullets, these charges may be increased 1 grain, but if the 180-gr. Sierra MatchKing is used (a GREAT 600-yd. bullet for the M1) they should be REDUCED the same amount. I do not recommend slower powders or heavier bullets for the M1, because heavier charges of slower powders operate the mechanism with more force than service ammunition, and may damage the operating rod or other parts. You are free to use the "long-range" loads below in your Springfield or M1917, and they also work well for hunting loads in bolt- action rifles, using soft point bullets of the same weight.

"LONG RANGE" loads are heavy target loads for bolt-action match rifles, intended for use at the 600-yard stage of the National Match Course, and for longer ranges, such as 1000 yard events. The loads which follow are for use in bolt-action rifles only. (Semi-auto and slide-action rifles should be used with the "service rifle" charges listed above).

I consider it routine for all long-range target loads in boltguns to uniform the flash hole diameters with a No.2 long center drill, and the primer pockets, using the Whitetail Match-Prep tool. In addition, I neck turn all cases to 0.011-0.012" neck wall thickness, and check-weigh all cases to +/-3 grains to ensure uniform powder capacity. I used to check cases to +/- 1 grain, but while this is appropriate for a small case like a .223, in the '06 it is "measuring with micrometers while cutting with axes! Uniforming flash holes, primer pockets and neck wall concentricity gets you the most improvement. Weighing cases is only used to isolate the extremely "heavy" or "light" ones.

These can still be used for load development, or for slow-fire standing stages. Don't pitch them. In boltguns cases should be fire-formed in the particular rifle they will be used in, and then neck-sized only, using a Jones sizer with .330" ring or Lee collet and dead-length seater.

It is entirely unnecessary to weigh every powder charge if you use a good powder measure and consistent technique, but you should always verify the measure setting with a scale when you set up. My favorite powders for long range loads in the .30-'06 are either IMR or Hodgdon 4350. Accurate Arms has their own brand of 4350, which works well using the loads they recommend. With Hodgdon or IMR 4350 powder, using commercial cases with an average weight of 185 grs., and either Winchester WLR or Federal 210M primers, I use 56 grs. with the 180-gr. Sierra MatchKing, 54 grs. with the 185 Lapua, or 53 grs. with the 190s at 600 yards. For windy days at 600 and for 1000 yards I use 52 grs. with a 200-gr. Sierra MatchKing.

Overall cartridge length is 3.40", or adjusted to clear the lands upon chambering by 0.010" to 0.030". You should avoid "jamming" bullets into the rifling, but "jump" should not exceed 1/10 of the bullet diameter. These cartridge exceed magazine length and are intended for single-loading only. If using these charges for hunting loads with softpoint bullets, to be magazine fed, reduce the charges 1-1/2 grains. Powder charges should also be reduced 1/2 grain for each 5 grain difference in average case weight to compensate for heavier military brass.

Some people like slower powders such as 4831 for long-range loads in the .30-'06. While I have found that 58 grs. of H4831 works well with a 200-gr. bullet, it doesn't group as well for me as 4350 with the lighter 180-190-gr. bullets. Always pick the best grouper over whatever the chronograph says. If grouping is equal, for matches pick the bullet which is the better wind bucker. The 200-gr. Sierra Matchking is the best choice in .30- '06 boltguns for 1000 yards or for windy days at 600.

"GAME LOADS" for deer and larger game can be based on the target charges above, with seating depth and powder charge adjustments for magazine feeding of hunting-type bullets. While heavy bullets are preferred for elk, moose or bear, the average hunter after deer will be best served with one load, which he knows well. I want my hunting loads to approximate factory ammunition, so if I run out and must buy a box somewhere, I'll not have to check my zero, and scare all the game away.

With a 150-gr. spitzer soft-point, 52 grs. of IMR-4064 or W-W 748 in commercial cases approximates the factory 2800 f.p;.s. velocity. With a 165-gr. boattail, 56 grs. of 4350 is a dead ringer for Federal's Premium load. With the 180-gr. Nosler Partition, 55 grs. at 3.30" overall cartridge length, in commercial brass, approximates the 180-gr. Federal Premium load. With either load reduce charges a grain if using GI cases. For larger game such as moose, elk, or bear, the "long range" loads above work well with premium big game bullets of the same weight.

In semi-auto or slide-action .30-'06 hunting rifles the "service rifle" charges listed above should be used. These are somewhat less than maximum, and provide very satisfactory game loads with a hunting bullet of the same weight.

Summing up, the .30-'06 is the most versatile American center- fire cartridge, and has not been improved upon. If you have leftover pistol or shotshell powders around, you can load .30-'06 practice loads with it and have alot of fun for not much money. If you keep Red Dot or 700-X around for loading skeet and trap loads for your 12-ga., or if you have #2400 or 4227 around for loading .410 skeet loads or a magnum caliber handgun, you don't need to buy another powder for reduced loads. The same is true if you keep 4198 around for your .222 Rem.

Of all the rifle powders, 4198 is the best reduced load powder for the .30-'06, from 1300-2000 f.p.s. because it bulks up well, and is not position sensitive. If you don't load need to make minimum subsonic small game or gallery loads (4198 doesn't work for these) and you don't already have other suitable powders available, and want to buy the best rifle powder for moderately reduced rifle loads, 4198 is my recommendation.

The "Real .30-'06 powders" for full loads are 4895, 4064 and 4350. IMR-4895 replaced IMR 4676 for military ball ammunition about 1944 and was the standard propellent for military .30-'06 Ball and Match ammunition. It is adaptable to a variety of cartridges. If you want just one rifle powder to use for everything 4895 is "it". Some target shooters feel that "long grain" powders like 4064 and 4350 give better grouping than "short cut" powders like 4895, which are preferred for machine loading. Even though coarser powders don't measure as well, they are highly accurate. If this is your choice, substitute 4064 for the 4895 and you won't be disappointed. For maximum loads in .30-'06 boltguns it's hard to beat 4350. I've tried other powders, but I keep coming back to 4350, because its consistent and always predicable, just like my .30-'06.

That's why I like the .30-'06. It's like an experienced old horse that always knows its way back to camp, so you can just do the job and relax. What else do you want in a rifle?

Ed Harris: Revisiting The Full Charge Wadcutter

Happy Black Friday! Today I am pleased to present another great article from Ed Harris, this time about an old load that he’s finding useful in the modern era. It’s helpful to note that Ed lives in a very rural area, and regularly hunts small game with his handguns. This gives him an enormous amount of experience, the kind that is getting hard to find in these days. Sit back, relax, and enjoy his article on the “full charge wadcutter”!

Revisiting The Full Charge Wadcutter and the “FBI Load”
By C.E. “Ed” Harris; pictures by the author

Several friends and I have been re-thinking our decision several years ago to pack semi-auto .22 target pistols in our survival rucks. We normally carry .38 snubbies as EDC. Having an extra, longer barreled .38 Special revolver in the ruck with extra ammo useable in either gun seemed like a good idea.

We decided to standardize on the .38 Special because it had better anti-personnel and defense animal potential than the .22s. We all owned several fixed sight, “service revolvers” which were reliable, accurate enough, readily available and familiar. A wheelgun is simple anyone to operate and requires less training and practice to maintain proficiency than an auto pistol. We have confirmed to our satisfaction that four inch service revolvers, fed good ammunition are accurate enough to make 20-25 yard head shots on small game. There is no doubt that a .38 is a more sure killer than a .22 on larger varmints such as coyotes and larger small game animals such as raccoons or groundhogs.

I started carrying my four-inch .38 Special Colt Official Police in one ruck and a 4 inch Ruger Police Service Six in the other. Both revolvers are sturdy, reliable, and accurate. The .38 Special is not your first choice as a bear gun, but a more likely threat is an upright, 2-legged human criminal actor or large dog such as a pit bull. This thought process was initiated by an experience in which an acquaintance had difficulty stopping a pit bull attack with a .22 handgun despite multiple hits, several of which were well placed

Animal control officers stated that in their experience that .38 Special +P would have probably likely stopped such an animal attack quickly. Had the first .22 hit been a head shot which penetrated the skull, the outcome would have been different, but little data is available on how well .22s penetrate a large dog skull at oblique angles and frankly, my experience with .22s does not inspire confidence in hot-blooded situations with large toothed animals.

Today I now carry 100 rounds of .38 Special ammo in the ruck in addition to the six rounds in the gun and an A.G. Russell belt pouch with three Bianchi Speed Strips. This "Blackberry" carrier does not look like an ammo pouch, fits flat on the belt, tight against the body, and is low profile, yet holds eighteen .38 Special rounds. Just unzip, grab the center strip first, then the others won’t drag against the zipper in the event that you do need another. See it here Speed Strips are loaded with Federal 147-gr. HydraShok +P+.

Our boxed spare ammo is a full-charge 146-grain double-end wadcutter, Saeco #348, which we cast ourselves from wheel weights. A charge of 3.5 grains of Bullseye gives 850-870 fps from a four-inch revolver, which falls between standard pressure 158-gr. SWC and +P lead HP FBI loads in energy. This load groups as well as target ammo and penetrates 30 inches of water. The bullet does not expand, but its blunt profile gives full-caliber crush and has proven effective.

The choice of a full charge wadcutter sounds strange today, but the load has an interesting history. During the 1970s and into the early 1980s 158-gr. lead RN and SWC standard velocity loads were issued by D.C. MPD, Baltimore PD, NYPD, LAPD and many others. Hollowpoints were deemed unacceptable during that era due to political concerns. I knew well several now-retired officers who were involved in shootings, and who had consciously carried wadcutter ammo, because it was “more effective.”

While this was strictly against regulations, it was not an uncommon practice. The officers involved seemed to get away with the excuse "we had just come from the range and that was the ammo we had." A friend who is a retired Major in the Military Police reported the same, because wadcutter ammo obtained from the MTU pistol team was better than the Army’s M41 Ball. Unlike today, it was common for cops to shoot wadcutters on the range and change to LRN or SWCs for carry, as they were not required to practice with “duty ammo.”

Observations in the ER and on autopsy table from that era confirmed that a wadcutter makes a larger hole than the LRN and SWC and penetrates deeply, without tumbling. Entry and exit holes produced by LRN are smaller, bleed less and show less damage in the wound track. Tumbling improves the performance of RN bullets, but is unpredictable. Fackler and others have stated the performance of solid SWCs is little better than LRN loads.

The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) conducted "energy deposit" studies in 1970s in which rounds were chronographed near the muzzle, and again after the bullet exited a 20cm (7.8") gelatin block. A standard velocity 158-gr. lead round-nose .38 Special bullet fired from a 4-inch revolver at 755fps produces 200 ft-lbs of energy, and exits the gelatin block at about 655 fps with a residual energy of 150 ft-lbs.

Permanent crush cavity volume in gelatin is measurable and in direct proportion to kinetic energy. A round which deposits twice as much energy in the gelatin block produces approximately double the crush volume. A target velocity factory 148-gr. hollow based wadcutter fired from a 6 inch K-38 which strikes the gelatin at 780 f.p.s., produces the same 200 ft-lbs of kinetic energy as the LRN load fired from a 4 inch gun, but it exits the gelatin at 474 fps, having a residual energy of only 74 ft-lbs and depositing 126 ft-lbs! This compares to many common .38 Special JHP +P loads, but with deeper penetration approximating .45 ACP hardball.

To produce a "full-charge" wadcutter load 3.2 grains of Bullseye and a Remington HBWC factory bullet, or 3.5 grains of Bullseye with the Saeco #348 cast double-ender. These approximate the 6 inch revolver velocity of factory target loads, but do so when firing from a 2-inch snub. Velocity from a 4 inch revolver exceeds standard velocity 158 gr SWC and LRN loads by about 50 fps. We have confirmed the effectiveness of the full charge wadcutter on game in 30 years of field use.

In the mid 1970s the FBI started using Winchester's 158-grain all-lead hollow-point load X38SPD. Federal followed with its 38G and Remington the R38S12. Of these, the Winchester and Remington loads performed best. Federal went through several design changes using several different bullet alloys and cavity geometries before they got their load working. To get reliable expansion requires softer alloy which causes +P loads to foul bores and impair accuracy after 18 rounds or so. The Federal 38G load in particular which used a dry lube with no cannelures on the bullet caused severe cylinder binding in revolvers which do not have a cylinder gas shield.

A gas shield or cylinder hub prevents gases carrying vaporous lead residue out the cylinder gap, from being deposited between the crane arbor and the cylinder recess on which it rotates. Remington and Winchester versions of these loads had grooved bullets with a heavy, waxy lube were less cranky in that respect, but you still have to be careful about cleaning and lubrication.

At Ruger, revolvers were assembled with a proprietary lubricant similar to Militec to help prevent the lead from binding. Applying a few drops of Mil-L-63460B (Break Free CLP) in the crane arbor each time you clean also helps. Ruger developed a "hubbed cylinder" version of the Security Six, Speed Six and Service Six revolvers to mitigate the binding problem.

This required milling a small flat across the barrel extension, which protrudes into the frame opening at the 6:00 position, to clear the hub on the cylinder. Machining the flat reduces the cross section though the barrel extension, which caused heat cracking problems when those revolvers were shot extensively with .357 Magnum ammunition. The hubbed cylinder was used only for law enforcement contracts for revolvers to be fitted with .38 Special cylinders when the lead +P ammo was specified.

In designing the GP100 revolvers, the charge hole spacing, and distance from the bore to cylinder axis was increased so that the cylinder gas ring could be incorporated without reducing barrel wall thickness through the exposed forcing cone region.

Today's best .38 Special hollowpoint load by a major US manufacturer is probably the Speer Gold Dot 135gr +P. Richmond PD issues this load to officers who carry .38 snubs off-duty and they have history on a number of officer involved shootings where it performed well.

The lead "FBI load" is still produced by Winchester (X38SPD) and Remington (R38S12), if you can find them, and will perform well and expand even from 2 inch barrels. No argument there. Federal discontinued the 38G, but their 147-gr. JHP +P+ law enforcement load gives similar performance and gives 900 f.p.s. from a 2 inch Ruger SP101, if you can find any.

While jacketed +P loads do not suffer from the cylinder binding problem, getting a jacketed bullet to expand reliably from a barrel shorter than 4 inches requires +P pressures. High volume use of +P and +P+ ammo is proven harder on the guns, particularly blue steel S&W K and J frames having a frame hardness of less than Rc20, (typical values for non-magnum revolvers of 80-90 "B" scale were common of Model 36 and Model 10 production before about 1990).

If money were no object my friends and I would be happy to buy 2000 rounds of Gold Dot to divide among us. To be realistic, however, the cost, about $1 per shot, and spotty availability of proven .38 Special factory defense loads is a real issue.

We would like to practice with the same ammo we carry, but have to satisfy ourselves with a well-established hand load we have experience with, and confidence in, which works well in the field and shoots to the same place from fixed sight revolvers as our +P factory loads. We have decided to carry a limited, (though 24 rounds is probably adequate) supply of +P law enforcement loads for actual personal defense use. Our extra ruck ammo is intended for shooting meat for the pot or for protection against aggressive animals. The non-expanding, but deep penetrating, full-charge wadcutter load has the advantages of less meat damage, but has great crush cavity characteristics and deepest possible penetration. It works. Reliable, predictable, accurate, and economical.

Col. Fackler's observation, and one with which my friend “ER Doc” agrees, is that the hollowpoint .38 Special is not the "magic bullet." When a bullet expands in the classic mushroom fashion, it reduces penetration. The best JHP defense loads such as Speer Gold Dot meet FBI penetration criteria. Not all JHPs do.

We believe that maximum frontal area and tissue crush, combined with deep penetration adequate to defeat reasonable cover (a defensively positioned arm or heavy clothing), which can still penetrate the breastbone and get through ribs into vital organs, is important. Particularly in calibers of "marginal" energy, (200 ft-lbs or less) it is important to have the maximum meplat diameter (frontal area) consistent with reliable feeding. The wadcutter in a revolver makes the most of this.
You also need adequate sectional density to ensure through and through penetration. Our reasoning is that if the FBI considers 14 inches of gelatin penetration adequate, we'd like 20+. Being able to shoot through both shoulders of a deer and exiting is desired.

Yes, the wadcutter is a compromise, but I would rather use a wadcutter handload of proven reliability on groundhogs, feral dogs (or putting down the occasional stock), than a jacketed hollowpoint which may not go through a pit bull's skull. Which begs the question: why don't the manufacturers produce a full charge wadcutter like they used to (before WWII)?

Cast double-ended wadcutter bullets awaiting loading. Note the full-caliber face (meplat.)

The finished product: the full-charge wadcutter ready for shooting!


Ed Harris: Casting and reloading the .38/.357

(Editor's Note: for those who don't know him, C.E. 'Ed' Harris is an engineer who's worked for Ruger and the NRA. Ed is one of the great repositories of technical shooting knowledge in the field; his expertise extends to all areas of shooting, and trust me when I tell you that he can't be stumped. I've tried. Ed has forwarded several articles to publish, and I'm going to start with one of particular interest to me. Look for Ed's articles on Fridays, alternating with the Friday Surprise.)

Today's article is about casting and reloading the .38 Special and .357 Magnum cartridges. Ed has a particular interest in bullet casting and reloading, and this is his primer on the equipment and techniques needed to cast and reload bullets for these great cartridges. He’s stuffed a ton of information into this article, so read carefully!

Q: I read your articles on the .38 Special with great interest. My wife and I live out in the country, far from town. We have decided to buy two revolvers for personal defense and a lever-action utility rifle, which uses the same ammo. I reload rifle ammunition with jacketed bullets for hunting, but am new to bullet casting. I want more production capacity than my single-station press. Please recommend a progressive reloading package for the 38/357 which to include casting equipment & mould. I would appreciate suggestions as to cheap sources for components to load in large quantity.

A: If you intend to cast your own bullets, do not use the same casting pot to render your dirty, gleaned scrap lead into ingots. Instead, get a propane fired turkey cooker or plumber’s burner with round-bottomed, cast iron pot which will hold about 50 pounds or more of melted alloy at a time.

Buy no fewer than six ingot molds; ten are better. Use the propane pot outdoors to render your scrap lead alloy into ingots. Wear coveralls with long sleeves, a floppy hat, gloves and full face shield when you do this!

Automobile wheel weights or indoor range backstop scrap work fine for revolver bullet alloy. Range scrap is more troublesome to deal with, but the jacket material you skim off, after you pull out any steel with a “cow magnet,” is worth more than enough to a scrap dealer to pay for the propane it takes to melt it. With luck you may have a little extra to trade for roll-ends of tin bearing solder, wheel weights, type metal etc.

While many experienced casters prefer to use a dipper, most people find a bottom-pour pot easier to learn with. I use an RCBS 20-lb. bottom pour pot with a pair of molds and handles, alternating between them, by setting each one down after it is filled. It will solidify while I open, dump and refill the other. This provides a consistent mold temperature, necessary to get good castings.

I cast outdoors on a covered, screened in porch to ensure good ventilation, and use an electric hotplate to preheat the molds. This is important, especially in winter. Placing a layer of plain crushed clay kitty litter over the melt helps maintain heat and reduces the need for frequent fluxing.

A pair of double-cavity RCBS or Saeco molds present the best value. Or buy a pair of LBT or Saeco 4-cavity blocks if you want higher production.

For general use in the .38 / .357 lever-actions and revolvers, the Cowboy style rounded flat-nose designs work well if you get a bullet with meplat not less than 1/2 of bullet diameter for hunting purposes. Suitable designs are the RCBS 38-158CM or Saeco #358.

For hunting use a hollow-point bullet is useful. On the Saeco 4-cavity blocks only the center 2 cavities can be modified for hollow-point, because of the way the sprue plate hinge, handle screws and alignment pins are located. This will produce a pair of solids and a pair of hollow-points with each pour.

With double-cavity Saeco and RCBS blocks both cavities may be modified using the inset bar conversion from

You may like one set of blocks modified for hollow point, and use the other to cast solids. Either way you have hunting and practice bullets, which will feed from the lever-action rifle. SWCs may not.

The best sources I have found for buying powder and primers are either Widener's or Graf & Sons. My shooting buddies and I buy primers by the case of 5000 at a time, and powder in 8-lb. kegs. An 8-lb. keg of Bullseye will load 16,000 rounds of .38 Special at 3.5 grains per pop. An 8-lb. keg of #2400 will load 4000 rounds of .357 Magnum at 14 grains per pop.

Graf will let you combine powder and primers in the same shipment under one hazmat fee for up to a 50-lb. box, which gets you 20,000 small pistol primers, a keg of #2400 for magnum loads and a keg of Bullseye for .38 Specials with nothing left over.

You won't get reliable expansion of cast hollow points from a 2 inch snubby unless bullets are cast soft, 8-10 BHN, such as 1:25 tin/lead alloy, or 50-50 wheelweights and plumber's lead, with no more than 2% tin added in in the form of bar solder - and only if needed to get sharp fill out of the bullets.

You want to cast bullets when the mold blocks are hot enough that bullets fill out sharply. Uniform frosting of well-filled bullets is perfectly OK. This fuzzy surface of dentrite arms look under an SEM (scanning electron microscope) like you’re flying low over a pine forest. The porous surface holds tumble-on lubes better.

You don't need to quench-harden bullets up through .38 Special +P. As-cast wheel weights or common range backstop scrap is about 10-12 BHN, and is fine for standard pressure loads up to about 20,000 psi.
Bullets cast from wheel weights and hot enough to be uniformly frosted, when dropped directly from the mold into water to quench, will precipitation harden to about 24-28BHN and which will stand up to 40,000 psi.

Quench solid-nosed bullets for .357 and .44 magnum loads when necessary to prevent leading, but don’t count on quenched hollow-point bullets expanding at all if you do.

To enhance expansion of properly designed hollow-point bullets from a sturdy, short-barreled revolver, such as the Ruger SP101, you may safely use up to 4.0 grs. of Bullseye with a 158-grain hollow-pointed bullet seated not less than 1.40” overall. This approximates +P velocity, vs. a "standard pressure" charge of 3.5 grains, normally used with cowboy bullets crimped normally, or a double-end wadcutter seated out to 1.20” overall.

For approximating the +P+ in .38 Special brass in the Marlin rifle or revolvers designed for .357 magnum, such as Rugers, L-frame and N-frame S&W, you could use 10 grs. of #2400 with the Saeco or RCBS Cowboy slugs, with WSP or Federal 200 primers, seated and crimped in their normal crimp groove. Do NOT use this load in pre-1974 Colts, Charter Arms, K or J-frame S&Ws unless originally chambered for .357 ammunition, because pressure exceeds industry +P standard by about 15%.

For loading .357 Magnums at supersonic velocities in revolvers or for rifles use an alloy not softer than wheel weights, 12BHN. With plain-based bullets you could load 11-12 grs. of #2400 in .357 brass with a 158-gr. cast bullet, the exact charge to be determined by whether you get unburned powder which may jam revolvers if any gets under the extractor, or leading which impairs accuracy.

Using a plain-based bullet without a gas check, keep revolver velocity subsonic, not over about 1080 f.p.s. The same loads will get from 1200-1400 f.p.s. in the Marlin, versus about 1600-1700 from an 18 inch barel for a "maximum .357 load." Keep charges with plain based cast bullets in the Marlin rifle about 10-15% below maximum to avoid impaired accuracy caused by bore leading.

In my experience 10 grs. of #2400 with WSP or Federal 200 primers is the least you can load in .357 brass and get acceptable ballistic uniformity. At 11-12 grains in .357 brass only, you have a very satisfactory "medium velocity" load, a bit lighter than factory, but still heavier than .38 Special +P+.

I feel that gas checked bullets are an unnecessary expense in revolvers, because the GC diameter is usually insufficient to seal the cylinder throats. They also cost about $30 per thousand and will require that you buy an expensive lubricating and sizing machine to put them on. That money will buy a good supply of primers and powder.

Instead, save your money by using plain based bullets, of moderate hardness, cast from cheap scrap allloy such as wheel weights. Keep velocities under 1100 f.p.s. in revolvers, and below 1400 f.p.s. in the rifles.

If you need a magnum load approximating factory velocity, buy a few hundred 158-gr. jacketed soft point bullets for rifle use and use 14 grs. of #2400, which is about 1/2 grain below maximum as published by Speer No. 13 or later. This will give about 1650 fps in the Marlin. Such loads are apparent by their distinct appearance so there is no guessing whether it is “hot” or not.

If you will use your compact revolver a lot for field shooting, consider a double-end wadcutter such as the Saeco #348 for one of your molds. Then pick a Cowboy style flat-nose for rifle use.

Wadcutters can be used for small game hunting in lever-action rifles as a “two-shooter,” inserting a round directly into the chamber, closing the action, and loading only one round at a time into the magazine tube. Each time you fire a shot and work the lever, you can shove a replacement wadcutter past the loading gate. You cannot fill the magazine tube with .38 Special rounds less than 1.4 inches overall, because two at a time will feed out onto the lifter and jam the gun.

Ideally you want bullets to cast of correct diameter so they do not require sizing. Then you can bulk lube with Lee Liquid Alox and use the money you save by not buying a bullet lubricator and sizer to buy powder and primers.

If you really want a progressive loading tool for loading multiple thousands of rounds, get the Dillon RL550B. However, if your requirements are less than 500 rounds a month, I would use a single-station press. If you have not used a progressive reloading machine before, and do not have an experienced mentor within convenient telephone distance, stay with the single-station press you know well.

For plain based revolver ammo there is no advantage to go any harder than about 13 BHN. Commercially cast bullets such as Meister, Lasercast, etc. are made from a 92Pb-6Sb-2Sn alloy, about 16 BHN, harder than necessary for non-magnum loads. They do so because this common commercial “hardball” or “magnum” alloy is widely available in one-ton heat lots, casts well from the automated Magma Engineering machines, and produces “pretty” bullets for marketing purposes, which are not damaged in shipping.

Hard lube which requires a heated lubricating and sizing machine is used for similar marketing purposes, because it is non-sticky, stays in the grooves, doesn't melt in summer heat and goes through progressive loading machines well. But hard lube is less able coat the bore, and unless bullet fit is perfect, may result in bore leading at standard pressures in the .38 Special. Soft alloys and lubes in moderate loads are more trouble-free for the novice.

Commercial cast bullets often lead more than softer home cast ones because the manufacturers size their product to fit the tightest minimum bore and chamber to prevent function problems. Novices who buy them don't know which size is correct. The old folklore of old Lyman manuals to size bullets to groove diameter is incorrect. Bullets should be sized to fit the ball seat of the rifle chamber or revolver cylinder.

If bullets are too hard, undersized, and inadequately lubricated with a hard lube, they will lead. A very common misconception is that cast bullet loads lead because the alloy is too soft. The opposite is usually the case.

An alloy harder than about 12-13 BHN is not going to expand when cast in a hollow-point bullet. Full .357 loads generating over 1400 fps when fired from a rifle may fragment, but not “mushroom.” My advise is to use straight wheel weights or range backstop scrap. Add 1/2 pound of 50-50 bar solder per 20 lb. potful when needed to get good castings.

Bullets of 12 BHN will not expand in standard pressure .38 Special revolver loads, but will somewhat in +P and do just fine when fired in the rifle or .357 or +P+ ..38 Special revolver loads over 1000 fps.
If you want to get expansion at standard pressures in a revolver cut wheel weight alloy 50-50 with soft plumbers lead, adding the same 1/2 pound of 50-50 solder, only if needed to get good castings. This alloy goes 8-10 BHN, does fine in subsonic rifle loads or up to .38 Special +P with 4 grs. of Bullseye in .38 cases, but you may get some leading after firing a dozen rounds of +P loads. Accuracy is OK for hunting purposes.

Brush the bore when done shooting and leave wet with bore cleaner, then just wipe the bore and chambers with a dry patch before shooting.

If reduced to using (free!) mixed head stamp, range pickup brass, tumble clean it in untreated corncob to remove dirt and grit before sizing. After sizing, do the best you can to sort it into batches of like head stamp sharing the same type face, identifying knurls, etc. Separate plated cases from plain.

Learn to identify and keep separate any cases originating from factory loaded wadcutter match ammo. Treat them as if they were gold! Wadcutter brass is identified by either one, or sometimes two knurls or cannelures at the midpoint of the case's length.

Their purpose is to prevent a wadcutter bullet being dropped into a loose-mouthed, powder charged case, from falling below flush with the case mouth. This maintains proper position until the bulleted, charged case reaches the crimping station.

The loading machines used by the ammunition factories full-length profile the case sidewall to fit gently, but tightly against the shank of the soft-swaged, hollow-based wadcutter bullet. It uniformly but lightly crimps the case mouth to remove any flare, imparting only a slight radius at the case mouth to ease loading into the chambers. Its design intent is to avoid at all cost any damage to the fragile, soft- lead bullet, which would impair accuracy.

This is also the principle of the Lee Factory Crimp Die and is why you should buy the Lee carbide die set to the exclusion of all others. The Lee Factory Crimp die does not depend upon case length to determine strength of crimp. It doesn't care whether case mouths are thin or heavy. Individual rounds are profiled full-length so that none will exceed maximum cartridge dimensions. This prevents tolerance stacking of oversized bullets in thick wall cases, which could cause a bulge that will jam your gun.

Cast bullets may be loaded unsized and simply tumbled in Lee Liquid Alox. If bullet sizing is necessary, this is done by compression inside the die, rather than by shear in an expensive, unnecessary lubricating and sizing machine.

Because wadcutter brass has a thinner case wall, intended to gently handle a soft lead bullet, it is work hardened less in assembly, so it will last longer!

Brass used for +P service loads often has a heavy knurl or cannelure closer to the case mouth, which is used to hold the bullet against the primer blast and maintain heavy bullet pull of a thicker case which provides a tight fits necessary for acceptable ballistic uniformity of slower powders. Such brass has a harder final anneal and is more heavily work hardened in assembly, so it may crack after only a few reloads, especially if it has been nickel plated. When obtained as once-fired brass, use this for your "shoot and let fly" combat practice ammo.

If you intend to buy new brass, get plain, unplated, uncannelured cases, from Starline, Winchester or Remington. Plated brass was once used to reduce corrosion of rounds carried in leather looped cartridge belts. Today it is done mostly for marketing appearance, so that old stock does not take on a patina and "look old."

Plated cases will not last long in repeated reloads as plain brass, but some brands fare better than others. Winchester uncannelured, plated cases last longer than similar Remington. Federal +P and +P+ plated brass also seems OK. Sellier & Bellot seems the worst. Reload only once, use it for shoot & let fly, or save for trade to the scrap dealer.

Some bits of rifle stuff.

The Firearm Blog (one of the few blogs I read religiously)
brings us good news: Alexander Arms (AA) has decided to stop gouging people who want to make 6.5 Grendel rifles! Apparently Hornady submitted the cartridge to SAAMI to be standardized, but AA refused to relinquish their trademark. That recently changed, and now the 6.5 Grendel is available to anyone who wants to use it.

This is great news; I'd once considered building an AR-15 in 6.5 Grendel but was put off by the insanely high price tag that AA had attached to all things bearing the name. Les Baer, miffed at that very situation, essentially duplicated the round and named it the .264 LBC-AR (try saying that three times, fast!) It didn't catch on.

Now that the 6.5 Grendel can be made by anyone, without paying royalties, I hope to see many rifles so chambered. The round would make the AR platform more usable for a wider range of shooting activities, and the availability of factory ammunition should speed its acceptance. With proper bullets it would make a nice deer round with good accuracy and downrange energy. Though nothing is ever perfect, the 6.5 Grendel is as well-balanced a round as exists in the AR platform.


Take a look at this old LIFE photo essay about a gun safety class in an elementary school back in 1956. I wish to call your attention to frame numbers 5, 6, and 7 - can you identify that rifle? (I can, because it was the rifle I used as a kid. I still have a very soft spot in my heart for it.) Make your guesses in the comments!


It's a tricky task to attach a sling to a rifle where any alteration could adversely affect the value. For instance, what if you have a very old but heretofore unaltered Winchester lever action which you want to take hunting? How do you attach a sling to the butt stock without drilling a hole? I'd never thought about it, but the answer appears to be a
butt stock cover such as those produced by these guys. (I could personally do without a lot of the embellishment, but the workmanship appears to be first rate.)


In response to my recent paean to the lever action rifle, Ed Harris sent some of his thoughts. As always, interesting reading from one of the most knowledgable guys in the shooting world:

If I had to “bug out,” riding my mountain bike around EMP-killed vehicles, getting out of Doge carrying only what I could in my ruck and pockets to get beyond the moderate damage radius before the fallout starting coming down, a lever-gun and revolver combo isn’t the world’s worst choice.

I have no plans to stand and fight off the whole world. If you attempt that by yourself, in the words of the late clandestine operator, Harry Archer, who ventured in dangerous climes on behalf of our country and lived to retire and die peacefully in front of his TV, “you’ll never live to shoot-‘em all.”

I just want to protect myself and my gear, put time, distance and shielding between me and any threat, escape, evade, “shoot and SCOOT” if needed, put meat in the pot and get the job done.

A compact, sturdy, fixed sight, double-action .357 revolver such as the Ruger SP101 is an affordable compromise. It is simple for anyone in the family to use. It is accurate enough within 25 yards, “hell for strong,” rugged, highly portable and has impressive ballistics for personal defense. It can use either .357 Magnums or lower powered .38 Special ammo.

Round out the package with a Marlin 1894C carbine in .357 Magnum. It offers adequate combat accuracy for “short range” (less than 200 yards in the infantry sense) and ten rounds magazine capacity. The magazine tube can be topped off without taking the gun out of action. Rapidity of fire is good. It is a natural pointer. The carbine is light in the hand, quick to the shoulder and fast to the first shot and follow-ups come easily. Teamed with a sturdy, concealable revolver, the combo is hard to beat.

The sad truth is that back East it is difficult to find someplace to practice with a military caliber assault rifle. Sure you can get a .22 LR upper for your AR, but it just isn't the same. Most indoor ranges will let you fire any rifle chambered for handgun ammo, so my most-used center-fire rifle these days is my Marlin 1894C carbine in .357 Magnum.

A .357 lever action is manageable by females and youngsters. It has low recoil and is fairly quiet when used with standard velocity lead .38 Special ammo. It is a fun camp gun which works great for small game, feral dogs and groundhogs. When firing .38 Special standard velocity (non +P) lead bullet ammo from a rifle, velocity remains subsonic, producing a mild report little louder than a .22, which has advantages for discreet garden varminting.

Its potential for home defense with .357 ammunition, is nothing to sneeze at. A .357 levergun with proper ammunition is fully adequate for deer within 100 yards and with peep sights is more accurate on silhouette targets out to 200 yards than your average AK. But leverguns are familiar and nonthreatening in appearance, so they "don't scare the natives" as a "black rifle" often does.

The Marlin lever-gun requires better sights, but you can install these yourself. The most rugged iron sights are the XS ghost ring peep. If cost-conscious stop right there and you will have a good outfit. If you have trouble seeing iron sights well, or want to improve your longer range and low light performance, add a XS Lever-Scout rail. This accepts a variety of quick detachable optics, such as a hunting scope or military reflex sight, leaving the peep sights available for backup.

New leverguns cost less than "black rifles." Use the money you save to buy a Dillon RL550B to load your ammo! Used .357 lever-guns sell for about 60% in stores of what a similar rifle would cost new. In most places the Marlin 1894C .357 Microgroove rifles sell for about $100 or more less than a similar used "Cowboy" model with Ballard rifling, because people think that "Microgrooves won't shoot lead."

In my experience of over 25 years, the 1894C with Microgroove rifling shoots lead bullets just fine, as long as you stick to standard pressure or ordinary +P .38 Specials at subsonic velocities.

Microgroove barrels handle jacketed bullet .357 Magnum loads best. The 158-gr. soft-point is what you want to use for deer from the rifle. The 125-grain JHPs are best for personal defense from the revolver, or for varmint use in the rifle. Jacketed bullet .357 magnum rounds are expensive. You will actually need and use very few of them, so just buy a several boxes of factory loads for contingencies.

Standard velocity .38 Special, 158-grain lead semi-wadcutters are the basic utility load for both rifle and revolver. This is what you want to set up your RL550B to assemble in quantity. Bulk Remington .358 diameter 158-grain semi-wadcutters assembled in .38 Special brass with 3.5 grains of Bullseye approximate the velocity, accuracy and energy of factory standard velocity loads. Velocity is about 750 f.p.s. from a 3 inch revolver, and 950 f.p.s. from an 18 inch carbine. Ordinary lead plinking loads shoot into 4 inches at 100 yards from the Marlin. Jacketed soft-point .357 magnums shave an inch off of that. If you buy powder and primers in bulk, component cost to reload free gleaned brass that you have saved with a plinking load is about 10 cents per pop. If you cast your own bullets from free scrounged scrap lead you will save a nickel. Jacketed bullets cost 15 cents eachInstead buy a good quality 4-cavity bullet mold such as Saeco #358. Buy only a few boxes of full up magnum factory loads for serious hunting and conserve them.

My “Cowboy assault rifle” has a Trijicon Reflex II sight Model RX09 with A.R.M.S. #15 Throw Lever Mount fitted into an XS Systems Lever Scout rail. XS mounts are dimensioned to accept Weaver bases. Fitting the military M1915 rail base requires that you to determine which cross-slot you will locate your optic onto. You want the optical sight at the balance point of the rifle.

After you have located the proper cross slot to position your sight, adjust the slot width and depth with a square Swiss needle file to enable the mounting clamp crossbar to press-fit snugly into it. Retract the thumb clamps and slide the A.R.M.S. mount over the front of the rail. The rear mount clamp tightens against the angled sides of the rail only. You want no “slop” after you have fitted the crossbar slot depth and corners.

After fitting, the A.R.M.S. #15 thumb-lever mount offers quick-disconnect with perfect return to zero. I can use the tritium illuminated, no batteries required ever, combat optic or backup ghost ring peeps at will. I zero 158-grain .357 magnum loads to coincide with the pointed top of the Tritium-illuminated chevron at 100 yards. Standard velocity .38s hit "on" at 50 yards. Holding the legs of the chevron tangent to the top of a 12-inch gong at 200 yards I can hit with magnums every time. Placing the chevron across the shoulders of an Army E silhouette I make repeat hits out to at 300 if I do my part.

Maybe I shouldn't have watched, "The Road" again...

-=[ Grant ]=-

Multi-caliber revolvers.

Every so often I get an email asking about the feasibility of building a multi-caliber revolver along the lines of a Phillips & Rogers Medusa. There have been several attempts to build and market such a revolver over the years, and none of them succeeded. The Medusa was probably the most successful of the efforts, and even it wasn't.

Aside from the general silliness of the concept (you can't get .38 Special during the Zombie Apocalypse, but you can get 9mm Largo?!?), I've always been leery of a chamber that would handle such a wide range of dimensions and pressures. Ed Harris, of course, has first-hand experience and was able to she a lot of light on the question. During his tenure as an engineer at Ruger they were working on just such a project:

"At that time the company was also building 9mm revolvers for the French police, and .380/200 British revolvers for India, as well with experimenting with a hybrid chamber for a government customer who wanted the ability to use 9mm Parabellum, 9mm Largo or .38 Super, with clips, or .38 Special +P without the clips.

This pipe dream did not work out, because when using fast-burning powders with soft bullets, including most JHP designs for 9mm, the bullet base may upset to conform to the .379" diameter chamber mouth [editorial note: the space just prior to the chamber throat, which is exposed with shooting the shorter cartridges], resulting in a steep pressure rise of over 10,000 psi as the upset bullet base had to squeeze down again as it transitioned into the smaller diameter ball seat in the front end of the cylinder. While the result was not dangerous when firing lower powered ammunition such as .38 S&W or .380/200 British, it was more interesting with 9mm Parabellum, 9mm Federal, and .38 Super.

Worst offender was US Treasury Olin Q4070 +P+ load which has 110-gr. JHP hollowbased bullet, same as current Winchester 110-gr. component bullet and most JHP +P+ 9mm. FMJ bullets usually OK. Problems with case splits [when] firing .38 Special +P and +P+ when chamber enlarged enough in back to accept 9x19mm. With good brass cases just came out looking 3 months pregnant."

So, there you have it. The multi-caliber revolver concept is just a Bad Idea.

Speaking of unsafe, Ed passed along information about their unauthorized experiments with the then-new 9mm Federal round, which was a 9mm rimmed cartridge made to fit the a version of the Charter Arms Pit Bull revolver. (You’d think Federal would be smarter than that, but...) Anyhow, Ed tells of their fun with a "non-approved" use, and finally we have part of the answer as to why the 9mm Federal disappeared as quickly as it arrived:

"Had some India Ordnance Factory revolvers in .380/200, copies of No. 2 Enfield which were provided as government furnished material on India contract. When 9mm Federal ammo arrived Roy Melcher was curious as to whether rounds would enter .38 S&W chamber and we didn't have any US made guns, so tried in the ROF No.2. Thanks to good range safety procedure they put it in proof box. Blew cylinder apart on first shot. Told Federal. They were NOT happy. They went on to take apart a bunch more .38 S&Ws of various makes and killed the project shortly afterward."

Ed really needs to write a book about his time at Ruger. He's got a lot more good material where this came from.

-=[ Grant ]=-

A different take on handgun stopping power.

An article by Greg Ellifritz, titled "
An Alternate Look at Handgun Stopping Power", caused some waves a few weeks back. Like all such attempts at quantifying shooting incidents, it suffers from a lack of strictly filtered data and results in less adherence to statistical principles and methods than I would like (no confidence interval, for instance.)

I acknowledge that this is a problem with all shooting studies, simply because no two bullet paths are ever identical. I think it’s important to understand that one must be extremely careful about applying any such study in a prescriptive manner, and cognizant of the potential inaccuracies that are part and parcel of the kind of data being studied. That being said, I think Ellifritz gives us a much more realistic look at the topic than Marshall & Sanow ever did.

Even with my reservations, there much in his compilation that I think is interesting from a training standpoint (even if it might not be a completely reliable predictor.) Take, for instance, the number of people who failed to be incapacitated by shots fired. His figures for all calibers remain remarkably consistent, hovering around 13%, right down to the lowly .380 ACP. Below that, the numbers more than double but again remain surprisingly consistent.

The reason this is interesting is because today's training emphasizes engagement until the threat ceases activity. In the old days, when lots of people believed that certain calibers were magic wands, the common training was to shoot two rounds and assess the situation. This was aided and abetted by the bogus one-stop-shot percentages that were all the rage at the time (and continue to be in certain circles.)

Thankfully that changed as more and more people noticed that bad guys didn't always stop with the first round, and that the best course of action was to keep shooting until he did. That's the norm today: shoot until the threat ceases (though there are still some backwaters where the outdated techniques are still taught with gusto.)

If we’re going to shoot until the threat goes away, are there any calibers which won’t reliably achieve that goal? Not as many as you might think.

If his data is reliable it would tend to support my long-held view that there is a floor beneath which calibers are not terribly effective for self defense, and that the floor is probably lower than most gunnies will admit. I know more than one gunstore goon who sneers at the .380ACP, yet I've met people who've used it quite successfully. Ellifritz's article suggests that their successes were not unusual.

Those same people think I'm daft for loading my revolvers with "only" .38 +P rounds instead of the .357 Magnum, but I'm more than comfortable with my choice because I know it's based on a rational assessment of its performance over a long period of time.

One thing to keep in mind: a lack of incapacitation does not mean that the rounds failed their job! Even though not incapacitated, the bad guys may have changed their minds and stopped their activity without being physiologically forced to do so. That's just one of the problems with blindly applying data from these kinds of studies, because the lesser calibers might in fact be more useful than this would suggest. Still, it is a different way of looking at the issue.

Bottom line: pick your gun based on your ability to use it efficiently, practice frequently and realistically with it, and you'll be far more prepared than the average gunshow denizen who loudly proclaims that all good self defense calibers must begin with '.4'.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Where would you put it all?

If you think your logistics problems are daunting, go and read
the list of ammunition that Tam keeps in her bedroom. (Disclaimer: I don't know for a fact that it's all in her bedroom, having never been to her house. She might keep some there, some in the basement, some on the bottom shelf of the Lazy Susan in the kitchen, and who knows where else. My point is that...well, I forgot what my point is. Humor me and keep reading.)

It's a daunting list, and I understand the almost irresistible urge to collect guns in odd -- and even not so odd -- chamberings. I myself have rifles in both 7.5mm x55 Swiss and 7.5mm x 54 French MAS, so I'm not entirely free of the affliction, but beyond that my calibers are both few and common.

Though never approaching her staggering list, at one time I did have a much wider selection. Over the years I've whittled down my inventory primarily because of the headaches of storing and reloading a sufficient quantity of each. I decided that rather than reload a hundred rounds each of eight or ten calibers, I'd rather spend that same time and money reloading five times that much in each of two calibers.

Over the years I've gotten rid of a bunch of guns in calibers that I didn't shoot often. The Dan Wesson .445 SuperMag, for instance, was a heck of a lot of fun (especially with the 3" barrel on a dimly lit indoor range) but didn't have a lot of utility for me. Even more mundane chamberings, like the various .44 Magnums and Specials I've owned, went out the door; I didn't shoot them often enough to justify loading a whole bunch of rounds for them.

The last such gun was a neat little Detonics CombatMaster in .38 Super. I like the cartridge, but a sober analysis showed that it really didn't do anything the 9mm doesn't already do better. We turned it into something more useful.

I admire her list, and am actually quite envious, but it's not for me. The less complicated my life is, the more I like it.

-=[ Grant ]=-

One of my cardinal rules.

Years back I remember being taught never to shoot someone else's reloads. I violated that rule only once, when I bought some "factory reloads" from a vendor at a gun show. Luckily I didn't damage anything with the shoddy 9mm fodder, but I still have the remainder -- in a sealed ammo can labeled "Dangerous Ammo - Do Not Shoot!" -- somewhere in the garage.

That cemented my rule: no reloads that I didn't make, not even one round. Why?
Because you don't know if that one round came from this guy's reloading press.

Could I accidentally make a reload that achieves a similar level of destruction? Yes, but I know what my reloading precautions are; I take great pains to make sure that the ammo I reload is safe. No matter how well I might know the person proffering his handiwork, I have no idea if his attention to detail is similarly sufficient to keep me out of the emergency room.

I once knew a fellow who was a great guy. Well educated, important white collar job, meticulous in everything he did. One day he took some of his reloaded ammo to the range with two guns, a Glock and a Hi-Power. His first magazine blew up the gun, at which point he switched guns and proceeded to blow it up, too. No matter how bright people may be in the rest of their lives, sometimes they're just not cut out to make ammunition.

Neither you nor I want to be one of their "oopsies". If you didn't make it, or it didn't come from a well known factory, don't risk it in your gun.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Short memories.

One of the joys of having recently turned 50 (a figure I still write with a combination of bemusement and astonishment, having
not actually grown up yet) is that I can poke fun at the younger guys. 'Younger', of course, means anyone under about 48.

I say this because last week
The Firearm Blog had a piece about a 'new' multi-projectile load that was 'developed' by Constitution Arms. My first thought was "Steve must be a youngster!", because the load is a dead ringer for ammunition that I remember seeing back in the late '70s or early '80s.

The new Tri-Plex load uses three stacked lead disks, each of which has a button on the forward side that mates with a similarly shaped recess on the back side. The projectiles are stacked in their case like coffee cups and separate in flight. The idea is to increase the size of the wound cavity and enhance the incapacitation capability of the round. The disks weigh roughly 50 grains each and are of .38 caliber (nominal.)

I'll dispense with my critique of the maker's claims regarding the supposed performance of this 'new' development, and simply point out that not much has changed with regards to either ballistics or human anatomy in the last two decades or so. You'll note that the original wasn't on the market for a very long time, and that it took a while to be rediscovered. Things that work generally stick around, or are at least remembered fondly. The triple-projectile load was neither, which should tell you all you need to know about its performance.

At the risk of repeating myself,
there is no such thing as a magic bullet. Even if you stuff three of them into the same case.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Not showing good JUDGEment.

The Firearm Blog
alerts us to a company called Lightfield Less Lethal that is now selling rubber buckshot rounds for the Taurus Judge. (I'm sure someone will point out that a Judge loaded with .410 birdshot is already "less lethal" and thus has no need for this product. Can't say that I disagree all that much, either.)

I'm concerned that the Judge is already selling to people who profess to "not wanting to kill someone", but have a desire to protect themselves. (I've heard that phrase so many times regarding this gun that I've become numb to the stupidity of the statement.) We've been working hard over the last several decades to eradicate the concept of the warning shot, and along comes Lightfield with products intended to just "scare them off." (Read the company's statement at the link.)

Given the market segment which appears to be buying these guns, it's only a matter of time before Lightfield is sued because their "less lethal" ammo killed someone. No matter how you rationalize or justify the use of these things, to the legal establishment discharging a gun is still lethal force even if Lightfield doesn't understand the concept.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday meanderings.

Winchester's top sellers: The Firearm Blog reports that Winchester recently released their top five (even though there are six listed!) pistol cartridges. The 9mm is not surprisingly in first place, and that favorite of law enforcement, the .40 S&W, is justifiably in the number two slot. Coming into third place is a bit of a dark horse - the venerable .38 Special.

What's most curious is the .380 ACP in fifth place. According to a Federal rep I talked with a few years back, the .380 wasn't a big seller. If I recall the conversation correctly, they only made a run of that caliber every other year, as they could easily warehouse enough for the intervening period. I suspect a combination of many new guns chambered for the round, and the big buying frenzy that resulted in widespread ammo shortages, conspired to create a pent-up demand. Once everyone has gotten their box (or two) of the
9mm Corto, then sales will drop back down to normal.

A little problem at Gunsite: According to, a man was shot in the abdomen at Gunsite a few days ago. If you’ve seen pictures of their facility, you’ve seen the shoothouse with catwalks above which allows observation of the proceedings. Apparently a man was on the catwalk and silhouetted by overhead lights; the student saw his outline and shot it. Luckily the man survived the incident and is recovering.

Gunsite says that students are instructed not to shoot toward the catwalk, but the excitement of playing searchg-and-destroy games often leads to instructions being forgotten. If you have a facility in which you've hidden shoot targets, then challenged someone to find and engage those targets (especially under any artificial time constraints), such forgetfulness should not come as a total shock.

Yes, the guy who pulled the trigger is responsible for his rounds,
and I am in no way excusing his behavior. However, it's the instructor's job to ensure that the benefit of any training outweighs the risks. I'm not sure what the benefit of having a live observer perched on a catwalk in view of the shooter is, but setting up a bank of monitors and some cameras with 2-way audio capability brings the risk to nearly zero. In this age of cheap, remote-controlled IP cameras, the practice of having people suspended above a line of fire is decidedly antiquated.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Ruger announces new revolvers. Sorta.

Ruger let slip this week that the GP100 and Blackhawk will now be available chambered in .327 Federal Magnum. The GP100 will carry 7 rounds with a 4" barrel, and the Blackhawk will chamber 8 rounds behind a 5.5" tube. This is welcome news for people who, like me, see the .327 Magnum as not fitting its originally advertised role.

The first chambering of the .327 was in the SP101, as Ruger & Federal were touting it as a self-defense cartridge. The theory was that one could get the "stopping power" of a Magnum cartridge but with less recoil than the .357. My testing suggested that any recoil difference was negligible, while serious doubts remained about the round's effectiveness against an attacker. I didn't consider it a good tradeoff, and said so in print more than once.

I also said that I thought it would be great for hunting predators and other medium game, and I still believe this is where it will find a niche. The .327 offers a significant boost in power over the .32 H&R Magnum, which should measurably increase the effective range of the caliber. The longer barrels and adjustable sights of the GP and Blackhawk will bring it into the hunting field; all that remains is for Marlin to chamber their 1894 lever gun in .327!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Incorrect conclusions.

This morning I got a very nice email from a concerned gentleman in a southern state. His NRA instructor gave him numerous pieces of incorrect information about his new GP100, one of which I've heard many times before: "Don't carry Magnums, because the muzzle flash will blind you in a self-defense shooting!"

With all due respect, bull twaddle.

The .357 Magnum is notorious for muzzle flash, based largely on some well-known pictures from the 1980s. These days, even the Magnum uses flash-suppressed powders, and muzzle flash with the .357 has been dramatically reduced.

Still, the misconception remains that any muzzle flash will blind you and make it impossible to deliver followup shots. In my experience, that isn't the case.

I once did an experiment, in front of witnesses, on our club's indoor range - using not some wimpy .357 or even .44, but a Dan Wesson .445 SuperMag with a 3" barrel. I personally loaded the rounds to "full house" status, which means maximum velocity, recoil, and flash.

We turned off the range lights except for one in the adjacent classroom, which gave just enough illumination for me to make out the IDPA target about 20 feet downrange.

KA-BOOOOOOOOM! If you've never experienced a SuperMag on an indoor range, it's a treat. If, that is, you like lots of noise, concussion, and muzzle flash. We're talking muzzle flash that witnesses confirmed extended 5 feet from the barrel. I wish we'd taken pictures.

Guess what? I could still see my target; I wasn't blinded at all. So I fired another shot. Then another. Still no flash induced blindness. I could still see my target, but most importantly I could still hit it. Understand: I'm not saying that it had zero effect on my vision. I could see the afterimage of the fireball, but it wasn't at all debilitating even in near darkness.

Is this conclusive proof? Of course not, it's just one person's experience - but it's a heck of a lot more experience with the subject matter than most gunstore commandoes appear to have. No matter how impressive the fireball, it just doesn't seem to possess sufficient intensity to markedly reduce one's vision.

If a non-flash-suppressed SuperMag won't do it, I hardly think a .357 with modern suppressed propellants could. Of course I'm willing to be proven wrong, but at this moment I consider it ill advised to pick a round (caliber or brand) based solely on muzzle flash characteristics.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday meanderings.

Getting a late start today, and that means I'm already behind for the week. Sheesh - where does the time go?


Tam talks about the checkering on her gun. While this would seem to be an issue limited to autoloaders, sharp edges on the trigger and frame (particularly inside the cylinder window) have the same effect for wheelgunners. When people ask "what's the best modification I can do to my revolver?", I usually say round the trigger and dehorn the gun. It makes shooting much less of a chore.


Every so often a client will send me one of the S&W Scandium guns for work, and I'm always reminded of how much I dislike shooting the little beasts. Even with standard pressure Specials, the recoil gets to me very quickly. I can't imagine actually shooting one with Magnum loads, and I intend to never find out!

For me it's merely discomfort, but for others the experience could prove more serious.

I constantly encounter women who've been sold those guns, because the sales clerk wrongly assumed that "light" was synonymous with "best for the little lady." This weekend I ran into yet another such case: a thin, older lady. She wanted to know if the Magnum rounds the shop had sold her with the gun would be good for her to shoot! (My immediate thought was "only if you use them on the idiot who sold you this thing!", but I held my tongue.) I cautioned her that the combination of those rounds with her very thin, somewhat frail build could result in permanent nerve damage to her hands. I hope she got the message.

The best recommendation I have for such cases is a box of the 125gn Federal Nyclad standard-pressure Specials.


Serendipity...I wrote last week about a 2" Model 15 I'd recently worked on, and since then I've run into several of the things. The latest was yesterday, when buddy
Jim Jacobe opened a case and said "weren't you just talking about how much you liked these?" I swear, if I wrote about a .577 Tranter he'd pull one out of his safe to show me...


Now it's time for me to get some work done. Happy Monday!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Still more about testing .22 long rifle ammunition.

A recent email asked about
an old article, wherein I talked about the problems with residual lube in a .22 rimfire barrel. Is it really a problem, the email asked, and if so how do I go about eliminating that variable in testing?

Yes, the effects are real. I never believed in the residual lube theory until I saw the results for myself, and to this day I can repeat them at will with that rifle and ammo.

My test protocol now is to use a standard smallbore target, the type with 6 bullseyes on a sheet. The upper left corner is used to fire 25 seasoning rounds, without regard for group size. This both burns off any residual lubricant and allows me to make any sight adjustments to bring the rounds fairly close to center. I then fire a 5-round group at each remaining bullseye, which gives a good average of the groups that ammunition will deliver. If you're counting, that's one single box of ammunition on one sheet of paper.

Rimfire purists will point out that this is not a sufficient number of rounds to really ascertain the true performance of any specific load, and I'll admit that subsequent testing will sometimes show small differences in group size (better or worse) than this. If you're a serious rimfire match shooter, you'll need to fire hundreds of rounds to truly judge what the ammunition will do. Of course, if you are that person you also won't be looking here for advice!

I've found my test procedure to be the easiest, fastest, most reliable method to obtain a decent (field-grade) indicator of relative performance of rimfire ammunition.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday meanderings: "back to the grind" edition.

I hope everyone enjoyed their Independence Day holiday! I've been burning the candle at both ends lately, so I took a long weekend, during which I managed to overexpose myself to the sun. (The weekend was hot by Oregon standards - we hit 100 degrees at our house on Friday, and only slightly cooler on Thursday & Saturday.) What's that line - "feel the burn?"


Since it was so warm, I drank a huge amount of water. Having been in the ER more than once for severe dehydration (and accompanying heat exhaustion), I'm a little more attentive to this detail than most. For several years, my choice of liquid container has been the
classic Nalgene bottle - the translucent white variety, made of #2 HDPE, free of those nasty plasticizers currently suspected of causing cancer. A side benefit is that HDPE is flexible, making it more suitable to hard use than the much more rigid clear varieties. This proved beneficial this weekend, when I ran over my Nalgene with a tractor. Smashed it nearly flat, and collapsed the bottom inward. I managed to squeeze the walls back into roughly cylindrical form, but wasn't able to fix the floor. I filled it with water, threw it in the freezer, and in a couple of hours the expanding ice did the trick! Good as new (more or less), and none the worse for wear.

I just wish they'd make the things in "earth colors" - OD, coyote tan, etc. Nalgene, are you listening?


The S&W "J" frame is a generally reliable piece, but lately I've gotten reports of ignition issues with newer examples. S&W has transitioned to a new firing pin, which is much lighter and much shorter than the previous varieties. (This may be their solution to the drop testing standards in California.) They seem to be the source of the problem.To insure reliability, I replace all those I encounter with the
Cylinder & Slide Extra Length firing pin. Highly recommended, and an easy "do it yourself" modification for those so inclined.


supply chain is finally starting to recover; AR-15 rifles are becoming a common sight in the stores again, and I'm receiving reports of ammo shelves being restocked. Shortages of certain products (most notably .380ACP ammunition) can be expected to continue for the next few months, but by and large we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Wednesday wanderings.

I've been collecting conspiracy theories for the ammo shortage, and I recently heard a great one that supposedly came from a local gun store: FEMA has been buying ammunition companies, then shutting them down to eliminate all civilian ammunition sources.

One needs an awful lot of foil for a tin hat that big...


Uncle and I have something in common: here in Oregon, our legislature also passed a "no texting" law. We went further, though - we added that you couldn't use a handheld cel phone at all. Then we enacted $2 billion of new taxes and spending in the state with the second-highest unemployment in the nation. We're number 49! We're number 49! Go team!


I'm really excited about the rifles
Savage has been introducing lately. I like this concept, though I'm not at all wild about the buttstock:

I'm more intrigued by
this one:

If it's as accurate as expected, I may have to own one. (Sure, I could build one myself, but I'm too busy doing guns for other people. Remember the parable about the shoemaker's children?)

Now, if we could just get them to cease doing business with H-S Precision...


Dr. Helen brings us the story of a woman who fought back against her knife-wielding rapist. Read the comments - some insightful, and some very amusing (in a train wreck sort of way.)


From the Irish Times comes news that the powers-that-be want to ban "practical" shooting (i.e. IPSC, IDPA.) The Irish Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, had this to say:

“It’s simply not in the public interest to tolerate the development of a subculture predicated on a shooting activity which by the liberal standards of the US is regarded as an extreme shooting activity." He said any cursory research on the internet showed that these activities were marketed as being at the “extreme end” of handgun ownership and were “anathema to the tradition of Irish sporting clubs”.

Hmmm...such preoccupation with America leads me to suspect his national pride is still smarting from the
shellacking his team took back in 1874.

-=[ Grant ]=-

A short note about a shortened cartridge.

Busier than a one-armed paperhanger today, so I'm just going to give you a link and some commentary.

On Monday I mentioned my attraction to wildcat cartridges. There is one that still intrigues me, because a) it's an easy wildcat to make, and b) it's a cartridge that SHOULD have been factory made from the start:
the .41 Special.

I've always wanted to play with it, but have never owned the necessary .41 Magnum gun in which to shoot it. Since I'm not all that much a fan of the .41 Magnum to begin with I doubt I ever will, which automatically leaves me out of the .41 Special fraternity. Unless, of course, I decide to do a conversion on an existing gun! Here we go again...

(Oh, BTW - check out Ed Harris' comments on
Monday's post, particularly the video. I've been jealous of his rook rifle since he told me about it some time back; someday I'll one-up him by building a double rifle in .32 Colt New Police, aka .32 S&W Long.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

Uncommon cartridges.

One of my interests, though I suppress it as much as possible, is the field of wildcat and proprietary cartridges. The lure of a cartridge that will give me something that I can't get anywhere else, that will dramatically improve some aspect of my shooting, is nearly irresistible. Of course owning and using something that other folks may not have heard about, let alone used, is a strong motivating factor!

Why do I suppress this interest? First, because I don't need yet another caliber to reload. Second, because reloading non-standard cartridges almost always requires extra work, and I've got enough to do as it is. Finally, because they rarely do anything that can't be done with something more mainstream, no matter how much I tell myself otherwise!

This interest was kindled many years ago when I was tasked with loading up some .451 Detonics for a local Detonics fanatic. The .451 was a proprietary cartridge, supposedly made by cutting down .45 Winchester Magnum brass, that was reported to throw a 185 grain bullet in excess of 1350 fps. This collector had a large quantity of virgin .451 Detonics brass, and wanted to recreate the defunct cartridge.

Loading data was scant, but we proceeded to work up loads using a rare .451 Detonics Combatmaster with an even rarer factory Seecamp double-action mechanism. We stopped when the 185 grain slugs exited that short barrel at 1325 fps - with recoil that can only be described as fierce!

(I don't believe the Seecamp option was ever actually offered for sale by Detonics. This collector, who was friends with someone from the original Detonics company, told me that "several" Detonics models were so constructed for test and evaluation, and he managed to acquire a couple of examples.)

That experience hooked me on odd cartridges, and I fed the addiction by purchasing a Dan Wesson in .445 SuperMag. Several other non-standard cartridges followed, and then I caught the wildcat bug. Wildcats are like crack cocaine to an oddball cartridge addict, and I played with several. I even toyed with the idea of developing my own wildcat, but luckily sanity (in the form of my wife) prevailed and the project was forgotten. More or less.

Most of my pet oddballs were eventually sold as my interest in them waned. Well, that - and I got tired scrounging and/or forming brass for them! I still have a few foreign military cartridges in the collection, though I'm not sure they really fit into the wildcat/proprietary motif.

My single remaining wildcat is a rifle chambered in 6.5-284. This is now a semi-legitimate cartridge, as it has become popular enough that Norma loads it and sells properly headstamped cases. When I took up the cartridge, though, it was a pure wildcat requiring forming cases from .284 Winchester brass. It's a wonderful cartridge, flat shooting and horrendously accurate, and now that it's become more mainstream it's much easier to load. Somehow, it's also lost the allure it used to hold for me.

Must - resist - urge - to - acquire - more...

-=[ Grant ]=-

On loading density.

I hope everyone had a good Memorial Day weekend! The weather here in Oregon was wonderful (for a change) and I made the most of the sunshine and warm temperatures. In fact, I found it hard to come back to work!

I've received several emails in the last few months with a common complaint: unburned powder granules lodging underneath the extractor, causing cylinder lockups. I believe the ongoing ammunition shortage may be playing a big part in the sudden increase of this problem.

Because ammunition is so hard to get, many people are either turning to reloading their own, or sliding down-market and buying reloads at the local gun show. In both cases there is a great incentive to reduce the cost of these cartridges, and one way to do so is to use a powder that requires a lower charge weight for a given velocity. Less powder used, less money spent!

As the charge weight goes down, so does the space occupied by the powder. This is referred to as 'load density', and is an often overlooked aspect of powder choice. In many older cartridges, like the .38 Special, .45 Colt, and .44 Special, the case volume is quite generous. Putting a small charge of powder in these enormous cases results in very low load densities.

The issue is that some powders work well at low densities, and some don't. Hodgdon Universal Clays, which is one of my favorite powders for autoloading cartridges, doesn't like to be loaded to low densities at all. In a standard velocity 158 grain .38 Special load, it will produce copious amounts of unburned flakes. Increasing the load density by upping the charge weight to a +P level, though, eliminates the problem.

The problems are magnified in larger cases like the .44 Special, where Universal Clays proves to be almost unusable. Just because the powder maker lists a particular load weight in a particular cartridge doesn't mean that it works all that well!

In contrast, Alliant Red Dot handles low charge densities better, producing a clean burn at target level .38 velocities. It is now my powder of choice for low to mid velocities in the larger cases.

Oddly, all the currently available load manuals (except for Nosler's) ignore load density. I've made it a policy to avoid using the very lightest powders for any given cartridge, and instead go for the powders in the middle of the charge weight range (which achieve the target velocity, of course.)

There are a couple of other factors in unburned powder issues, and I'll get to those in a future article.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Feedback from the Stopping Power series.

I continue to get email from last year's
"Self defense, stopping power, and caliber" series. It remains the second-most visited page on the site, behind only my article on lubrication, and appears to be well received by the majority of readers. Thank you!

As you might imagine, such popularity generates feedback, and some questions pop up more than once. While not exactly a FAQ, here are some of the common emails I've received.

Email: You didn't cover the difference between crush and temporary cavities, which I think is very important.
My answer: No, I didn't - because I don't consider it critical to the discussion. You see, I really don't care what the wounding mechanism is, as long as one exists. Going back to the article, as long as the bullet a) reaches something that the body finds immediately important, and b) does rapid and significant damage to that thing when it arrives, then I'm really unconcerned about how it actually does so.

Email: Can you comment on ammo from [a smaller maker], whose stuff is just as good but doesn't waste money on advertising?
My answer: In general, I recommend that one avoid "boutique ammunition." The majority (if not all) of such ammo purveyors are simply loading bullets made by someone else, but without the knowledge of how to make those bullets perform their best. Why should I risk unknown quality control to get a product that, at best, can only be as good as what I can get from a producer that has actual design and test budgets? My advice is to stick with known quantities: Winchester, Speer, Federal, Remington.

Email: What's your opinion of the book "Handgun Stopping Power" (aka "Street Stoppers", aka 'Marshall & Sanow')?
My answer: There are a number of solid, critical analyses of their work online; I suggest that you read some of them, as the problems with their "research" are both serious and numerous. In case I was too subtle in the articles, I consider stopping power ratings in general to be complete hogwash, and theirs are particularly so.

You'd be further ahead to take the money you would have spent on their book, and practice until you can shoot to a high standard of accuracy under stress. Couple that with a quality hollowpoint from a major manufacturer, and you'll be much better prepared than any ten people who swear by their scribblings.

(This should not be construed to mean that I am a follower of their chief antagonist, Dr. Martin Fackler, either. He concocted his ratings from a different sort of nonsense than Marshall & Sanow, and came to different conclusions - which were just as useless. Again, there is criticism of his work that can be found on the 'net, if one is so inclined.)

Email: Is there any reliable source of information on bullet performance?
My answer: Because of the huge number of variables in any shooting, and the relatively low number of incidents, the idea of hard statistical data is meaningless. What we're left with is anecdotal evidence which, while not valid in a scientific sense, does give us some rough feeling for what is and is not working. That's the best we can do under the circumstances.

One of the more prolific collectors of such information is Massad Ayoob. He is in a unique position: since he travels all over the country both as a trainer and an expert witness, he's thrown into contact with large numbers of police trainers and shooting survivors. He elicits their opinions of their issue ammunition, based on shootings in their departments. He gets some great feedback, which he doesn't try to disguise or characterize as anything other than raw opinion from people who have actual results to talk about.

If you want to hear some of Ayoob's findings direct from the man himself, listen to
this episode of the ProArms podcast.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Progressive presses and powder measures.

A common complaint with progressive presses is the throwing of inconsistent powder charges. Most people immediately blame the equipment, but some times it's actually operator error.

We first need to admit that there are certain incompatibilities with regard to some measures and some powders (Dillon's difficulty with metering flake or extruded powder, for instance, is often discussed on the various reloading forums.) However, even with a powder the measure "likes" unexpected variances often occur during a production run.

The variance usually comes as a surprise to the operator. During setup, the reloader is careful to check the powder charge, and finds that the measure it properly set up and is throwing charges with little variance - say, within .1 grains. During the middle of a run the person happens to check a random case and finds that it is perhaps a half grain off. He stops, carefully throws several charges, perhaps adjusts the measure, then settles down to again crank out the rounds. Another random check, and the process repeats itself.

Perhaps some attention to technique will cure the problem.

Those who reload rifle cases for extreme accuracy will agree that one's technique with the powder measure is critical to consistent, accurate charges. The same is true for the measure on a progressive press!

As it happens, there is a "dwell time" when powder is being dumped from the measure. The powder doesn't fall instantaneously into a case, it flows - out of the measure's cavity, down the drop tube, through the powder die, and into the waiting brass. That journey takes some time, and if the press operator is impatient - or worse, inconsistently impatient - there may be a few flakes of powder left somewhere in the path when he decides to go to the next round in the queue. That translates into a light charge for the current case, and a heavy one for the next.

There is a solution: when you pull the handle down, pause for a second at the bottom of the stroke to give time for all of the powder to make the journey to your case. Most operators I've observed don't do this - as soon as the handle hits bottom, they immediately jerk it back up to get to the next round in the shellplate. That may not give the powder enough time to drop, and can lead to those inconsistent charges.

When I'm using my progressive, I think consciously about that pause at the bottom of the stroke. When the handle hits the stop, I open my hand then close it; the amount of time it takes to do that is sufficient for the powder to drop completely (and has the added benefit of keeping my hand and arm from tiring during long loading sessions!) Yes, it will slow you down slightly; I think it's a small price to pay for more consistent and accurate ammo.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday meanderings.

Sitrep: gunshow vendors tell me that any autoloading rifle is like gold these days (while they can't give away bolt-action hunting rifles.) Concealed handgun licensing is at an all-time high here in Oregon (and a large percentage of applicants are from what is often referred to as the "left" of the political spectrum.) Ammunition shortages continue, as well as components such as bullets and primers.

If I didn't know better, I'd say a lot of people have joined the ranks of "clingers."


Someone recently asked if I still had the same opinion of Taurus revolvers that I did back in 2006. Given my recent experience with the brand-new 856 model, I'd have to say yes. Nothing at Taurus has changed, as near as I can tell.


Late last year, the
ProArms Podcast broke the news that Federal was bringing back .38 Special NyClad ammunition. This load was for many years the best standard-pressure .38 Special available. The NyClad is a soft lead hollowpoint of 125 grains, coated in a nylon compound to prevent barrel leading. It is just the ticket for the recoil sensitive, and especially for the new crop of uber-light "J" frame revolvers.

My sources tell me that Federal planned to do an initial run of the NyClad in March, so it should be available soon (if it isn't already.) Unless your local dealer is particularly astute, he probably won't be carrying it - you'll probably have to special order some.


I wish I had time to write a political/economic blog - between Washington and Wall Street, there is a huge amount of material coming down the pipes daily. (The passing reference to waste plumbing is intentional.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

More on testing .22 Long Rifle ammunition.

As I've mentioned from time to time, shooting .22LR "seriously" can be a frustrating experience. It is almost expected that two identical rifles will have very different ammo preferences - and, unlike centerfire cartridges, the differences are often astounding.

For instance, I have one rifle that shoots it's favorite load into an average 5-shot group of .275" at 25 yards (from prone.) However, that same rifle shooting it's least favorite load struggles to maintain 3" at that same distance! What's more, once you find that one load that shoots well in that one gun, the next batch (lot) of that same ammo may not. It will never be as bad as the best to the worst comparison, but the variance can be enough to put the next best (or sometimes the third best) in the top spot - until you change lots again, of course!

Finding the gun's favorite load is strictly a matter of trial and error. It's not usually even a matter of the type of load; for instance, a gun might shoot one particular 36 grain high velocity hollowpoint load very well, but the next maker's similar fodder won't be even close.

Those who are serious about their rimfires, therefore, tend to do a lot of ammunition testing. When I acquire a new .22, I'll run as many as 20 different kinds of ammo through it, keeping careful notes about the results. This takes time, and if not done correctly results in meaningless data!

As you probably know, .22 ammunition is externally lubricated. That is, each bullet has a coating of some kind of lube to keep it from fouling the bore. Each maker uses a different lube, and sometimes they'll use different lubes within their own product line.

The problem is that residual lube from one load can affect the next few rounds using another load. Case in point: some time back I was testing a new rifle with a couple of different loads. I had just finished with Wolf Match Target, and loaded in some much cheaper Federal stuff. The first 5-shot group with the Federal was absolutely astounding - an honest .175" group at 25 yards! I don't know which amazed me more, the rifle or the ammo, but I wanted to do it again!

I loaded another magazine, "assumed the position", and shot another group. This one was slightly larger, which I attributed to me. I repeated the procedure, and this time the group had almost doubled in size. The next one was even worse.

What accounted for that first group? After thinking about it, and reading some information from Steven Boelter (whose rimfire experience dwarfs mine), I came to the conclusion that perhaps there was some residual lubricant from the Wolf ammunition which was "contaminating" (but in a good way) the Federal load. Testing my hypothesis was easy: I shot a few magazines of Wolf, then switched to the Federal. The first group of Federal was, again, under .200" for 5 shots. The following groups deteriorated rapidly, just as they had the first time. A repetition of the sequence duplicated the results. It seemed that the Wolf lubricant affected the Federal rounds in a good way, but as it was rapidly depleted from the barrel the groups suffered.

From this I adopted the rimfire shooter's testing procedure: when switching loads, first clean the bore (a quick brushing will suffice.) Then, shoot 1 round of the new load for each inch of barrel length to "season" the barrel to the new ammo before firing any groups that will count. This is Boelter's recommendation, and I've found it to be sage advice. Remember: only after the seasoning rounds have been fired do you shoot any for score or analysis.

Those first few rounds may group better, or worse, than the shots following. It doesn't matter, because the groups made after the seasoning process are the ones that tell you what the load really, truly does in that gun.

-=[ Grant ]=-

More primer talk

A question appeared in the comments to
my last primer article. The commenter asked about magnum primers and their effect on the load.

First things first: I'll limit my comments to Winchester Small Pistol Magnum primers, as those are what I have experience with. (Winchester uses the same Large Pistol primer for both regular and magnum loads.)

A couple of years back I was working up a 9mm +P load, to duplicate a factory offering for practice purposes. (This is one of the great benefits of handloading - the ability to make a cheaper equivalent for range use, saving the increasingly expensive factory stuff for carry.)

I started with some published +P loads using the Winchester Small Pistol (WSP) primer. Those loads failed to achieve the necessary velocities, even at the max charge weight. I wondered if a change to a "hotter" (magnum) primer would make a difference, and redeveloped the load using Winchester Small Pistol Magnum (WSPM) primers. A velocity gain occurred at all charge weights, topping out with a 115 fps increase at the maximum load.

Again, I haven't tried this side-by-side comparison with any other primer brand. If you attempt this experiment, do not substitute primers on maximum loads; as always, start low and work up. Pay particular attention to pressure signs.

Speaking of my previous primer article...I mentioned that my testing had revealed a substantial decrease in velocity variance when comparing CCI and Winchester primers. Well,
someone over at posted this interesting picture. He took his favorite .45 Colt load for his Rossi rifle, and switched primers between Remington and CCI. Take a look - it would appear that CCI's consistency pays big dividends in accuracy, at least in this case.

If you are at all the curious type, reloading is your hobby - so much experimentation to be done!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Prime(r) time

I'm not sure what's up with Winchester these days. No one seems to have Winchester primers in stock, either walk-in or online, and backorders aren't being taken. On the other hand, CCI primers are (at least in my area) available in quantity. Odd.

(Something else odd: I rarely see Remington primers around here, and it's been that way as far back as I can remember.)

Anyhow, every reloading resource I've ever seen is quite adamant about the need to retest a load whenever anything changes - including primers. I know many people who do not heed that advice, assuming that a primer is a primer is a primer. (It's usually about the time they say this that I make a mental note to stand well behind them when they are shooting.) I, on the other hand, am desirous of maintaining my appendages in full working order. Thus when anything changes, I test thoroughly.

Because of the difficulty in obtaining my favorite Winchester primers (which I've used exclusively for nearly two decades), I've been reworking some of my loads to accommodate CCI primers. This is more of a pre-emptive move than anything, as I still have Winchesters on the shelf. Doing this before I need to allows me the luxury of testing side-by-side, using the same powder lots.

I've found something interesting, and not at all what I expected. The Winchester primers are "hotter" (producing higher velocities) than the CCI, but the CCI primers are more consistent (smaller spreads in velocity from shot to shot.) This appears to be the case in both pistol and rifle sizes.

Example: a 170 grain load in the .30-30 cartridge. Using CCI primers, I could not achieve factory-level velocities without loading "over book" (putting in more powder than specified by the reloading manual.) I have many load manuals, and both the bullet maker and the powder manufacturer pretty much agreed on what was a maximum load. Even at their maximum, the CCI primer still produced a load that was 150 fps under factory ammo velocities.

(Before the emails start: I tested factory loads in MY gun so that I had a real benchmark. Factory velocity data is not to be relied on.)

The Winchester primers produced a load which easily matched the factory offering, but both the extreme spread and the standard deviation of the load increased markedly. This indicates that the primer is not as consistent as the CCI equivalent. (Remember: same powder lot, same bullet lot, same brass from the same lot. The only change was the primer.) This should translate to lessened accuracy for the Winchester primer, but results from a lever action rifle using flat point bullets are so far inconclusive.

When I get around to it, I'll be doing the same test with my .308 match loads. I'll post the results of the accuracy tests, where I expect the CCI to clearly best the Winchester.

Stay tuned.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Preventing barrel leading

A reader asked me to comment on successfully shooting lead bullets in revolvers. It seems that he's been getting indifferent accuracy coupled with severe leading, and would like to know the "secret" to using lead in his gun.

I thought I'd covered this topic once before, but a thorough search of the archives failed to turn up the expected article. Guess I'll have to do this from scratch!

Please note that I'm not a "hardcore" cast bullet shooter. I don't cast my own, which means that I'm dependent on commercial sources for my projectiles. As a result, it's taken me longer to learn this stuff than it would have otherwise. Thus I'm no expert; but Ed Harris, who sometimes checks in here at the RLA, is - hopefully he'll see fit to comment. (Ed, if I get anything wrong please drop me a note - I'll make your response into it's own post.)

The first thing to understand is that your lead bullets need to fit the chamber throats of your gun. If, for example, your throats measure .358", your bullets should be no smaller than .358, and no bigger than .001" over that measurement. Smaller bullets won't be as accurate, and will let the erosive combustion gases blow past the bullet causing severe leading around the forcing cone.

(Many bullet makers will size their products to your preference; if they don't make that service obvious, just ask. A surprising number are happy to oblige, usually at no extra cost.)

The forcing cone of your gun must also be in good condition; roughness in that area will result in leading at that point.

Assuming that the gun part of the equation is in good shape, and the bullets are of correct size, the hardness of the bullet becomes the critical issue. Most bullet makers advertise really hard bullets as being the "cure" for leading. It sort of stands to reason, doesn't it? A harder lead won't smear as much as it goes down the barrel, and will leave less residue - right?

Guess what - it isn't true. In fact, it's completely off base!

Think about this: you probably have a .22 rifle hanging around. Most .22 LR bullets are plain lubricated lead - very soft lead, no less. Compared to your average hard cast bullet, a .22 slug is almost like butter - soft as can be. Yet I'll bet that if you looked at the bore of your rifle, you probably won't see much leading - if any at all. My .22 rifles will fire a thousand or so rounds between cleanings, and I've never seen lead in my bores despite the bullet traveling at 1,200 fps.

What's the reason? Obturation.

A bullet, under great pressure from the expanding gases behind it, grows in size to fit whatever hole (chamber throat, barrel bore) it is being shoved into. This phenomenon is called obturation. As the bullet obturates it seals the hole, and keeps the gases where they belong until the bullet actually exits the barrel.

If the bullet doesn't obturate, the very hot gases will rush past while it is in the bore. The lead where the gases pass is melted and deposited on the barrel's walls - producing leading. This kind of leading is the most difficult to remove, as it really "sticks" to the bore - as if it's been soldered there. In fact, it has!

It follows that we need to make sure that they bullet obturates in our bore. In order for a bullet to obturate, the metal used needs to be soft enough to deform easily under the amount of pressure being applied to it. If the bullet is too hard, it won't obturate and there will be no sealing.

So, the bullet has to be soft enough to obturate. Why not just make all bullets out of super soft pure lead - won't that cure the problem? No, it won't; a bullet that's too soft will also cause leading, as it won't be strong enough to maintain the necessary seal in the bore. It also won't be resistant to the heat generated by the friction of travel down the bore. Both result in lead left in the barrel.

The bullet has to be hard, but not too hard; soft, but not too soft! The variable is the amount of pressure generated by the firing cartridge.

The higher the pressure, the harder the bullet needs to be to resist excess deformation - but remember that it has to be soft enough to obturate properly. A mild .38 Special target load needs a softer bullet than a fire-breathing .357 Magnum in order to obturate; putting a too-hard bullet in a mild cartridge is as much a problem as a too-soft slug in a hot one.

Bullet hardness is rated on the Brinell (BHN) scale. Pure lead is 5 BHN; "hard cast" bullets can be close to 30 BHN. Somewhere in that range is the ideal bullet for any given cartridge; how do we find it?

As it happens, there is a way to determine the optimum bullet hardness. First, you need to know the amount of pressure your load develops. That's easy - your loading manual will have that information. (Pressure is listed in either CUP or PSI; they are slightly different, but for this particular question either will be close enough to get the answer we need.)

There are two formula: one for the ideal hardness, one for the maximum hardness.

Ideal hardness in BHN = Pressure / 1,920
Maximum BHN = Pressure / 1,422

Let's say it's a .38 Special using 4.5 grains of Hodgdon Universal Clays and a 158 grain SWC bullet. The pressure for this load is 16,700. Our formulae look like this:

16,700 '/ 1920 = 8.69 BHN ideal hardness
16,700 / 1422 = 11.74 BHN maximum hardness

You can (and should) round those to the nearest whole number. Thus, for this load I want a bullet of around 9 BHN, but no more than 12 BHN for best results.

For a heavy .357 Magnum load, using the same bullet, the numbers are dramatically different:

33,600 / 1920 = 18 (rounded) ideal
33,600 / 1422 = 24 (rounded) maximum

Big difference! If I buy bullets of 21 BHN for my Magnum, and use them in the light Special loads, they won't obturate properly and I'm likely to get leading.

Guess what? That's exactly what happened! It wasn't until I bought some bullets of a nice 10 BHN for my Special loads that my leading problem was solved. As I said at the beginning, it doesn't seem logical that softer bullets leave less residue behind - that is, until you understand the physics behind the problem.

With this information you can now go bullet shopping with confidence. You'll probably find that purveyors of "cowboy" bullets are your best choice to get the alloy hardness that you need to keep the lead where it belongs: on the target, not in your barrel!

-=[ Grant ]=-

On rimfire ammunition and accuracy

Serendipity, that's what it is. Last week a consistent topic kept coming up in a variety of places: the necessity (or lack thereof) for "accurate" .22 long rifle ammunition.

"I don't shoot groups, I hunt {insert favorite furry tidbit here}."
"You can't shoot really accurately in the field anyway, so better ammo isn't worth the price."
"The ammo already shoots better than I can, so I just buy whatever is cheapest."

I believe such comments to be shortsighted. First, though, a bit of information for those not intimately familiar with the vast array of rimfire ammunition.

The .22lr is the most popular (by a huge margin) cartridge in the world. It is available in a bewildering number of forms, from the very cheapest to the "ohmigod, I could buy a good steak dinner for that amount of money!" In general, the more accurate the ammo, the more it will cost.

The odd thing, however, is that not every .22 gun (be it rifle or pistol) will necessarily shoot the most expensive ammo into the smallest group. Rimfires are notoriously finicky; you can, quite literally, take two different .22 rifles, of the same model and vintage (and very close to the same serial number) and each will have very different ammunition preferences. Sometimes the most expensive will in fact shoot the best; other times, a less expensive fodder will do the deed.

In terms of consistency, however, the more costly ammunition will win out - it simply won't vary as much from group to group, even if its absolute accuracy isn't as good. In other words, a cheaper ammo may produce a smaller group occasionally, but the more expensive stuff will shoot the same size group all the time. In the aggregate, the more expensive the ammunition, the more likely it will shoot better in any given gun.

There's no guarantee that you'll set records with more costly bullets, but it's a dead certainty that you won't with WallyWorld specials!

Back to the subject at hand...let's say that you have a rifle that at its absolute best is capable of shooting the magic 1 minute-of-angle (MOA) group (which is, for all intents and purposes, 1/2" at 50 yards.) What this means is that the group it shoots with its best ammunition choice will fit into a circle measuring 1/2" in diameter. Clear so far?

Assuming that the actual center of the group is at the actual point of aim, any shot fired will fall a maximum of 1/4" from the point of aim; this is known as 1/4" radial dispersion. If one shot lands at the extreme edge of that dispersion, and the next at the opposite side of that dispersion, the distance between them will be 1/2", which is the group size. See how that works?

Now, let's say that some other ammunition shoots 4 MOA in this rifle (2" at 50 yards.) Any shot that is fired will now land within 1" of the point of aim. That's still not bad; certainly not enough to even get you in the door at an Olympic training village, but enough to nail pop cans off the fence.

Or is it?

A standard 12oz pop can has a diameter of 2.6", or 1.3" on either side of the center. Aiming dead on that center point, with our 4 MOA ammo, means that the worst shot of the bunch only has .3" to spare to knock the can off the fence. In other words, with that ammo your aim and hold has to vary no more than .3" if you expect to hit the can with any given shot!

Will the better ammo give us an edge? You tell me...with 1 MOA ammunition, the expected radial dispersion is .25". That means that any given shot, holding absolutely dead center, now has a margin of error of 1.05". In other words, your aim and hold now has a bit over an inch of leeway to hit with 100% certainty. I'd say that's a significant advantage, wouldn't you?

Shooting is all about being able to trust your skills, but you can't get to trust your skills until you first can trust your equipment. If you practice by popping cans off the fence, how will you know if that miss was because of your skills, or because of your equipment - and is it the ammo, or the gun?

Someone will no doubt be yelling at his (or her) monitor that not every shot will be at the outer edges of the variables. In other words, an ammo that shoots 4 MOA will distribute shots all over that circle; not all of them will be in the center (otherwise it would shoot better than 4 MOA), but likewise not all of them will fall on the edge of that circle. This is true.

The trouble with this line of thinking is that we don't know where any given upcoming shot will fall. We know that it may hit in the center of its expected circle, or it may hit at the edge, or somewhere in between. We don't know where it will hit until it does; if we expect to hit the target with every shot, we have to assume the worst and prepare for it, looking on anything else as a wonderful happenstance.

It's all about probabilities. Let's take our 4 MOA ammo; it's possible that, say, 80% of its shots might fall within a 2 MOA circle. This means that 80% of the time, you have a bit over 1/2" of leeway on that pop can. Put differently, if you can aim and hold within 1/2" of center, you'll hit the can 80% of the time. If you're happy with 80%, great! (Yes, I'm aware that you can increase the hit probability by simply decreasing the distance to the target. If you're going to shoot everything from 20 feet away, you may feel free to use the worst ammo in the worst gun, and never have the need to improve your skills. Everyone wins - sort of.)

Personally, I'm not enamored with those numbers. Look at it from my perspective: I like to hunt small game with my .22 rifles, both for pest control and dinner. I'm an old farm boy who has a close relationship to the animals around him; if an animal is to die by my hand, I require that death to be as humane - quick and painless - as is possible. For me, that means headshots and instant incapacitation. If you eat small game, you know that head shots are necessary simply to maximize the amount of usable meat from the ammo. Squirrels aren't all that big to begin with!

Further, a missed shot is a lost animal; unlike targets and pop cans, they usually don't wait around for you to try again. I want 100% hit probability if I can supply the necessary foundation (sighting and hold.)

A small animal's head often has a kill zone of around 1-1/2" (even less if forced to take a frontal shot.) If I were to use ammunition that only shoots 4 MOA, that would require me to have absolutely zero error in both sighting and hold to make a clean kill at 50 yards. (Actually, it has negative error - meaning that even with perfect performance on my part, I cannot expect the ammo to deliver a clean hit 100% of the time.) At 25 yards, it doesn't get a lot better - my total allowable aim/hold error for a clean kill is a whopping quarter-inch! Can you do that from a field shooting position? Really? Every time?

Switching to the better ammunition gives me a big edge. At 50 yards my self-induced error allowance is now a half inch, and at 25 yards it is almost 3/4". It means that the chances of a successful clean kill are significantly improved by using the better fodder.

Higher quality .22lr ammunition isn't just for benchresters and group junkies. If one is just starting out, it means faster and surer skill development. For the hunter, it means greater yield and more humane treatment of the animal. In my mind, it's worth the price.

The only thing left is to get a whole bunch of different kinds of ammunition and test them all in your gun. You'll learn just how much you'll have to pay to get the accuracy you really need - not the accuracy someone insists you can settle for!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Illustrating the concept

A reader sent me
this link to an old Richard Davis "Second Chance" video. The video has Davis shooting a fellow - who is wearing one of Davis' vests, of course - with a .308 rifle and himself with a .44 magnum revolver. The reader's comment was "if this doesn't show an energy dump, I don't know what it shows."

I agree. With the second part of the statement, at least. Going back to our
"Stopping power" series, as I pointed out the term "energy dump" is nonsensical - energy isn't "dumped", it is used to do work.

What is the work in this case?

First, I can guarantee that the bullet itself was grossly deformed in its contact with the vest material. It takes energy to deform the bullet, and that energy only comes from one place: the bullet itself.

Second, there is a huge amount of work being done by that slug. It is trying to part and sever the fibers in the vest material, which are quite tough and designed to resist such force. The bullet does manage to defeat some of the fibers - which is why it's buried between the layers of cloth - but the energy required to do that job, again and again (there are many layers in a vest) rapidly depletes the bullet's stored energy. The result is that all of the energy is used up doing the work of penetrating the vest.

Again, the bullet's energy wasn't "dumped" - it was used. Understand the difference, and terminal ballistics won't seem so mysterious.

(Notice also the second myth busted in the video: that a bullet has enough energy to knock a man down. As you can see, even full-power .308 NATO, at near contact distance, isn't sufficient to knock over a man standing on one foot. Again, there is nothing mysterious at work - simply basic physics.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

My reloading setup: the dies I actually use daily

Someone emailed and asked me to detail my reloading die setups. With pleasure!

For handgun rounds, my setup for .38 Special is typical (and, not surprisingly, my most-used.) The sizing die is a Lee carbide, which I've had for decades. I would prefer an RCBS die in this spot, primarily for the better decapping pin system and easier handling of it's knurled body, but the Lee is perfectly serviceable (and I'm too cheap to spring for the new die.) For certain other calibers I have RCBS or DIllon carbide dies, and as I mentioned last time I find them all acceptable - but my favorite remains RCBS.

The next station on the press carries a Lyman "M" expander die. The Hornady powder measure, like other progressive press measures, has an integral case expander, but I still prefer to expand using the Lyman die. It expands in a unique manner that reduces lead shaving and promotes straighter bullet seating, and it works as advertised. (I do reload a number of calibers for which I don't have "M" dies; for those I rely on the expander in the powder measure, which works perfectly well - the "M" die is just in a class by itself.)

The bullet seating die for all calibers is the Hornady with the sliding bullet alignment collar. It is, hands down, the best seating die I've used. That sliding collar definitely helps bullet alignment, especially if the bullet tips a bit on the way up into the die. The bullet seating depth is precisely adjustable via a convenient knurled knob, and they have a micrometer seating adjustment available as an accessory. Absolutely "best in class" in terms of features.

I never crimp in the seating die. I know, most people do, but I've found that crimping separately results in significantly better ammunition. In .38, I use the superb Redding crimp die. This die is unique, in that it applies a slight taper crimp first, then a roll crimp. It produces the best .38 ammo I've ever made, and would not be without it for any cartridge where I want to squeeze out that last little bit of accuracy.

For all other pistol calibers, I use the Lee Factory Crimp Die. It is different than any other crimp die: it has a carbide sizing ring that sizes all the way to the base of the case, which is difficult to do in the initial size/decap process. Then it applies a taper or roll crimp (depending on the cartridge.) The neat part about the crimp stage is that it is adjustable via a knurled knob, making it a cinch to get exactly the right amount of crimp. The combination of to-the-base resizing and perfect crimping make the FCD (as it's known in reloading circles) great for all calibers, but an absolute must for rounds going into autoloading pistols. If you're having trouble getting your reloads to feed, the FCD will solve the problem. (If you're using a Dillon sizing die, which doesn't size are far down the case as others, the FCD is especially useful.)

For rifle rounds I've taken then same mix-and-match approach. (For those who don't reload bottleneck rifle cases, there are two approaches to resizing: full-length and neck only. Cases going into autoloading or lever-action repeating rifles must be full-length sized for proper feeding. For a bolt-action or single-shot rifle, you can get away with just resizing the neck of the case itself. This results in much improved brass life and simplified reloading, as lubrication isn't needed.)

As mentioned last time, my preferred sizing dies are Redding and RCBS, for a combination of finish, smoothness, and decapping pin arrangement. In full length dies I've decided to limit my choices to RCBS and Redding, mainly because I haven't been all that happy with Lee's internal finish. If neck sizing only, Lee's Collet Dies are actually quite nice - I've had pretty good luck with them, though I still prefer Redding or RCBS because of Lee's decapping pin design.

When I'm reloading for rifles, I use the same technique that I do for pistol rounds: I don't seat and crimp in the same operation, as most rifle reloaders do. As I mentioned before, I've found that seating and crimping separately results in better quality ammunition, with more consistent seating depth and crimp tension.

Again, the seating die of choice is Hornady - their alignment collar is just as important for rifles as for handguns, and works just as well. I adjust the die body so that the crimping ring never touches the mouth of the case, thereby using just the seating function. I buy a separate seating die to do the crimping, and simply remove or adjust the seating stem so that it never touches the bullet. I've found - again - the RCBS and Redding seating dies are the best in terms of crimp quality. They don't shave brass from (or deform) the case lips when they're adding a heavy crimp, which both Hornady and Lee seating dies do. (This isn't important for a single-shot rifle, but for a tube-fed lever action it sure is!)

Sharp-eyed readers will note that I mentioned Lyman only once. This is because I have very little experience with their products other than the "M" die. Their external finish seems to be a notch below RCBS and a couple below Redding, though as mentioned I am impressed with the performance of the "M" die. Readers with more extensive Lyman experience are encouraged to comment on their other offerings.

As you can see, there is no one maker of dies that has everything I want; I'm forced to pick and choose the best for my needs and desires. It's taken me a long time (and no small amount of money) to get to this point, but I'm quite happy with the results!

-=[ Grant ]=-

By popular request...more on reloading

From the comments and emails I've been getting, there is a resurgence of interest in reloading. At the price of factory ammunition, I can see why!

I'd like to touch on some things that Jerry brought up in
Monday's comments. Yes, I have rather extensive experience with Lee, Dillon, and Hornady progressives. Frankly, each will produce identical ammunition; properly set up, there is no qualitative difference between the cartridges that come off any of those brands. If someone is having problems with the quality of their ammo, switching press brands is quite unlikely to help!

The primary difference among press makers comes in the ease of operation and long-term durability. In my experience, Lee presses require a somewhat higher level of mechanical aptitude to run (and keep running.) They also have a higher percentage of wear-related parts replacement, though to be fair every press has certain pieces that need replacement at regular intervals. It's just that Lee's tend to be more integral to the operation, and have slightly shorter life spans.

Again, a Lee will produce fine ammo - you'll just have to "fiddle" a little more to get it to do so. (Jerry, don't lose hope - bottleneck pistol cartridges like the .357 SIG are notoriously difficult to reload, no matter what press you use!)

Jerry also asked about dies. In carbide pistol dies, I like RCBS, Lee, and Dillon, in roughly that order. Lyman and Redding carbide pistol dies are fine, in a single stage press. The problem with them is that their carbide sizing rings have a very small chamfer at the edge of entry. When operating a progressive press the larger, rounded chamfer of RCBS, Lee, and Dillon dies results in much smoother case entry into the die.

This does have a downside - the larger the edge radius, the further up from the cartridge base the case is sized. That means that the bottom of the case doesn't get sized as much, which can cause feeding problems in autoloading pistols. Dillons are by far the most radiused, which is why I place them at the last of my "preferred" list. Lee and RCBS, in my opinion, have a much more "balanced" approach between feeding and sizing. (The Dillon dies, however, have the very best decapping pin arrangement and Lee the worst. I guess you just can't have your cake and eat it too!)

The only pistol dies I don't like are Hornady's. Their TiN coating, while hard enough for the task, isn't as polished as the carbide rings the others use. Their dies require more pressure on the press handle, and are noticeably less smooth. In fact, the only die I've ever had that scratched cases - gouged them, actually - was a .38/.357 Hornady TiN sizing die. (Hornady's bullet seating die, in contrast, is the very best I've used. This goes to show that no one - and I mean
no one - does everything right!)

In rifle dies, all seem to produce accurately sized cases. However, there is a big difference in the internal finish. Redding dies, not surprisingly, are the best - very smooth, very consistent, very nicely made. The RCBS dies are good as well, but some of the Lee dies I've tried have been a little rougher than I would like. I haven't had a scratched case with a Lee die, but handle effort seems higher than the others. They certainly work well enough that I don't feel a burning need to replace those that I have, but when I buy new dies I'll stick with Redding and RCBS.

One of the nice things about RCBS rifle dies is their decapping pin arrangement. Hornady makes a carbide sizing button to replace the stock steel button on the RCBS decapping rod, which makes internal neck lube unnecessary.

(Why not just use Hornady rifle dies? Their decapping pin arrangement stinks. The only brand better than RCBS in that regard is Redding - who make their own carbide buttons. See why my rifle die preferences are RCBS and Redding?)

-=[ Grant ]=-

A bit of reloading gear discussion

I recently received an email wherein the author took me to task for recommending the
Hornady Lock-N-Load AP as the tool for the 'serious' reloader. His claim was that 'serious' reloaders always use Dillon, and nothing but.

Sorry to have to disagree.

My definition of 'serious' is the ballistic experimenter, not the appliance operator. Someone who reloads for a number of both pistol and rifle calibers and does a lot of load experimentation (different bullets, powders, cases, and primers) is, in my mind, far more 'serious' than the person who simply constructs a single caliber/bullet/powder charge. Yes, I'll grant you that it's arbitrary, but it is (after all) my prerogative to do so!

For the person who fits my definition of serious, the Hornady press remains the progressive tool to beat. (Of course such a person also needs at least one single stage press, preferably a Hornady that takes the same LnL die holders.)

Allow me to illustrate. I've become (belatedly, perhaps) a fan of the .30 WCF cartridge, also know as the "thirty-thirty." (My odyssey from high-speed, pointy-bullet cartridges to the pudgy .30-30 is a story in itself. I promise to recount it sometime soon.) Aside from developing the "perfect" 170 grain hunting load, I've also been working up a very light load.

This project is to give me a 100-yard load to use against animals intent on raiding our henhouse (amongst other things.) This load needs to be accurate, effective enough to kill a coyote-size animal at 100 yards, low recoil, usable in a repeating rifle, and QUIET. (Not that I have neighbors that are looking in the windows, but I like to be considerate. Besides, if I have to get up in the middle of the night to dispatch an unruly varmint intent on dining at
Che Chicken, I don't want to cause my ears to ring for the next 12 hours!)

When I conceived of this project I consulted Ed Harris, whose knowledge of such loads is perhaps unparalleled. He suggested an oversized, dead-soft lead bullet over a small quantity of fast-burning pistol powder. The current long-term test is of a 115 grain flat-point lead bullet of about 5 BHN hardness, sized to .311", over 4.1 grains of Alliant Red Dot powder. This gives me a load that is just under supersonic at the muzzle, and from a 24" barrel about as loud as one of the hyper-velocity .22LR cartridges.

Once the load passes final testing, I plan to make a whole pile of 'em.

The Lock-N-Load system has proven to be a real time saver in developing this load. The quick-change dies in the single-stage press make it much easier to put together 5 or 10 at a time for testing; when the load is settled, I'll just stick those dies (already adjusted and ready to go) into the progressive AP and crank out ammo! Nothing is as flexible, and when you're doing things that are somewhat out of the ordinary you need that kind of flexibility.

Enough about presses. In this project I needed to bell the mouths of the .30-30 cases ever so slightly, so that the very soft slug could be seated without shaving. Ever tried to buy a .30 caliber mouth flaring die?

After searching I found the answer: the
Lee Universal Case Expanding Die. It has a couple of interchangeable flaring spuds, one for small caliber and one for large, which go inside of the die body which is then topped with a threaded adjuster. You simply turn the knurled adjuster knob for the precise amount of flare you need - and you can vary it in incredibly small increments. Frankly, I wish I'd found this thing years ago - it would have saved me tons of time and effort.

Of course, mounted in a Hornady LnL bushing I can pop it into any press setup as needed, so I don't have to buy a dozen of the things!

Lee comes under fire on the internet forums for being the low-cost gear supplier, but they have a lot of products that are both well made and absolutely unique. The Universal Case Expanding Die is one of them, and every serious reloader needs one on his or her reloading bench.

(Ooops, there goes that word again...!)

-=[ Grant ]=-

Self defense, stopping power, and caliber, Part 9

(For convenience, you can access all the installments at this link.)

Stick with what works

You've all heard of the "Gun of the Week" club, right? That's the term used to describe an "enthusiast", the guy (gals are too smart to engage in such nonsense) who carries or competes with a different gun every time he goes out. (Closely related is the "Holster of the Week" club. I'll post an amusing story about that, soon.)

There is also the "Bullet of the Week" club. Some folks read the gun magazines assiduously, loading up with the latest and greatest "stopper" from the current issue. The next issue (or possibly a competing magazine) tells them about yet another new bullet, and off to their gunstore’s ammo shelves they go!

There are problems with this approach. Aside from the fact that one is unlikely to see any major performance differences between modern designs from major makers, there is a reliability issue. If you're shooting an autoloader (an affliction which elicits my sincere sympathies), you need to fire a minimum number of rounds - some say as many as 200 - of your chosen ammunition to ensure reliability. That's a lot of ammunition to buy and shoot every time you change loads!

Even with a revolver, you should shoot a some of that ammo to ensure ignition reliability in your gun, especially if you've had action work performed.

The other issue is with the sights on your gun. Fixed sights, as featured on both revolvers and autos, will not shoot all ammunition to the same point of aim, necessitating on-the-fly windage or elevation corrections. Trying to remember whether this week's ammunition choice shoots up or down, right or left, relative to the sights is hard enough. Imagine trying to do that with someone lobbing rounds into your personal airspace!

If you have fixed sights, you should regulate them to match the load you'll be using - then use that load, and only that load, for "serious" use in that gun. If for some reason you change the standard load for that gun, have the sights adjusted to shoot to point-of-aim for that load.

That's why I say "stick with what works." Pick a decent load that proves itself to be reliable in your gun, have the sights regulated properly, and just use it. Constantly switching between different bullets gains you nothing, and may in fact cost you in a dynamic self-defense incident. Pick one load, practice with it, and use only that bullet in that particular gun.

I go even further - I've standardized on one load for all my .38/.357 guns, and I've regulated all of them to shoot that load. That way, I don't have to maintain a huge stock of ammunition to fit a bunch of different guns.

I think this finally does it for the "Self defense, stopping power, and caliber" series. I'm just about "talked out"! I hope that it has given you some insight into the task of selecting a gun/cartridge for your self defense needs.

Stay safe, make sensible choices, and practice. It's all you can do - but, as it happens, all you can do is enough!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Self defense, stopping power, and caliber, Part 8

(For convenience, you can access all the installments
at this link.)

"So, smarty pants - what caliber should I get?"

I receive many emails asking, in essence, what the "best" self-defense caliber might be. (Those emails, in fact, have served as the motivation behind this series.) The correspondents are probably expecting sage advice, the wisdom of years, a sort of Ballistic Oracle. What they get is a non-committal "it depends!"

If you take nothing else from this series, take this: there is no such thing as "best" - there is only "suitability for purpose."

Why is that? As we learned in the first parts, there is a pretty large envelope - caliber, weight, and velocity - of performance criteria that have shown themselves to work well. Thus, any cartridge you select within that envelope is likely to do the job, as long as you do yours.

That's the most important part: that the gun in question enables you to do your job. It is the first place you should start. You need to be honest with yourself, accurately assess what you can and cannot handle. Remember that a self-defense scenario often will call for multiple, rapid, precisely-placed shots. Can you do that with the guns that you're considering?
Really? Be honest with yourself!

I see many people who are talked into a gun that is touted as a "better stopper", but who are unable to handle it to the standards given above. Most of this is technique, and technique can be learned, but everyone has some upper limit. Remember: only accurate hits count, and you should strive to maximize your hit potential. As we've explored, power is irrelevant if it doesn't get to something important!

Once you've passed that hurdle, the choices almost make themselves. In any given cartridge, if you pick a hollowpoint load in the middle of the caliber's normal weight range, you'll generally have most of what you need. There are exceptions, of course: at the lowest ends of the energy spectrum (say, standard .38 Specials) penetration becomes an issue, so you should tend to the heavier rounds. At the other end (the heavy magnums), the more powerful loads often need lighter bullets to limit penetration and enhance expansion.

For everything else, stay away from the lightest and heaviest bullets, pick a decent hollowpoint, and you'll most likely be just fine.

The most important part of this whole selection process is to practice with the load that you've chosen. If the cartridge/gun combination is "too much" for you to do so, that's a sign that you need to pick something else. You need to practice with your safety/rescue equipment, and if you can't or don't want to, then you will be less prepared to face a deadly encounter. The old trick of practicing with Specials while carrying Magnums on the street has been thoroughly discredited, because it doesn't allow the user to get used to the dramatic difference in handling between the two.

(This isn't to say that you have to do all your training this way; I do a lot of work with light loads when I'm diagnosing a trigger control issue, or to help develop a specific skill. When I've got them down, though, I switch to my carry load and train extensively with that.)

So, what do I carry? Most of the time, I load up the trusted and proven .38 Special +P 158 grain all lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint. I've spoken with many people who have actually used this load against an adversary, and to a person they were all very satisfied with the ballistic effect. Massad Ayoob tells me that his research showed police agencies who switched from that load to hot autoloading cartridges did so not to get "better" bullets, but to get "more bullets." I'm confident in it's abilities, and in my ability to handle the cartridge from any gun under any conditions.

This is a conscious tradeoff. For instance, I really like the .44 Special. It's a great round, but in a concealable gun I just don't handle it as well as other calibers. In fact, a hot .357 Magnum from a Ruger SP101 is easier for me to control than a .44 Special from a small gun, and I consider the Magnum to be too much for delivering multiple, rapid, combat-accurate hits on target. I like the .357 too, but I have to admit to myself that if I want to shoot as efficiently as possible, it’s not the wise choice.

I've picked the most effective round that falls within my personal limitations and practice with it extensively. I think that is the most rational way to approach this whole topic!

Next time, we'll explore some less obvious considerations when picking your "ideal" self defense cartridge.

<--- Click here for the previous episode ..................... Click here for the next episode --->

-=[ Grant ]=-

Series index: "Self defense, stopping power, and caliber"

Here's the whole series for your perusal!

Part 1: Introducing the Twin Tasks.
Part 2: If it doesn't get somewhere, it can't do something.
Part 3: Once it gets there, it has to do work.
Part 4: The bullet is more important than the caliber.
Part 5: More energy can be a good thing - as long as it actually does something useful.
Part 6: What would I want with a reputation?
Part 7: There Is No Such Thing as a Magic Bullet.
Part 8: "So, smarty pants - what gun should I get?"
Part 9: Stick with what works.

Self defense, stopping power, and caliber, Part 7

(For convenience, you can access all the installments
at this link.)

There Is No Such Thing as a Magic Bullet

What does that mean, you ask?

One of the last bastions of the snake oil salesman is in the field of ammunition promotion. Claims that would make Professor Harold Hill blush are the norm, and are repeated in gunstores, shooting ranges, and deer camps across the country. They sometimes even make their way into magazines and the internet - though the latter's instant exchange of information has helped to quell the worst of the hyperbole.

Still, many hold on to their belief in "magic bullets" hoping that there really exists something that will transform their .25ACP into an elephant killer. (I exaggerate, of course, but one ammo maker used to claim that their product for the little .25 had the same "one shot stop" percentage as a .45. That, my friends, is a true belief in magic.)

Like many fables, the legend of the Magic Bullet has its roots in reality. As Arthur C. Clarke said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In the bullet world, that advanced technology is the hollowpoint bullet.

The hollowpoint, as we've learned, is a good mechanism to control the penetration and wound profile of any given cartridge. Sometimes, it can work what seems like a miracle - transforming an otherwise unremarkable cartridge into a respectable "stopper."

One of the best examples of this is the .30 M1 Carbine cartridge. Many servicemen had experience with the little Carbine in World War II and Korea, and they either loved it or hated it. Those that hated it often complained about a lack of "stopping power" - enemies who were hit often didn't go down with alacrity. (Some even claimed that the rounds "bounced off" the heavy wool coats worn by the opposition. That wasn't true, and was easily shown as such, but when someone is running toward you screaming his head off a lack of convincing ballistic effect makes the distinction unimportant.)

The .30 Carbine, as it turns out, is a penetrator. Its sleek bullet usually went straight through the target, making a quick-closing wound and doing little damage along the way. (Sound familiar?) After the war, one of the ammo makers got the bright idea of stuffing a semi-jacketed hollowpoint into the casing. When they did that, the entire complexion of the carbine changed.

The penetration was now more controlled, and the expanded bullet had a much larger frontal area that did more damage along its path. So changed was the round that Jim Cirillo, the famous member of the New York Stakeout Squad, proclaimed it one of the two most effective weapons in their entire arsenal - the other being the formidable 12 gauge shotgun. High praise indeed!

He wasn't the only one who made note of the "enhanced" Carbine. The late Gene Wolburg, wound ballistics expert and one of the most knowledgeable people in the field, once said that his home defense weapon of choice was the M1 Carbine loaded with that semi-jacketed hollowpoint.

It may have seemed like magic to the servicemen who had bad experiences with the round, but the effect of the hollowpoint loading was simple physics. It did its job better - it just happened to be a lot better.

A "magic bullet", in contrast, appears to violate the laws of physics, or so skews its sales copy that you think it does. For instance, magic bullet purveyors play up the "energy" of their load, to the exclusion of everything else.

Energy is the result of multiplying the mass of the projectile by the square of it's velocity. Without boring you with the math, what that means is that a small change in velocity makes a big change in the energy of the projectile. In other words, if you drop the projectile weight you can up the velocity, which will make a big increase in energy figures. Sounds great, right?

As we've already studied, energy isn't everything. A light projectile might be moving very quickly, but when it contacts solid matter it loses velocity quickly. That translates into shallow wounds. (Remember the last installment, where we looked at the .357 Magnum? Same thing, only worse.) A projectile needs weight as well as velocity in order to penetrate well, and if you sacrifice enough weight for more speed, you'll fail at the First Task: reaching something important.

Exotic bullets that claim to do something others can't should set off your B.S. detector. Any cartridge that proclaims a "massive energy dump" as the wounding mechanism or pushes velocity over everything else is probably vying for a magic bullet award. Personally, I'm not going to trust my life to that kind of ammo!

What I'm getting at (and have been for this entire series) is that there is nothing mysterious, nothing magical about the way a bullet works. It has to get to something important, and it has to do rapid and significant damage when it gets there. That's it. Any claims that seem to skate around the topic should be looked at with great skepticism, for there is truly no such thing as a "magic bullet."

<--- Click here for the previous episode ..................... Click here for the next episode --->

-=[ Grant ]=-

Self defense, stopping power, and caliber, Part 6

(For convenience, you can access all the installments of this series
at this link.)

"What would I want with a reputation? That's a good way to get yourself killed!" - Jason McCullough, "Support Your Local Sheriff" (my favorite movie of all time!)

What about "reputation"? Some cartridges or loadings have reputations for better effectiveness than others. Sometimes that's valid, but other times it may not be.

Let's take the mighty .357 Magnum, one of my favorite cartridges. The 125 grain semi-jacketed hollowpoint loads have the reputation of being superbly effective; some believe that they are the "best" manstoppers ever made. I've talked with people who have actually used them in real shootings, and they were generally very happy with the performance.

But there are also instances of stupendous failures. For those who hold that energy is everything, this may come as a shock. How could all that power possibly fail? Simple - if it doesn't do both of the Twin Tasks!

Let's consider what happens with the 125 grain Magnum loads. Leaving the barrel at nearly 1500 feet per second, the bullet enters the target with a huge reserve of energy. As the hollowpoint fills with fluid and starts to expand it uses up some of that energy to grow dramatically in diameter. The increase in diameter means more resistance in the tissues, which uses more energy and further slows the bullet. Because the relatively light weight of the slug doesn't have great momentum, and thus not a lot of stored energy, it doesn't travel very far before it finally runs out of steam. The result can be a shallow wound - one which doesn't reach something the body finds important.

This is the "ugly secret" that proponents of the .357 125 grain JHP don't want to talk about. Shallow wound profiles with these "barn burner" loads are not unheard of, and occasionally prove to not be as effective as expected. As one noted trainer once told me, when they work they’re superb - but when they fail, they fail spectacularly!

Suppose you've decided that you'd prefer something a bit more predictable, but want to retain the performance level of the round - what’s the solution? Simply go to a slightly heavier bullet, one which carries a tad less velocity and a bit more momentum. Winchester, for instance, has the 145 grain Silvertip bullet, and Speer is now making a 135 grain Gold Dot Magnum load. Both are obviously designed to retain the Magnum's reputation as a fight-ender, but do so on a more consistent basis.

This is a good illustration of the tradeoffs involved in cartridge selection. Speed isn't everything; bullet size isn't everything; bullet weight isn't everything. It's a combination, a concert of all of those (plus good handling qualities as defined by the shooter) that make a round effective. One can't simply say "I've got a Magnum" or "I carry a .45" and smugly claim that one has the "perfect" self defense gun. While it may work, there is always the chance that it may not; handguns, after all, are underpowered things.

Through intelligent selection, you can dramatically improve the performance envelope of your chosen gun, regardless of the cartridge it shoots.

<--- Click here for the previous episode ..................... Click here for the next episode --->

-=[ Grant ]=-

Self defense, stopping power, and caliber, Part 5

(For convenience, you can access all the installments of this series
at this link.)

More energy can be a good thing - as long as it actually does something useful.

Last time we discussed the concept of the hollowpoint as a way to increase the frontal diameter of the bullet in the target. I also introduced the idea that it takes energy to expand the bullet, energy that is also needed to push the projectile into something that it needs to reach.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. If we want the bullet to expand, it doesn't happen by magic. Somewhere the energy has to be found to deform the metal used in the bullet, and that energy can only be found in the bullet's own movement. If there is too little to start with, there won't be enough to carry the bullet on its path.

If the cartridge has insufficient energy the expanding bullet will stop forward movement too rapidly, resulting in very shallow wounds that may or may not be effective. This tends to explain the lack of expanding bullets for the venerable .38 Special cartridge - there just isn't enough energy to drive a bullet deeply into the target
and expand it at the same time.

How do we get around this problem? Well, the first alternative is to simply switch to a cartridge with more energy. In the case of the .38, we could bump up to the .357 Magnum. The .357 certainly has enough energy! Of course, that energy reserve comes at a price: greatly increased recoil and muzzle blast, which reduce the shooter’s ability to deliver multiple combat-accurate shots.

The other alternative is to make a higher energy version of the cartridge we already have. This time-tested approach results in what's know as "+P" ammunition, which is the designation for a cartridge loaded beyond what is considered "normal" pressure. The idea is to increase the energy delivery of that cartridge to accomplish a specific task. Generally, it works pretty well!

You'll see criticisms on the internet of some +P loadings, usually centered on the idea that "it's not much of an increase in power." If you consider what we've explored in this series so far, you'll realize that it doesn't have to be a "lot" - it just has to be "enough"! If a cartridge at normal pressure can't quite deliver an expanding bullet to where it needs to, but a +P version does, then that is sufficient for the task at hand.

Remember: if the energy doesn't do something useful, then it is wasted from our perspective.

Get away from the idea that you need vast increases in power for defensive applications. You simply need
enough power to perform the Twin Tasks. Is it better to have a large reserve amount of energy on tap? That's a question that only you can answer, after being honest about your own abilities and needs. Everything comes at a price and needs to be considered relative to the goal at hand.

In the next installment we'll bring together the things we've discussed, and look at the tradeoffs you need to consider to pick your "ideal" self defense cartridge.

<--- Click here for the previous episode ..................... Click here for the next episode --->

-=[ Grant ]=-

Self defense, stopping power, and caliber, Part 4

(For convenience, you can access all the installments of this series
at this link.)

The bullet is more important than the caliber.

We know that our bullet needs to do damage to whatever important thing it manages to find. How, exactly, is that going to occur? It just so happens that most animal tissue (including that of the violent felon who has just attacked you) is remarkably elastic, and consequently difficult to damage. Most tissues have a tendency to "close up" around puncture wounds, in the same way that they close up after a hypodermic needle withdraws. If they didn't, every time our doctor gave us an injection we’d spring a leak!

The upshot (pardon the pun) of this is that our bullet needs to die-cut or crush the tissues in its path rather than sliding cleanly through. The reputation of the old .38 Special 158 grain round nose bullet as a "widow maker" was well deserved, as it often went in one side and out the other with very little blood loss. That smooth, aerodynamic profile travels through water-filled tissue about as cleanly as through air, for all the same reasons. It neatly parts that tissue in a way that facilitates immediate closure and minimal blood loss. In our self-defense scenario, that's what's known as "A Bad Thing."

In fact, round nose (or "ball") ammunition is an unremarkable performer in just about any caliber; "they all fall to hardball" is right up there with "the check is in the mail" for statements you should never believe, no matter how authoritatively (read: arrogantly) delivered.

If we can get a bullet to cut or crush a non-closing hole in the target, we stand a better chance of doing the kind of work necessary to cause that target to stop in its tracks.

The amount of disruption that a handgun bullet delivers to the target is dependent on its shape/construction and on the overall diameter (caliber.) A shape that encourages efficient travel through the target is to be avoided; a shape that is non-aerodynamic will generally produce the kind of result that we seek. All other things being equal, flat-faced bullets usually beat pointy bullets.

(Personally, I pay more attention to bullet construction than caliber. Hunting and shooting experience, plus a lot of research with those more knowledgeable in the field of wound ballistics, has convinced me that there is more variation in effectiveness within calibers than between them. In other words, you're more likely to see performance differences by changing your bullet type, rather than changing calibers. )

This isn't news to any old-timers out there! Hunters in bygone days were always told to use flat-pointed bullets over round-nosed varieties, because they delivered more "shock" to the quarry. That was their non-scientific way of explaining why the bullets obviously performed differently, and what they lacked in technical understanding was more than compensated by their acute observations.

Of course there just isn't a free lunch; those flat bullets don't usually work in autoloading actions, and they make speed reloading of a revolver more difficult. There is an answer: the expanding bullet. We can actually enhance the terminal results by using a bullet (usually a hollowpoint of some sort) that grows in diameter as it goes through the target.

A hollowpoint bullet works because, as it enters the target, it expands to a greater-than-caliber frontal diameter and assumes a very flat-faced shape. This means that the bullet can crush a much larger hole than normally possible for the caliber, ensuring the kind of target damage necessary to complete the task at hand.

There are, of course, issues in making these things perform as desired: first, the work of deforming the bullet takes energy. This energy can only be come from the bullet itself, which means there is that much less available to enable the bullet to continue its travel. Second, the resulting increase in drag from that wide face also uses energy at a tremendous rate, and thus also drastically limits penetration. Because of these factors, shallow wounds from hollowpoint bullets are not at all unheard of, both in hunting and in self defense.

The solution is to a) use a different cartridge that has enough energy to spare to begin with, or b) increase the energy of the existing cartridge. We'll tackle those issues next time!

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-=[ Grant ]=-

Self defense, stopping power, and caliber, Part 3

(For convenience, you can access all the installments of this series
at this link.)

Once it gets there, it has to do work.

In today's installment, we're going to look at the second of the Twin Tasks:

2) The bullet has to do rapid and significant damage to that thing when it arrives.

It may not be self evident, but kinetic (moving) energy is either used or conserved (stored.) In the case of a bullet, it starts being used simply by fighting the friction caused by traveling through the air. Unless it encounters a target, the bullet will use all of its energy in flight and gravity will pull it to the ground. We're interested in using that energy for lawful purposes before it's wasted in the atmosphere!

I usually refer to the second Task as "doing work", because that's exactly what is expected of the bullet. From the perspective of the target, the kinetic energy in a bullet can only do one of two things: it can be used to do work, or it can be wasted beyond the target.

(There is no such thing as an "energy dump" in a target, no matter how many times you see that nonsensical term. The energy does some sort of work, whether doing damage to tissue or pushing the bullet through the air. The bullet may use up all of the energy available, and stop inside the target, but it doesn't "dump" anything. The energy in such an event is depleted in expansion/deformation and in forward movement, both of which are work. Whether or not the work performed was useful to the goal depends on what it encountered along the way, which brings us back to the First Task.)

As the bullet traverses the target, its energy is used to push it through material more dense than the air it previously encountered. The amount of energy used in this endeavor is dependent upon the shape of the bullet; the more streamlined the projectile, the smaller the frontal profile, the less energy is expended in pushing it through the target. Conversely, the "flatter" the bullet profile, the more energy is necessary to move it through.

Think of a rowboat paddle - easy to move through the water edge first, much harder face first. If the bullet expands in the target, some of the energy is used to deform the bullet itself, and the rest is used to push the much larger, flatter profile through the target. In some cases, it uses up all its energy trying to get through the target and never makes it out the other side. This is why, as we touched on in Part 2, penetration can be controlled through the use of an expanding bullet.

At some point, we hope that the bullet finds something that the body deems immediately necessary for function - and disrupts that functioning. That item could be structural (skeletal) - where disruption causes collapse; It could be electrical, where interruption of signals causes instantaneous nervous system malfunction; or it could be vascular (plumbing), where large leaks cause a loss of pressure that eventually results in unconsciousness.

Whichever system is compromised, the bullet needs to use some of its energy to do the necessary work of disruption. This is why I say that the bullet has to do rapid and significant damage to something when it arrives; if it gets there, but has so little energy left that it is incapable of inflicting necessary damage, then it is nearly as if it had not gotten there to begin with.

(This is not to suggest that the bullet's wound in such a case is benign or trivial! Remember, we have a task for that bullet to accomplish; if it doesn't do so in the necessary time frame, then it is useless to us. The classic example is the attacker shot with a .22 but still able to complete his assault. He might die of peritonitis a few days later, proving that the wound is not unimportant. However, it didn't complete our goal of stopping the criminal before he could harm an innocent, making it irrelevant to our situation. Keep the goal in mind!)

Now that we understand the Twin Tasks, we'll take a look at the mechanisms by which all this might be accomplished. Until next time!

<--- Click here for the previous episode ..................... Click here for the next episode --->

-=[ Grant ]=-

Self defense, stopping power, and caliber, Part 2

(For convenience, you can access all the installments of this series
at this link.)

If it doesn't get somewhere, it can't do something.

OK, so we know about the Twin Tasks, the two things that a bullet has to do in order to stop an attacker:

1) It has to get to something the body finds immediately important, and
2) It has to do rapid and significant damage to that thing when it arrives.

Today we'll be taking a look at Task #1: getting to something important.

Let's start by pointing out that the user of the bullet must be capable of putting it on a course that will lead it to something important. If the cartridge in question presents too much of a challenge for the shooter to handle with the requisite accuracy, it doesn't make any difference how "good" the cartridge is! Since a single shot is unlikely to incapacitate an attacker, a shooter needs to be able to control their gun for multiple, combat-accurate shots.

This is only given lip service by trainers and enthusiasts; they'll repeat the mantra "a hit with a .22 is better than a miss with a .45", then in the same breath give some arbitrary limit on "acceptable" calibers for self defense. Folks, there are people in this world who do not wish to, or simply cannot, practice to become proficient with a "correct" caliber. When the time comes that they need the weapon, wouldn't it be better that they possess a bullet that they can send where it really needs to go? Of course!

Step One, then, is pick a cartridge that is within your ability to control for random strings of fire - two, three, four rounds at a time.

Once the bullet is in the air, it has to negotiate all obstacles to reach a vital organ of some sort. This requires that it get through any outer shell (clothing), past the skin (which is a lot tougher than you might believe), and alternating layers of bone and muscle. It has to have what's known as 'penetration'.

Penetration is dependent on several things: the weight of the bullet, the diameter (caliber), the velocity, and the shape. If we were to take two bullets of different weight, but of the same caliber and shape and traveling at the same velocity, the heavier one would penetrate further. We can do the same comparison for any of the factors, as long as the others remain the same. If we had two bullets of different shapes - a round nose and a wadcutter - with everything else the same, the more streamlined bullet (the round nose) would penetrate further. Simple, right?

When we look at expanding (softnose or hollowpoint) bullets, which increase their diameter at some point in the target, the situation changes. The increased frontal are of the expanded bullet acts like a parachute, slowing it more rapidly and reducing penetration. Sometimes penetration can be reduced so much that the bullet will not reach anything important, and we're back to that unreliable psychological incapacitation thing again.

Remember that too much penetration can be as bad as too little. Having a bullet that sails through the target without doing much work, or (worse) encounters another (possibly) innocent target beyond, is not a good thing. Hence it behooves us to have a bullet which demonstrates sufficient penetration, but not an excessive amount.

It's not uncommon to find a cartridge that, when loaded with streamlined, roundnosed bullets, goes through multiple targets - but when loaded with expanding bullets stops inside the desired one. As it turns out, this behavior has major benefits in terms of terminal effects, which we'll cover next time.

<--- Click here for the previous episode ..................... Click here for the next episode --->

-=[ Grant ]=-

Self defense, stopping power, and caliber

I've gotten a bunch of emails recently regarding the choice of an appropriate self-defense handgun caliber and/or bullet. Around this one topic swirls more misinformation - and outright inanity - than any other I can think of. And now, here's mine!

What follows is a layman's understanding, backed by research of available literature and years of hunting and shooting experience, of the practical mechanics of wound ballistics. It is not intended to be a complete and exhaustive study of the subject. Instead, I hope to give my readers - who are, in all likelihood, laypersons themselves - a solid base of information to help make good decisions when choosing self defense ammunition.

Let's start by understanding that in a self-defense scenario our goal is simply to cause the perpetrator of a crime to cease immediately his/her antisocial activities. That's it - we want the miscreant to quit doing whatever it was that caused us to draw our gun in the first place. The closer to "immediately" that this occurs, the better for all concerned.

There are two mechanisms by which this can be accomplished: psychological incapacitation and physical incapacitation.

The first - psychological incapacitation - is the least predictable of the two. Some people will stop and run when grazed by a well-thrown rock, others will soak up all manner of chemical, electrical, and physical deterrents without so much as flinching. Since it's all in the mind, and minds vary significantly (especially when intoxicated in some form), we cannot count on delivering a reliable jolt to a criminal's psyche. We must instead focus on doing enough physical damage to cause cessation of action through reduction of motor skills.

On this subject has been constructed all manner of measures, each attempting to quantify the unquantifiable: "One shot stops." "Knockout index." "Wound channel volume." There are more, and none of them ever seem to agree (at least most of the time) on what actually works.

Well, folks, hunters have known something for a very long time, and it has been proven in the field again and again: to reliably put the brakes on a living entity, a bullet must do what I call The
Twin Tasks.

1) It has to get to something the body finds immediately important, and
2) It has to do rapid and significant damage to that thing when it arrives.

That's it. Either, by itself, simply won't deliver the results we seek (at least, not in the physical sense.) If the projectile fails at either of these tasks, any success that occurs is in fact a product of psychological incapacitation, which we already know to be both unpredictable and unreliable.

Keep in mind that as the bullet traverses the target, it may repeat the Tasks; in other words, it may encounter more than one thing the body finds important. The more times that it does, and then completes the second Task, the faster the incapacitation is likely to occur. (Note that I didn't say "will", only "likely to". Handgun rounds are underpowered things, and with them nothing is ever certain.)

Within certain limits, it doesn't really matter what the caliber is or what the bullet is made of or how fast it travels, as long as it does
both of the Tasks. That's why there seems to be such a wide range of calibers, weights and velocities that have shown "good" results in self defense shootings, and why arguments about "stopping power" rage on the gun forums: there is, as the saying goes, more than one way to skin a cat.

Remember, as long as both Tasks are accomplished, the envelope of "how" they are is large enough to encompass a variety of approaches.

The reason that the "heavy and slow" and "light and fast" bullet camps exist is because, generally, their choices just happen do both of those Tasks on a fairly regular basis. Arguing about which is the "better" approach is really quite silly, because when they work it's because they did both Tasks, regardless of the actual mechanism; when they fail, it is simply because they didn't do one (or both) of the Tasks, again regardless of their physical attributes.

It's at this point that someone invariably chimes in "but my cousin is engaged to a girl whose brother-in-law heard about a guy who saw someone shot fifteen times with a 9mm, and the victim was still able to walk into a French restaurant, order a 5-course meal, eat, chat with the sommelier, and stiff the waiter before finally collapsing on the sidewalk while waiting for his cab! That's why I carry a .467 Loudenboomer Ultra Grande - if it hits them in the pinky the hydrostatic shock wave will knock them down!"

I'm exaggerating, you understand, but if you regularly haunt the gun forums you'll recognize that it isn't all that far off.

Yes, small caliber bullets fail. Guess what? Large caliber bullets fail, too. As someone once told me, "put on your big-boy pants and deal with it!"

A good friend gave me a first-hand account of a battle incident wherein a fellow absorbed several solid torso hits and was still able to jump from his vehicle and cross a road before finally collapsing.

The gun in question? A .50 caliber heavy machine gun. Yes, you read that correctly. Sometimes, folks, nothing works.

Our job is to choose those calibers and bullets which seem to do the Two Tasks fairly reliably, and prepare to deal with the times that it just isn't enough. With handgun rounds, those times are more common than the gunshop commandoes would have you believe.

In the next installment, we'll take a layman's look at the physics involved.

Click here to go to the next article --->

Or, you can access the series index
at this link.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Ignition troubles

I've gotten a number of inquiries over the past few months regarding ignition troubles in otherwise stock revolvers.

As ammunition prices continue their climb, many enthusiasts find their budgets strained. In order to continue shooting, those who do not reload their own ammo have been looking at less expensive options for feeding their guns. Brands like Fiocchi and Sellier & Bellot ("S&B"), brands that didn't have many takers a couple of years ago, are now being featured at many sporting goods outlets.

For the most part there is nothing wrong, from a quality control standpoint, with this ammunition. It must be remembered, though, that many foreign ammunition companies do not have the range of cartridge components that we do. Since much (if not most) of their production is often military contract, they are known use the same components for their commercial products - said components to include primers.

Military specifications, regardless of country, usually require a certain level of slam-fire resistance, which necessitates heavier primer cups. Those thicker, harder primers can be more difficult to ignite in firearms that expect to see a "civilian" (more sensitive) primer. It's no wonder, then, that ignition problems with Fiocchi and S&B ammunition are being seen; it's not that the ammo is "bad", but rather that the components used are intended for guns with more robust firing systems!

If you're using foreign ammunition, and your stock firearm is proving to be a bit unreliable, don't blame the gun. Try some "normal" (read: American produced) ammo - I'll bet it returns to 100% function.

(You say that using U.S. ammunition will cut into your shooting activities because of the cost? Well, it's time to learn how to reload your own - it's easy, fun, and economical!)

-=[ Grant ]=-

Defensive ammo update

It's been several years since Speer introduced their Gold Dot Short Barrel Personal Protection 38 Special +P loading. It looked good on paper, and the Gold Dot line has a superb reputation for performance, but many of us prefer to carry well-tested ammunition. Let someone else be the guinea pig!

Sporadic reports have come in that the Gold Dot load is "working"; Massad Ayoob told me that he's heard around the country that people are "satisfied" with the performance. Still, I'd not been able to run down anything more specific.

That is, until yesterday, when one of my clients called. He's a higher-up in a large metropolitan police department and a long-time revolver carrier. He indicates that his department has had several shootings with the Speer load, and that he personally knows two of the officers who have used it. His verdict? The load performs as advertised - very effective at stopping violent action.

He notes, based on his agency's long experience with the famous 158gn +P loads from various makers, that the new Speer 135gn appears to be very similar in terms of terminal effect. "No complaints", was his succinct summation.

Good news for those who have chosen this load!

-=[ Grant ]=-

More reloading goodness

As I promised, here are some more reloading accouterment that I've been playing with this year.

I finally got tired of my haphazard brass organization and decided to do something about it. At Wal-Mart I bought some Sterilite 6-quart plastic containers, which just happened to fit neatly on the shelves in my reloading room. Into the containers went all of my brass, and wonder of wonders - I can see what's in the box! (I have, of course, labeled them as well.)

Big plus: I can see how much of each I have; no more digging through cardboard boxes! They've really made dealing with brass much more pleasant.

Here's an idea that someone gave me (though for the life of me I can't remember who it was.) At my local pet emporium I purchased this cat feeder, which has now been turned into a self-feeding bullet dispenser!

Much better than a tray/bin/overturned box for those long reloading sessions. Cost: $4.95. I'm looking for Dillon to have them made up in blue plastic, with a price tag of $19.95. (I'm kidding, I'm kidding! Sheesh, lighten up!)

Some months back I reported that I was experimenting with new bullets and powder. I'd been using the Rainier Ballistics plated bullets for some time, but could never get acceptable accuracy from them. (This is, as I was to learn, not an uncommon complaint with the product.) When my stock finally got low enough, I started looking around for a better but affordable "bulk" bullet for general use and gun testing.

I came across a polymer-coated lead bullet put out by
Master Blasters, and gave them a try. I've gone through about 5,000 now, and am fairly happy with them. They are a definite step up accuracy-wise from the Rainier, though they're by no means a top-flight match slug. (For occasions when I need better accuracy, and can shoot lead, I continue to rely on the superb bullets put out by LaserCast - still the ones to beat, in my book.) They are, however, reasonably priced and the company is fairly quick to ship.

Along with the new bullets, I changed my "everyday" powder. I'd used Hodgdon Universal Clays for years in 9mm, .45 ACP, and .38 Special +P loads. It is a great powder for those uses - extremely clean (the cleanest I've used), and good accuracy. When I started loading standard pressure loads in .38 Special and .44 Special, however, a problem cropped up: Universal doesn't like light loads! Once the loading density falls to a certain point, unburned powder grains become a certainty. They really foul up a cylinder, and always find their way under the extractor!

I searched for a powder that would burn cleanly and completely, even with relatively mild loads. I ended up with Alliant Red Dot, and it has performed very well. It's a bit sootier than Universal, but burns completely in all loads - even very light .44 Specials. I've used Blue Dot for years in Magnum cartridges, and was impressed by it; the Red Dot is just as impressive. (I'm not a fan of Alliant Bullseye, which I've always found far too dirty, but the "Dot" line is really quite nice. The fact that you can readily identify it in the powder measure - they really do have red flakes and blue flakes mixed in - is a nice bonus!)

Happy reloading!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Reloading round-up

This last year I've been using a number of new reloading tools and components. I'm generally one to "stick with what works", but that doesn't stop me from looking for something better!

Late last year I bought a new Hornady Lock-n-Load progressive press (known as the "LnL AP".) This is a five-station auto-indexing press with a motorized casefeeder. I bought it after becoming disenchanted with my Dillon and Lee presses - though I can always find something to like about any press, I'd prefer to have all my favorite things in one press which means I can never stop looking!

(Just so you know where I'm coming from, I've often bemoaned the lack of a true high-grade reloading press. No, Dillon fans, "Big Blue" isn't it! If you've ever used a Star Universal, you'll understand. If you haven't, well, go back and read my recent article
Do you need a trigger job, and substitute "press" for "trigger" - the rest of it is the same!

You may well ask why I don't use a Star if I'm so hot on them. Well, it's because they're out of business and there are precious few parts and accessories available on the secondary market.)

Back to the topic....the LnL AP uses the Hornady bayonet-mount die system, in which the dies are put into adaptor sleeves and adjusted, then simply popped in and out of the toolhead where and when needed. Frankly, when this came out I thought it was the biggest gimmick I'd yet seen. Using the press for a year has convinced me otherwise. It is incredibly handy!

For instance, I often have the press set up for loading .38/.357. It's not at all uncommon to need to prep a few pieces of brass to test actions or extractors or some such thing. I can just pop the needed die out of the toolhead, then pop it into the single stage press (which I've fitted with the Hornady adaptor and adjusted so that the presses have exactly the same die position.)

It also makes doing in-press changes easier on a progressive press. For instance, I can have a die adjusted for .38 Special, and a die adjusted for .357, and simply swap them in/out where needed. The same goes for the powder measure; I can decide to put it in a different place on the toolhead to accommodate production changes or simply to experiment. You can't believe how useful the system is until you've used it - and once you have, you don't want to ever give it up!

I've come to the conclusion that if one is a SERIOUS handloader - that is, reloading for numerous cartridges and constantly experimenting - the LnL AP is the most flexible and most efficient choice in a progressive press. As I said, I've owned Lee and Dillon presses too, and while they both have their strong and weak points the Hornady is just in a different class. Great piece of gear.

Over the years I've used a number of reloading dies, and no one set has had everything I wanted. I've gotten to the point that my die sets are now pieced together with the dies that I like best, not what a manufacturer has decided to give me.

In handgun sizing dies, I prefer (in order) RCBS, Lee, and Dillon. I love the Dillon's spring-loaded decapping pin, but hate their low profile, hex-shaped bodies. (Great when permanently mounted in a toolhead, rotten if you frequently remove/replace/adjust them.) The RCBS is much better in the handling department, worse for the decapping pin; the Lee's decapper likewise is awful, but at least their body is tall enough to get a grasp on - even if it is smooth and a bit prone to slippage in one's fingers.

(I should take this opportunity to say that Lee's lock rings suck. Then again, so do Dillon's, Lyman's, RCBS's, and Redding's, though admittedly not as much. All of my dies, regardless of make, have for years worn Hornady lock rings, and the first thing I do with any new die is to ditch its lock ring and give it Hornady ring.)

I've recently started using the Lyman "M" series expander die, as opposed to the expander plug in the powder station. It sizes most of the case to just a hair under bullet diameter, then has a slight "step" to bell the mouth so that the bullet isn't scraped when seating. This is said to promote straighter bullet seating, and in that regard I believe it does. For me, though, the great part is that the cases seem to "grab" onto the bullet when you insert it into the mouth. Unlike with a plain flare, the bullet won't tip as the case starts moving into the die. You can even put a pullet into the case mouth and advance between die stations with no tipping! This is another product that I thought might be "more show than go", but I've grown to just love the thing.

While we're talking about seating, I think the best seating die is Hornady's, and no one else is even close. Their sliding bullet collar is a great idea for helping to straighten bullets as the case goes into the die, and their seating adjustment is very precise. All of my seating dies - handgun and rifle - are now from Hornady.

I don't crimp in the seating die, preferring to do that as a separate step. I've used Lee's Factory Crimp dies in the past, no matter what other dies they were with or what press they were on. I've been very pleased with their smoothness and ready adjustability, but this year I started using the Redding Profile Crimp die for .38/.357. It puts a taper crimp on the case, then a roll crimp at the very end. It is of top quality, like all of Redding's products, and produces the most consistent, best-looking crimps of any die I've ever used. I'm hooked.

The major thing I dislike about the Hornady press (and Dillon's, for that matter) are the primer tubes. I much prefer the Lee tray loading primer feed, but of course I can't use that on the LnL AP! I've found a solution in the form of a neat little tool from Midway called the Vibra-Prime. It's a battery operated collator that fills the primer tubes for you! Now to be fair, Dillon has a bench-mounted device that does the same thing, taking about 2 minutes per tube and costing around $200. The Vibra-Prime was about $30, and does the job in roughly 20 seconds. contest there!

Sadly, I'm told that Midway has discontinued the device because of "poor sales." If you're tired of loading primer tubes one-by-one, call Midway and tell them you'd like to see the Vibra-Prime reintroduced!

That's about it for the hardware side. I'll write soon about the software (bullets and powder) I've been using this year - I've made some changes there as well.

To be continued...

-=[ Grant ]=-

More on the use of +P in older Colt revolvers

The internet "experts" just can't let this one go!

If you're new to this discussion, please read
this short article on the use of +P ammunition in Colt revolvers. Apparently, the fact that a manufacturer would dare tell a customer what kind of ammunition they should use rubs some people the wrong way!

The latest argument from the "experts" delves into Colt advertising history. Way back when, Colt's advertisements stated that their small revolvers were suitable for use with the .38-44 "Heavy Duty" round, which was the predecessor to the .357 Magnum - but in a Special-length case.

When the Magnum was introduced, the .38-44 went away. It wasn't until many years later that the more hotly loaded .38 Special +P made its appearance. It wasn't a throwback, however - it was still lighter than the .38-44. (Think of the +P as being between the regular .38 Special and the .38-44 in terms of power, and you won't be terribly far off.)

The "experts" quickly point out that the .38-44 is far more powerful than the .38 +P, and the fact that Colt advertised the use of .38-44 ammo in their guns is some sort of “proof“ that Colt's last factory recommendations for proper loadings are somehow “wrong.“ They conclude from all of this that using unlimited amounts of +P ammunition in small frame Colts is perfectly fine.

Such opinions, aside from flying counter to those of the people who actually designed and constructed the gun, ignore certain realities of the times involved.

Yes, Colt did say in print ads that their guns were rated for the .38-44 round. It doesn't say that the guns wouldn't experience increased wear, however, nor did it say that they could use that load regularly! When one examines the ads, it is obvious Colt was saying the guns wouldn't suffer catastrophic failure from firing those rounds, and
not that there would be no long-term consequences from doing so. There is a difference!

It's important to remember that, at the time, a) there were a huge number of trained Colt gunsmiths; b) Colt was producing, and had available, parts for all of the guns (including the frames); c) shipping restrictions, as in sending guns back to the factory, were non-existent making factory service far more affordable.

Finally, there was a different gun culture in existence. Today we think nothing of shooting a hundred rounds just in a quick trip to the range, but back then it just wasn't like that. A Colt revolver, even in police service, might only see a hundred rounds a year. Outside of that, it was extremely common - perhaps the norm - to buy a new revolver and a box of ammunition, and a decade or two later still have more than half that box of ammo!

Handguns just weren't shot all that much back then. Handgun hunting was virtually unknown, handgun sports (outside of regulation bullseye) didn't exist, and handgun shooting as recreation wasn't common. Handguns simply weren't used as frequently, and under those conditions the very occasional cylinder of .38-44 rounds wasn't going to hurt anything.

That's why Colt makes the 3,000 round recommendation for the use of +P ammunition in their recent production revolvers. 3,000 rounds doesn't sound like a lot to us, but even a police officer back in those days wouldn't expect to shoot that much in his entire career.

Once you consider all of the facts, it becomes clear that there is no contradiction between what Colt said then and what they say now. Times have changed, and their recommendations have changed as well.

-=[ Grant ]=-


My favorite powders

Every reloader has his or her favorite powders. When I first started reloading handgun cartridges, I used what everyone around me used - which I found weren't always the best choices for my needs. After experimenting with lots of powders, I settled on a few favorites.

As a general rule I prefer flaked powders over ball (spherical) powders. I've found that they meter more consistently in a wide variety of measures, and they seem to burn a bit cleaner than their ball equivalents - this may have something to do with the graphite coating all ball powders appear to use.

For all-around use in a wide variety of pistol cartridges I really like Hodgdon Universal Clays. It is extremely clean (the cleanest I've yet used) and is useful in a large number of calibers. My only complaint is that is isn't suitable for light loads in spacious cases, because it often fails to burn fully. This results in lots of unburned powder flakes that always seem to end up under the extractor. I'd like to find an equivalent powder that is more suitable for light loads, but haven't found it yet.

For magnum cartridges, I like Alliant Blue Dot. It is very consistent, burns cleanly, and gives superb velocities. I've used it in the .357 Magnum, the .44 Magnum, the fire-breathing .445 SuperMag, and the obscure .451 Detonics Magnum. In each case it performed superbly. So pleased am I with Blue Dot that one of these days I plan to try some of the other "Dot" powders.

Though I've tried lots of others, these are the ones I keep coming back to. There's nothing like "old friends" that you can count on!

-=[ Grant ]=-

A primer about primers

When doing action work, I ask my clients how they'll be using the gun. For instance, a competition shooter who handloads their own ammunition can utilize a lighter action than someone who needs the gun to work with a variety of factory ammunition.

Why is this? Well, primers are not created equal - the brands vary in terms of their sensitivity. Some of this is due to the type and thickness of the metal that the cup is made from, but there is also some difference in the primer material itself.

In general, Federal primers are the easiest to ignite; their cup material is slightly thinner, and softer, than their competitors. Combined with a primer mix that is well known for its sensitivity, they require less force to "pop." This translates to being able to use a hammer with a lighter mainspring, which allows for a lighter trigger pull.

The primers generally conceded to be the most difficult to ignite are CCI brand. Their cups are hard and thick, and require a real "wallop" to work properly. This means that the action is going to need full-power springs, with the increase in trigger pull that they bring. Winchesters fall in the middle, slightly more to the Federal half than the CCI.

In any brand, the magnum version of the primer will be more difficult to ignite. This is because they typically have harder and/or thicker cups to withstand the higher pressures that heavier loads deliver.

This isn't the end of the story though. The Czechoslovakian Sellier & Bellot ammunition uses what may be the hardest primers made. Sometimes even the heaviest, hardest-hitting hammers are insufficient to set this ammunition off, and is one of the reasons I recommend you stay away from it. CCI Blazer ammunition is known for being unreliable with lighter actions, as is the "green" or non-toxic ammunition that's on the market today.

Back to action work...when someone tells me that the gun is for self-defense, that usually means that utmost reliability is desired. To get such reliability, it's imperative that the gun work with any kind of ammunition that one might find on the shelf. In these cases, I test the gun with CCI Magnum primers - the hardest-to-ignite primers that you can get outside of the aforementioned Czech fodder. If the gun will reliably detonate the CCI Magnums (with zero failures), it should ignite anything you're likely to encounter.

On the other hand, if the requirement is for a light competition action I'll test the gun with Federal primers; if I've done my job right, such a gun will shoot Federals perfectly, Winchesters somewhat less reliably, and CCI primers very badly. That's the price for a low trigger weight!

This brings up another topic: that of live fire testing. I'll leave that for another day, as I've got a story to tell!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Sad fate for an innocent Anaconda

This article over at the GunZone alerts us to the sad end of a nice gun. Be sure to read the owner's narrative - and note the reloading press used.

I've been following such stories of gun blow-ups for several years, and in the cases I've run across a huge percentage - a majority by far - have been the result of ammo reloaded on a Dillon RL550b press.

No, I don't think the RL550b is inherently dangerous, nor do I believe that it should be blamed; blame always rests with the person doing the work. However, that particular machine does make it easier for a momentary lapse of concentration to result in a catastrophic failure, because it doesn't auto-index. Relying on the human being to remember whether or not he/she advanced the shellplate makes it far too easy to end up with either double charges or squibs. I've documented this happening with relatively new reloaders, and with very well experienced reloaders.

If you own an RL550b, you need to make absolutely sure that you are not distracted when reloading; this means no radio, television, screaming children, or talkative friends in the room when you are operating that press. (This is good practice regardless of the press you're using, but absolutely imperative with the 550b.)

Reloading is generally safe and rewarding - as long as you supply the appropriate vigilance!

-=[ Grant ]=-

What is it with the reloading press fanatics??

Funny thing...the other day, my favorite gun blogger (Tamara K.) posted this rant about brand fanaticism over at her blog. Yeah yeah, I know I mentioned it before, but the subject popped up again this week in a different context.

You see, I'd popped in to a couple of the reloading forums to ask a question about dies (I'm considering new ones.) Reading through some of the past posts on the boards would lead one to believe that there is a Reloading Press Jihad going on! Take a look for yourself sometime...the subject is getting very close to joining religion and politics as something one does not discuss in polite company!

The invective, blind loyalty, outright falsehoods, tall tales...the only thing missing is "let's take it outside, fella!"

This is particularly interesting to me, for as it happens I've owned a progressive press from each of the three major brands. The Dillon and Lee presses I used for more than 30,000 rounds each, while my new Hornady is a baby - only about 10k so far. This gives me sufficient experience, I think, to quote a perennial South Park line: "I've learned something today!"

You see, no currently available progressive press is of terribly high quality when compared to, say, a Star Universal or an RDP Reloading Tool.
They simply aren't. Anyone who has ever used one of the latter can easily see that the design, material choice, and construction quality of even the best presses made today pale in comparison. It seems to me that arguing about whether Lee, Dillon, RCBS, or Hornady is the "best" is a little like arguing who has the best deck chair on the Titanic!

The only thing keeping me from buying a used Star is simply the availability of parts and accessories. I'm waiting for someone - maybe Spolar, or Ponsness-Warren, or even Redding - to build a progressive reloading press of equivalent quality to what was available just a couple of decades ago. I'd love to own a truly high end, built-to-outlast-me progressive reloading press with modern features and factory support. Until then, these arguments about reloading presses are about as interesting as watching paint dry - and you can take your pick of blue, red, or green!

-=[ Grant ]=-