© 2014 Grant Cunningham Click to email me!

Ed Harris: Using the .45ACP - in a rifle!

Tales from the Back Creek Diary - A .45 ACP Rifle?
By Ed Harris

I like having at least one long gun capable of firing each caliber of handgun ammunition I keep around. Rifles chambered for center-fire handgun calibers provide greater kinetic energy than any rim-fire, but also have low noise, usually not needing a suppressor.

The .45 ACP and .38 Special are my favorite cartridges for this, because standard pressure (non +P) loads are quiet when fired in a rifle, their report comparing to firing a .22. They also have sufficient energy to kill deer-sized game at short range and useful self-defense potential, while presenting a less threatening profile than a military-caliber EBR (Evil Black Rifle) so as "not to scare the natives."

The .38 Special and .45 ACP work best for such purposes because they are loaded with fast powders which burn completely in a barrel length of only 5-6 inches. Ordinary 158-gr. lead bullet .38 Special loads gain about 150 f.p.s. when comparing a 4 inch revolver to a 20 inch lever-action.

In .45 ACP the expansion ratio produced by firing from a rifle-length barrel, combined much greater bore contact area, hugely increases bore drag which negates the effects of adiabatic expansion. Result is that little velocity gain is achieved when compared to firing the same ammunition from an M1911 pistol. Muzzle-exit pressure is very low so that the report compares to firing standard velocity .22 LR from a sporting rifle of greater than 20 inches.

The velocity of any common .45 ACP ammo is subsonic when fired from a rifle. I don't try to see how fast I can load for handgun-caliber rifles, because assembling specialized “rifle ammo” which cannot be used in the handgun defeats the purpose. The combination of substantial bullet weight, adequate accuracy and low noise is both pleasant and effective.

About 25 years ago Wayne Schwartz rebored a Marlin 1894 in .44 Magnum to .45 ACP for me and this worked really well. I let Wayne talk me out of the rifle when I left Ruger and regretted it ever since, so I've had another done.

This time I took a .45 Colt Cowboy II and sent it to John Taylor who set the .45 Colt barrel and magazine tube back, rechambered the barrel, fitted a new extractor, and reworked the lifter. It holds twelve rounds in the magazine tube, as finished with 22-1/2" barrel), is 39" overall and weighs 6 lbs.12 ozs.

I use this rifle mostly with Saeco #954 230-gr. lead FN Cowboy slugs and 5 grs. of Bullseye, which gives about 1000 f.p.s. in the rifle, vs. 830 in an M1911 pistol and about 800 f.p.s. in my S&W Model 625 revolver. Given the limited powder capacity and faster powders used in the .45 ACP you only get modest velocity gains in a longer at permissible chamber pressures (20,000 cup max.)

The .45 ACP Marlin is not as accurate as my best loads in the .357 lever, but it meets my original intent as a fun camp gun and plinker. Shooting iron sights, I get 1-1/2" groups at 25 yards which stay in proportion to 100 yards. The front sight covers a 6" gong at 100 yards.

I've zeroed the gun to hit about 3" over the top of the front sight at 50 yards, and under the sight when I blot out the target at 100. Groups to 100 yards are about the same as an accurized M1911 hardball gun, but with the peep sights and longer sight radius it is must easier to ring the gong.

With correct hold-over it rings the 12" gong at 200 yards almost every time. The bullet's time of flight is long enough for the gun report to fade away as you hear the bullet strike "ding!" against the steel like the Scheutzen troll swinging his little ball peen hammer each time.

One of my favorite walking guns is a Beretta Model 412 folding shotgun for which I have .45 ACP, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .410 shotgun barrels. Firing the .45 ACP in the 26 inch rifle is a satisfying “blooper” which you can watch and hear a video of at this link:

The following table is compiled from my firing logs recorded over a period of more than 25 years. The Mk.IV Webley was originally a .455 which was converted to fire .45 ACP using moon clips in the 1960s. S&W 625 is a 1989 custom shop gun. The M1911A1 is a 1967 National Match pistol, the Marlin is the converted 1894 Cowboy. The Beretta is a model M412 folding shotgun with a 26 inch .45 ACP barrel produced by John Taylor.

A .45 ACP rifle will not appeal to those whose concept of a satisfying firearm makes your shoulder hurt and ears ring. If, however, you enjoy being able to actually watch big bullets fly downrange and to be able to comfortably fire occasional rounds outdoors at varmints without ear protection, consider a rifle chambered for any common handgun caliber and firing subsonic cowboy loads. They are out there and they are fun. If you want gunsmith project, then build yours in .45 ACP!

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.

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 ]=-

Reloaders take note.

Some time back I got an email from a fellow named Gavin who was thinking about starting up a reloading blog. I think I linked to it when he was just getting started, but In the intervening year or so he's really expanded his site.

Gavin's posted lots of instruction videos on various presses and equipment, including one on a product I'm considering: the
Hornady Case Prep Center. I was happy to see that, because I had some questions about its operation and construction. The excellent video he made answered my questions.

He's serious about his project: note the picture of his reloading bench, where he has a
lineup of all the 5-station progressive presses made!

(Holy cow. Look how clean and neat everything is. Not only am I jealous, I'm also embarrassed - my reloading bench bears no resemblance to the surgically clean facility he has. Mine is more akin to a junkyard that's really let itself go.)

Check it out:

-=[ Grant ]=-

The annual ritual.

I have a physical exam every year, complete with blood panel. When they take my blood, I always ask specifically for a lead test to show how much of that stuff has gotten into my bloodstream. Last week the doctor did my blood draws, and today I learn the results. I expect my lead levels to be at their normal lows, thanks to a few sensible precautions.

First, I always wash my hands after shooting. I carry a package of those pre-moistened towlettes with me wherever I go, and make sure to wipe my hands and face after shooting, or before I ingest any food or drink. The antibacterial (waterless) gels can also be useful, but only if you immediately wipe with a towel of some sort; allowing it to dry on the skin doesn't get rid of any lead compounds, it just moves the stuff around to a larger area of skin!

Never partake of food or drink on the firing line; smoking while shooting is also a good way to introduce lead into your bloodstream. Take a break, wipe your hands and face, then eat, drink, or light up as you see fit.

Handling lead bullets usually results in some of the metal being transferred to the skin. The very best protection is to wear gloves (latex or nitrile), but if you can't do that at least give your hands a very thorough washing.

There is lead residue on and in your gun after firing. When you clean your gun, those compounds are removed and deposited somewhere. They don't just disappear! Gloves are highly recommended for cleaning chores, and you should always use some sort of disposable or washable covering over the area where the cleaning is being performed. Keep those gloves on while you clean up after the gun maintenance is finished.

I recommend that the first thing down the barrel be a wet patch, followed by a dry patch. This tends to remove the bulk of lead residue, after which you may proceed with any brushing you feel necessary. Under no conditions do I run a dry brush down the bore first; that pushes the residue out the end of the barrel, where it floats into the air that you breathe. Start with a wet patch to trap as much of that stuff as possible.

Even small amounts of lead in your blood can pose a serious health risk. Be smart, take a few simple precautions, and your only worry about lead will be the escalating price!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday meanderings.

DRAW FAST, HOLSTER SLOW: Tam alerts us to a ND that happened at a Todd Green class. In his commendable reporting of the incident, Todd says "Never be in a rush to holster your pistol. We all know it, we say it, we teach it. Not all of us do it." So true.

As instructors it's easy for us to forget that reinforcement, and sometimes enforcement, are necessary parts of our job. Especially when we're dealing with "advanced" students, we tend to go easy on the reinforcement of fundamentals for fear that we'll be resented for belittling their ability or experience. We have to resist that tendency, and we need to do so consistently. When warranted, enforcement (up to and including ejection from class) has to happen.

The only instructor I've ever seen who is absolutely consistent in this regard is Georges Rahbani (
TBRIYNHO.) Even in his advanced rifle classes, which are invitation only and have stringent prerequisites, you will hear "safety on" and "finger in register" (index, if you prefer) commands at the end of a string of fire. He never wastes an opportunity for reinforcement at any level of training or ability.

When Georges encounters failures to heed commands or instruction, he has a way of bringing the point home to the student: he/she has to publicly deposit a dollar bill into a pot. (The students have a friendly shoot-off at the end of class to win the pot.) This has a non-confrontational, yet still very chastening, effect on both the offending person and the rest of the students; I've seen it work on countless occasions. I don't know where the idea comes from, but I'm giving Georges the credit.

THE PROBLEM WITH ELECTRONIC SCALES: I recently sat down to work up a new .308 load. I turned on my RCBS electronic scale, waited a couple of minutes, and starting weighing charges. Much to my surprise, the weight of the charges thrown by my powder measure increased each time! I'd forgotten that electronic scales need protracted warmup periods before accuracy and repeatability can be expected. After a half-hour of warmup, it settled down and gave correct readings. Word to the wise: keep your mechanical scales around to double check the electronic ones, or buy a set of check weights.

HERE COMES DA JUDGE: From The Unforgiving Minute comes this gem:

"The inexplicable success of the Taurus Judge still depresses the hell out of me. Taurus keeps cranking out new versions, each more grotesque, hideous and nonsensical than the last, and people KEEP BUYING THE GODDAMN THINGS. Just another sign that our culture is doomed, I suppose."

(The opinions of the contributor do not necessarily reflect the views of the Management of this blog. Then again, they just might.)

-=[ 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 ]=-

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 ]=-

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 ]=-

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 ]=-

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 ]=-