Monday, November 21, 2016

A Little Reloading 101

I know some number of my readers will see a post about the CNC conversion and say, "never mind... I'll see what's here tomorrow".  I hope this is interesting. 

I got an email today from the fine folks at Widener's today; if you don't know them, you should.  Reloading and shooting supplies and accessories; powders, primers, bullets, and some more.  They're a good supplier to keep in your "check these guys" file. 

Widener's wrote to let me know they posted a Guide to Smokeless Powders.  I know a lot of you black powder guys think that smokeless powder is a passing fad and the world will return to the sanity of large clouds of smoke, but it's the mainstay of reloading and worth learning about. 

Those who reload probably have their favorite powders for their applications, but beginners may think "powder is powder".  There are many, many kinds of powder available.  The main sources in the US are Hodgdon, probably the number 1 supplier in the US; Alliant Powder, which may be the oldest company, dating back to 1872 as Laflin & Rand, then later as Hercules Powders; and Western Powders, makers of the Accurate and Ramshot brands of powders.  Chemically, some of a manufacturers product line may be identical, but physically, they will vary. 

Powders are broadly divided by application: pistol, rifle and shotgun.  Pistol powders need to burn fast because of the short barrels, which means a short time in the barrel while the bullet is being accelerated.  Rifle powders can have a more gradual buildup of pressure due to the longer time under pressure; they also can be formulated to deliver more power.  Shotguns can vary more than either pistols or centerfire rifles.  Depending on the load; heavier shot loads will require a slower burn rate, as it takes longer to sufficiently accelerate a heavy shot. At the other end of the spectrum, a slow burning powder behind a light load, such as a bird shot, may not give enough power for sufficient energy and velocity.

You will see some powders listed as for both pistol and shotgun. 

I hinted that different powders may be chemically the same but behave differently.  One of the main ways the powders are varied is by the shapes and sizes of the particles.  You'll need a microscope, or good magnifiers to see this detail, but this photo shows a stripe of spherical ball-powder flanked on the left by flattened ball powder and on the right by flake powder.  
Ball powder consists of tiny spheres that can generally be manufactured more rapidly, often reducing the cost of the final product. It meters better, resulting in more accurate loads and can have a greater shelf life compared to other powders. 

Flattened ball powder is known to deliver similar results to spherical ball powder. To create this shape, ball powder is run through rollers, resulting in the flattened ball product. Flattened powder is generally preferred in shotgun shells.

Flake powder is essentially powder that is extended into a tube shape and cut into tiny sections, almost like cutting a very tiny summer sausage.  Flakes are used mostly in handgun and shotgun cartridges. Because of their shape, they can stack up when measuring, making it difficult to meter with precision.

Not shown in the picture is stick powder.  Shaped like small cylinders, this is the type of powder that is most popular for rifle cartridges. While highly-effective in rifle ammunition, stick powder is difficult to meter accurately and can lead to inconsistencies in the measurements. While stick powder is often considered the most difficult to meter, reducing the length of the “sticks” can make for more consistent loading. 

My experience reloading has been for a few rifle calibers, .223, .308 and .30-06, and while I'm set to reload .45ACP, I sill have enough commercial ammo available that I haven't gotten around to it.  My preferred powder for those rifle rounds is Hodgdon Varget.  How did I decide to use that one brand out of all the powders on the market?  Reading online.  It might have even been a commenter here years ago.  RegT? 

Obviously there's lots more to know than this.  How do you even start learning?  All of the powder companies produce loading books with tables of different loads for their powders.  Much of their data is online for free, too, along with reloaders' forums.  Here's Hodgdon's web version.   Hornady produces a manual based on their bullets, as do Speer and Barnes Bullets; perhaps others that I don't think of. 

In addition to the information, you'll need a supply of primers for the calibers you're reloading (the required primers will be specified in those manuals), and bullets.  The only reusable thing about a cartridge is the brass.   Of course, you'll also need a reloading press and the hardware to get started. In the description of the various powders, reference was made to being easy or difficult to meter.  That refers to the powder dispensers most reloaders use; these dispense powder based on volume rather than weight, and this is the calibration that the refer to as being difficult. 

Aside from the hardware, it doesn't hurt to be very meticulous and detail oriented; anal-retentiveness is probably a survival skill.  I have my own name for that condition, the complete opposite of Attention Deficit Disorder.   


  1. It was another fellow (in a comment on your "Attention Surplus Syndrome" post) who mentioned Varget.

    I started hand loading back in 1974, with my first centerfire firearm - a Ruger Security Six .357 Mag revolver (which I went on to use as a police Officer with San Diego PD) and a Lee hand loading set (they are still sold by Midway, IIRC). My first powder was Unique (a flake powder), a pistol/shotgun powder that was popular in magnum handgun calibers way back when. Next was IMR4096 (a "stick" powder) I used when reloading 30-30 for a Winchester "Trapper" lever action.

    That is when I discovered stick powder was more difficult to meter properly, _plus_ the powder measure would shear some of the sticks as the mechanism cycled. Reading about various powders and their individual properties, I ended up moving to the Accurate Arms powders (a Western Powder which used to be made right here in Oregon at Miles City. Almost all of the Accurate powders are speherical (ball) powders, which meters well and makes for very consistent loads, with improved accuracy (hence the name, I believe). All of the pistol powders and the rifle powders that I use are ball powders, and I am quite pleased with them. Accurate Arms makes what I believe is the best powder for loading the 10 mm, Accurate #9. It gives the fastest speeds (although I never load to maximum, due to the fact that the best accuracy is almost always developed below maximum loadings. That being said, I load at slightly higher levels than Accurate's maximum listed load for the 10 mm, since I am now carrying my G20 (Glock 10 mm) here in bear country.

    I was going to say "I'm not a sharp shooter", but since I own a lovely Shiloh Sharps rifle in 45-110 (2 & 7/8) rifle made here in Montana (Big Timber, MT - the Shiloh Sharps company, maker of the rifles used by Tom Selleck in "Quiglet Down Under) I can't say that anymore.

    So, I'll just say I am not a sniper or skilled long distance shooter, BUT - a couple of weeks ago I shot a bird (I won't say "magpie" because they are our state bird for some god-forsaken reason) at a laser measured 83 yards with my one and only shot hitting it dead-center for an instant kill. I was carrying, as usual, my G230 with the hot bear loads, which _do_ shoot a little flatter than commercial 10 mm loads, even the Double Tap produced 10 mm loads. Yes, it was a real miracle (so I'm half-way to sainthood ;-), but Accurate Arms _does_ make accurate loads. I now load on a Dillon machine (550B) that I have had since 1989 or 1990.

    I'm not an engineer, but I suffer from ASS, too. My wife will vouch for that.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Sorry, that should have been "spherical" (ball) powder, and "Quigley" not "Quiglet" (sounds like "piglet" ;-)

    3. Danm, I shouldn't type this stuff at quarter to midnight in a darkened room. That should have been G20, 10mm, _not_ the non-existent G230. Sheesh. I guess my ASS doesn't come into play with my typing, although it makes me _look_ like it does ;-)

    4. I thought it might have been Leveraction, whom I haven't heard from in years, but apparently it was ASM826 (who got my Varget addiction started). I don't know that he comes by here anymore, but used to.

  2. My family learned years ago to tell me, "You probably can't fix this."

    Reloading is one of those things were ASS is a good thing.

    I started reloading a lot of years ago with a Lee Hand Loader in .45-70.

    1. One of our standby jokes around here is I'll say that I've been woodworking, cutting metal, using torches and lots of other inherently dangerous hobbies, for a good 40 years and I still have 10 full-length fingers and two fully functional eyes. It means I'm cautious about things I've never done before. (The fingers aren't quite fully functional, but that's an arthritis thing)

      ASS is a good thing.

    2. Interesting. I haven't gotten into reloading yet (though I have a Dillon, I've never found time to get it set up), but I always assumed powder was measured by weight. Any volumetric methods have to be inaccurate as hell! At any rate, the Dillon came was kitted up with a scale for the powder.

    3. Malatrope, it's done both ways. You can bet that meticulous reloaders (class F competition comes to mind) use precision scales. The RCBS Model 505 is like a mini version of the laboratory balances chemical labs use. They also have an electronic scale that seems very handy, the Chargemaster, which dispenses a powder and weighs it out a few particles at a time. (Other makers have their own versions) These are for one cartridge at a time, "I don't care how long it takes", reloading.

      Those are slow compared to what can be done with a volumetric powder dispenser on a progressive press, though. For people reloading lots of ammo to less precise loads, something like the RCBS Uniflow Powder Measure is what's on their progressive press.

      Again, Dillon, Hornady and others have similar products.

  3. Malatrope, I throw my charge weights with a Dillon powder measure. Because I often load ammo for friends, I am paranoid enough that I also _weigh_ each charge before putting it in the primed case. With ball powders, the Dillon is very accurate, and I rarely need to re-do a thrown charge - and yes, the Dillon powder measure is indeed volumetric.

    If you ever get around to using you Dillon equipment, give the powder measure a good rap on the side to settle the charge into the chamber (the horizontal metal part of the measure that moves to drop the charge into the drop tube). That way it will be full when it slides across, making for a consistent volume - with a consistent weight.