A number of years ago, a couple of good friends and I were practising for a moose hunt using the services of a farmer’s property with his permission. It was late September and, with the addition of a couple of other friends, our hunt was to take place in mid-October just north-west of the world famous Algonquin Park.
It was a relatively hot afternoon with bright sunlight conditions for the commencement of autumn. We were surrounded by heavy woods in a field that allowed a variety of practice positions and ranges. First, the goal was to check the sight-ins of our rifles, and that was done from a small table in place using rests for our rifles. In getting things in place, my very close friend, another “Bob”, left his handloaded .270 Winchester ammo sitting in an open box on the table. It wasn’t mentioned by anyone as it was perhaps assumed that his .270 ammo would be fired shortly. All I recall about the incident is that I was busy practising offhand on a target far right of the sight-in target. Since I had already shot a lot of my hunting load at our club’s range, I just wanted some offhand practice and wasn’t paying much attention to what my friend was doing. Anyway, I heard a very loud “bang” and turned to see smoke pouring from the muzzle of my friend’s .270. He seemed to be in shock! The bolt wouldn’t open! All of it was a result of a max book load of H4831 for a 150gr Nosler Partition that had worked just fine in more temperate degrees. The good news was that the Sako in .270 Win was still in one piece and went along for our moose hunt.
That incident, repeated by many unwary handloaders, tells us in no uncertain terms that “book loads” are not necessarily safe under all conditions. The load in question was Jack O’Connor’s — the .270 Winchester guru — 58 grains of H4831 behind 150 grain generic bullets. I still have reloading manuals that printed loads for generic bullets without distinction. Of course, that was from a military surplus powder of the era. But that load was still being published in manuals at the time of my friend’s incident, even though it was no longer a milsurp powder! It still appears in some of my manuals dating to the very late twentieth century! Of course, my friend made some critical mistakes, but the writers of the manuals must bear some responsibility as well.
All of the foregoing is to highlight the critical need for all handloaders to become aware of several factors that can make smokeless gunpowder unstable under certain conditions which include, but not limited to, the following list:
(1) The nature of smokeless gunpowder (As it concerns this series of articles, for rifles in particular).
(2) Reloading manuals.
(3) The handloader — the most critical factor.
(4) The rifle’s barrel.
(5) Ambient temperature and other physical conditions.
(6) Pressure limitations and psi “under the curve”.
(7) How bullets affect psi, and how bullets of the same weight and caliber, over the same powder charge and primer, may differ greatly in psi.
(8) Why age and different lots of the “same” powder may alter expected performance by creating excessive psi or a too low psi.
(9) How much does shortening a barrel affect its overall performance?
(10) Does compression of powder affect pressure — if so, by how much?
This will take a while. A few more articles would seem appropriate. So we start from the top and work toward the last.
FIRST: The nature of smokeless rifle powder.
There are basically two kinds of smokeless rifle powder: Single-base and double-base. The main ingredient of single-base powders is nitrocellulose which, in turn, is mostly made from nitric acid and cellulose. Double base has an added percentage of nitroglycerine. So double-base powders have potentially more energy. In addition, modern powders are not powders at all, as I think we all realise, but they appear as extruded, log-shape granules of different shapes and sizes that help control the burn rate of the particular propellant. These will have a central perforation, or more, that also aids in controlling its burn rate. In other words, the granules burn both from the outside inwardly and from the inside outwardly. The size of the grain and its perforation determines in large part whether it is deemed a slow-burning, medium-burning or fast-burning propellant. The other common type used in centerfire rifles is termed BALL powders. These are mostly double-base powders that due to their size and shape (tiny balls) tend to be more dense than those extruded (“stick”), so usually less space is needed in a cartridge case to accomodate them. In my Ruger No.1 in .45-70, about 5 to 7 grains more can be used of H335 (a ball powder) under a 450gr or 500gr than H4895 (an extruded powder). They have a similar burn rate but may differ somewhat depending on application and psi.
(A single-base and a double-base powder by the same company. H335 is a double-base ball powder.)
Also a flame retardant is added to modern powders, as well as a stabilizer that assists the rifle powder from degrading over time while in storage. It’s important to realise that gun powder, in general, will degrade with time from its original condition. And since rifle propellant is a mixture of various chemicals (concocted by various chemists over two centuries) and compounds, ageing produces changes that may prove to be dangerously unstable. That is why stringent storage facilities are mandated by governments for commercial enterprises, as well as military. Heat and moisture are its worst enemies.
It’s my intent to “dump” several one-pound cans of powder I’ve had on hand for several years, but no longer have use for them. They will be “flushed” or spread as lawn fertilizer! I had a 5 lb can of “no-name” rifle powder given to me by my gunsmith. He said he thought it was IMR 4198, or similar. Since I was shooting a lot of .45-70 in those days, he “thought” it might be a good choice. It was given to him by a client. I took it because of not wanting to offend — a very bad premise on which to make choices! I left it sitting on my office floor (and rug) for about 3 – 4 years without checking it (another bad decision!)! When I finally picked up the can, the bottom was missing — so was a round patch of carpet!! Today’s commercial gun powders have several chemicals added to improve safety and performance that have little to do with max psi, although indirectly they may affect that as well. They also have a graphite coating to keep particles from clumping or creating static electricity. So today’s rifle propellants are very sophisticated.
I’ll not get into the mechanics of how all this is brought together in a gunpowder manufacturing plant, but suffice to say that gunpowder is deemed an explosive, and why on occasion such plants have an incident that results in a very serious blowup that will terminate the plants operation indefinitely. On occasion, similar incidents happen on a much more limited scale at rifle ranges and in the field — as in my friend’s case or even as in another at our range where a member’s rifle “blew” and he lost a thumb!
Modern rifle powder, in general, is quite safe as long as the handloader pays attention to the fact that he’s dealing with an explosive and observes certain principles and precautions which are given in all reloading books. I’ll not enumerate them here, but chief among them are: do NOT be distracted by conversation with or the presence of others, and do NOT be smoking pot or cigarettes, or drinking alcoholic beverages while in the process of handloading rifle cartridges. And not least of all, be well rested with a fresh mind and body.
(Bullet seating depth affects pressure. Those are 286gr Nosler Partitions for my 9.3 X 62.)
SECOND: RELOADING MANUALS
I count nineteen currently on my shelf, and I may have misplaced a few others. Some are old editions and others more up-to-date. In addition to all that, I’ve many magazines on hand with dozens of loads, usually of a cautious nature as there are fears of litigious actions due to mistakes in manuals and/or those who use them. Then, I also have one manual that’s the thickest of all, with the most data compiled, that’s the most useless to me (it was a “gift”)as it was compiled from all the others, mostly from ages gone by! And, of course, the imminent presence of the Internet, which always seems to have at least a few pontifical personalities that “need” to let us know how much they know.
So, what could I possibly add to all that!?
Well, I’m somewhat audacious, I suppose, with a badger-like personality for unvarnished TRUTH! Many qualified research scientists of the past and present have had their work “buried” and denied publication because it contravened the politics of so-called “science”. There is a “scientific method” which I generally adhere to. BUT, as it has been well pointed out thousands of times, the theory may look excellent but if it doesn’t accord with experience, it’s wrong! Many scientists don’t agree with Global Warming as it is espoused by the multitudes, but their work has been disregarded, and even denigrated, by those with an agenda, including politicians, media types and even other scientists!
Politics is involved in all aspects of living… not excluding reloading manuals!
Let’s examine some evidences for that claim: political thinking affecting the contents of cartridge reloading manuals. Let me state this once and for all time: Reloading manuals and books are generally indispensable for commencing handloading activity. They provide history, how-to, cautions and data. It’s the cautions and data parts that could be faulted at times. Of course, I must provide some evidences. But before doing that, it is incumbent that another observation and statement be made about books, manuals and instructions of any type — they often assume too much and consequently leave out some important material. Examples abound, but I’m sure you’ve tried to work your way through instructions for putting various mechanical pieces of a toy or appliance together — or something of that nature. Especially, if it was first written in Chinese or French (or any other foreign language) and then translated into English in China or France! Or worse, getting on the phone with someone on the other side of the globe who is instructing you as to how to solve your computer problem! Like my friend (owner and manager) at a gun shop said to me one day about his computer, “Bob, I just want the thing to work! I’m not interested in how it is supposed to work, I just want it to work!” I too am not computer smart, but have a son who is! It’s good to have a friend who is “handloading smart”!
And while I’m at it, let me acknowledge the many who are “handloading smart”. Some visit this site, and I’ve profited from the input and experience of several.
Evidences of cautions and data coming up short of their intended goals are many. Some of it is due to neglect, and sometimes ignorance. At others it may be caused by lack of funds and/or the right personnel. Another thing is timing — there may be pressure to get a new manual “out there” for competition sake. Mistakes are made and newer products are not included. Some manuals are better and some worse in those regards.
Recently, at one of our largest sporting goods stores, I noticed the latest Hornady manual. It was thicker and heavier than my most recent. But I knew from past experience that Hornady would keep old material in their “new” book. Yes, some new cartridges, bullets and data for them would appear, but that wasn’t worth $60 to me! Let me say, however, that I’ve used Hornady manuals from near the induction to my handloading experience. And, I’ve profited from them.
REGARDING CAUTIONS: On the whole they are necessary. Yet they are too often ambiguous. Let me explain: Being a writer and publishing reloading material myself, I fully understand the need for disclaimers. While disclaimers by themselves act like “putting on the brakes”, yet there is freedom there to provide honest results. Not so with dictums that state: “NEVER exceed the maximum loads presented herein”. First of all, such a statement is disingenuous. How so? Because, mostly this kind of political-type statement is added: “Approach maximum loads with caution. If there are ANY SIGNS of excess pressure, back off a couple of grains.” Yet, with a tone of authority we are told that “SIGNS” are unreliable — that is until we reach their “magic” max number. At that point we are on our “own” judgement as to where “we are” in relation to peak PSI. The only tool left in our box is SIGNS! We don’t have professional “tools” by which to measure the actual PEAK PSI for our personal situations (much more to be presented on that particular point in upcoming blogs on this theme).
Despite the thousands of words exhorting, cajoling, pleading with, and nearly commanding handloaders about safe procedures, NOT ONE manual has EVER come up with a system for the non-professional that is fool-proof and guarantees safety! Nor can they! So YOU and I on our own must make those decisions. ANY LOAD that is listed as MAXIMUM in ANY manual will disagree with any OTHER manual unless it has been copied from that manual.
Nosler’s #6 manual lists a max MV for ALL five of their 180gr, .30-caliber in .300 Win Mag as attaining 3160 fps from a 24″ Lija test barrel. That is from 73 grains of IMR 4831. No PSI is given for any of their loads, and I actually agree with them in that position because we all should know that the PEAK PSI as assigned by SAAMI for the .300 WM is 64,000. And in my rather significant experience with .300 Win Mags, I have found Nosler’s MV to be credible. However, what I find incredulous is the notion that ALL five of their 180-grainers gave the exact same results from the same load in their test rifle! The chance of that happening is ZERO! But it’s “political” to suggest it, especially for those who want some kind of “fuzzy” security! Then in Modern Reloading, Second Edition by Richard Lee we are presented with twenty-four MAXIMUM LOADS for “180 Grain Jacketed Bullets” with pressure varying from 54,000 CUP to 63,052 PSI, with no information on rifles used in the tests or if test barrels were used, and nothing about barrel length. And 24 different powders were used developing from 2813 fps to 3112 fps. As well, additional info is provided for the only bullet identified — the 180gr Winchester Fail Safe. Personally, as mentioned, I find such a manual useless as it is all copied from various other manuals at differing time periods. I think for a beginner it might be rather confusing!
In addition to all that, to merely reprint (as in Hornady’s case, AND Lyman’s) in a “new”, latest edition what was given in previous editions — perhaps many years earlier — would be false evidence if presented in court, or evidence that may be disregarded by a judge in the case of an accident where old material was merely reprinted for economic reasons. The case cited above regarding my friend who ended up using data for milsurp powder (H4831) intended for modern H 4831 which locked his action is a case in point. Today, Nosler Manual No.6 lists 55 grains as maximum for the non-military H4831 for the 150gr Partition in the .270 Winchester’s 24″ Shilen test barrel. Do you have a 24″ Shilen test barrel? So that’s why you’ll find disclaimers and ambiguous data in any manual at times.
Several years ago, I phoned Hornady over misinformation in their Fourth Edition, Vol.1, regarding max loads for the 220gr, .30-caliber in the .300 Winchester Magnum data. Five loads “said” 2500 fps was max!! And two others listed 2400 fps as max!!! I had become a big fan of the .300 Win Mag and knew that was sheer baloney! Those were .30-06 loads, NOT .300 Winchester max loads. I phoned near their closing time and luckily got one of the head guys who happened to pick up the phone as he was leaving his office. He said all the “Tech” guys had gone home, nonetheless he was willing to hear my complaint. His answer was truthful if not putting his company in a stellar light! He said: “A young man did those loads and when the recoil got too severe he cut them off at that point and put the numbers into the computer as maximum. When pulled for printing, that is what appears in your manual”. To make corrections would mean holding up the printing of the new manual. He agreed with me that the .300 Win Mag under normal conditions could do much better. I bought that manual new in September, 1991.
(A chronograph helps us to know what our chosen prime load is doing.)
Nosler and Barnes, as two examples, redo their complete new manuals. All data is “new”. I commend them for that, but that doesn’t mean they are faultless. I find many inconsistencies in most but there is that same flaw in several. That being to lump all their same grain bullets together as giving the exact same MVs and presumed psi using the exact same load. That would be an exceptional miracle! Not only did Nosler “lump” their 160gr Partition and 162gr Solid Base together as giving the exact same results from the exact same loads, but miracles never cease in some manuals as Nosler in their Number Three lists results in this form for both the 160 Partition and 162 Solid Base in 7mm-08 data as 44, 42 and 40 grains of IMR4350 as producing (get this) exactly 2650, 2550 and 2450 fps — how that “miracle” came about they don’t tell us. What precision! Or was it the result of “fudging” some numbers that “back-in-the-day” might not only be accepted as “gospel” but proclaimed as such by those who believed them! Thankfully, Nosler has learned their lesson somewhere between their #3 and #6, and don’t do that anymore, but they still lump bullets of the same weight and caliber as giving identical results from the same loads… for economical reasons, I suppose, as do other bullet manufacturers. So they DO expect you and me to make judgements based on sets of criteria that we (you and I) personally work with that may not be “science” — because it might only be a sample of one. As a practical example of what is being referenced here is the question (to be discussed later in this series): How much compression of gunpowder is legitimate? And who or what decides that enigmatic question? You will not get a straight, 100% uniform answer from the pros or their manuals. Do you know why? Because there isn’t one. There are more possible variable answers to that question than which toothpaste works best!
Another proposed solution to conflicts among manuals is to average the results and choose that as maximum! Really? The net result might very well be that the peak psi may still be too high, or low, for your conditions and rifle. We are even then still left to our own judgements, which later in this series will be presented.
I could go on and on and on… but you get the point, I’m sure.
I use manuals, as mentioned, but they are NOT the Bible for me!
The next item on our list is 3) The HANDLOADER — the most critical factor. Some are cautious in the extreme(that’s their nature in all aspects of life); others are, well, just cautious in somewhat of a “normal” sense — in certain surroundings and under particular conditions; still others are venturesome by nature, and finally, some of us are audacious (bold), daring to go where many would not venture. Pioneers are audacious… so are some adventurers. But most want life to be safe! As it has been written: “Some will tip-toe cautiously through life to make it safely all the way to death”. I’m not one of them, but I haven’t “blown up” a rifle… yet! Nor have I locked an action.
See ya next time when we continue with this very important theme.