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Blackhorn Powder
Rifle Magazine
October - November 1999
Volume 34, Number 5
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 201
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The lion swished his tail back and forth, then it shot straight back like a steel rod. He could cover 100 yards in 4 seconds, or the few that separated you from the 3-inch fangs and hooked claws in part of a heartbeat. Your very messy death by 400 pounds of rogue chain saw or another step toward a quiet old age were the options to be determined by the narrow shield of a 400-grain bullet. A crisp ivory bead, in a blue steel notch, stood in stark contrast against the yellow blur, while the blood curdling roar tore at the fibers of your nerves. Five feet now and another sound, the sound, the most terrible sound imaginable shattered the chaos . . . CLICK.

That small bit of fiction, at times, has been reality. It has set the stage for some very realistic thinking about ammunition, real ammunition, for times when it really matters. Times when you might face dangerous game: the grizzly in the alders, an elephant in 12-foot tall grass or a Cape buffalo with a wire around his foot or a pot leg in his belly. The time could be one of your only African safari, when the crosshairs were on the shoulder of a grand spiral-horned kudu bull. It might be the day when some two-legged varmint holds a knife to your daughter’s throat. Perhaps it will come when that unbelievable whitetail buck, six points on a side with beams as big around as your arm, pauses at 60 yards in the little clearing in the oaks. Of course, it could be something really important like the morning when your son or daughter takes the slack out of the trigger on that little fork-horn, the little buck that is the most monumental deer in their world, the first deer.

Whatever the setting, we are after one and only one thing: a loud bang when the hammer falls. Here we are looking at a fork in the road. One points to the major ammunition makers to provide us with totally reliable cartridges. The other allows us to take matters into our own hands, to reload the perfect round. I believe the superficial nod goes automatically to the big factory. They have the expertise, the machinery, the quality control and the long, well-deserved reputation for making flawless ammunition. Generally, looking at the big picture, factory ammunition is far more reliable than reloads. Put simply, reloaders screw up more often, but are factory shells flawless and are reloads always doomed to unreliability? Hardly!

While they are as rare as 20-karat diamonds, flawed cartridges do slip through the nets of the big ammunition companies. The total is literally less than 20 out of the hundreds of thousands of rounds I have fired or seen fired. Over the years I have seen oversize rims that would not chamber, cases without flash holes, primers without detonating compound or an anvil to set it off, one round with a bullet that was only a jacket without a core, cartridges without powder and some others that fired but exhibited primer-blowing pressure that stuck the case and prevented a second shot.

All but the one having a bullet without lead and the few that dimensionally would not chamber were perfectly undetectable by the user. In every instance the skilled and cautious reloader could and should have weeded out the defects. Thus, in my opinion, the reliability contest between the products of a very good reloader and the factories is about a draw.

In my own world, my personal defense ammunition is about a 50/50 split factory and reloads. When I worked as a PH in Africa, I always used reloads. While there was nothing life threatening about it, when I competed for the world pistol championship, it seemed to be as important as life itself. Then my choice was a curious one. My reloads almost did not fail, even in quantities of tens of thousands. Factory .45 auto shells could have hidden spooks. The mental pressure was tremendous; there were no alibis. If a cartridge failed you might as well pick up and go home. I should have used my own ammunition, but instead I shot Federal and Hornady. Their failure rate was virtually zero, and if one of us was going to make a mistake I wanted it to be them. It was one less weight on my shoulders, and besides, if they let me down, I wouldn’t have to jump off a cliff. In the end their ammunition was flawless. Ironically, two of the catastrophic ammunition failures I have seen happened to other competitors in that tournament.

So, because this is Handloader and we are reloaders, we are going to choose that fork in the road. We are going to make perfect ammunition. To do so we need the correct environment. Like all other endeavors that pursue perfection, we must be able to concentrate. Throw out the cat, give the Labrador a bone, buy the kids movie tickets, turn off the TV and lock the door. Do not visit with your shooting buddy, answer the telephone or even sip on your favorite whatever. Distractions can be fatal!

We are about to look at the details, live in the small picture. At the mention of "small," realize that even though there is a lot of muss and fuss involved, the project is still a small one. Depending on the task or hunt, five or 10 perfect rounds are probably all we will require. An Alaskan hunting trip might want a box, while 40 rounds should see you through most African safaris. Whatever the ultimate quantity, make them in small batches. Loading five rounds at a time cuts the chance of making a routine-induced mistake.

Cartridge cases hold everything together and are the keystone to perfect loads. Once-fired cases are better than shiny new ones. Why? A new case has not had the trial by fire. If there is a hidden flaw in the brass, the first firing should find it. Firing a case also proves conclusively that it had a flash hole and that it would chamber in your gun. Incidentally that "once-fired" should be in the arm you are making the shells for and not random cases fired in random places.

Another part of the reliability equation is to be sure the case headspaces close enough in your chamber to be absolutely sure the firing pin gets a good solid whack at the primer. Firing them once in your arm ensures a perfect fit. I personally prefer not to tumble/clean cases for serious use. The bits of polishing media have a way of getting in the flash hole, an added complication. My answer is to fire them, handle them carefully and place them in a clean, tight box until they are reloaded.

Trimming should not be necessary, but check the case length to be sure it is below the maximum for the round in question. If you note more than about .010 inch difference in case length, it is a good idea to cut them all to the same length. This is especially important in pistol and revolver ammunition.

The resizing process should take some lessons from the big factories. While neck sizing and squeaky-tight fits in the chamber might lend themselves to maximum accuracy, they do not court absolute reliability. Thus, the case for when it matters should be full-length resized. You should not overdo it; perfect is perfect. Correct die adjustment does not necessarily mean you mash the die against the shellholder. Instead, if the cases are bottleneck, color the neck and shoulder with a permanent marker. Then, with the die clearing the shellholder by about 1Ú8 inch, test size the case. The marker will show how far down on the shoulder the die worked.

Cut and try, gradually advancing the die until it just touches the shoulder. At this point, try the resized case in the rifle. The bolt (or breechblock on a single) should close with no or very minute resistance, and the case should come out of the chamber as easily as it entered. If the cases are straight walled, use the cut and try resizing method, alternately checking how they fit in the chamber or cylinder. Cases for both autos and revolvers should literally fall in and out of their chambers.

Incidentally, resizing lubricant can be an enemy if it gets inside the case. Therefore, lube should be used judiciously and be applied by hand. Wipe it on the case body with your fingers and then wipe it off immediately after the resizing is complete.

As we look at the next phase, priming, I should mention that I do not clean the primer pockets, but I do look at them just to be sure something foreign has not gotten into them.

With a quantity of perfectly resized cases on hand, we will apply the all- important fuses. Primers are perhaps the weakest link in all ammunition. They are relatively fragile and obviously determine the outcome of our quest for loud noises. Oil, any kind of oil, including oil vapor, is fatal to primers. When it matters, use fresh ones that have been kept in a cool, dry, oil-free environment. I store all my primers in GI ammo cans. Before you begin to load the serious shells, test drive the box of primers and the can of powder you are going to use. Load a few shells and fire them just to be sure. Then, before you begin to handle the "for-keeps" primers, wash your hands. Get rid of the sizing lube or peanut butter and jelly before you touch them.


Primer inspection can get rid of virtually any primer related failure. Take five or, at the most, 10 primers out of their box and turn them belly up in the primer tray. Then look at them; look at them hard. A magnifying glass is not unreasonable. Check first to see if an anvil is present. Then look beneath the anvil for the fire-breathing, mix-pellet itself. Most primers have a colored sealant over the mix and anvil, but if you look beyond you can usually see bits of yellow or pink priming mix. Even if the mix is completely painted, you can still see it behind the legs of the anvil. Looking at the empty spaces in a fired primer gives you a good idea of what you do not want to see.

Actual priming can be done with a hand-priming tool, or I, against conventional wisdom, prime on the reloading press. Whatever the method, work to feel each primer firmly touch bottom. Once the primers are in place, test their seating depth by standing the cases on a piece of glass or other flat, hard surface. Check for "high" primers. A high primer is just as dangerous as a "high" airplane driver. When the primer is not seated firmly, it might fail to go off.

The can of powder has been tested previously. You loaded some out of it and the shells performed as expected. The individual load is one you have used a great deal. Its performance is not in question. If you are going into a very hot environment, you might consider backing off about 2 percent. The critters will not notice, but the reliability factor might come up a few points.

Now all you have to do is get the correct amount in the cases. Double check the powder scales. If you do not have check weights, use a bullet. Most bullet makers will get you within less than a grain of the truth. Weigh the powder charges. Even if you normally dump the powder from a measure, weighing each one of our "few among many" will increase your confidence. Charge only a few cases at a time, three or five at the most. Then, before you seat the bullets, look at each one under strong light. Check to see that the powder level is the same in each one.

Bullet seating again takes a chapter from the big ammunition companies. While crowding the bullet into the lands is often the recipe for maximum accuracy, it can cheat reliability. Cartridges for rifles should have their bullets set at least .020 inch away from contacting the lands. It is also important to be sure the overall cartridge length is correct with the magazine. Too long tends to bind, too short can inhibit perfect feeding. Essentially, worry more about how the cartridges fit in the magazine than the absolute fine-tuned, accuracy-oriented seating depth. I find crimp to be a bad thing for almost all rifle cartridges. Those used in tubular magazines might need some crimp, and the very heaviest double rifle cartridges might want a bit of extra hold on the bullet. Otherwise, seat the bullets and quit.

Seating depth in revolver cartridges is governed by the crimp groove in the bullets, as these must be heavily crimped. Some high-performance bullets utilize maximum bullet-in-front-of-crimp to maximize case capacity and accuracy. These are fine, but if the bullet nose is very close to the front of the cylinder, the least bit of bullet pull (the bullet moving out of the case under recoil) will tie up the gun. Therefore, when I choose bullets for super reliability, their noses will stay at least .050 inch away from the front of the cylinder. With these, the bullets can move a little before they stick out of the cylinder and bring action to a halt. Obviously, there is no substitute for correct neck tension and crimp to prevent bullet jump, but that is another chapter.

Semiautomatic pistol ammunition is the trickiest of all. Good roundnose or flatnose bullets without abrupt shoulders are going to be the most reliable. They must be seated to the correct overall length. Again, when you make semiautomatic pistol ammunition for special occasions, stay with a bullet and seating depth that has proven itself beyond question in your pistol. Conventional wisdom says that crimp is bad in semiautos because it affects headspacing. I found that totally uncrimped loads had a weakness. The mouth of the top cartridge in the magazine could snag the base of the empty as it was being drawn from the chamber, kicking it out the ejector and causing a jam. Gently crimping the case into the bullet not more than one-half the thickness of the brass completely eliminated the problem. I even nudge factory ball with my crimp die when it matters.

With our handful of absolutely, never-ever fail cartridges ready to go, suddenly we are gripped with a nagging doubt. "Is there powder in every one?" This is a very real question. Failure to add powder at all, or the correct charge, is probably the most common reloading error. How do we know? Simple Ð we weigh them. Brass cases of the same make are surprisingly uniform, and any decent batch of bullets will all fall within a grain of each other. Therefore, all cartridges in your lot are going to be very close to the same weight. Stand each one on a scale. If you find one that is more than four or five grains different, it is severely diseased.

Once you are satisfied that everything on the inside of the cartridge is okay, it is time for the all-important external check. Run them through the gun; run every one of them through the gun. Semiautomatic pistol rounds should chamber, when being fed out of the magazine, without effort. Those for revolvers should fall into the cylinder and rattle a little when you close the door and shake the gun. Bolt-action cartridges should chamber freely, giving perhaps the feeling of slight resistance as you close the bolt.

One last thing. Whenever you make a batch of when-it-matters loads, make two extra. When you are all done, pick two at random from the batch and shoot them. This will find the ultimate hidden demons, something silly, something that happens, like the wrong can of powder.

There you have it - perfect ammunition - loads you can stake your life on. While they are very special, they did not require rocket science to create. Instead, like most extremely technical shooting exercises, they simply require the basics, done to perfection. They are the product of doing what we know how to do, without error. While life is without certainty and risk, you have, like all who play on the edge, reduced the risk to a minimum.

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