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Blackhorn Powder
Rifle Magazine
February - March 2002
Volume 37, Number 1
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 215
On the cover...
Cover photos include the Smith & Wesson Models 625 Mountain Gun and 27. Below (left to right) sixguns include the Ruger Vaquero, New Model Blackhawk and Colt Single Action Army. Colt pistol photo by Dave Scovill.
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Looking over more than three decades of our fascinating pastime (along with the gadgets that almost cover my 16-foot loading bench), one remarkably consistent trend becomes apparent: Few guides to handloading tell you exactly which tools are most important. In fact, some barely mention some essential tools (such as a case trimmer), while highlighting widgets we can do without (such as a powder trickler). This occurs because handloading guides are written to start people handloading. Keeping it simple is the basic rule of effective propaganda.

Looking back, I wish more guides had described the ways a 6-inch caliper is essential to our craft. At age 13 I wouldn’t have bought one anyway, but might have a few years later, when I spent $25 on a genuine Sears Craftsman one-inch micrometer.

This is a fine tool and one still used frequently, but a one-inch micrometer is really only needed for a few advanced handloading tasks, particularly pressure-guessing by measuring case expansion. A 6-inch caliper does so much more. In the past month alone I’ve used mine for at least a dozen tasks, including measuring the diameter of lead shot (as well as various “non-toxics”) and determining shotshell length. It has helped adjust seating dies to exactly the right depth and confirm that the loose bullet rolling around at the end of a loading session was a .270 and not a 7mm. I pick it up at least once every loading session, the reason it rests right behind my main press, ready to serve.

If more loading manuals emphasized this versatility, I’d have forgone several handy but unessential tools such as the aforementioned powder trickler or one of those sheet metal, case-length gauges that determines if your .38 Special or .30-06 cases are too long. The one on hand is a Lyman, sent along by a thoughtful Handloader reader who, alas, did not put his last name or address on the accompanying letter. The envelope got separated from the letter at the post office, so I couldn’t write to thank him.

He sent it because he’d read that I use my dial caliper as a snap gauge and considered this abuse of a fine tool. Unfortunately, the Lyman only includes 11 of the 30-something rifle and handgun cartridges I regularly handload. The Lyman selection is in some ways rather odd, including the .284 Winchester but not the .243 Winchester. It also only tells you if a case is too long, but not by how much, the reason it carries a small notice: “For more precise measurement, we suggest the use of a Lyman dial or digital caliper.”

My own suggestion would be to forgo a powder trickler and case length gauge and buy a dial caliper instead. Good ones can be purchased for not much more than you’d spend on the two above items. Mine is a steel model from Midway USA (5875 W. Van Horn Tavern Rd., Columbia MO 65203; www.midwayusa.com), which runs about $25, depending on whether they’re having a sale. Oh, and though I’ve used it as a snap gauge for several years - measuring many cases that don’t show up on standard snap gauges, such as the 6.5x54mm Mauser and .450-400 Nitro Express (3-inch) - it has yet to show the slightest wear. I know this because its measurements have been checked against micrometers.

As for micrometers, a standard model like my old Craftsman can be used to measure units much smaller than the .001 inch (1/1000th of an inch) that it’s graduated for. The fine hash marks on the spindle are far enough apart that anyone can immediately see when something measures halfway between them, making it accurate to .0005 inch. And anyone who’s near-sighted (like me) can look over their glasses and easily judge accuracy to at least .0002 inch, which makes it accurate enough for estimating pressures by case expansion.

But we live in a digital age. Many clocks now show the time, rather than forcing us to calculate complexities such as big hand and little hand. If you can afford it, a truly fine electronic micrometer makes such important measurements more sure. Lately I have been using another Midway USA product, its top-of-the-line electronic micrometer, accurate to .00005 inch. The measurements show up in bold numerals, legible to anybody’s bifocals, rather than as tiny abstractions on a spindle. It has made precise measuring easier as I get older, though it isn’t nearly as cheap as my old Sears Craftsman. (Luckily, most of us have more money in our late 40s, when our eyes and mathematical aptitude deteriorate. Money helps ease the inevitability of aging, but other acquisitions, such as ear hair, do not. I trimmed mine the other day, which did not help clarify my wife’s mumbling.)


This new micrometer has helped confirm a number of things - some negative rather than positive, but negative often helps as much. (If you’ve hiked three ridges and found no elk, then you’ve narrowed things down.) Not only is the digital micrometer better at helping estimate pressure, but recently it confirmed a long-held suspicion that measuring and sorting modern bullets has very little effect on accuracy. This revelation will save future time.

Of course, the most essential measuring tool is a powder scale. At 13 mine was a simple Redding that used replaceable weights rather than a scaled beam. To weigh a 42-grain charge of IMR-3031, I had to select one 25-, a 10-, a 5- and two 1-grain weights. These were placed in the scale’s pan and a threaded cylinder turned until the beam balanced at zero. After the weights were removed, I dribbled enough powder into the pan to balance the beam again.

This actually wasn’t a bad system, if a bit slow, which is probably why I haven’t seen such a scale advertised for awhile. But small, precise weights themselves come in handy. My Reddings disappeared with that old scale years ago, but I still have some weights around, used to check various scales to make sure they’re accurate.

Most handloaders, I suspect, take it for granted that when they set their scale to, say, 56.5 grains, a weighed charge measures exactly 56.5 grains. But not all scales are accurate, and not because we haven’t leveled the scale. It’s a good idea to check any new scale and to periodically check old scales, since lint, dust or rust can affect readings.

Because of our jobs, my wife and I constantly weigh things (me mostly powder and bullets, and Eileen, who writes game cookbooks, various birds and mammals). We’re both suckers for any sort of measuring device so own scales varying from an old 350-grain Herter’s handloading scale to an 800-pound freight scale Eileen uses for weighing defunct deer. We bought the freight scale at a garage sale, which we frequented in our early years of poverty and still occasionally try, partly for bargains and partly as entertainment. At one I picked up an Ohaus scientific scale, a two-pan outfit that balances a set of weights with whatever you want to weigh. The weights are in grams, so I now use these to check my loading scales.

Just now I rechecked three simple beam scales: that old Herter’s; a 5-year-old, highly popular scale made by the largest reloading manufacturer in the land; and a new Redding No. 2. Each was leveled before checking, and I used the 5-gram weight. A gram weighs 15.432 grains, so 5 grams weigh 77.16 grains Ð for our purposes, 77.2.

The results? In first place came the Redding, right at 77.2 grains. Taking a close second, at 77.3 grains, was the old Herter’s. A very distant third was awarded to the highly popular scale, almost .5 grain off at 77.6 grains.

Small potatoes, maybe, but if you’re not careful about leveling your scale, and it’s a half-grain off anyway, you could be sifting 76 grains of H-4831 into a .300 Winchester case instead of 75, which may be one reason your Model 70 pushes 180-grain bullets so fast. And if you ever decide to buy a new scale, your old loads may not work the same.

I’ve been generally unimpressed with the accuracy of electronic scales. Some won’t weigh the same check-weight the same twice in a row. Others vary somewhat from reality, which may be the reason a commercial ballistics lab I recently visited had a big, expensive Ohaus balance-beam model right next to their big, expensive electronic scale. Oh, and on the shelf above both, a set of check weights.

If you need a set of weights, RCBS sells a basic selection for about $25. If not too far off, you can correct your scale by playing with the leveler until the beam’s zeroed with check weights of about the same heft as the charges you’ll be loading. And, of course, you can use your now-accurate scale to more accurately check the weights thrown by your powder measure.

Another measuring device every serious handloader should own is one of the serious tools that measures case-neck thickness and the concentricity of sized cases and seated bullets. If you don’t, you’re merely hoping your loads are superior to factory ammunition. As an infinitely anal-retentive handloader, I use two, one by NECO and one by RCBS. They usually sit at either end of my rifle-loading setup, so I can check neck thickness and case concentricity at one end, and bullet concentricity at the other.

Every serious handloader should also buy a chronograph - and not because it allows you to compute trajectory. Because of variations in sight height, and how ballistic coefficient changes not just with velocity but barrels, you can’t precisely calculate long-range trajectory from muzzle velocity. The only way to find the exact trajectory of your rifle and load is to shoot at distant targets.

But a chronograph does tell you when your loads are consistent, resulting in small variations from shot to shot. These don’t necessarily mean that load will be accurate (other factors enter into the equation), but a load that varies less than 20 fps from shot to shot should shoot fairly well. If it sprays bullets into 2.5-inch groups from a scoped, bolt-action sporter, there’s generally something wrong with the rifle or scope.

Chronographs also tell us when we’re approaching maximum pressure. I’ve discussed this before (and will again soon in an upcoming piece on pressure) so will only touch lightly here. If your rifle gets 100 or (whoopee!) 200 fps more with a particular bullet and powder than any listing in recent loading manuals, it’s not because you lucked out with a “fast” barrel. Instead pressures are as high as New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Combined with other indicators, a chronograph may prevent blowing your rifle up or your fingers off.

A chronograph is so fundamental to good handloading that I continually wonder why so few shooters own one. I know a bunch of guys who spend thousands of dollars on guns and attendant gear, all of whom refuse to spend less than $100 on   an inexpensive chronograph. One friend buys at least one new custom black-powder cartridge rifle every year, spending far more than $100 on fancy checkering and high-grade wood. He shoots these in several target matches every year, generally placing somewhere in the middle - and has no clue about the consistency of his handloads, other than the fact that once in awhile he gets a good group from the bench at 100 yards.

Another friend generally picks the fastest load for his latest whiz-bang from an array of loading manuals (cost: well over $100), seats bullets over the maximum charge with any old bullet of the same weight, and goes to it. Once in awhile he shoots a few rounds over my chronograph. We often discover his load is 100 fps slower than the published velocity, but just as often find it’s 200 fps faster. He turns morose at the first result, ecstatic at the second. It should be the other way around. The first results in about one inch difference in trajectory at 400 yards. The other may cost him a hand or eye, or worse.

But how do we know our chronograph is accurate? Good question, one that recently occurred to my friend Charlie Sisk, a custom gunsmith. He asked a few shooting       fanatic friends, including me. Most grew indignant. Of course their chronographs are accurate! They cost lots of money! This may ex-plain why most shooters don’t own chronographs: They believe several hundred dollars is required to get   reliable data.

I’ve owned a number of chronographs, but these days generally use the cheapest Shooting Chrony available. Why? Partly because it’s cheap. Like anybody who shoots a lot, I have plunked a chronograph or two. This is disheartening, but not nearly as much with a $75 model as with a $300 unit. I also like the Chrony because it’s so portable, easy to set up - and accurate. I’ve tested mine against several more expensive chronographs (including one in a commercial ballistics lab) and it’s within 25 fps, every time.

One quirk of the Chrony is that it folds up. When unfolded at the range, it must be completely unfolded, otherwise the distance between the twin electric eyes shortens slightly. On occasional range sessions (especially when I’ve gotten up very early to head to the range before the eternal Montana winds pick up), I’ve forgotten this and find 125-grain Noslers zipping from my .260 Remington at over 3,000 fps. Upon which I slap myself on the forehead, then leap from the bench to make sure the Chrony’s flat.

Aside from running our chronograph against other chronographs, how do we make sure ours is accurate? I dunno. For years I periodically shot a particular lot of .22 Long Rifle ammunition from my old Marlin 81 over the screens of new chronographs. They all checked out within a few fps, so I quit worrying about it. I guess we just have to take their word for it.

One last measuring device was covered in full two issues ago, in Handloader No. 213 (“Balanced Bullets,” October 2001). Vern Juenke’s ultrasound bullet machine has become almost as indispensable to my loading as case-spinning tools. For those who missed the original piece, Vern’s machine measures the interior concentricity of any jacketed bullet - and explains a lot about those mysterious fliers that show up in otherwise consistent groups.

Since the article appeared several friends have bought the unit (which runs $660), and called to say, “Gosh, John, it works!” It was hard to find Vern for awhile, since his phone company had changed the local area code and evidently refused to tell anybody. But if you’re interested, he’s still cranking out Internal Capacity Comparators at The Accuracy Den, 25 Bitterbrush Road, Reno NV 89523. These days, when I load ammunition with bullets sorted by the machine, into straight cases with neck-wall thickness varying no more than .001 inch, and the rifle doesn’t shoot, I know it’s the rifle, not the ammunition.

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