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Big Game Rifle
Rifle Magazine
December - January 2002
Volume 37, Number 6
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 220
On the cover...
The Ruger Blackhawk .30 Carbine has been in the company lineup since 1968 (photo by Gerald Hudson). Stan Trzoniec loads the classic favorites, including the .44 Smith & Wesson Special, .38 Smith & Wesson Special, .45ACP and .38 Super (photo by Stan)
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One consistent question from Handloader readers goes something like this: Why do new powders keep popping up like spring mushrooms, when the old powders work just fine?

This is a recent phenomenon. During the first couple decades of my handloading career, new powders were rare. Hodgdon was still selling military-surplus powder, and DuPont (now IMR) and Hercules (now Alliant) sold the same powders they’d been selling since before World War II. Even when somebody introduced a new powder, they took their own sweet time. DuPont developed IMR-7828 in the early 1960s for 7mm Remington Magnum factory loads but took well over a decade to start selling it to the public. They didn’t introduce IMR-4831 until Hodgdon finally ran out of its old military H-4831 in the early 1970s and had to get new 4831 produced.

Because of this relative lack of powders, I eventually settled on maybe half a dozen for all my handloading, including handguns, shotguns and rifles. They all went bang and punctured targets and game. These included H-4831, IMR-4350, IMR-4895, Red Dot, Blue Dot and 2400, which pretty much covered it. They still pretty much could.

So why do dozens of powders now inhabit my loading room, most of which I’ve not even tried? Partly because manufacturers send them to me, and partly because many work better than the old standbys.

Let’s list what smokeless powder should do, no matter the firearm. It should obtain optimum velocity, whether we’re hunting in 80-degree heat or near-zero cold. It should burn cleanly, so accuracy and patterns remain consistent, and we don’t have to spend hours pushing sludge from our barrels. It should be able to do a good job in several cartridges and flow reasonably well through a powder measure, saving us bench-time.

Those elements divide many of the old standbys from newer powders - and have even changed some of the old standbys. I bought the last two pounds of surplus H-4831 in eastern Montana in a tank-town hardware store in 1973, if memory serves, for $2.25 a can. The powder worked, but its granules were nearly the size of fence posts - or at least they seemed that way in a powder measure, or when seating a 130-grain bullet in a .270 Winchester case. Often the same load shot to a different point of impact during a November mule deer hunt than when sighted in on a September morning. A few years later, I bought my first chronograph and found out why: Those .270 loads lost about 150 fps between 70 degrees and zero.

Aside from burning rate, today’s H-4831 Short Cut is an entirely different powder. Its granules are indeed short, so with care it meters acceptably, and you don’t have to sit on the press handle to seat 130-grain .270 bullets. It burns cleaner than the old stuff and won’t lose 10 fps when the temperature drops to zero.


Good changes have been made in other “old” powders. New Unique burns much cleaner than the old, and the latest version of Reloder 15 is about as temperature-steady as the Hodgdon Extremes.

Some new powders are genuine breakthroughs. The Ramshot line of ball powders is most impressive. Ball powders are cheaper to manufacture and flow nicely through a measure, the reason a lot of factory ammunition is loaded with ball. Handloaders use ball powders for the same reasons but generally regard them as dirty-burning and temperature-sensitive.

The Ramshot powders are clean-burning. I’ve been using 26 grains of Ramshot TAC and a 50-grain Ballistic Tip as my standard .223 Remington load for three years now. This summer I ran almost 450 rounds through my heavy-barreled Remington Model 700 during a two-day prairie dog shoot without cleaning the barrel. Then I went home and shot a five-shot, .56-inch group over the benchrest, which is how cartridges produced on my RCBS Piggyback machine always group. Then I cleaned the barrel, taking half a dozen patches of Hoppe’s to get rid of the powder fouling.

With the older ball powder I used to load, bullets would have started spraying all over the landscape within 100 rounds, and deep excavation would be required to remove the soot. Like the “new” Reloder 15, the Ramshot powders are nearly as temperature-stable as the Hodgdon Extremes, the reason TAC, Big Game and Magnum are now the powders of choice for a dozen hunting loads.

I still use quite a lot of IMR-4895 and IMR-4350, because they’re both accurate and flexible. But IMR-4895 velocities still vary considerably with temperature, and IMR-4350 still has granules like fence posts. Quite often TAC or RL-15 are tried in situations where IMR cans used to come off the shelf, and H-4350 and Ramshot Big Game often substitute for IMR-4350.

Sometimes there do seem to be too many powders - until you try something better.

Norma 205 may have disappeared, but other Norma components are still available. I reported on its Oryx bullet in the last issue and will be reporting on its powders in the future, but am most impressed by Norma brass, which always gets high ratings among the target-shooting crowd. Its weight, neck thickness, primer pocket and flash-hole dimensions are always very consistent, and cases normally arrive without the amoeba-shaped case mouths typical of American bulk brass. Normally you can just chamfer lightly and load ‘em up. I did just that with 60 rounds of .30-06 brass that went to Africa this spring, loading 180-grain Nosler Partitions over 59 grains of Reloder 19. The ammunition grouped consistently under an inch, even in the generous factory chamber of my Remington Model 700.

Norma brass comes in all the usual suspects, from .223 Remington to .338 Winchester Magnum, but is also available in some older cartridges that are starting to live again, such as the 9.3x62 Mauser and .416 Rigby. I’ve used it in both cartridges, again with excellent results. Norma cases cost more than most, which generally happens when you go first-class, but 100 9.3x62 cases will last me a long time.

Norma products are available through several major distributors in the U.S. For a catalog contact MidwayUSA, 1-800-243-3220, or Graf & Sons (4050 S. Clark, Mexico MO 65265). In Canada try R. Nicholls Distributors Inc. (2475 Rue de la Province, Longueuil, QC J4G 1G3; toll-free phone 1-888-442-9215).

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