September 24, 2010
A guide to choosing the right slugs for handloading.
Full-metal-jacket bullets are reliable and easy to reload, but for economical shooting, bulk cast or swaged bullets are the way to go.
I started reloading for two very good reasons: I was a kid who couldn't afford factory ammo and factory ammo was wildly inaccurate in my reproduction .44-40 Single Action Army. Those two reasons--the high cost of factory ammo and the ability to load ammo for a specific gun/purpose--still stand as the primary ones for me.
I like to shoot in small-time action-pistol matches, and I can't afford to buy nearly enough ammo to practice and compete with. A progressive reloading press and bulk-purchased cast bullets solve that. There are good choices for ranges that require bullets with no exposed lead, too. More on that later.
I also like to shoot high-performance handgun loads, whether it be .357 Magnum silhouette-type loads or .500 S&W Magnum hunting loads. Some of these are simply not available in factory ammo, and those that are typically cost a great deal. So I handload.
Factory ammo for some cartridges is very expensive. It's much cheaper to reload high-performance ammo. From left: .44 Magnum, .454 Casull, .460 S&W Magnum, .480 Ruger, .500 Linebaugh and .500 S&W Magnum.
Also, in some cases, one must reload to attain acceptable accuracy. That .44-40 is a good example. It had some real problems, primarily the fact that it had a standard .429-inch-bore barrel instead of the .427-inch bore diameter called for in .44-40 cartridge specs. So factory loads with the proper .427 diameter wouldn't shoot well at all, but once I slugged the bore and discovered the true bore diameter, I realized I could safely handload .429 and .430 bullets. The gun shoots them like a champ.
Bullet choice is a big part of concocting handloads for handguns. And there are so many choices out there that it can become mind-boggling.
The best approach I've found is to identify the critical aspect of the loads intended purpose. Is it for practice--a lot of practice--only? Do you intend to compete with it? What kind of competition? Or is it going to be called on to expand reliably and penetrate deeply on a big, heavy-boned game animal, possibly at long range?
I should note here that I don't handload self-defense ammo, primarily for liability reasons. If, heaven forbid, I ever do have to use deadly force to defend myself or loved ones, I don't want a prosecutor labeling me a nut who builds special "man-killer" loads.
The biggest quantity of handgun ammo is loaded for practice, plinking and competing. But even here, certain stipulations apply. For instance, reliability isn't that important when plinking, but in competition a jammed pistol can mean the difference between winning and losing. Also, some ranges prohibit bullets with exposed lead.
When choosing a bullet for this category, which in my case is primarily limited to action-pistol shooting, I tend to start with a bullet in the mid- to upper weight range. In some semiautos, they seem to function better than the light-for-caliber versions.
I like lead bullets, and I'll usually choose a design with nice clean lines on its nose. I've always felt that when it comes to reliability, any edge that can catch on something will. So I like roundnoses for semiautos and for revolvers that will be loaded with a speedloader.
Some shooters are concerned with the leading problem often associated with lead bullets. With correct bullet choice, it shouldn't be an issue. Assuming a proper-diameter bullet, the most important factor is velocity, and bullet type must be matched to a suitable velocity.
For accurate, inexpensive revolver practice, it's hard to beat Hornady's hollow-base wadcutters from a .38. For a bit more distance, load Sierra's 170-grain silhouette bullets in your .357 Magnum.
Swaged (cold formed) lead bullets shouldn't be pushed much over 1,000 or 1,100 fps, and I prefer to keep velocities under 900 fps with them. Cartridges such the .45 ACP and .38 Special, combined with a bullet in the mid- to upper weight range, are perfect candidates for those velocities.
When you step up in velocity to anything in the 1,100 to 1,600 fps range, you need a hard-alloy cast bullet. The alloys necessary to make a bullet hard enough to withstand these velocities are too hard to be swaged from cold stock. Most revolver and some semiauto cartridges--such as the 9mm--fall into this category.
If you intend to push cast bullets faster than about 1,600 fps, you need a hard-cast bullet with a gas check. Basically a very short copper cup that crimps on over the base of the bullet, it protects the base from hot gases and lessens the effect of dramatically increased friction. A gas check will allow you to shoot cast bullets at well over 2,000 fps.
For cartridges that will likely be loaded in bulk for competition, the author prefers smooth-contoured roundnose bullets.
Grease grooves and crimping grooves can play an important part in choosing a cast bullet, especially the crimping groove. Grease grooves simply provide lubricant to help avoid excessive fouling and leading, but occasionally, on multiple-groove bullets, the forward grease groove also acts as the crimping groove.
Cast bullets, by nature, seem to grip the inside walls of the cartridge case quite well--better than jacketed bullets do. And some light-recoiling calibers may not call for a crimp.
However, a crimp should be used--in broad terms--with almost all handgun handloads, and the crimping groove must be in the correct place on the bullet shank to allow the bullet to be loaded to correct overall length.
How do you tell? The most reliable method is to measure the bullet with a caliper. If you know the correct overall length parameters of the cartridge you're loading, simply subtract the correct case length, and the remainder should roughly equal the distance from the forward edge of the crimping groove to the nose of the bullet.
Bullets for semiauto pistol calibers often don't have a crimping groove. This is because many such calibers headspace on the mouth of the case, and should a well-meaning handloader aggressively crimp the mouth of the case into a groove, it would cause excessive headspace--and that's bad.
In most cases, it's best to give cartridges that headspace on the mouth of the case only a mild crimp. If no crimping groove is present, the mouth of the case will simply press into the shank of the bullet slightly.
Don't get too hung up on the groove issue though. If a bullet is designated for a particular caliber, the groove--if present--will almost always be located correctly.
If a bullet with no exposed lead is called for when building practice, plinking and/or competition ammo, I really like Berry's plated bullets. Less expensive than jacketed bullets, they shoot well and feed well in most pistols. They don't lead your bore, and they're available in bulk. My friends and I have shot literally thousands downrange with no issues.
I also like full metal jacket bullets very much, but they start to get expensive--not as expensive as hollowpoints but too expensive to fuel my shooting addiction. I do use them, but not extensively.
Handgun bullets usually require a crimp -- especially heavy-recoiling magnums -- and crimp grooves must be in the right place. Some bullets have dual crimping grooves to accommodate various cartridge overall lengths.
As far as loading semiauto pistol ammo with hollowpoints, I almost never do. The calibers involved aren't usually powerful enough for hunting big game, so really the only purpose is for self-defense. And as I said, I don't use handloads for self-defense.
However, I do load hollowpoints and softnose designs for several revolver calibers, typically in magnums I intend to hunt with. For the .357 Magnum, the generally accepted minimum caliber for deer-size game, I like heavy-for-caliber projectiles, such as Hornady's 180-grain XTP or Nosler's top-notch 180-grain Partition, that are designed specifically for hunting.
As cartridge size becomes bigger, gaining appropriate bullet weight becomes less of an issue, and appropriate choices become much broader.
Many of the bigger revolver cartridges are specialized to the point that it's worthless to load anything but bullets suitable for hunting in them. I like either hard-cast Keith-type lead bullets, flat-nose bullets with very broad meplats or quality jacketed hollowpoints or softnose bullets for use in practically all big-bore revolver loads from .41 Magnum to .500 S&W Magnum.
However, for the combination of long-range accuracy and knockdown power that silhouette shooters require, you need long, streamlined bullets. Handgun silhouette shooters are among the most passionate about high-performance handgun handloads, those designed specifically to carry well and knock over heavy steel ram silhouettes at 200 yards.
And there is merit in loading practice loads for the really big magnums. Firing 50 to 100 full-power rounds through a .500 S&W Magnum in one practice session is an exercise in folly, and it can cause spectacularly bad shooting habits to develop.
If you're interested in lighter loads for the magnums, simply choose a bullet that falls in the lightest category for your caliber, whether cast lead or jacketed, and load with starting charges from a reloading manual.
On today's shooting scene, factory ammunition is becoming so expensive that it's almost out of reach for many of the most active shooters. In calibers like the .500 S&W and other big-bore magnums, cartridges can cost upwards of $2 or $3 a pop. And even basic full-metal-jacket pistol ammo is reaching 20 to 50 cents a shot. That adds up in a hurry during a dedicated practice session or a competition.
With today's myriad choices in inexpensive and high-performance component bullets, there's no better time to get serious about reloading. And who knows? With the right choice of bullet, your handloads might just outperform the factory loads you've been shooting.