Developing the ideal load for your individual needs and firearm is the most challenging part of the reloading process. In this article I’ll cover the process that I have used to get to that “sweet spot” for my own reloaded pistol ammunition.
The First Step
Whilst it may seem an obvious step, actually determining your priorities for the “ideal” load is essential. Unless you know the destination, it’s difficult to know when you have arrived.
Based on one of my earlier articles which addressed the reasons why you would want to reload, here are the three main objectives that I see as most likely to drive your “ideal” load decisions.
- requirement to feed and extract reliably (semi-autos).
- make the minimum power factor for competition use.
- accurately reproduce the characteristics of your factory made personal defense rounds.
For competition use, power factor is often specified in the rules of the match. Depending on the match, and even the category within the match, the minimum power factor may vary. Power factors as low as 60 000 grain feet/second, to as high as 180 000 grain feet/second are standard. So, if you are loading for a competition, you need to know what the rules specify for power factor, and load to that power factor.
If range practice for self defense is your priority, then knowing the power factor of your factory ammunition is essential. The most effective way of determining this is with a chronograph, which I covered in an earlier article. I’d suggest running at least 10 rounds of your factory ammunition through a chronograph in order to get an accurate measurement of muzzle velocity, and hence power factor. With this knowledge, you can start to adjust your own reloaded ammunition to mimic the performance of your factory rounds. In this case, getting the power factor of your reloads to match the power factor of your factory ammunition is the goal.
Maximum and Minimum Loads
Reloading tables will invariably specify a maximum powder load for a particular combination of caliber and projectile type/weight, and may provide a starting load as a guide. Where a starting load isn’t specified, try starting with about 75% of the maximum load. If that is too much, you can always reduce further. NEVER exceed the maximum recommended powder loads.
There’s a lot said about reloading for accuracy. Here’s the problem. If you load towards the maximum end of the power factor scale, the muzzle velocity is also at a maximum, which means the time of flight of the projectile to the target is minimized, i.e., the effect of gravity and wind is minimised, the trajectory is flatter and, in theory, you have a more accurate round. However, on the negative side, maximum loads produce larger recoil which makes handling the firearm more difficult and may compromise accuracy.
At the other end of the scale, lighter loads reduce recoil but will have longer time of flight to target times, increasing the effect of gravity and wind.
Somewhere in the middle is the ideal load for you—the emphasis being on YOU, as this becomes a somewhat personal decision. The specific firearm and your own ability to control the recoil will be the determining factors here.
Revolver and Semi-Auto Pistol Considerations
Revolvers are great because pretty much any round with a powder charge in it will fire and clear the barrel. At lower power factors and longer ranges, it may be somewhat inaccurate, but it will work.
Semi-autos on the other hand can be very sensitive to low power factor ammunition. Misfeeds, poor extraction and “stovepipe” jams are all a possible consequence of low power factor ammunition. From my experience, factory produced ammunition for semi-autos will produce power factors between 150 000 and 180 000 grain feet/second. Reloading within this range, but NEVER exceeding maximum powder charge values should yield reliable performance. It may also be necessary to vary projectile type/weight and associated powder charge to get reliable performing rounds.
Having determined a starting powder load and an idea of how your ideal load will perform, the next step will be to load up some ammunition. What I tend to do is load about 10 rounds at my starting load point and run these through my chronograph to see how they are performing. If they are too low in power factor, it is a matter of gradually increasing the powder charge until you get the performance you have identified as your ideal load. Generally increasing by 0.1 grain of powder at a time is a good way to go, but can take a lot of time, particularly if your starting load is producing well below your desired performance. Initially, it may be necessary to increment by a larger amount (say 0.2-0.5 grain at a time) until you get close to the ideal load point, and then increase by 0.1 grain at a time to fine tune the load.
Alternatively, you could load 10 rounds at each powder charge point (0.1 grains apart) between the starting load and maximum load and run these all through the chronograph at the same time. You may end up firing a lot of rounds with the wrong power factor, but it will cut down the time to determine your ideal load.
For example, if your starting powder charge is 4.5 grains, and the maximum specified is 6.0 grains, try loading 10 rounds at 4.5, 10 at 4.6, 10 at 4.7 etc up to the maximum of 6.0. Run these all through the chronograph, ensuring you keep the results for each separate. You should now have enough information to identify which of the reloaded rounds most closely gave the power factor you were after.
Of course, if you are reloading for a semi-auto pistol, the reliability of feed and extraction at each powder load point will also be important.
A Final Tip
Ammunition performance may vary depending on the ambient temperature of the day. Whilst this is mostly relevant for meeting power factor during competition, it is also relevant to semi-auto shooters who want reliable operation.
On cold days, power factor tends to decrease somewhat. The amount of decrease will depend on the temperature and the type of powder being used. During competitions, I have even seen some shooters warming their ammunition in the sun before having it checked for power factor.
Once you have determined the appropriate amount of powder to meet a specific power factor, it is advisable to increase the powder charge sufficient to increase the power factor by around 5%, e.g., if you are aiming for a power factor of 120 000, increase the powder charge until you achieve 120 000 + 5%, that is 126 000. This will make sure you always have sufficient margin over the minimum desired power factor irrespective of the temperature of the day. Of course, whilst increasing the powder charge, NEVER exceed the maximum recommended powder charge.
Having now covered all the basics of reloading, I’m going to backtrack and pick up some of the comments and questions I have received along the way, starting with the issue of crimping.