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Reloading your own ammo comes with lots of decisions. You need to pick out casings, a press, and dies to go with them. But you’ll also need to get a good powder to fill with shells with. After all, it’s not a bullet if it doesn’t actually explode out of your weapon!
Many reloaders just starting out have no idea how to choose a powder for reloading. That’s why we put this guide together. By the end, you should have a good sense of what powders are used for which bullets and which ones will likely be good for your needs. Let’s begin.
Single or Double base
Originally, firearms used black powder, which is still the most consistent burning gunpowder used for firearms around the world. However, this earliest form of gunpowder is extremely corrosive and will eventually lower the effectiveness and durability of any gun.
Thus, 1869 saw the invention of smokeless gun powder, which is the variant you can most often find and purchase today. In the modern era, there are two types of smokeless gun Powder: single or double base. Single base gun powder is made from a compound called nitrocellulose, whereas double base smokeless powder is made from nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin combined.
The difference between the two powder types isn’t that extreme, although double base powders generally burn a little hotter and dirtier than their single base counterparts. In essence, double base powders can help you achieve extra velocity although they will be harder on your gun barrel.
To alleviate corrosion concerns and maximize velocity even better, smokeless gun powder is usually made with graphite, along with various other chemicals to make them functioning even if they become wet and to reduce muzzle flash and burning.
We’re telling you all this so you understand that changing the chemical composition of smokeless gun Powder can alter how the powder burns, how fast it burns down, and other aspects that you may need to consider when reloading your own ammunition.
Also known as “burn rate”, this is one of the aspects that is most often customized by gunpowder manufacturers. It’s what separates different powders for different cartridges or types of firearm. The burn rate describes how quickly the gunpowder ignites while still within your gun barrel. To you shooting the weapon, it may seem that all gunpowder ignites and explodes relatively instantaneously, but there are differences in burn rate between different powder products.
It becomes a little tricky to compare different powder burn rates against one another, however, since there isn’t a single standardized metric. You have to read guides (like this one) or experiment with different powder results in order to figure out which burn rate will truly be best for your weapon.
But you can still make some generalizations. For instance, fast-burning powders give off an incredible amount of energy in a short amount of time and distance. This means that they are best suited for weapons with shorter barrels, like pistols. In essence, the explosion of a fast-burning powder happens more quickly than the explosion of a slow-burning powder.
This normally results in more recoil at the beginning of the explosion as high pressure is released within the fire chamber. This controls most of the pressure at the beginning of the firing sequence rather than the end.
On the flip side, slow-burning powder completes an explosion after the bullet is ejected from a longer barrel. This type of powder also maintains the same amount of pressure from the beginning of the firing sequence to the end; this results in most of the pressure being expelled at the end of the chamber and lowers recoil relative to the sides of the cartridge. Basically, slow-burning powders push bullets further and faster and utilize more energy than fast-burning powders.
The nature of different powder burn rate affects which weapon they are best suited for.
For instance, most pistol powders are fast burning and double base. These are similar to shotgun powders because they utilize the extra energy at the beginning of the firing sequence to kick off a projectile with enough accuracy and stopping power to make them worthwhile. Recoil for handguns is often (comparatively) high compared to rifles, though recoil is also handled differently due to the overall design of the weapons.
On the other hand, most rifles use a slower burning powder that is designed to accelerate a bullet down the entire barrel before fizzling out. This means that they benefit from the extra velocity and minimal pressure of the powder type in order to send a round across a much greater distance and with even better accuracy compared to most pistols.
What About Magnum?
Many reloaders often wonder what types of powder they should use for Magnum bullets, regardless of whether they are being fed into rifles or pistols. Magnum bullets are larger and are generally used for extra stopping power or penetrative capability. That means they need extra power to successfully accelerate the maximum velocity and punch through your target.
As a result, most Magnum cartridges will use slow-burning powders, as they benefit from the top pressure that is maintained over a longer timeframe. Even Magnum pistols will be more effective if you combine them with a slow-burning powder compared to most other pistol rounds.
Some cartridges are better set up to take certain types of gun powders based on how much room they have inside their cases. For instance, large cases with lots of capacity can take more powder than smaller cases that only have a little room.
It would be a waste to combine a large capacity case with fast-burning powder that will blow off most of its energy at the beginning of the firing sequence. Instead, bigger cartridges like .308 Winchester will benefit from slow-burning powder that you can use more of for every bullet. In fact, many larger cartridges are designed with this type of powder loading philosophy in mind and will not work properly if you try to use a fast burning powder instead.
Similarly, smaller rounds like 9 mm will benefit from fast burning powders, particularly if you combine them with a great pistol.
Bullet weight also plays a role in a similar fashion. Larger bullets need more energy and pressure to successfully propel them out of the firearm and carry them to their target with the best velocity and accuracy. That means you should probably load them with slow-burning powders that can deliver extra explosive energy rather than fast-burning powders that dissipate much of their blast early in the firing sequence.
Lighter bullets, like 110-grain varieties, will work well with fast burning powder and can even achieve their maximum velocity with this powder type.
Other Things to Consider
While the properties of a smokeless powder are certainly important to consider, you should also keep their other aspects in mind which may affect your experience. For instance, some powder is relatively easy to store or may be treated with certain chemicals or additives to make it resistant to water damage. These powders might be helpful if you live in a naturally humid environment or if you don’t have particularly good storage conditions.
You should also think about how much powder you get per dollar spent. You’ll need to spend more money to fill the same number of slow-burning cartridges then you would for fast-burning cartridges. This will eventually end up affecting your total asking price for filling your entire brass casing batch.
Many reloaders that do this for a hobby will end up purchasing a decent but affordable powder for their bulk brass casings, which they use for general fun at the range or backyard plinking. But they may pick up a higher quality powder and not a lot of it for target practice competitions when they want the best performance possible for their sharpshooter rifle.
Of course, the amount of powder you purchase also affects how much you can store. Before you buy a bunch of new powder, make sure you have place to keep it. Otherwise, you might end up wasting tons of cash buying boxes of powder only for it to become wet and ruined during a rainy day. We’d recommend buying just the powder you need rather than stocking up too much.
Finally, some powders perform better under different temperature conditions. In fact, many reloaders have to learn the hard way that carefully putting together a cartridge and firing it in weather that’s too hot for the powder to handle will result in disappointment.
Gunpowder is susceptible to different performance depending on the temperature. If you develop a batch of hand-loaded cartridges at a certain temperature, particularly if the temperature is cold, firing those cartridges under extreme heat will cause pressure spike. This can cause the brass casing to bulge when fired or is can affect how well the gunpowder provides velocity for your bullet.
Some gunpowder brands are better at withstanding temperature variation than others; some need to be used within a narrow temperature band, so they might only be good for certain target practice scenarios.
Regardless, pay attention to the recommended temperatures listed on any given gunpowder product. This will let you know if it’s a great powder to use in the middle of July in a hot desert or if it’s best to save that powder for a springtime target practice competition.
Extra Powder Loading Tips
There are several rules of thumb you can follow in order to select excellent powder for your cartridges.
For starters, you always want to fill your powder charge with as much powder as possible; this lowers the air within the charge and improves your accuracy. Therefore, you should always buy enough powder to fill all the cartridges you want to reload.
For slow-burning powders, you’ll necessarily need to buy more powder per bullet reloaded than fast-burning powders. This is one reason why fast-burning powders tend to be more economical than slow-burning ones.
At the same time, don’t buy a powder that you have to compress just to get good performance. Compressed loads are risky in general, even if you’re experienced, because compression can cause the brass case to bulge or burst. This is one way jams can occur within firearms.
How to Know Which Powder and How Much For a Cartridge?
Many powder manufacturers also make reloading guides that have their best understandings of powder weight, charge, burn time, etc. You can also find online guides like LoadData, which is an online database where you can search for reloading data by caliber, powder type, and more.
All this is to say that there’s lots of discussion about ideal powder loads, which powders are best for which cartridge, and other aspects. Most reloaders end up having their own opinions on the discussion as they practice with reloading and get to experiment with different powder types. You’ll need to try out some powders for yourself to see what we mean!
Don’t Forget Consistency!
Regardless of which powder you choose to use for your reloading session, remember that every cartridge case needs to be charged with the same amount of powder. This may involve weighing every single charge by hand or using an electronic powder dispenser that won’t make any mistakes when it comes to powder measurements.
In fact, this is so crucial that we would recommend anyone aiming for ideal reloading results use a dedicated powder measure instead of trying to get things right by hand. The precision and ease of use that a powder measure and scale provide are simply incomparable versus the alternative.
In the end, the best powder for reloading depends on your cartridge type, gun type, personal preferences, environment, and more. There’s no one perfect powder for every circumstance. But with the right foresight and the tips above, you should be able to pick out a great powder that’ll serve you well for your rifle, pistol, or another firearm. Thanks for reading!
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