Much is made of the mystery of powder charges in handloading, it's actually the simplest step in the process. It's simply a matter of deciding what a particular load is for, deciding on the appropriate bullet and then picking the powder charge off the menu in the manual(s). Set the powder measure, check the charge weight that it actually throws, and we're in business. Handgun ammo is ridiculously easy with the Lee Autodisc Powder Measure. When used with the Lee Powder through expander Die the measure drops the charge right through the die as it bells the mouth of the case so we can start the bullet. Once my measure and die are set I can charge fifty cases and inspect them while the top of the hour news is on the radio and have a start on putting bullets in the cases before Rush comes back on.
Let's start with our favorite handgun. Mine is the .357 Magnum but it doesn't matter. The process is exactly the same for any cartridge. What do I want my loads to do? Well, I want a nice, easy on the hand and ear load for just plinking, informal target shooting and maybe teaching new shooters. I'll be burning up a lot of this ammo so economy is a priority, as is mild muzzle blast and fairly mild recoil. This means a cast or swaged lead bullet and a fairly small charge of fast burning pistol powder. Velocity isn't an issue as long as it's fast enough to get to the target before I'm tired of waiting around.
I also want a hunting load. My mild load is fine for small game but I want something that will put venison in the freezer. This calls for a heavily-constructed bullet and the highest velocity I can get with good accuracy. Since the .357 is a fairly small bullet, I'd like some expansion, on our smallish Texas Whitetails, this might be the Hornaday XPT Hollowpoint in 158 grains. For a bigger critter, like a Mulie, maybe the same weight Speer or Hornaday Jacketed Soft Points.
Last, I want a defense load. In today's climate most authorities insist on using factory ammo in a defense gun. I'm not going to argue about it. I'll just note that factory ammo is too expensive to practice with, so, whether or not I choose to carry factory ammo, I want a handload that recoils the same, has the same kind of muzzle blast and hits to the same point. That's not difficult, my preferred load in a service-sized revolver is the Federal 357B, their 125 grain jacketed hollow point at 1450 fps from the normal four inch barrel. The manuals are full of loads like that, 125 gr. at 1450 fps. It's not particularly difficult to find one that shoots and feels like the factory.
Note: At top pressures the load recipe should be followed exactly. The further away from the max load we are, the more we can change bullets, cases and primers.If I'm at the starting load of almost any recipe it is perfectly safe to use my own home-cast bullet of the same weight in place of a particular bulletmaker's swaged lead bullet, for instance. There will be a pressure and velocity difference. At starting pressures it won't be enough to cause safety issues. Once we get to the maximum loads we back down if we must change any component. They all have an impact on pressure, primers, cartridge case and changing bullets of the same weight. It's actually quite rare that changing from one bullet or primer to another will have disastrous results. It only takes once. Never change any component of a maximum load without dropping to the starting load and working back up.
So, lets open up a couple of manuals and see what we have to choose from...Hmm, my mild load is a 158 gr. cast bullet, , I'd like the velocity somewhere between 800 FPS and 1000 fps. My Hornaday Manual doesn't have cast bullets but does have swaged lead, close enough. Hmmm, seven powders to choose from. Nosler and manuals, no cast or swaged. Skip them. Speer Manual, wow. Six powders to choose from plus 14 (with some duplication) in .38 Special PlusP. Awk! An embarrassment of riches! Lyman Manual? Nine powders, fortunately some outside my velocity range. My Hodgdon Manual? Five powders, plus six with the same weight bullet in .38. I can go on, I've a LOT of manuals. Assume that I look in every manual I have, plus the websites. I come up with a bewildering array of powders, so now what?
Let's start by ignoring all the powders that give a higher listed velocity than what I want. That cuts down on the list some. Now, write down the powders and range of charges from each manual and website. Speer has Bullseye from 3.5 grains to 4.8. It's got others, too. Write them down, go to the next source of data, write them down. Once we've mined the data, let's look for the powders listed most often in our velocity range. This gets a little confusing sine the bullet makers list different kinds of powders and only their bullets and the powder makers list only their powders and different kinds of bullets. Don't let it bother you. Just make the list.
Now take that list and check off the duplications. If every bullet and bullet mould maker says that Alliant's Bullseye will give us what we want, it's a pretty good place to start looking, right? We aren't quite done yet, though, so we continue with the list. Since economy is important, lets look at the charge weights. Powder is sold by the pound and mostly costs pretty much the same per pound. Another Alliant Powder that fits our velocity window is Unique. Hmmm, same velocity window with a charge range of 4.7 grains to 6.0 grains. All else being equal the per charge cost of our handloads is going to be half again as much. Let's put Bull higher on the list than Unique. We're trying to save money, right? The only reasons to use a less economical powder charge are if we're loading for several cartridges and one powder will fill more slots than another or, if the most economical powder doesn't give acceptable accuracy. Unacceptable accuracy is fairly rare, the folks that write the manuals do a pretty good job of weeding out loads that don't work.
We're almost done choosing our powder. Now it's time to go shopping. Go to the gunshop that stocks powder with your list. It's financial madness to pay the $20.00 Hazmat fee to mailorder a pound of powder. What's on the shelf? There are some GREAT powders that have come out recently, the Ramshot and VhitaVouri lines come to mind. Trouble is, they haven't really the wide distribution that more established brands like Alliant, Winchester, Hodgdon and Accurate Arms. We can mailorder them but there's that pesky Hazmat fee. Don't be afraid to ask if the top powder on the list is one they always stock. It's frustrating to spend time and money working up a load only to find that we can't buy another jug of that powder when we run out. I've quit using Winchester Powders entirely because they keep introducing, and then dropping powders. I know they've kept 231 in their line since Columbus was a cabin boy but they've just ticked me off too many times. Too bad I'm so stubborn, 231 is great powder for light loads.
Now, we've bought our first jug of powder. Set the measure according to the directions and charge the case. Throw that charge back in the hopper, repeat three or four times more. We're settling the powder in the hopper. The first few charges are always erratic. Now, check your charge weight on your scale. It should be fairly close to the starting load. NEVER START WITH A MAXIMUM LISTED LOAD!!! Ever. As we learn to use our powder measure constantly it's a pretty good idea to weigh each charge. Variations on the handle pressure make for variations in the charge weight. As we learn consistency we can go to weighing a sample, say every tenth charge. With the Autodisc powder measure, once I learned consistency I weigh the first and last charge of a box of fifty when I'm not at the ragged edge of max pressure. The more complicated measure I use for my rifle ammo gets checkweighed more often. Once we learn enough consistency to keep our charge weight variation smaller than about two tenths or so of a grain, we're ready for check weighing rather than weighing individual charges. The more expensive electronic scales are well worth the money, they're so much faster and easier to use. The PACT BBK is the most economical of the electronics.
Set each charged case in the loading block. Take a little flashlight and look into each case. Make sure you see a powder charge and that they are all about the same level. It's probably not a good idea to use a match or candle. Note, there will be slight variations in the level between a charge thrown directly from the measure and a weighed charge, even though they weigh the same. It's all in how fast or slow the powder drops as to how it compacts. Trickle the powder very slowly through the funnel and a long drop tube we can get a lot more of the same kind of powder into a case than just throwing it from the measure. Not that this is important on these light loads, it makes a difference on some maximum loads, though. What we are looking for is missing charges or double charges. Slight variation in the charge level is normal. Double charged cases are disasters. It's a good idea to drop a normal charge and a double charge and look at the difference. Just don't forget to dump that double charge.
The process of choosing a powder charge is exaxtly the same, no matter what firearm we are loading for and whether or not we're loading for top velocity, mild recoil or extreme accuracy. We look at all the data we can and start with what seems to work best for the most people. Many sources of data will mention things like the most accurate load tested with each bullet. Beware of any data that seems out of line with other sources. Be especially careful with load data from internet sites like M. D. Waite's and Steve's Pages. I've never found bad data on those two, still I always check their data with other sources. I HAVE found bad data on the Internet, some from typos, some from idiots. I'm not linking websites that have data in this series, this is on purpose. Buy the latest editions of a couple of the big bulletmakers like Speer, Sierra and Hornaday. The bigger powdermakers offer free pamphlet-type manuals, usually available where powder is sold. This data is pressure tested. The data drom my forty+ years of handloading is not. I have data not found in manuals in my notes. I would never share that as it was worked up in individual firearms while I relied on very imprecise and subjective means of jusdging the safety of those loads. I accepted the risks of doing that for myself, I have no right to accept those risks for others.
Once we've shot up a pound or two of powder we can start experimenting. I've gone to Hodgdon's Titegroup for just about all my mild loads, the reasons for that are in the June Achives of this site, titled "Titegroup And LilGun, Two Powders From Hodgdon".
Okay, we're ready to seat the bullets, that's next week. It's a whole lot easier to do the charging of cases than it is to explain how to charge cases. Actually, it's a lot easier to do than to explain pretty much every step of the loading process.