The Folly Of More Powder

Alas, how many times have I seen hand-loaders exceed published loading data until their actions barely opened? And for the sake of a few extra FPS. Then they declare to the world how much more they know than those "wimps" who publish loading manuals.

They describe their ammunition as "maximum handloads." My definition of what has just occurred is "dangerous handloads." My next definition of "dangerous handloads" is when published loading data is exceeded, any time, for any reason, intentional or otherwise.

Yes, you may get away with "more powder" today but in the long run it will come back to haunt you. Let's explore the realm of the sane and insane. Afterwards you can be the jury and you can decide how much "more powder" you want to put in your cases at your next reloading session.

For openers, the upper limit of powder shown in loading manuals is not only based on pressures measured in a ballistics lab, but it takes into account factors that many handloaders don't realize exist. It's not the maximum charge you can use that won't impair you or your rifle. It's the maximum charge that you can use all the time that keeps you out of trouble "no matter what." And here are some "no matter what" situations.

It's Saturday morning and you're at the range with your loading gear working up loads with your favorite rifle powder. The loading manual shows X-grains as the upper limit. You cautiously work up to this charge with no pressure signs.

So now, of course, you go up one more grain, then two grains, then three grains, then four grains and then five grains. But now you back off one grain (things got a little sticky) so you're at X + 4 grains as your so-called "maximum handload" and it works just fine and it's accurate. The ambient temperature is 71°.

Now a friend arrives with a rifle that is the same caliber as yours. You show him this fine group you shot with X + 4 grains and ask him to try this load. Being good friends, he can't refuse. He touches off the first round and immediately comments, "What was in that shell, TNT? I think the primer blew."

Now things go from bad to worse, he can't open the bolt of his favorite rifle. He gives you a look that could kill, and you immediately run his rifle down to the local gunsmith.

Two hours and $50 later you and your friend are back at the range. The gunsmith, thank God, barely got the bolt open and the case extracted. Yes, the primer had blown.

Now you must prove to your friend that the load you gave him was safe in your rifle (the ambient temperature at the range is now 92°). You touch a round off in your rifle and your heart sinks.

First, you notice more recoil than before and second, you can't open your bolt. Your friend is furious, he grabs his gear and leaves. What happened?

For openers, your friend, or former friend, is not so innocent either. He's as much to blame for the problems with his rifle as you are. Perhaps the first lesson we learned here is to NEVER SHOOT SOMEONE ELSE'S HANDLOADS, for MANY reasons.

With your friend's rifle, while your load worked in your rifle in the morning, his chamber dimensions were smaller. Yes, smaller. Surprised? Don't be; variations in chamber dimensions between rifles of the same caliber from different companies can be significant (even from the same company depending on the condition of the chambering reamer). Industry standards for reamer dimensions have enough leeway to cause the above.

One other item regarding chambers — throating. Our handloader's rifle probably had different throat dimensions or a worn throat from thousands of rounds. A rifle with a larger chamber and a worn throat will take heavier loads than will a rifle with a tight chamber and a good throat.

What happened to our friend in the afternoon? Why did his rifle jam from the same loads that worked in the morning? The answer is simple, AMBIENT TEMPERATURE. That's right, this is a good thing to remember, especially if you'll be where temperatures are high like in Africa or prairie dog hunting on the western prairies in the summer.

As the ambient temperature rises, so can the chamber pressure for any given load. This is also why factory ammunition is loaded to the levels it is. Manufacturers have no control over shooting temperature conditions.

CAUTION: Don't leave ammunition on the dash of your rig. It can heat up significantly in warm weather and, even if it doesn't jam your rifle, it can cause your point of impact to change on long shots. This is due to higher velocities caused by higher chamber pressures from higher ambient temperatures.

Let's look at a reversed scenario that happened to me. I was getting ready to hunt in Montana and worked up loads using the upper limits of published data in my 7mm Remington Magnum; the ambient temperature was 85°; when I got to Montana it was 12°.

When I sighted my rifle in, I had a big surprise. My point of impact was way off and the recoil was much less. This was due to the cold temperature that slowed the burning rate of the powder.

Hopefully, so far, the above has pointed out some of the pitfalls, of a "maximum handload" mentality; but they're only the tip of the iceberg. Many other common handloading scenarios exist that will send your rifle with "maximum handloads" to the gunsmith.

POWDERS: You've been using the X + 4 grains with no problems. You run out of your present supply and buy some more. Now you head for the range with X + 4 grains from this new lot and touch one off. Guess what — you jammed the bolt again. What happened this time?

Simple, you got a lot of powder with a slightly faster burning rate. Since you were borderline in the first place, this put you over the edge. Remember, powders, like chamber dimensions, have acceptable (to the manufacturer) variations in burning rates from lot to lot. Velocities can vary as much as 200 FPS between lots of the same powders when holding all other components constant.

PRIMERS: The same problems exist with primers from the same manufacture, as you change lots. Or even worse, ifyou change makes. Between Remington, Winchester, Federal and CCI, their primers will all give different chamber pressures and velocities with the same powder charge.

BRASS: Even though cases have the same external dimensions, different makes of brass, for the same caliber, won't give you the same pressures — they have different internal volumes.

Take three makes of brass in the same caliber and prime them with spent primers. Weigh each case separately; you'll have three different weights, thus showing a difference in their internal dimensions — wall thickness.

Now fill each case to the mouth with water and weigh them. Then subtract the weight of the empty case from the weight of the case when full of water. You'll have different water weights. This again verifies that differences do exist in internal volumes between case manufacturers.

So, you say, what does this mean to me? Plenty! Ifyou're working with the brand of cases that has the largest water capacity and suddenly switched to the cases with the smallest water capacity — using "maximum handloads," you guessed it, it's gunsmith time again. Burning a given quantity of powder, X + 4 grains in a case with a smaller volume can send pressures over the edge.

That's not all you have to remember regarding cases. If you change lots of brass, even though you stay with the same make of brass you run the same risk due to differences in tooling from lot to lot.

Some years back I was using old .348 Winchester brass. I switched over to new cases and compared their water capacities. There were 13 grains difference between the old and new, the old brass having the greater capacities.

Concerning "maximum handloads" and BULLETS. You're using our infamous load of X + 4 grains and a Speer 140-grain, 7mm bullet; you run out of them and can only find Hornady 140-grain bullets. Now your first round jams your rifle, and it was because of THE OGIVE FACTOR: The bullet had a shorter ogive and engaged the rifling sooner. This is a great one for running up pressures.

In closing, let me leave you with some thoughts that plague me. Why do so many handloaders/hunters attempt to effect "maximum handloads?" Obviously, they perceive a greater striking velocity on game and flatter trajectories.

As a hunting guide for the last nine years, I usually ask myself the same $64,000 question every morning. At what range will we take game today?

And herein lies the further folly of "more powder." At reasonable hunting ranges, if an animal can detect the difference between being hit by a bullet loaded with published data or X + 4 grains of powder, I'll eat my hat.

Trajectory boys, chronograph your loads with published data and your X + 4 grains and then compare trajectories with the data in your loading manual. I think you'll be embarrassed at the small difference.

Published loads drive a 140-grain bullet in a 7mm Remington Magnum at approximately 3,100 FPS. Four more grains increases velocities by 150 FPS and this only extends the "maximum point blank range" by 8 yards and reduces bullet drop .2 inch when sighted in at 250 yards. Is it worth it?

AN INTERESTING STATISTICAL SCENARIO: You chronograph your "maximum handloads", the average is, from a five-shot string, 3,250 FPS. But that's only an average. It's made up of five separate shots: 2,950 FPS, 3,400 FPS, 3,225 FPS, 3,375 FPS and 3,300 FPS. This shot-to-shot velocity variation is common. Tell me if you can Mr. "maximum handloader," the next shot you take at an animal, what will be the muzzle velocity of what particular round? Will it be 2,950 FPS or 3,400 FPS?

Remember, the companies that publish loading data are on your side. The moral of this story is, STAY WITH PUBLISHED LOADING DATA. It's intended to keep you safe.

— John Kronfeld

Hunting Mastery Selected Tips

Hunting Mastery Selected Tips

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