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One powder for all handgun loads?

trueblue72That powder has been True Blue for me and I’m going to present my case, both for the guy that only wants to stock a single handgun propellant, as well as an ideal choice for that eager new handloader needing a good powder to start out with.

 

By: Kevin L. Newberry

 

 

 

In the 28 years I’ve been handloading, one of the most frequently asked; hypothetical questions has been, “which powder if you could only have one?” Well, I couldn’t get by with just one powder. I don’t load shot shells, so for me, it would be a minimum of two powders; three if I did load shot shells. One powder that can be used for “all” rarely excels at any one thing. It might even be that if we were faced with such a potentiality, the best choice could be black powder. So let’s narrow our focus. Mine will be on handgun powders.

True Blue is extremely fine-grained.  The grains range in size between .0083" and .0165".

True Blue is extremely fine-grained. The grains range in size between .0083″ and .0165″.

If I could only have one handgun powder? Does that powder exist? In my opinion, it does, just not the one you might typically expect to be mentioned, or what the majority view will be on any reloading forum on the internet. Things were not any different 28 years ago, mainly from legend, and it’s time for that to change. The simple truth is that no single powder can be expected to do everything well, so let’s discuss which one is likely to come the closest for the job description. For some years now, that powder has been True Blue for me and I’m going to present my case, both for the guy that only wants to stock a single handgun propellant, as well as an ideal choice for that eager new handloader needing a good powder to start out with.

In my case, I’ve never selected any powder based on round count economics and we all know that there are 7000 grains in a pound of gunpowder. Obviously, I’m not just starting out and I stock a pretty fair number of handgun and rifle propellants. Nonetheless, I have found with my own handloads that True Blue can be the best powder choice in some applications such as jacketed hollowpoint loads in .45 ACP and it’s a good choice to use as an example for why there is no single powder that can do it all. For those that might want to push a bullet to the velocity extreme at the cartridge’s maximum pressure rating, there might be a better choice. On the other hand, guys that like to load cast lead semi-wad cutters, at 800 FPS or less, will likely have better luck with a faster burning powder with less velocity potential. However, that isn’t to say that you can’t make very good loads with True Blue. Regardless of bullet material, I have yet to find one that didn’t give excellent accuracy along with single-digit standard deviations whether cast lead, poly-coated or a JHP. For the vast majority of handloaders, data shows that True Blue will provide as much velocity as you’ll likely need for a JHP. I don’t load FMJ, myself, choosing to use a similar shaped cast lead or poly-coated bullet instead, and there are economic factors involved. But, this is also the case for specialty loads in any caliber and why most of us use multiple powders.

SR972Not too long ago when I started working with poly-coated lead bullets, I decided to work up a 9 x 19mm load with a 125 gr. round-nose SWC using True Blue. What I mean by RN-SWC is a bullet that has a smaller diameter shank above the shoulder than the shank below the shoulder, along with a rounded ogive and nose. This type of bullet typically allows for a longer overall cartridge length, although that isn’t an issue for the Ruger SR9 that I tested with. Barrel length is 4.14” and I used an OCL of 1.142”/29mm. Because of the longer cartridge length I knew I had some room to spare for the powder charge. In working up to 1122 FPS, the load is very accurate and a ten-shot string over my Pro Chrono revealed an extreme spread of 12 FPS with standard deviation at 3. In my experience, finding excellent accuracy with low standard deviations is relatively easy to do with the 9 x 19mm or the .40 S&W. In fact, the most accurate loads I ever developed for the .40 S&W were charged with True Blue. Considering the number of different powders I tried since its introduction in 1990, I was definitely impressed. My load development started after reading an excellent article in Gun World magazine where the topic was .40 S&W accuracy where it’s reloading editor showed True Blue giving the best accuracy overall.

TB357772I will say that a slightly different condition exists with large capacity revolver cartridges starting with the .357 Magnum. For full power hunting loads in .357 & .41 Magnum I’ve had very good results with Accurate #9. For just a bit more velocity at a slightly slower burn rate I have moved on to Enforcer. Hopefully, the folks at Western won’t mind too much if I tell you that Enforcer and Accurate 4100 are identical powders. Some of you may have noticed identical data from Western and I’d rather not have you confused like the case that once existed before handloaders learned that H110 and W296 are the same powder where older data and pressure ratings did not reflect such. True Blue can do very well in the low pressure, large capacity cases of the .44 Special and .45 Colt. Rob Behr recently authored a fine article on powder positioning that I suggest everyone give a read. True Blue can also be used, as you’ll see in the 30,000 PSI .45 Colt data. It’s very good in .41 & .44 Magnum for medium velocity loads up to where you’ll need a powder like Enforcer for true magnum loads. Then we get to the real test. How many powders that are considered “universal” type can be loaded to 54,000 PSI in the .454 Casull as listed in the current data?

Now it’s time for some history. While Western and Ramshot were fairly new to the gunpowder market, I called with some questions. What I had in mind might arguably been better served by Silhouette, but I got a suggestion for True Blue and bought 4 pounds sight unseen. At that time, True Blue was misplaced on the burn rate chart and there were rumors circulating that True Blue might be the same powder as Vectan SP2. That’s was really an easy issue to resolve with True Blue coming from Belgium and Vectan SP2 by NobelSport in France. I was still a bit confused about its best application even after the Ramshot #3 load guide.

.380 ACP

.380 ACP

In that guide, standard deviations were listed for all True Blue loads where you’ll find the majority in single digits for every caliber from 9 x19mm up to the .454 Casull where in that load guide the highest pressure was listed at 53,570 PSI. That is quite a statement regarding its uniformity and pressure stability. A 240 and two 300 grain bullets were used where the maximum loads came in with a standard deviation of 6 in one case and 5 for the other two. My opinion was beginning to change at that point, but took a bit of a downward turn when ballistician, Johan Loubser, who had been with Accurate Powders before they were acquired by Western, informed me that True Blue was much closer in burn rate to Accurate #5 rather than #7 which it had been placed close to originally. That really made me wonder: a powder in the same general burn rate group as Accurate #5 and Unique loaded to such extremes from low to high pressure while giving single-digit standard deviations in most cases? At this point I should mention that a past load with True Blue in .380 ACP listed standard a deviation of 10. While Western doesn’t list data for the .32 ACP, I see no reason why it couldn’t be used and if you asked, I’d bet the guys in the lab could come up with suitable data.
I really started investigating some things about True Blue after speaking with Johan Loubser by telephone. In searching the Brian Enos forum, I found that IPSC shooters were loading 9mm MAJOR with True Blue. I don’t recommend you do that without a solid knowledge of handloading very high pressure 9mm, as well as the proper pistol without cartridge length restrictions other than the magazine, in other words, custom 1911 race guns. How about a couple of more cartridges that are not exactly in the mainstream? If you check the Lyman 49th edition load manual, or their Pistol & Revolver III you’ll notice that they unhesitatingly recommend True Blue as the best powder for the 45 GAP cartridge. Those that load the 5.7 x 28mm know that it can be very finicky regarding powder selection because of its high operating pressure and small case size. True Blue is a solid choice and I heard from one professional source some years back that an OEM version of True Blue is used by FN Herstal for their factory loads in 5.7 x 28mm.

True Blue's small grains make for extremely accurate metering in progressive presses.

True Blue’s small grains make for extremely accurate metering in progressive presses.

It’s probably been a couple of years ago, but I had an email conversation with Rob Behr about something I had done in the past and that was with a cartridge I called the .357 Short Magnum. Let me preface by saying that you’ll see opinions on .38 Special cases simply being shorter .357 Magnum cases for manufacturing economy. That has not been the case in my experience. Originally, I had a couple of reasons for experimenting. One came when my shooting partner acquired a 7 shot .357 Magnum revolver that didn’t like to eject 125 grain JHP factory loads he had bought for testing purposes. Well before that it was fairly common knowledge that snub revolvers with short ejector rods often had difficulty in extracting cases. What I knew from not-so-common knowledge is that if a .38 Super round will fit in the chamber of a .357 Magnum’s cylinder, it can be safely fired. So, in order to eliminate extraction issues I started trimming .357 Magnum cases to .38 Special case-length. There was another reason, and this one just to satisfy my own curiosity. I had an abundance of .355” Remington 124 grain JHPs, more than I thought I could use at the time.

I knew that Cor-Bon had marketed a .38 Special +P load using a 9mm 115 grain JHP so I thought, why not? I tried first with .38 Special +P cases which didn’t work so well using my standard Lyman .38 Sp./.357 Magnum die set. Rather than look for a solution with different dies I decided to trim .357 Magnum cases to .38 Special length that gave good case-neck tension and I applied a taper crimp after seating with a REDDING 9mm taper crimp die. The loads were plenty accurate enough for defense purposes and I used a number of different powders with none of them being faster burning than HS-6. I probably loaded most of them with Vhita Vouri 3N37, but Vectan SP2 and Accurate #7 worked well also. I even dabbled with the bright flashing Power Pistol as well as Blue Dot that’s similar in the flash department. Since I didn’t own the necessary pressure testing equipment, I didn’t push these loads excessively hard and I liked using the .357 Magnum cases for easy identification. Then there’s the consideration of faster speed-loading as well.

With their potential for being accidentally loaded in a .38 Special revolver, it isn’t likely that such a load will ever be produced by an ammunition manufacturer and there is no SAAMI pressure rating, therefore I recommend you do not attempt to make such a load and my personal philosophy is to buy .357 Magnum revolvers regardless of which cartridge will be fired from it. A .357 Magnum can always serve as a .38 Special, but a .38 Special is limited to .38 Special. Having recently acquired a 1983 vintage Ruger Speed-Six, the thought of feeding it .357 Short Magnums came to mind and since there was data for .38 Special +P loads using Silhouette, I was considering its use for Short Magnums. That’s when the email exchange between Rob and I took place a couple of years back. I can’t remember if we discussed the .357 Short Magnum specifically, but I had seen .357 Magnum data for WAP that is now Silhouette. That, I did ask Rob about, and he mentioned True Blue not being as powder position sensitive in the .357 Magnum case. It seemed worth trying because if the loads proved satisfactory, there would be no need to trim cases down for .357 Short Magnum. I actually started load development with a lower charge shown in the current data for the 125 grain XTP and loaded the Remington 125 grain SJHPs with 10.1 grains of True Blue. Going twice around the cylinder with the 2 ¾” Speed-Six, 12 rounds averaged 1278 FPS with an extreme spread of 45 FPS and a standard deviation of 13. Now, that’s not a single-digit standard deviation that I’ve mentioned being fairly easy to obtain, but considering the great accuracy it gave and flash about as low as you’re likely to see, particularly from a 2 ¾” barreled .357 Magnum, I was more than satisfied. I have absolutely no doubt that if I continued on, working up to the Western data start charge for the 125 grain XTP I could have easily gotten below a standard deviation of 10. The problem was the bullet itself. When I tested for expansion and penetration, the 125 gr. SJHP was pretty well maxed-out, so it was pointless to increase velocity any further. I will be going to the 125 grain XTP as soon as I can locate some.

Something else I’d like to mention regarding my current .45 ACP carry load. When I decided to start loading .451” JHPs, I referred back to the Ramshot #3 load guide. There I found the following load: a 200 grain XTP over 8.2 grains of True Blue and a Federal 150 primer in Winchester cases using an OCL of 1.220” with a rated velocity of 952 FPS at 17,123 PSI showing a standard deviation of 6! Working up to 8.2 grains, I replicated the load exactly as prescribed with one exception; I used cases with mixed head stamps and was still able to match that standard deviation of 6! Because of the lower pressure rating, I revised my load with an 8.4 grain charge with an OCL of 1.225” where I’ll probably proceed to 8.6 grains with an OCL of 1.230”. Maybe the lab guys will take a look and revise the data with something closer to the 21,000 PSI standard pressure maximum. With 8.2 grains, velocity from my 4.5” SR45 was 926 FPS with extreme spread at 17 FPS giving the aforementioned standard deviation of 6.

You’ve probably noticed by now how many times I’ve mentioned standard deviation. In my opinion, it is the most telling test of ballistic uniformity and I chronograph as much or more for standard deviation as I do for velocity. You will, or have heard it said that standard deviation on its own is not an absolute predictor of velocity. The way I look at it, how many times have you ever had poor accuracy with a low standard deviation load? When I start load development for a defense load or a handgun hunting load I have a velocity expectation in mind. My goal is to reach that velocity with excellent accuracy and a low standard deviation. Why is that important? The number of rounds I test for expansion and penetration are but a very small percentage of the number of rounds I shoot. If a load shows exceptional performance in penetration and expansion after meeting my other expectations, then I know that the lower the standard deviation is, the more similarly I can expect each round in the magazine or cylinder to perform.

So, let’s talk more about ballistic uniformity and how it is achieved. I am certainly not a chemist. I am a designer by occupation and education. There are other tasks that I can perform associated with several engineering disciplines including surveying before GPS became commonly used. I work with pressure calculations for hydraulics, electricity/electronics and sound pressure levels, but no chemistry. I do know this, whoever they were, the chemists that developed True Blue did as fine a job as has ever been done with any handgun cartridge propellant. I’ve laid out my case where I feel that it’s capability to achieve standard deviations of 10 or less in every cartridge from the .380 ACP up to the .454 Casull with 54,000 PSI loads is simply something no other powder is capable of. In all honesty, I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my 28 years of handloading.

Then there’s something else I learned from former ballistician, Johan Loubser, the importance of bulk density. Johan was providing them in Accurate’s load guides well before Western bought the Accurate brand. Here’s what we know. Powder measures work on the principle of gravity. Spherical powders are denser than extruded flake powders. As much as twice as dense in some cases. You’ve likely seen someone mentioning charge-weight variations that they’re getting from using an extruded flake powder. Some just consider it acceptable, some feel that overall cartridge lengths have little impact on accuracy, one primer is as good as another and several different things. My thought is that all of these things add up. The fewer variations in tolerances that you allow, the more likely your handloads are to be accurate.
Now, bench-rest rifle shooters have no issue with that and I load my rifle hunting rounds with the greatest care, but are handgun loads so much more simplified that many of the same things simply do not matter? I guess that would depend on if you set out to make plinking loads, or loads that are match grade accurate. So what I’m getting at here is that with True Blue’s bulk density rating of 935 grams/liter, or .935 grams/CC, it is nearly double the density of many flake propellants. Combine that with its tiny granule size and you’re just not likely to get charge-weight variations and in my mind that helps contribute to ballistic uniformity along with True Blue’s excellent chemistry.
There is no powder that exists today that is as ballistically uniform and some guys are used to me mentioning this as I have for years now. Those who have decided to investigate for themselves have found exceptionally accurate loads even if they do not care to investigate all of the aspects I try to put forward. If you want to load ultra-light for gun games you’ll probably use a specific powder for that. Ditto for the biggest, baddest, rompin-stompin magnum revolver load. For everything else, I give you True Blue which has no peer.

kevinwriterphotoKevin L. Newberry, the author of several upcoming fiction novels, is an avid shooter and handloader.  He makes his home in the great state of Texas.