Getting Started, Part 2
Powders, Primers and Bullets
Alright, you've taken the plunge. You have a brand new press, a set of dies for you chosen caliber, a scale and all the other goodies, including a good reloading manual. It's time to get some bullets, powder and primers. Suddenly, you realize that there are more than 150 different powders, dozens of bullets in varying weights, and primers from at least six manufacturers, as well as "magnum" and "benchrest" listings. WHAT DO I NEED??? Panic sets in and.... Relax. Take a deep breath. We've all been there. Let's look at each of these and get some idea of where to start.
Primers are the "spark plug" for the ammunition. There are different types of primers, but most reloadable American ammunition uses Boxer style primers. The other common European primers, Beradan type primers, are reloadable, but take equipment the beginner is not likely to have and use a special technique. We will be dealing only with the common Boxer primer here. Primers come in small pistol, large pistol, small rifle and large rifle. Each of these comes in standard and magnum varieties. In general, magnum primers produce a hotter flame and are usually used to ignite spherical powders or cases with high powder capacity. A beginning reloader should stick with the primer recommended by the manual he/she is using. NEVER SUBSTITUTE RIFLE PRIMERS FOR PISTOL PRIMERS or pistol primers for rifle. Yes, they will fit the primer pocket, but switching primers can and will change chamber pressure, possibly causing a dangerous pressure spike with catastrophic results.
One common situation that beginners and experienced handloaders alike face is that of substituting one brand of primer for another. For example, the load I want to try was developed using CCI 400 (CCI Standard Small Pistol) primers. Can I safely substitute WSP (Winchester Small Pistol ) primers? To safely do this, it is always recommended that you start with the lowest charge of your chosen powder listed and work up slowly, watching for pressure signs. In revolvers and pistols it is recommended that you work up using no more than 0.2 grain increments. In rifles, not more than a 0.5 increase should be used. Again, this is a recommendation for switching brands ONLY. Switching from standard to magnum primers is not recommended.
Once you have decided on a primer, the next question is which powder to choose. It can be confusing. Take the Hodgdon recommendations for .38 Special using the common 158 grain bullets (http://www.hodgdonreloading.com/data/pistol). This site alone lists nine possible Hodgdon powders for this caliber/bullet weight combination, plus several made by IMR and Winchester. Where do you start? What is the "best" powder for this bullet?
First, there is no "best" powder. There are powders that work better in some firearms, but, with a little experimentation, most recommended powders will work in most firearms. As for where to start, let's take a closer look at one of the most popular rounds in reloading. For our .38 Special, we must first decide what we want the load to do. If we are looking for a fast load for self defense, we could use H4227 with a 158 grain Hornady XTP hollow point, which may get us close to 850 feet per second (fps). However, we will have to use a maximum load of 10 grains to achieve this. A more economical choice might be CFE Pistol, which is not only about 50 fps faster with this bullet, but uses 5 grains less powder to reach this speed. On the other hand, if I am looking for a soft shooting plinking round, I may choose 2.7 grains of IMR Trail Boss with a 158 grain lead semi wadcutter. This gives a nice 660 fps, lowering recoil and making the revolver very pleasant to shoot.
Powder choices for rifles can be a bit tricky. Unfortunately, in some cases, powder manufacturers use names that are nearly, but not quite, identical. Consider the very popular .308 Winchester with a 165 grain bullet, a very popular combination. Both Hodgdon and IMR make a 4895 powder, while both IMR and Accurate make a 4064 powder. While all of these will work in the .308, the data IS NOT interchangeable! IMR 4064 shows a maximum charge of 46.3 grains, while AA 4064 shows 50.8 or 52.3 (depending on bullet choice). Though it would not be easy to do with this powder, putting 50 grains of IMR 4064 behind a 165 grain bullet could result in serious injury to both rifle and shooter. Be very careful that you are loading the powder you THINK you are loading. Otherwise, the procedure for choosing a powder is the same as choosing for the handgun. Many manual, such as Sierra and Speer, recommend a powder for accuracy and/or hunting loads. These are a good place to start, but there is no "best".
Finally, for the beginner, there is the choice of bullets. For handguns you can usually choose jacketed or lead bullets. Lead bullets are available for some rifle calibers, but most beginners will stick to the more widely available jacketed bullets for rifles. Again, the choice is based on what you want the bullet to do. Looking for a self defense bullet for a handgun? Start with the jacketed hollowpoints made by Hornady, Speer, Barnes or the other major manufacturers. Want to hunt with your revolver? Try jacketed soft points by Speer, Sierra, Hornady, Winchester and Remington. For plinking, there are plated bullets available from Berry Bullets or Rainier bullets and lead from a number of different makers. Pick one, then find "THE" load for it. It's a sure bet you won't stop with that.
The beginner should avoid lead rifle bullets. They present their own set of unique challenges that can frustrate even the most experienced handloader. Instead, concentrate on learning the basics using jacketed bullets. If varminting is your thing, try the polymer tipped bullets designed for rapid expansion. For medium size game, such as whitetail deer, it really is had to go wrong with any of the current offerings. Pick a bullet and you find one group of hunters that will use nothing else and a second group that believe that bullet should be outlawed. My preference is jacketed soft points such as Sierra GameKing, Speer Hot Core, Hornady Partition and others, but many prefer Winchester Combined Technology, Hornady SST, or Barnes TTSX. Everyone of them will get the job done, if you do your homework.
I hope this helps some of you down the right path. Handloading can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Just remember that, simple or complex, it is addictive. There is no known cure. Stay safe, stay alert and enjoy the addiction.