Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Measuring reloading powders...

Over the years I've been reloading I've read a lot on the subject and heard many adherents of the hobby describe their favored techniques. However, until the internet I'd never heard some of the inane and ridiculous ideas that now, due to the pervasiveness of the digital word, have been widely spread. Subtract actual knowledge of the subject and a person can be truly confused. We get those in the gun shop every day. Yesterday I had one fellow walk in and ask for 2 lbs of "pistol powder". My attempt at a tactful interrogation designed to give him what he wanted that wouldn't result in a liability lawsuit for the store resulted in the realization by this fellow that he knew nothing about the subject.

While reloaders/handloaders will go on and on about various minutiae concerning the hobby the truth is that the one thing that gets more reloaders in trouble is the powder. It is critical that one use an appropriate powder for the cartridge and for the bullet you're going to be using in that cartridge and, in some cases (no pun intended), for the particular firearm in which the resulting cartridge is to be fired. Use the wrong powder or use the wrong amount of powder and you might have a "kaboom" resulting in the immediate and catastrophically spontaneous dis-assembly of the firearm. Using the correct amount of any given powder is critical and the subject upon which I'd like to pontificate today.

In the old days the dark lord of powders was the one and only BLACK POWDER, as it is known now. Back then it was simply "gun powder". It was corned and sorted by screens into various granulations or sizes. One had to use the correct granulation to get the best results but only in extreme circumstances would mis-measuring powder result in a "kaboom". Gun powder was measured by volume but often there was a concept, at the very least, of how much the nominal weight of that volume of powder was. We continue that today in using black powder and have formulated black powder substitutes with the goal of using them, volume for volume, interchangeably with black powder.

However, gun powder (as we knew it then) was messy and smoky. Smoky was bad because it gave your position away, bad because you couldn't see through the smoke it produced, and undesirable because these two attributes made it problematic for use in fully automatic arms (i.e. machineguns). Being the inventive people we are "smokeless" powders were invented. It was soon discovered that one couldn't handle these with the same cavalier attitude with which the "old-fashioned" black powder had been used. Misapplication of the early smokeless powders quickly showed that these powders could create pressures that could easily defeat their containers, i.e. firearms. One of the results of this was the promulgation of the common sense admonition to weigh smokeless powder charges.

Of course this would never do to support the necessarily high production levels of commercial and military ammunition production. Mass production demanded measuring powder by volume. The safeguards used were many (and yet they sometimes fail) but all involved extensive testing of each car load of powder and checking the volumetric measuring systems to ensure they inserted the correct amount of powder by weight. Since it was clear that with such safeguards volumetric measuring of some powders in some rounds/loads was acceptable over the years any number of volumetric measuring devices have been developed. However, reloaders using these measuring devices, be they dippers or what all, have always been cautioned to check that they are getting the correct weight. For that, one needs a scale.

However, the now widespread use of progressive loading machines, once priced out of reach of the average shooter, have made volumetric measuring of the charges for thousands of rounds without weight checking seemingly common. Because familiarity truly does breed contempt there are now reloaders who believe that they need only measure by volume and that at least some of the volumetric measuring systems are infallible. Some have taken to promulgating the idea that they can just chuck the scale in favor of one of these devices.

There are some problems with this idea.

- Powders change - over time powders change. They pick up moisture. They change at least in some small way from lot to lot.  They might even come from different production facilities.
- Adjustable volumetric measuring devices change - the effects of vibration/shock endured in use will cause the devices to go out of adjustment (so we check against the scales).  Powders have to flow consistently into the device to maintain consistent weights (which requires a certain level of skill by the user).  Changes in charges require comparison with a known quantity (a scale). 
- Non-adjustable volumetric measuring devices also require skill in use - to get consistent powder flow and fills of the non-adjustable devices also requires a certain skill level.  Further, since they aren't adjustable one is limited to certain charges.  For safety's sake these should be the minimum charge levels where both the highest and the lowest possible charge weights are proven to be safe.  This isn't possible with some powders.

The biggest problem is human nature.  I've seen it before.  The new reloader starts cautiously, carefully adhering to all warnings but then he wants more.  More power, more velocity and consequently closer to the edge of safety.  Does he stop and get a scale?  No.  Comfortable with the system and confident in his own ability to "read" or operate the device or he tries to do what is impossible with such methods, create precisely measured charges of powders at the edge of safe pressures.  Most often he blows a primer or creates another immediately recognizable sign of excessive pressures and re-examines his methodology.  Unfortunately, sometimes, he ignores the obvious signs he's exceeded safe parameters and drives on to destroy his firearm or worse. 

So, just as it has been for about 100 years, it is best to at least double check your powder measures with a scale.  Oh, and check the scale with a set of check weights. 

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