column By: Terry Wieland | September, 22
At the same time, the last two years have seen the greatest sudden influx of new handloaders since 1950. A few I’ve talked to confess to being overwhelmed, trying to decide which powders to buy. Where do you start? Overwhelmed, confused – who can blame them? I feel that way some days myself, and I’ve been doing this for almost 60 years.
Herewith is a list of powders that can do everything one might want to do, and most will handle not just one but a wide variety of applications. This is no small thing when you find your favorite powder out of stock, backordered and expected who knows when.
In the interests of ruthlessness, I limited the list to 10, and only 10, powders, covering pistols, rifles and shotguns. Given that limitation, there is a lot of emphasis on versatility – powders that, in a pinch, can be used in multiple ways.
1) Unique – If this list had only three powders, Unique would be on it. It’s our second-oldest powder after Bullseye, its stablemate in the old Hercules line, and dates to 1899. It can be loaded in almost any handgun cartridge, giving good-to-top performance in both velocity and accuracy; it provides light rifle loads from the .22 Hornet to the .460 Weatherby, and full-powers shotshells from 12 gauge to 28. Unique may not provide the best load in anything, but it’s never the worst and always usable.
2) Bullseye – The oldest powder still available – 124 years old – and still an excellent choice for most midrange handgun cartridges. Charges are so small – a grain or two, some of them – a pound goes a long, long way. It’s no slouch in either power or accuracy, and has applications in both rifles and shotshells as well.
3) IMR-4227 – This is mostly a small-rifle powder, but it has applications in large pistol rounds with heavy bullets, and even in shotguns (20 gauge, 3 inch). Years ago, a reviewer for Handloader wrote “No other propellant…does so many jobs so well.”
4) H-4895 – This medium burning- rate powder works well in anything from the .222 Remington to the .450s. It has the advantage of being adaptable to reduced loads for practice, which in turn makes it very economical in times of shortage. But if you find a pachyderm ravaging the petunias, you can fill up a .458 and deal with it.
5) IMR-3031 – IMR-3031 has been around since 1934. Aside from being a standard powder in practically any cartridge introduced since 1925, it is the powder most often recommended as a substitute for cordite in British cartridges, and most of the old European military rounds. Look in an early edition of Cartridges of the World and you will find a starting load for practically everything. That alone makes it worth having.
6) IMR-4350 – This is the powder that made magnum performance possible with the .300 H&H and the later .300 Winchester Magnum. This should really read “any” 4350, since there are powders with the same number from Hodgdon, Accurate, and Shooter’s World. These are not interchangeable, and should not be treated as such, but a good load with one often translates into a good load with another, provided a handloader starts at a safe level and works up. It’s also great in the 6.5 Creedmoor and anything similar.
7) H-4831 – Moving up – or down, in burning speed – from the 4350s, H-4831 is quite simply one of the great powders. If you own a magnum rifle and like heavy bullets, this is the fallback powder no one should be without. IMR-4831 fills the bill equally well.
8) Reloder 22 – My three favorite Alliant powders, aside from Unique and Bullseye, are RL-15, RL-19, and RL-22. Newer numbers (RL-21, RL-25, etc.) cater to specific uses, but 15, 19 and 22 pretty much cover the gamut of conventional cartridges, big and small, from the .22-250 to the .470 Nitro Express. I’d hate to have to choose, but if forced, I’d take RL-22. I’ve found nothing to beat it in my .257 Weatherby, which is on the short list of rifles I’ll never part with.
9) Accurate 5744 – This is a specialty powder in the sense that it has only one real application – reduced practice loads – but since a handloader can work one up in almost any rifle cartridge, big or small, it is both handy and economical. It was a toss-up between A-5744 and IMR Trail Boss; I picked A-5744 because I’m more rifle oriented; a handgunner would probably choose Trail Boss.
10) Hodgdon Clays – My one and only primary shotshell powder. Mostly good for 12 gauge, but then that’s mostly what I load and, in a crisis, would be about the only one. It can also be used to power a range of handgun cartridges and does so in tiny amounts.
Looking at the list, other names keep popping into my head. H-4198, for example and Norma MRP. Thirty years ago, N-MRP was essentially identical to RL-22, but today’s N-MRP no longer looks the same as it did, although the burning characteristics are the same.
Adding to the list, or deleting from it, largely depends on where your specific interests lie. If you’re a pistol shooter wanting loads for everything from .25 ACP to .480 Ruger, then you’d want more than the powders listed here. Same if you’re a diehard long-range shooter with cartridges like the 6.5 PRC, and you’ll see I didn’t list anything for the .50 BMG, at one end, or benchrest at the other.
Also, all of the powders listed have been around for a while. This is not because I’m stuck in the past, it’s because new powders now tend to be specialized, intended to do one or two things extraordinarily well, sometimes with specific bullet weights in one class of cartridge. Wide versatility in smokeless powders is largely a thing of the past, with the odd exception like Hodgdon Trail Boss.
Naturally, there is a second tier of powders I try to keep a good stock of. The 4198s (IMR and Hodgdon) are good for everything from .222 Remington to .45-70, with a side trip to 7.62x39. Given that fact, the good news is it can be had in an 8-pound keg.
For sheer volume in midrange pistol cartridges, a keg of Ramshot True Blue or Hodgdon’s CFE Pistol will keep most people shooting for a good, long time. For shotguns, I’d add Hodgdon Universal Clays. Throw in H-110, and you’ve now covered .410 shotshells as well as serious magnum handgun loads.
Although we sometimes forget it in the age of the internet, loading a cartridge requires not just the cartridge case and some powder, it also requires loading data. You might have an old rifle and lots of brass, but be unable to find data for new powders. Manufacturers with a new powder intended for the .300 Blackout are unlikely to make the investment in time and equipment to work up loads for the .32 Winchester Special or .35 Remington.
The great thing about my list above is that there are reams of data, for cartridges old and new, and when a new cartridge comes out, there will usually be data included for older powders simply because they are stalwarts that everyone has or can get. For example, the 6.5 PRC is new (2017), but the first powder in Hodgdon’s data is Accurate 4350. IMR-4350 (the original) has been around for almost 90 years. The three 4350s are not exactly interchangeable, but provided a handloader stays well below maximum, they can be substituted and used to work up new loads.