By Skeeter Skelton
Shooting Times Magazine
The first reloading tools I ever used should have been in a museum. The bullet mold, made by Winchester Repeating Arms Company, was rusty and formed slugs for the .44 WCF. The two-grooved, flat-nosed bullets it threw were a bit pockmarked by the roughness of the pitted cavity, but they worked well enough in my old Colt Frontier model.
I still have the mold, but the tong-type loading outfit has been gone so many years that I forget whether it was made by Winchester, Lyman, or some other manufacturer. I had swapped a Marbles hunting knife for the rig on the condition that the old reprobate who owned it show me how to roll my own sixgun shells.
At his instructions, I necksized the tapered .44-40 cases, decapped and primed them in the nickel-plated nutcracker. For a powder charge we simply dipped the case full of some non-descript black powder, then sprinkled a bit out to make room for the bullet, which had been smeared with heavy grease. Then we seated and crimped the slug in the case without further observance of niceties, such as sizing.
Strangely enough, this unsophisticated fodder performed satisfactorily in my thumbuster, and allowed me, for the first time, to shoot a centerfire handgun as much as I felt like it. During the quarter century that has passed since that first handloading session, I have stuck to one premise: I like to keep it simple.
As I accumulated more and better handloading paraphernalia, as newer bullet designs and more versatile powders became available, the realization came that if I was to get the best performance from my handguns, I would have to settle for one basic, reliable load for each of them. Otherwise I would spend all of my time at the bench and on a target range, adjusting sights, worrying about pressures and case life, and getting more fretting than enjoyment from my guns. Early in the game I resolved to find one or two good loads for each gun I owned, and to stick with them – a system that has served me well.
When I arrived home from WWII I wore a happy smile, a herringbone tweed suit with wide lapels, and a 7 ½” Colt SA in .32-20. Factory ammo was both too expensive and too ineffectual for use on the Texas jackrabbits and coyotes toward which I aimed it. A Pacific Super Tool press became available and I settled on Lyman’s 31133 bullet mold and Unique powder. This cast slug, weighing 105 gr. in hollowpoint form, gave me everything I wanted when loaded over 5.5 gr. of Unique in the .32-20 cases. My Colt had a spare cylinder in .32 S&W Long, and I soon found that these straight cases were better for reloading than the slopeshoulder .32 WCF. A charge of 4.0 gr. of Unique behind the 31133 hollowpoint shot very close to the same point of aim as the .32-20 handload, and opened up in fine fashion on Colorado coyotes and various Texas vermin. Years later I used the same load in a Smith K-32, and found it the sweetest of small game guns.
Some critics have declared my partiality toward cast bullets for revolvers to be unrealistic. When equipment for swaging your own jacketed slugs was introduced, elaborate claims were made about the superiority of home-mashed bullets. Hucksters held them to be more accurate and cleaner shooting, less bothersome to produce, and just as economical as cast handgun bullets. None of these claims, in my opinion, was borne out, and not too much is heard these days about home swaged handgun bullets.
I swaged several thousand .44 and .357-.38 Spl. bullets of various nose designs. Contrary to advertising hoopla, they were no more accurate than my cast bullets, they leaded bores badly (at that time only half jackets were available, leaving too much pure lead exposed to the bore), they were not only more difficult to make but cost double and triple the price of a bullet cast from store bought lead and tin.
Today when I get too busy or too lazy to cast bullets, or if I have some special test to run, I don’t swage my own. I buy the very excellent handgun bullets offered by Speer, IBAC, Norma, Remington-Peters, and Winchester-Western. But mostly I rely on my much-used molds and lead furnace.
Like most other handgunners, I have loaded more .38 Specials than any other caliber. Unlike most others, I have eschewed the popular full wadcutter bullet and the ultra-light loads with which it is usually associated. The two .38 molds that do most of my work are the Lyman 357446 and their 356156 which is almost identical except that it wears a gas check. Both bullets are cast 1 to 15 tin-in-lead and sized .357”.
As accurate as the wadcutters at close range, these bullets cut just as clean a hole in the target and maintain accuracy and killing power at much longer distances.
For heavy duty .38 Special and .357 Magnum loading the 358156 gas check shoots much cleaner than any plain base bullet. It is possibly the most accurate cast bullet I have used, and is an excellent game getter. The HP version offers spectacular expansion, and the solid gives the utmost in combined penetration and shock in its category, being particularly satisfactory for taking small table game without unwanted meat damage.
The 358156 has two crimping grooves. The upper is used when loading .357 cases and standard velocity .38 Special loads. When seated out to the lower crimp groove in .38 Special cases, more powder space is gained, and a very powerful load of 13.5 gr. of 2400 may be used in these cases, giving around 1150 fps. I emphasize that these heavy .38 Special cartridges should only be fired from .357 Magnum revolvers or from .45 frame .38 Special sixguns such as the Colt SA, Colt New Service, or S&W .38-44. While I have fired this round from K-frame Smith & Wessons and Colt Officers’ Models on occasion with no visible ill effects, these lighter revolvers were not designed for such heavy loads, and I definitely do not recommend the practice. Since I commonly carry this round for everyday use in my .357 guns, I have taken more game with it than any other individual handload, up to and including antelope, turkey, and javelina.
Some loading manuals list the 358156 HP bullet with as much as 16 gr. of 2400 in .357 cases, a top load which gives about 1600 fps velocity. Although well below the acceptable factory pressure level, this load is a bit hot, and I prefer 15 gr. of 2400 for better accuracy, less recoil, and longer case life.
Two excellent cast bullets head the popularity list for .44 Special and .44 Magnum hulls – Lyman’s 429421, designed by Elmer Keith, and their 429244, Ray Thompson’s semi-wadcutter, gas check number. As usually cast, the Keith weighs around 250 gr. Both are available as hollowpoints, which are extremely destructive on small game at the higher velocity levels.
Because the 429421 plain base has never given me any leading problems in my .44 guns, I choose it over the 429244 and save the trouble and expense incurred by the gascheck. Since the introduction of the .44 Magnum, I have quit using heavy handloads in the .44 Special, and now put together a mild, but hotter-than-factory combination of the Keith bullet, sized .429”, over 7.5 gr. of Unique. Velocity runs around 940 fps, a definite improvement over the cream puff factory round. I use only solid head .44 Special cases, since the old balloon head versions are wont to stretch erratically, making trimming a requisite before a bullet with a crimping groove may be effectively used.
The same 429421 goes into my .44 Magnum ammunition, with a charge of 21 gr. of 2400, rather than 22 gr. usually recommended. This costs a bit of velocity, but is noticeably easier on both gun and shooter, and still speaks with enough authority to have bagged me mule deer and many lesser species with ease.
The .45 Colt has been pronounced dead by many a self-appointed coroner. Around my diggings it is as spry as ever, and I shoot a lot of .45’s in Colt SA’s and my New Service. Years ago I settled on a charge of 9.0 gr. of Unique behind a 250-265 gr. cast bullet. I have come to prefer the Lyman 454424 semi-wadcutter for all purposes. This fat, flatfaced hunk of lead is an excellent game killer, and is notably easy to cast. Mine are poured from a mixture of 1 to 15, and sized .452”. Although this is nominally undersized for the .454” bores that many Colts are supposed to have, it has delivered good accuracy from all revolvers I’ve tried it in, and alleviates pressures in the occasional tight bore that crops up. Smith & Wesson made me up a 1955 Target revolver in .45 Colt caliber a few seasons back. Overall length of this handload was several thousandths greater than the factory cartridge, and filled the chambers of the Smith right out to the mouth. To avoid problems that could arise from the slug’s jumping its crimp, I seated it deeper in the case, crimping over the front band of the bullet. No change in pressures or point of impact were apparent, and the load remained an excellent one for both hunting and defense.
This same big bullet is a good one for the .45 Auto Rim and the .45 ACP when the latter is fired from Colt and S&W revolvers. for these small-diameter, shallow-land barrels, the approach must be different. Cast your slugs very hard (1 to 10 tin-in-lead) or from straight linotype metal. Then size to .451”. I once used up to 7.5 gr. of Unique in these loads with no pressure signs in the two revolvers I then had, but later a friend split the chamber of an old 1917 Colt he tried them in. I have since dropped to 7.0 gr. of Unique as a maximum charge, and even this level must be approached with extreme caution, backing down at the first sign of pressure.
To keep abreast of the times, I find it more and more necessary to handload for my auto pistols. As a rule, lead alloy slugs are a nuisance in the autoloader, and I avoid them. The simplest and best route is to purchase the excellent copper jacketed bullets that are offered in softpoint and hollowpoint style by various manufactures.
For the 9mm Parabellum my choice is the 125 gr. Speer softpoint or the 116 gr. Norma hollowpoint. Over 6.0 gr. Unique, either of these slugs outperforms the full jacket military round so resoundingly that there is little need for comment.
The International Bullet and Ammunition Corporation (1015 Wellwood Ave., North Lindenhurst, N.Y. 11757) markets a 140 gr. jacketed bullet for the .38 Super which has a softnose, dimple face that offers better accuracy and expansion than anything I have tried in this caliber. Charged with Mason William’s load of 7.0 gr. of Unique, it transforms the old Colt Super into a formidable hunting arm, and I’m beginning to enjoy this caliber for the first time.
My treatment of the .45 automatic, compared to that of those who hold it in higher esteem, is old fashioned. When positive functioning is of importance to me (which is just about always) I cast up a mess of Lyman’s standard roundnose 452374 bullets and seat them over 6.5 gr. of Unique. This is a good plinking load, as powerful as the factory version, and one that doesn’t slam the slide back so hard that I need fear for its continuing on through my skull. A more satisfactory small game load, if your pistol will function with it, is Lyman’s 200 grain semi-wadcutter, the 452460, over 7.5 gr. of Unique. Again, this bullet should be cast very hard, and sized .451”.
The .41 Magnum was primarily designed as a police service revolver. Remington’s two cartridges for it gave the cop who didn’t handload a choice of a high velocity, jacketed softnose at 1350 fps and a 210 gr. lead semi-wadcutter at around 960 fps, as fired from revolvers rather than pressure barrels. I have been content with the factory loads, but occasionally reload with Speer’s 220 gr. SP jacketed bullet over 18.5 gr. of 2400 for about 1300 fps, or the same slug over 8.5 gr. of Unique for approximately 1000 fps at the muzzle.
When my stocks of primers permit, I try to match the brand of primer to cartridge cases from the same manufacturer. On the occasions that this is not feasible, CCI primers have served well in any make of case that I have tried them. Excellent results have been obtained with the CCI Magnum primer when it was mated with heavy charges of slow burning 2400.
When a new bullet, or powder, or cartridge comes along, I break out the manuals and make like an experimenter. But when relaxing and enjoying the evening breeze is indicated, my pet loads are like my mom’s sourdough biscuits – no recipe is needed.
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