The powder shelf at the gunshop can be really confusing. Powder cans only tell you vaguely what they are for in most cases, and reloading mauals can give you a number of options for one bullet weight, seemingly that have no relationship to one another whatsoever. All of these powders can be used for most common handgun calibers, and the Trail Boss can be used for low powered rifle loads as well. Before you go to the store to buy powder, check the reloading manuals for your caliber. A printed manual is nice to have, but the powder manufacturer websites can get you started.
These powders, and many more, can be used for many common rifle calibers such as the .30-06 Springfield. Is one better than the other? It depends on your bullet weight, your barrel length, and what type of action is on the gun. In general, if it is in the reloading book or manufacturer website, you are good to go. Just follow the charge weight for that specific powder exactly.
IMR (Hodgdon) and Accurate (Western) make some powders that have the same number. They are thought to be interchangeable.
But if you look in the Hornady manual, the max loads for the two brands are far enough apart to matter. Make sure you are using the right numbers for the right powder.
Also beware that not all bullets of the same weight are the same size. Hornady claims that their GMX bullets can be used with standard load data. If you look, the lead-free GMX is much longer than a standard 165 grain bullet, which means it extends down into the case, potentially compressing a powder charge.
Hornady shows the GMX under the same specs as their other 165 grain bullets in the Hornady manual, but only these powders were apparently tested for this caliber. The Accurate Powder manual doesn’t list the GMX, because they have not tested the longer bullet with their powder charges.
Also beware that M1 Garands and M1A/M14 rifles cannot be loaded to the same specs as a normal .30-06 or .308. Nor can they use some standard powders, like 4350. The Hornady manual has a specific data section for the Garand based on the original government issue M2 ball ammo.
The popularity of new young and female shooters, as well as the popularity of sound suppressors, has led to a boom in reduced power loads for standard rifle calibers. Accurate Powder has come up with a bunch of download data for their 5744 powder which is not position sensitive in the case.
Part 1: How to Get Started Reloading
Hodgdon Powder (Hodgdon, IMR, Winchester)
The most intimidating piece of reloading your own ammunition is the choice of a gunpowder. At $20-$30 per pound, powder is not the most expensive component in the whole operation, but it is the one that can get you in the most trouble if you don’t get it right. Powders can have a name, like Varget or Bullseye, or they can have numbers, like 4064, 231 or N150. Don’t worry, there is no guesswork to choosing the right gunpowder for whatever caliber you are trying to reload. But it is easy to get confused as to which is the best powder for a particular caliber and bullet. Some powder and bullet combinations will work better in your gun than others, but as long as you stick to the parameters in your reloading manual, including the authorized online manuals, you will end up with ammunition that is within the acceptable tolerances for your firearm. Right now gunpowder is almost impossible to find, but if you know where to look, you may find a powder that is less common, but that will work for your caliber and bullet. This article is primarily about brass cased centerfire rifle and handgun ammunition. We will get to shotgun reloading later.
First we should start with who makes gunpowder. There are currently only 3, or you could call it possibly 4, enterprises that make all of the consumer brands of powder. The most prolific is Hodgdon, located in Shawnee Kansas. They make and import not only the Hodgdon powders, but also the IMR and Winchester brands. Western Powders, based in Montana, manufacturers two brands of gunpowder, Accurate and Ramshot. And the third is Alliant Powder, which is owned by ATK, the parent company for Federal Ammunition and several other brands in the shooting world. A fourth that is currently available through retailers is actually the gunpowder division of Lapua ammunition, called VihtaVuori, and that brand appears to be being imported by Hodgdon right now, though it is a distinctly different factory and brand at the high end of the price spectrum. VihtaVuori is more expensive than the American powders, but right now you can at least occasionally find it.
Fortunately, Hodgdon and Western are relatively small companies and you can actually call and get someone on the phone if you have questions. I have been unable to get anyone on the phone at ATK, but it could just be that they are tired of telling people that they have no powder to sell right now and after this crisis passes, if it passes, they will be easier to reach. The problem right now is finding any powder at all, except competition shotgun powders which don’t seem to be in such high demand, probably because Joe Biden claims everyone should have one. For the record, the government is not the culprit in the powder shortage, at least not directly. And the powder companies are indeed shipping powder. Check your local dealers, because they get it first, long before the internet merchants. The powder companies are all small companies and they just can’t keep up with the demand right now, but you can find powder, and because of the wonder of the internet and smartphones, you can stand in your local gunshop, Cabelas, Bass Pro, whoever has something, and find a bullet and powder combination that is going to get you sending projectiles downrange, and that is all that counts.
Bullets, and their differences, are not included in this article, but keep in mind that your bullet is ultimately going to be the decision maker as to which powder you eventually select. Hornady, Speer, Sierra, Barnes, and Nosler are some of common brand names of bullets you will probably start with, and every one of them publish a hardbound or spiral reloading book specifically for their bullets. We have always been a Hornady shop so we generally have the Hornady manual at the bench, and you will probably buy and settle on a favorite as well. But even if you have a hardbound manual these days, the gunpowder websites will most likely also be a resource. All of them have great reloading data on their websites, but some are easier to use than others.
The Western Powders offer PDF manuals for both Accurate and Ramshot powders. These are periodically updated, but a call to the company with questions may be worth it if you have a bullet that is close but not exactly what is listed in their manual. For instance, they do not list Hornady GMX bullets , and though the GMX bullet can generally be used with standard reloading data, the bullets don’t have any lead, so they are longer. This can mean increased chamber pressure with exactly the same load used with a shorter bullet that does contain lead. Give Western powder a call if your bullet is not on the list. They do pick up the phone and will answer any questions you have.
Alliant Powders has some of the most iconic names in reloading. Unique, Bullseye, Herco, the Reloader line and the [COLOR] Dot powders have been the source of pet loads for generations, but these days their website is probably the most cumbersome to use of all the powder manufacturers. The Alliant reloader guide has mostly Speer bullets in it, because they are also owned by ATK, so if you aren’t using Speer bullets you have to assume you are, because again, they don’t pick up their phone right now. When it comes to a 230 grain full metal jacket .45ACP bullet, you are pretty safe using the Speer data for pretty much any identical bullet, but it always feels better to see your actual bullet listed there. My peeves on the Alliant website are two, that you have to guess at what abbreviations like GDHP mean, (presumably some type of hollow point), and they only give you one load and a projected velocity for each bullet. There is no starting or max load information, and they don’t even tell you what type of gun or barrel length was used to send your GDHP downrange at 1,120 fps. It’s kind of lame.
Hodgdon has the most useful reloader guide of them all. Instead of having to limiting your choices to one or a half dozen bullets, once you pick a certain caliber the Hodgdon manual gives you upwards of a dozen bullets with over a dozen powder choices for each bullet. Every line of data comes with a starting load and a maximum load, along with expected chamber pressures and velocities. And because Hodgdon covers not only their extensive line of powders, but also Winchester and IMR, there is a pretty good chance you will find a powder that is actually available to buy right now. The Hodgdon website also works on your smartphone or pad, so you can take it with you to the gunshop and match up a bullet/powder combination from what is on the shelf.
For instance, right now Natchez has available for order, and I can tell you from recent experience that they have had a steady supply of powders available off and on for weeks. If I look a the Hodgdon data, I can use that powder for 30-06 with 200 grain and heavier bullets. If I then go over to Midsouth Shooter Supply, I find that they have a very affordable Speer 200 grain bullet and even a pack of 500 Sierra MatchKings, both in 200 grain. The hardest thing to get right now is primers, but I scored 5,000 Russian Large Rifle Magnum primers on Natchez last week. If you look around and you are persistent you’ll find components enough to get you through summer competition season, or World War Z, whichever comes first. As I write this, Midsouth has 50BMG primers . You just never know what you will find when. And don’t forget to check for Vihtavuori powders. Their reloading data is on the Lapua website, and a lot of those powders are coming up for sale.
Don’t let the nomenclature of gunpowder confuse you. We measure gunpowder the same way we measure bullets, in “grains.” One grain is 1/7000th of a pound, and we use special scales when we reload to tell us exactly how much powder we are about to put into our bullet cases. The names of powders are specific. 35 grains of Varget will result in a completely different amount of chamber pressure than will 35 grains of Unique (the latter would blow up most any gun and the former is a fairly light charge). But don’t worry about buying a brand that “sounds good” instead of something that is just a number. If you look at the powder burn rate chart on the Hodgdon website, Winchester 231, IMR 7625, Hodgdon HP-38 and Accurate #2, VihtaVuori N320 and Unique all have burn rates in the same zone, and though they aren’t interchangeable, you could probably get comparable results from all of them for a given pistol caliber, if you have the right data. Pet loads are great, and you can find a ton of pet loads for given guns on the internet, but don’t let discussion board “experts” turn you off from buying a powder that might work for the bullets you have. The experts are at the powder companies, and if you can find a powder to buy, with data right there on the data sheet, buy it, and quick. If you find one that doesn’t have data listed for your caliber, , call them and ask if it can be used for your application. I called Accurate about the 6.8SPC the other day and they are emailing me a data sheet that is not on the website.
If there are any “gotchas” when it comes to powder, they are very few. The M1 Garand and M1A/M14 are quirky with pressures and if you look in the Hornady reloading manual the Garand even gets its own page, but if you can’t get any 4895 or 4064, don’t worry. Other powders can be made to work in the Garand. You can get an adjustable gas plug that is DCM legal for $35 at Midway and use whichever powder and bullet you want. We hope to have a full article about that coming soon, but just beware that the powder company manuals don’t talk about it. Another gotcha is related to primers. Right now, grab whatever primers you can find. Like rimfire ammo, there are very few actual manufacturers of primers in the world, and right now the supply is extremely depleted. You might not get the exact primer that was used for the load data, so it is a good idea to again, call the powder company and ask them what to do. They are more than happy to help you. One other thing to note about powders is that Accurate and IMR have several powders that are the same numbers, like 4064 and 4350. Don’t assume that they are interchangeable because they are not. Always consult your reloading manual or manufacturer website data.
The nice thing about firearms is that they are generally made to an agreed upon “standard.” This is called a “SAAMI” specification, which stands for the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute Inc. When you look up a recipe in a reloading manual or on a powder manufacturer website, it has been crafted and actually tested to work within the specifications for the performance of a certain caliber in any standard firearm chambered for that caliber. It will conform to pressure, velocity, and energy specifications in the same range as if you had bought factory made ammo. You have probably asked yourself, “why the heck do we need all of these calibers?” at some point. The answer is that we don’t, but somewhere along the line someone said “hey wouldn’t this be neat” and a new caliber was born. The SAAMI board votes on whether to accept the new caliber into its canonized specifications for commercially chambered calibers, and once that caliber is set, it is set, and named. For instance, .223’s real name is .223 Remington, because it was developed by Remington. A 30-06 is really .30-06 Springfield, and a .270 is really .270 Winchester. Your standard reloading data will give you the performance of all of those calibers and other commercial calibers with a tolerance of error for chamber pressure that is built into the rifles according to the same SAAMI specs.
Lately there has been a lot of talk about “downloading” cartridges from the original specifications. Both guns and ammo are expensive, and you don’t necessarily have to buy another gun if all you want is a lighter shooting gun. The important thing is don’t try this alone. Many powders are very sensitive to making sure that the case is mostly full, and if the case isn’t full it could result in an unsafe condition, which could hurt someone and your gun at the very least. Never stray from what the reloading manual says, and that isn’t just lawyer advice. It is the only advice. Only a fool with extra guns and extra limbs and eyes concocts reloading recipes without manufacturer specs. If you have only two eyes, two arms and guns you care about keeping, don’t risk any of the above for some bright idea. Fortunately we do have some great downloading recipes, and Accurate Powder has a specific powder, 5744, made specifically for this purpose. Their reloading data is due to updated soon with more information from this powder that is not position sensitive, but feel free to call the company with questions and free data sheets in the meantime. For handguns, Hodgdon makes a powder under the IMR brand called Trail Boss that is specifically for reduced powder loads using cast lead bullets. Most handgun calibers have a Trail Boss load on the Hodgdon website, and now you can find loads for many reduced powder rifle calibers like .308, .30-06, and even .300 Win. Mag. Just whatever you do, don’t take a recipe from an internet forum and use it without checking it with the powder company first. It is a disaster waiting to happen.
We have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to finding gunpowders and loads that will work in your guns. Every gun has pet loads and favored bullets that will always shoot better, and working these loads up takes time and patience. Don’t let yourself become intimidated by self proclaimed internet gurus who make all of this sound like an advanced science to be perfected only by the elite. They all likely started on a single stage press with a bag of empty .45 ACP shells, a Lee powder scoop and dies, and a can of Unique, and there is nothing with you starting that way too. This IS advanced science, and all of the factors they will speak of, from chamber pressure to seating depth to bullet choice to powder burn rate to powder particle shape to primer selection to primer seating depth to case and bullet concentricity to ugh, enough already… DO MATTER, but they are not critical when you first start out. Hand loading (the proper name for reloading) can be an incredibly exacting science, but it is all discovered by trial and error. For powders, even though it may seem to you like there are a lot of them right now, for an individual cartridge there really aren’t that many. If you are new to reloading and waiting to take the next step, call around to your local gun shops and sporting goods stores and see if you can get your hands on some powder, bullets and primers. We’ll be back soon with our next installment on how to actually get going, but if you are in a hurry just search around Youtube. There are plenty of “how do I do this” videos that will take you through step by step. As long as you resize your cases, trim your brass on bottleneck cases, seat your bullets to the correct depth, don’t use magnum primers when regular primers are called for, and make sure you have the right powder and charge weight for the cartridge you are making, your reload will work fine, and you’ll actually have ammo to shoot again.