The General Purpose Handload

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition, Reloading

I get many calls, emails, and letters asking about the ‘best’ handgun load. Unfortunately, many correspondents fail to share the intended mission of the load. This has an influence on the desired bullet weight, velocity, and penetration. As an example, I am perfectly happy to run the .44 Special or .45 Colt with a 255-grain SWC at 700 fps for cowboy action or target practice. If hiking in country in which the big cats or bears may be more than a nuisance, I will run the same bullet up to 1,000 fps.

Colt Single Action Army  revolver with loose cartridges

Hard cast bullets and the Colt Single Action Army offer excellent performance.

This makes a big difference in recoil and penetration as well. Most of my shooting for the past 30 years has been with the .38 Special and .45 ACP. I have fired thousands of cartridges in each. I think most shooters want a useful load that is accurate, economical, and useful. Hunting loads in the .44 Magnum and .45 Colt are often running as hot as possible. I don’t need this level of power most of the time, but even a small game load must be fast enough and accurate. I have worked up a few of these loads, and I call them general purpose loads. They will do many things well and are easy on both the wrists and wallet.

One example is the standard 230-grain hard cast RNL bullet in .45 ACP. A modest charge of Bullseye, Red Dot, Unique, WW231, or Titegroup is used to push this bullet at 780 fps. U.S. Military 230-grain jacketed loads are generally around 820 fps, so the lead load at sensibly less velocity isn’t hard on the gun or the shooter. I like this combination and have fired thousands, at least ten thousand or more, with excellent results. A load like this may be fired without fear of excess wear on the 1911 Government Model.

In the right handgun, it is accurate. Another general purpose load that may have an edge in accuracy uses the Hensley and Gibbs design 200-grain SWC at 890 fps. This is a fine target load that is ideal for small game. I once carried this bullet in my Commander .45 as a defense and duty load, but bumped it up to 1,000 fps. It doesn’t get any better in a relatively light handgun that hits hard. This bullet was notably more accurate than any factory load of the 1980s when I began using it. I use Oregon Trail bullets in 230-grain RNL and 200-grain SWC often, and probably load 10:1 with the RNL bullet.

various handloaded bullets

These handloads use a variety of bullets. A few JHP bullet loads were developed for special use.

The .45 ACP is a good general purpose cartridge that is well respected by those with field experience. I also like the .45 Colt. As I have more time on my hands, I enjoy firing single action revolvers a great deal. The Oregon Trail 250-grain flat nose bullet is profoundly respected for its weight and diameter as well as penetration. A 250-grain .45 Colt bullet at 850 fps will penetrate more than a 230-grain .45 ACP at the same velocity, yet it is a middle of the road load in the revolver.

Good accuracy was once harder to come by with the .45 Colt revolver, but modern CNC-machined single action revolvers are far more accurate than those of the past. I have always enjoyed firing handguns to test the limits of their accuracy potential and to see what the great guns of the past were capable of. Cast bullets with the proper mix of lead, tin, and antimony have provided the vehicle to do so.

Italian replicas of the Single Action Army were a Godsend to a young shooter, much as the Philippine 1911s are to another generation. The modern .45 Colt revolvers were generally delivered with a .452-inch barrel, while the .45 ACP has long been constant at .451 inch. Older single action revolvers might be .454 inch, and the throats and barrel not always well matched. Older revolvers often need softer bullets in order to slug up for accuracy.

Empty brass cartridges for a pistol

Brass is a reusable resource that makes handloading worthwhile.

Cartridge cases are important and should be sorted by maker. The .45 Colt in commercial brass is usually good while the .45 ACP differs widely in strength and quality. I have seen .45 ACP brass with the primer flash hole off center. This company is now out of business, but I broke several decapping pins on this off set brass. Starline Brass is always a good bet and is of high quality and very consistent.

Case mouth thickness is easily measured. Measure a bullet’s diameter, seat it in the sized case, then measure the cartridge case. The difference is divided by two and you have the thickness of the brass case. This is an interesting measurement, and over time, cases will lengthen with use and need to be trimmed. I have yet to wear out a .45 Colt cartridge case, but I have discarded many .45 ACP cases over the years.

The .38 Special was the first cartridge I handloaded. It was quite a thrill to break out a rather nice Model Ten my grandfather owned and fire my own handloads. I was self-taught and read all I could on handloading. I made some miscalls to be certain, including loading factory lead swaged bullets over a powder charge recommended by Elmer Keith. A swaged lead bullet at 1,300 fps leads a barrel quickly.

.38 Special hard cast lead bullets

These bullets are high quality, properly sized, and quite accurate.

I became acquainted with the Lewis Lead Remover and the advantages of cast bullets. The .38 Special is a wonderfully accurate cartridge. The single most accurate revolver I own is a Smith and Wesson Combat Masterpiece. I have fired groups of one inch for a five-shot group at 25 yards from a careful benchrest using the Bullshooter’s pistol rest. They are not all that small but with good loads the .38 Combat Masteriece is capable of 1.5 inches on demand.

The most common load in this revolver is a 158-grain SWC at 850 fps. This is a good small game load and excellent for practice in .38 Special or .357 Magnum revolvers. WW 231 and Titegroup are excellent choices. By bumping the same bullet up to 1,000 fps range is extended and the .38 becomes an excellent outdoors revolver.

General purpose loads will do many things well and are not highly specialized, nor do they run too hot for constant use. Recently, I had the occasion to work up a number of loads in an FNH FNS .40 caliber pistol. I began with the Oregon Trail 170-grain SWC and the Oregon Trail 180-grain RN. Using Power Pistol and an overall loaded length of 1.130. I worked up to 990 fps with the 180-grain bullet and excellent results. The 170-grain SWC will break 1,025 fps and would make an ideal all-around outdoors and practice load. These loads are efficient, clean burning, accurate, and economical. That is what handloads are all about.

What’s your favorite handload? Which caliber and gun do you use it for? Share your answers in the comment section.

SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

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Comments (8)

  • Vincent

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    Bob, Thanks again for another well written and very informative article! Your gun experience probably goes well beyond most of the readers here by far. I would like to add a bit more info that I have found when creating and building my ballistics/ammo file.

    Here is what I found about the .45 cal. bore, which is one of 32 footnotes in my ballistics file:
    Note16: The .45 ammo bores vary as follows: the .45 ACP’s and the .45 GAP’s bores are both .451, the .45 Auto Rim is .452, and the .45 LC comes in two bores: .452 for jacketed bullets, and .454 for all lead bullets.
    Sources:
    For the .45 Colt ammo go to Wikipedia and search for .45 Colt
    For the ,45 ACP ammo go to Wikipedia and search for .45 ACP

    Also, I would like to point out that there are three (3) other types of .45 ammo: (1) the .45 Auto Rim, (2) the .45 Gap, and the (3) the .45 Super. I list all three of these in my ballistics file. The following are my footnotes on each of these:
    (1) Note15: The .45 Auto Rim, a.k.a. 11.5x23R is a rimmed cartridge specifically designed to be fired in revolvers originally chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge. Thus, they are not for .45 semi-auto pistols.
    (2) Note 14: The 45 GAP is NOT the same as the 45 ACP and should NOT be fired in 45 ACP pistols, but only in 45 GAP pistols! As for revolvers, this ammo can be fired in double action revolvers with moon clips which are needed to take up the extra gap due to the shorter casing of the .45 Gap. Without this, the cartridge may move around in the cylinder and perhaps not even fire. With single action revolvers, there is essentially no way to insert a moon clip, and without this, the ammo will probably not fire, or cause secondary issues if it does.
    (3) Note 11: The 45 Super is essentially a 45 ACP, but more powerful, and even more powerful than the 45 ACP +P, so serious care needs to be taken as to what gun should fire this ammo. Many .45 semi-auto pistols cannot handle the 45 Super ammo, so check with your gun’s manufacturer before shooting any of it. For instance, I checked with Armscor, and their new .45 ACP semi-auto CANNOT handle any .45 Super ammo. This ammo may be fired in rugged revolvers that can handle high power, such as the double & single action Ruger Red- & Blackhawks that also fire .45 Colt ammo.
    Sources:
    For the .45 Auto RIM go to Wikipedia and search for .45 Auto Rim
    For the .45 GAP go to Wikipedia and search for .45 GAP
    For the .45 Super go to Wikipedia and search for .45 Super

    I have fired some .45 Super rounds (Buffalo Bore 185gr bullet at 1,300 fps) in my 5.5″ Ruger single action .45 Colt Convertible (switch cylinders) Flattop with no issues. and with a nice kick! Typically, I shoot 230gr low velocity (810-830 fps) for plinking at a cost of $.26/rd. But even the high power of the .45 Super cannot compare to the high power .45 Colt ammo I have shot (again, Buffalo Bore 260gr bullet at 1,450 fps) which takes two strong hands with a tremendous kick! With all other loads, which includes .45 ACP, .45 ACP +P, .45 Colt Cowboy and regular .45 Colt ammo, I shoot with my right arm extended for max accuracy.

    Vincent (11-06-2018)

    Reply

  • Duckford

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    Some good old wisdom here, a good lesson for the youngin’s who aren’t more experienced with reloading and the old rounds. Indeed, the 255 grain Keith in 45 Colt, the 246 grain Keith in 44 Special, and the 170 Keith or 158 SWC in 38 Special/357 Magnum are tried and true standards in revolver that will always serve you well. Good enough for paper bullseye, good enough for action shooting, good enough for plinking, hunting with the right loads, and even self defense if we don’t wander into expanding bullet territory. Accurate enough for paper bullseye, good enough BC for longer range shooting, flat enough face of the right shape to kill man and beast. The truest of the “all arounders”.

    I’ve asked Lyman about a four cavity Keith mold, which they said there wasn’t enough demand for, even though the other two calibers are offered in such. I suppose their Cowboy action mold takes most of the market, but its a damned shame.

    Indeed, one of the 45 ACP’s old advantages that comes with us to this day is the fact that the size and shape of the old round nose bullets is a good all arounder for autoloader, not as good as a modern hollow point, but a long standing performer for self defense and other purpose. I’ve become a fan of Red Dot with my Lyman 225 grain round nosers, still figuring which exactly weight I want yet for a balance of being cheap as all get out as well as recoil reduction, and a more solid “all around load” to train with. Download it too much and you end up with a specific target load even with that heavy bullet, the lower velocity of those round noses will get to the point it won’t pierce a barrier if came down to it. My Tommy gun is awful handy at 100 yards, but it suffers that rainbow trajectory with common hardball, much less a small charge Bullseye light “fun load”. An “all arounder” should be kept to duty, hunting, or even longer range bullseye/plinking standards to be truly considered exactly that, all around.

    Enough of my rambling, its a good post on a good subject. Main lesson I would suppose to be had for the non reloader is the value of the old designs, flatter faced, heavy for pistol caliber bullets with the right performance are tried true performers, giving big calibers, and the ol 38 Special, a place in this modern world yet.

    Reply

  • Roger

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    I use a 45colt for concealed carry in a Taurus 450 Ti. I use Silvertips. A poiru crimped ammo pulls in the light revolver.

    Reply

  • sam1776

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    Thank you for sharing exceptional piece of knowledge with us, I really like the way you described every thing in a simple form.

    Reply

  • DeadArmadillo

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    I thought I had a lot of field experience until I read this. Cause I’ve thought for a long time that the 45 ACP was crap and only exists because of the chew, chew, spit crowd that is looking for the next larger size of belt.

    Reply

  • Konrad Lau

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    I am with you on the 230-grain lead round nose WW231 load. That is my “standard” load in my 1911 and was the official self defense load for many years.
    Accurate, accurate, accurate, what else can I say?
    Similarly, I have a “standard” 44 Magnum 300 grain, WW296 load that if it doesn’t kill ‘em outright, they will have hearing damage and be dazed by the muzzle flash. I have always thought I may be able to get at least a second round of in their bedazzlement.
    I also have a Winchester Model 94 in 44 Mag, but much prefer to shoot a “standard” Hornady XTP 210 grain/WW 231 in that straight-stocked carbine.
    I also have a “standard” 375 H&H Magnum load that works incredibly well in both of my rifles. Sierra 300 grain Spitzer Bot Tail Game King over 77.7 grains of IMR 4350 and a Federal Magnum primer. No crow is safe within 200 yards!

    Reply

  • Spencer

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    Since I’m very prone to flinching, I don’t shoot full power loads thru anything except for 22 rimfire & my Ruger Blackhawk chambered for my 30 caliber carbine using Speer 100 grain Plinkers. It’ll match velocities of 357, 41 & 44 calibers any time. It’s quite pleasant to shoot, but the muzzle blast seems to me to be just as loud as the other 3 magnums, so ear protection is a must.

    Reply

  • Kaniksu Kidd

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    I agree completely. My EDC sidearm on my 20 acres in N. Idaho is a Ruger GP100 3″ Barrel Wiley Clapp .357. I use handloads consisting of a 185 gr. flat nose cast lead Beartooth bullet over 14 gr. of H110. This load is a full 2.5 grs. under maximum. It is very pleasant to shoot, as accurate as I can make it, and does not produce a miniature Sun at the muzzle when it is fired. I loaded 6 rounds of 16.5 grs and fired them and kept dropping the charge until it was comfortable to shoot and there was little to no muzzle flash. I did the same thing with my .44 magnum. Now I actually look forward to firing my magnum revolvers. A hit with a slightly reduced load is better than a miss with a maximum load.

    Reply

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