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Tips for Semiauto Pistol Reloading

by Allan Jones   |  May 2nd, 2011 0

As with revolver ammo, sorted cases will give the best results…


Avoiding compressed charges when loading semiauto pistol cartridges on a progressive press eliminates many loading problems.

In my last column I posted tips I’d picked up over some 40 years of reloading revolver ammo, both for my personal use and in the ballistics lab. This time I’ll offer some of the same for reloading for semiauto pistols.

Sort Cases
As with revolver ammo, sorted cases will give the best results. The smaller cases need more attention, especially the 9mm Luger. Those can vary in construction within one brand of case, so I go as far as sorting 9mm by brand and then by headstamp within the brand.

If you load 9mm on a progressive press, sorting takes a lot of the hiccups out of the system. Variations in case-neck thickness can be a hindrance in both the neck expansion and bulletseating stages.

Remove Military Primer Crimps
If you’re reloading military surplus cases, you need to deal with the primer crimp. Failure to remove the crimp can create a safety issue on a progressive loader. Should a primer catch on the remnants of a crimp that’s not been properly removed, that primer can deform or, worse, go "hot." At best, you’ll have to stop the process and muck out the results of the snag.

I have no strong feelings on how to remove the crimp–you either ream or swage it out. The only problem I’ve seen with reaming stems from a dull cutter; it starts pushing metal rather than cutting it and can leave a ring of brass in the pocket that’s as detrimental to the loading process as the original crimp.

Select The Propellant Carefully
What you intend to do with the ammo is crucial when selecting a propellant. Semiautos can fail to function if you pick the wrong burning rate. I helped a caller work through a problem of sloppy function with .45 Auto reloads. It turns out he didn’t have any fast-burning propellants and, by means best not described here, came up with a load for a relatively slow-burning revolver propellant. The pressure rise was too slow for the .45 Auto, and he lost the sharp impulse common to target-class propellants and had a malfunction rate of around 50 percent.

The 9mm Luger and .40 S&W share a liking for the same classes of propellants, and those fuels tend to be slower burning than most of us select for .45 Auto. You can load fast propellants, such as Bullseye, W231, TiteGroup, and similar products, for light target loads, but you must make sure your pistol functions at lower velocities. A short-stroke compact 9mm or .40 may not deal with light loads as well as a full-size model. Choose a propellant like HS-6, Power Pistol, Accurate Arms No. 5 or No.7, or VihtaVuori 3N37 for full-power 9mm and .40 S&W loads.

Use Velocity Window To Determine Charge Weight
Keep in mind that all semiauto pistols have a "window" of velocity in which they are designed to operate. Select a charge producing too little velocity and the pistol may not cycle reliably; too much velocity can stress the slide capture system and damage the frame and/or slide. A good rule of thumb for loading at the top end is to look to factory load specs offered by the major hitters and note the highest velocity shown with each bullet weight. That is the level the big ammo factories have determined is the fastest that can be loaded without reaching levels of slide velocity that are potentially harmful.

Whenever possible, avoid heavily compressed charges when loading on a progressive press.


The barrel from your pistol makes the perfect check gauge for ensuring you’ve assembled good ammo.

Match Bullet Shape To Factory Ammo
Always match the bullet profile to factory ammo. A 9mm Luger requires a different nose profile than the .357 SIG, even though they share the same bullet diameter and weights. Load a 115-grain NATO-profile 9mm Luger FMJ in a .357 SIG and there may not be enough bullet contacting the case neck to retain the bullet in feeding, even when the cartridge is at maximum overall length. A component bullet profiled for the .357 SIG may be too short for reliable feeding in a 9mm pistol.

When we did handgun loads for the Speer manuals, we used the same cartridge overall lengths (COL) as Speer factory ammo loaded with the same bullet. Those lengths were carefully developed for best function, and we saw no reason to reinvent the wheel.

Taper Crimp
Taper crimping is the best choice for semiautos. The grip of the case on the bullet should be enough to prevent setback without crimping. If you are crimping to solve a loose bullet problem, something else is amiss "upstream" in the process. Crimping finishes the case mouth for smooth feeding and establishes the headspace point for most semiauto cartridges.

Use Your Built-In Cartridge Gauge
The barrel from your pistol makes the perfect check gauge for your reloads. Unload the pistol and remove the barrel, making sure the chamber is dry and free of any debris. Drop a factory load into the chamber and make a note of where it stops.

When setting up your seating die, seat and crimp a bullet and drop the cartridge in the barrel. Compare where your handload stops to the factory ammo you checked–they should be approximately the same. If it falls significantly below the factory load, the case is likely too short. Next, lightly press the case head with your thumb and turn the barrel muzzle up. If the case does not fall out unaided, check for the following:

• The COL is too long and the bullet has already engaged the rifling.
• The case was not properly resized.
• You forgot to remove the case mouth flare during bullet crimping.

Test, Test, Test!
Before you create 1,000 rounds of a new load, assemble 20 to 30 and take them to the range. Ensure that you are satisfied with the function before doing up a pile of defective rounds that must be broken down because they don’t work.

I like light target and plinking loads to almost dribble the case from the pistol; that makes empties easy to collect and does not disturb others on the firing line. In my IPSC days, I wanted the cases to fall well clear of the gun so I wouldn’t slip
on one during the moving stages. Doing the "clown on spilled marbles" gag destroys any hope you had for looking cool!

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