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Powders Compared: Today's Versus Yesteryear's

Ever wonder if the powders manufactured today are more powerful than the same ones made decades ago? The author discovers the truth.

I received a message from a faithful reader in Canada, and he asked a question that--answered--made for a column in and of itself. His question was, "Are the powders manufactured today more powerful than the same ones made years ago, or are we seeing reduced loads listed in today's manuals because of a fear of potential lawsuits?"

The reader included a couple of load recipes for the .300 Winchester Magnum from the 1970 and the 2007 editions of the same company's reloading manual.

The first example indicated that the recommended charge weight had apparently been reduced by a whopping 11 grains, or approximately 14 percent. The subject propellant was IMR-4831. My memory bells started to ring immediately.

First of all, there are currently two canistered propellants sharing the 4831 designation. They are IMR-4831 and H4831. I know, I know, Hodgdon sells a short-cut version of H4831, but H4831SC has the same burn rate as H4831.

Nearly 40 years ago when I started handloading, the only 4831 available was military surplus sold by Hodgdon. Coincidentally, it was made by DuPont, so it actually was an IMR noncanistered powder. I checked my early reference materials and confirmed my recollection with the Speer Reloading Manual Number 7 and the 1969-'70, 1971-'72, and 1975-'76 DuPont loading booklets. I also had the original, undated DuPont announcement when IMR-4831 propellant was brand new, with load recipes for several popular bullet/cartridge combinations.

The Speer manual listed 4831 as a recommended powder, but please note the "IMR" prefix is missing. And the first two DuPont booklets listed all of the IMR propellants in descending order of relative burn rate (fastest to slowest) with IMR-4350 listed last. The 1975-'76 booklet also had IMR-4831 recipes (listed after IMR-4350) for several cartridges, including .300 Win. Mag.


I could also recall the controversy that ensued when IMR-4831 was introduced circa 1973. The burn rate was definitely faster than the old, surplus powder sold by Hodgdon. When the original stock of original 4831 was gone, Hodgdon contracted with another supplier to provide remanufactured propellant with comparable performance to the original 4831. Hodgdon labeled it H4831 to distinguish it from IMR's then-new 4831.

So, it seems the reader was unknowingly comparing apples to oranges or, at the very least, Golden Delicious to Gala apples.

In the current Speer manual, the max loads for the .300 Win. Mag. with a 180-grain JSP bullet for IMR-4831 and H4831SC are 73 and 75 grains, respectively. That's only about 2½ percent difference, so the burn rate explains most of the apparent confusion between the 1970 and the 2007 load data.

The other comparison of load data offered by the reader was for IMR-4350, also in the .300 Win. Mag. This time, the apparent difference is only about 7 percent. There's no extenuating circumstance like the old/new 4831 story to explain this situation, so I spoke with an industry source, and he assured me that the specification for IMR-4350 is the same today as it was 70+ years ago when it was introduced.

Of course, until 25 years or so ago, there was only one 4350. Today, we have H4350 (Hodgdon) and AA 4350 (Accurate Arms) available in addition to the IMR version. In this case, the propellant burn rates are much more alike than the quite dissimilar versions of 4831.

I also asked a couple of industry sources who have decades of experience in the handloading component business if any lawyers had ever demanded that they "lower the bar," so to speak, for max charges in order to reduce the possibility for lawsuits. Both gave prompt and simple responses. "No!"

They reminded me that SAAMI sets the pressure standards for every cartridge the ammunition factories make. The component suppliers share a least a couple common traits: They're competitive, and they're not stupid. They will publish the most aggressive load data possible to tout their product's superior performance compared to their competitors' products, but they do so within carefully demonstrated limits.

Those limits include safety margins that are based on cumulative experience garnered from extensive testing. I've talked to several lab technicians over the years and recall comments such as: "We increase the charge until we reach 97 percent max pressures for the .30-06, assuming the statistical pressure deviation remains stable. If not, the propellant is not suitable, and we don't recommend that particular bullet/powder/primer combination."

Another technician once said, "We don't exceed max charges that deliver a nominal 2-percent reduction from the SAAMI maximum allowable pressures for most cartridges."

Taking a quick look at max load data in old and current manuals for a 180-grain JSP, .30-06 handload, I found that more than 80 percent of the nearly 30 comparable handloads were either the same (within 0.5 grains) or higher in the later editions. A representative sampling of those findings is listed in the accompanying chart.

Of course, many other changes have occurred since 1970. New bullet designs have probably had the most impact on loading data. Back then, Nosler's Partition was the only really different jacketed bullet. The rest typically shared the standard cup-and-core construction. And even Nosler's unique design was similar with its partitioned cup that separated forward and aft lead cores. Bitterroot made the only bonded-core bullet, but the limited production would scarcely affect most handloaders. Because of the similarity in bullet design and construction techniques, most manuals simply listed load recipes for jacketed bullets that were categorized solely by weight.

Since then, Barnes introduced the solid-copper X-Bullet, which has recently been replaced by the improved Triple-Shock. Jack Carter (then Speer and now Federal) marketed the Trophy Bonded bullet. Winchester made/makes the Fail-Safe, XP3, and Power Max Bonded bullets. Nosler has added E-Tips and AccuBond bullets. Hornady also offers the InterBond and a couple of new monolithic material bullets. These are in addition to the myriad cup-and-core bullets still made by these companies and Remington and Winchester. Many of them now have polycarbonate tips to enhance exterior and terminal ballistic performance.

In response to the part of the reader's question about whether today's propellants are more powerful, the answer is simply, "No."

According to my inquiries, a few years

ago a supplier improved the formulation of several handgun/shotshell propellants to provide cleaner burning. Another acknowledged the control lot for a popular rifle powder was inadvertently lost. It took a couple years to reestablish the appropriate performance standard for that specific propellant, and the burn rates of production lots shipped during that period varied excessively. Obviously, recommended charge weights had to be adjusted to avoid exceeding safe pressures.

The most obvious change is the continuing proliferation of new propellants. New products imported by foreign companies and those added by the domestic suppliers have doubled the number of propellants (now approximately 150) available to handloaders. Several are, in fact, higher energy formulations than anything available 40 years ago. Spherical, or ball, powders were just becoming available commercially in the late 1960s. Although new and improved double-base spherical powders seem to come and go more frequently than the single-base stick propellants, they are mainstream products today.

Currently, the various different bullet designs simply make yesteryear's one-size-fits-all load recipes obsolete. Simply substituting another 180-grain bullet in your .300 Win. Mag. handloads may not be satisfactory. And it could be quite dangerous.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Review and compare the handload recipes shown in several of the latest loading manuals. They've been extensively tested and, barring the rare typo or printing error, are the most reliable and safe reloading information available.

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Powder Charges For 180-Grain .30-06 Handloads

Powder Type
ManualIMR-3031 IMR-4895 IMR-4064 IMR-4320 IMR-4350 IMR-4381 BL-C(2) H380 H414 H450 H4831
Hodgdon No.22 N/R N/R N/R N/R N/R N/R 47.551.054.0 59.060.0
Hodgdon 2009 Annual Manual N/R 48.0 48.747.856.556.848.553.055.5 N/R60.0
Hornady 1st Edition 47.8 50.3 48.9 51.1 56.0 N/R N/R 53.2N/R 57.657.6
Hornady 7th Edition N/R N/R 49.2 N/R 54.5 56.3 N/R N/R 55.3 N/R N/R
Lyman 45th Edition 46.0 47.5 49.0 50.5 56.0 N/R 47.5 49.0N/R 56.560.0
Lyman 49th Edition N/R 47.5 49.0 46.3 56.0 58.4 N/R N/R N/R N/R 60.0
Nosler 1st Edition N/R 45.0 47.0 49.0 55.0 57.0 N/R N/RN/R N/R N/R
Nosler 6th Edition N/R 45.0 N/R 49.0 55.0 57.0 N/R N/R N/R N/R N/R
Sierra 1st Edition 46.2 46.3 48.8 48.9 56.0 N/R 46.9 48.8 N/R 56.1 59.2
Sierra 5th Edition N/R 46.2 48.7 48.1 55.3 57.7 N/R 49.5 N/R N/R 59.3
Speer 9th Edition 44.0 43.5 49.5 N/R 57.0 59.0 N/R N/R 54.0 59.0 N/R
Speer 14th Edition N/R 47.0 40.0 N/R 55.0 59.0 N/R N/R 55.0 N/R 62.0
Notes:The data lists the recommended maximum loads from 30-year-old loading manuals and the latest editions. As you can see the often-exaggerated disparities between max loads found among the most recent editions may simply reflect the heritage of the data developed by each propellant or bullet maker. However, there was no wholesale dumbing down on the charge weight recommendations by the legal counsels during the last three decades or so.

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