January 04, 2011
Ruger's New Model Blackhawk is tough, but even it can't withstand the pressures approaching two times proof levels generated by a nearly double propellant charge. The case was new before the incident, and the blurred headstamp and enlarged primer pocket indicate excessive pressure.
It's been approximately seven hours since the "see" occurred as I now begin to document what happened. No, I haven't experienced the mysterious secondary explosive effect while firing one of my handloads. I participated in the aftermath of a significant emotional event in which--fortunately--no one was physically injured. The only casualty was the partial destruction of a 50th Anniversary Ruger .44 Magnum Blackhawk. The shooter directly involved agreed to let me relate the story if I would omit the names of those directly involved with the incident.
Of course, you and I both have seen photos of damaged or destroyed firearms caused by faulty handloads, bore obstructions, or other anomalies. I, however, had never experienced or even witnessed an incident like this before today's mishap.
I'm a member of a local shooting club and spend quite a lot of time at our range. I arrived at the range today an hour or so before two other members showed up. One of the shooters was John Redman, whom I have known for some time. He has been a handloader for 50 years and is one of my mentors. The other fellow had only recently resumed shooting and reloading, but I've known his father and brother for several years, and we've shared many range sessions.
I helped them unload their gear and set up to shoot handguns.
After they'd stapled up targets, the friendly banter ended, and we took our shooting positions. (I was shooting a new rifle I had recently acquired.) During the next few minutes, we each fired several shots downrange. I didn't hear anything unusual until Redman called my name--urgently.
I turned and saw both of them standing behind the young fellow's shooting bench and looking around. I thought at first Redman wanted me to help them find some brass, but then I noticed his expression.
I opened my rifle's bolt, removed my muffs, and got up. As I walked over to them, I realized that both of them were alarmed about something. They seemed to be okay, so I glanced over at the bench. The Ruger Blackhawk was lying there with the topstrap buckled and part of the cylinder missing.
"Are you okay?" I asked the young man as I scanned his face and body for cuts or blood and burn marks.
"I'm fine--I think," he replied.
Redman said he couldn't see any injuries either, and we soon were examining the revolver and looking for the missing pieces. We found two ruptured cases and even the primer from the round that had obviously been fired. The second case was clean internally with its primer still in place, and although damaged, it had not detonated. We also found the rear sight and the cylinder fragment.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I fired six rounds loaded with 9.8 grains of Titegroup and a 200-grain Hornady JHP-XTP bullet. They made six distinct holes in a nice group. So I loaded the next six rounds that were charged with 10.8 grains. The wind was lightly blowing from the rear, so I was surprised to feel a puff of something hit my face when I squeezed the trigger. I didn't feel the gun recoil any greater than before."
He took a breath and continued, "I looked down at the gun when I started to cock the hammer again and saw the topstrap was bent and cracked, and the rear sight was missing. I turned the revolver to the side a little and saw the cylinder was blown out. Then I put it down and got up to see if I was hurt. I removed my shooting glove and haven't found anything."
We looked him over again to make sure he wasn't bleeding anywhere. He didn't have even any small powder burns on his face or arms. Boy, he was one lucky fellow!
But I wondered just what had happened.
I looked at the fired case head and noted the headstamp was severely blurred. He had loaded new brass, and the other rounds in the box had clearly stamped case heads. It seemed to be an overloaded round.
I called Mike Daly at Hodgdon on my cell phone and described the condition of the fired case and firearm. He confirmed that 10.8 grains was the maximum load for a 200-grain jacketed bullet and assured me that would not have caused this extreme failure. We agreed the most probable cause was significantly too much propellant.
I hung up and asked how the young man had charged the cases.
He said he had weighed each powder charge before pouring it into the case. He had started reloading again just a few months ago, but he only loaded at his dad's so that his dad could supervise.
We called his father, related the incident, and assured him his son was just fine, except for his elevated heart rate.
After he'd calmed down so he could safely drive, Redman and I helped him pack up. He said he was going straight to his dad's house.
About an hour later, the father called. He had already removed the cylinder to access the remaining live rounds. The cylinder pin was bent slightly, but he had tapped it out carefully with a screwdriver and hammer after peening down one edge of the ruptured cylinder wall so it would clear the frame.
Another round was slightly damaged, and the bullet fell out, spilling the powder. The other three rounds were fully intact. He had disassembled one of them, poured the salvaged charge into the pan, and placed it on the tray. After adjusting the scale settings, he concluded what had caused the blow-up.
The son repeated the rest of the story to me later:
"Dad asked me, 'What does the scale read?' I said 'Ten point eight grains.' Dad said, 'Look at it again, son.' I said, 'Dad, it's exactly the same as I set it last night, 10.8 grains!' Dad said, 'Look at it again, son, carefully.' "
He continued, "Dad wouldn't have insisted that I look at it again unless I was wrong. So I wiped my mind clean and reexamined the settings and realized the scale wa
s set on 18 grains--not 10.8."
A week later, I returned to the range and found all three participants from the previous week's incident. Of course, we had to rehash the event. The young fellow had already reloaded more ammo. His dad acknowledged he shared the blame for the mishap because, although he was there when his son loaded the discrepant .44 Magnum ammo, he wasn't diligently observing when the error occurred.
"You can't be too careful," is an excellent mantra to follow when reloading. However, on this occasion, the novice reloader was being very careful and weighed each charge. He was sure he was doing the right thing. He simply did what we all have done before. He saw what he expected to see instead of the actual scale setting.
That day at the range was still a good day. The young man was very lucky to have not been hurt.