June 29, 2018
By Brad Miller, Ph.D.
Serious target shooters can be a fussy lot. They demand the most accurate guns and ammunition possible. Bullseye shooters- those shooters who participate in Bullseye matches- fall into this category because they need extreme accuracy to be competitive. Bullseye competitions place the targets at 25 and 50 yards. At 50 yards, the B-6 target 10-ring is 3.36 inches in diameter, and the X-ring is 1.695 inches in diameter. The handgun, the ammunition, and the shooter's skill must all be top level to place hits within these minuscule dimensions.
What type of accuracy is required to compete at the top level in this sport? A common benchmark is that the gun must be capable of a 10-shot group at 50 yards that is less than 1.5 inches center-to-center. A well-tuned .45 ACP Model 1911 can do that. But an accurate gun is only one part of the formula. The ammunition must be up to the task as well.
Regular shooters- like me- can enhance our chances of hitting the target if we use super-accurate ammo, and there's no reason why we can't use the same ammo that Bullseye shooters use.
There is no single formula that all Bullseye shooters employ; several loads will produce excellent accuracy. In this report, I'm focusing on .45 ACP loads with 185-grain jacketed bullets. Jacketed bullets generally have the edge in accuracy over lead bullets, and among jacketed bullets, jacketed hollowpoint bullets are usually favored.
The lightweight 185-grain bullets help reduce recoil. Recoil matters because low recoil means lesser incidence of flinching, and flinching is your enemy when trying to put bullets on the target. We can adapt to low-recoil loads, but it becomes more difficult to adapt as recoil increases.
Bullets & Powders
After a lot of research, including consulting several competition shooters and gunsmiths, I can offer the following proven handloads. I think they're an excellent starting point for shooters developing loads for their own guns.
The bullet is the most important component in accurate ammunition. The most commonly used 185-grain jacketed bullets in this sport are made by Nosler and Zero. These bullets look virtually identical, and my gun shoots both equally well. I've fired both with the same loads, and sometimes the Nosler shoots a little better and sometimes the Zero shoots a little better. And sometimes they produce the exact same group size.
Hornady and Sierra also make excellent and accurate 185-grain jacketed bullets. I have had occasion where one of these bullets outshoots the Nosler and Zero, but it's random and they don't always shoot better. I'd say they should be considered "as accurate" as the Nosler and Zero bullets, and I've included some in my test loads here.
Accurate bullets need to be paired with the right gunpowder. In keeping with the goal of low recoil, relatively fast-burning powders best achieve this goal. Fast-burning powders require less weight to reach a given velocity than slow-burning powders. Powder weight matters because a powder that requires less weight to push a given bullet to a given velocity produces less recoil than a powder that requires more weight. This is because the weight of the powder is part of the mass that is ejected out of the barrel along with the bullet. Through the principle of conservation of mass, the powder's weight is part of the formula to calculate recoil force, and less powder weight contributes less to the mass exiting the barrel.
The powders used by Bullseye shooters include VihtaVuori N310 and N320; Alliant Bullseye; Hodgdon 700-X, Clays, and Titegroup; and Winchester Super Target (WST) and 231. All these powders are capable of excellent accuracy in the .45 ACP. They are at the fast end of pistol powder burn rates and generally require small charge weights.
As you can see from the chart, there was a considerable range of charge weights. Generally, the velocity ranged between 700 fps and 800 fps. High speeds are not required, and more speed means more recoil. Also, some shooters believe this speed range is the sweet spot for accuracy. That might be the case for shooting at 50 yards, but my experience suggests that pushing them faster does not degrade accuracy at 25 yards- but that's the subject of another article.
Cases matter with respect to uniformity in case volume and length. Case volume affects pressure, so you want it to be as close to the same as possible. Uniform length matters because it affects headspace and crimp, which affect accuracy, so you want that to be as close to the same as possible, too. Less headspace is desired, so if you sort brass by length, longer cases might provide better accuracy because they fit in the chamber with less movement.
Starline brass gets the most nods from active Bullseye shooters, but Federal brass is also used frequently. Some shooters insist only that the brass be the same headstamp, and they aren't as concerned about what brand they use. Some shooters think new cases produce the best accuracy, while some prefer once-fired. Data demonstrating how accuracy decreases with once-fired cases has not been easy to find, though people anecdotally claim it happens. Cases do shrink with repeated firing/reloading, and this affects headspace which affects accuracy. I use Starline brass for just about every handgun cartridge I load, and they were used for the loads I built for this article.
The most common primers used by Bullseye shooters are Winchester, Federal, and CCI, with some shooters specifying Federal Match primers. Naturally, I'm referring to Large Pistol primers since that is the standard primer size for the .45 ACP. The .45 cases that take Small Pistol primers might be as effective, but most Bullseye shooters use the conventional large primer-pocket cases. I rarely see references to Remington primers, but they should not be discounted. I recently tested a new powder in the .45 ACP and a Remington primer with one load produced the smallest group.
Sometimes Magnum primers are specified. This might seem odd since most loading manuals advise that Magnum primers are required only when using large amounts of powder, such as with magnum handgun rounds like the .357 Magnum, etc., or when using certain spherical powders such as W296 that burn best with a more powerful primer. Here again, in Bullseye shooting, the goal is the best accuracy, and if a Magnum primer produced that in someone's tests, that's what they use.
It's worth pointing out that Winchester and Remington make only one type of Large Pistol primer. Winchester posts on its primer boxes that they are appropriate for standard and magnum loads. This differs from CCI and Federal who both make two types of Large Pistol primers: standard and Magnum.
To test some of the Bullseye handloads I learned about through my research, I put several together using new Starline cases; Nosler, Zero, Hornady, and Sierra JHP bullets; Winchester, Federal, and CCI primers; and VihtaVuori N310, VihtaVuori N320, Hodgdon 700-X, Hodgdon Clays, Hodgdon Titegroup, Alliant Bullseye, Winchester 231, and Winchester Super Target powder.
The Nosler, Zero, and Sierra JHP bullets were seated to a cartridge overall length (COL) of 1.200 inches. The Hornady HAP and XTP bullets were seated to a COL of 1.240 inches, and the Sierra FP bullet was seated to a COL of 1.150 inches. Crimp was 0.470 inch.
The Model 1911 used for the shooting tests has a Caspian slide and frame and a 5.0-inch Kart barrel. Keep in mind that my pistol is not Bullseye quality. I built it, not a professional Bullseye gunsmith. I mounted it in a Ransom Rest and fired a single 15-shot group at 25 yards for determining the accuracy of the handloads. Velocity was recorded at 10 feet from the muzzle and is the average of 15 rounds.
Sometimes my gun will throw a round outside the group. If one round was clearly outside the cluster of other hits, I only reported the group of 14 hits. In these instances, it was obvious that something was amiss because the outlier was distinct from the rest of the hits, and it was usually below the cluster. What went wrong was not clear, but I assume it was how the gun locked into battery. It could have been the powder or the bullet. But I forgave only one hit outside the group, and this did not happen often (only four of 55 groups fired). In those instances, I indicate the 14-shot groups with an asterisk (*).
VihtaVuori N310 is well known for its use in the .45 ACP paired with Nosler bullets and has been used with success by the USMC. Originally developed by Al Dorman, the recipe was 4.1 grains of N310 and the Nosler bullet seated to a COL of 1.200 inches. Loaded in new Winchester primed brass trimmed to a consistent length, his load has produced 10-shot groups at 50 yards around 1.0 inch center-to-center in match-grade 1911s. So, given its reputation and my prior experience with it producing excellent accuracy, I used N310 the most in my loads, and it produced some of the more consistent small groups from my pistol. My gun likes 4.2 grains of N310 paired with the Zero bullet: It produced a 30-shot group measuring 1.70 inches. Primer selection might be important for this powder, and Winchester and CCI 300 primers produced the smallest groups.
VihtaVuori N320 did not perform as well as N310 in my gun with the Nosler bullets; most 15-shot groups were over 2 inches. The Sierra bullets shot a little better with this powder.
Hodgdon 700-X, Alliant Bullseye, Hodgdon Clays, and Hodgdon Titegroup all produced similar results, with most 15-shot groups under 2 inches and the better groups around 1.5 inches.
WST results were fair, with most groups hovering around 2 inches. The Sierra JHP bullet seemed to be a good match with WST in my limited tests.
W231 produced some of the smallest groups, which is why I included it here. It has long been a favorite powder for many shooters, and it certainly performed well in my pistol. Tests would be required to see how it performs at 50 yards, but accuracy was very good at 25 yards.
Summing it up, all the powders produced nice groups from my pistol, though some were more consistently smaller than others. The overall average of the 55 groups fired was 1.90 inches. My gun showed preferences for some powders and specific loads, which is no surprise because most guns do.
Few of us will go to the efforts of some Bullseye shooters who might only use new brass, trimmed to the same length, and so on. The small gain in accuracy might be very important to a competitive shooter who is trying to squeeze every bit of accuracy from his or her ammunition. A reduction in group size of a half-inch at 50 yards is a big gain for them, but most shooters won't be able to tell much difference in their non-match pistol at the usual distances they shoot. Simply using a bullet and powder combination that produces excellent accuracy might be all they need to noticeably improve accuracy. An accurate bullet paired with the right powder (and possibly primer) can do wonders for shrinking group size.
Hopefully, the data I have provided here will provide shooters some starting points for developing accurate handloads for their pistols.
To view data, click on the images below: