Reloading Heavy Bullets in 9mm Luger
July 31, 2015
Most people who shoot a 9mm Luger use 115 and 124 grain bullets, since these are the typical weights for this cartridge. Some shooters prefer a heavier bullet, and the most common heavy weight is 147 grains. These bullets usually offer more penetration and a softer feeling recoil impulse when fired at the same power factor as lighter bullets.
The 9mm will handle heavier bullets. Fiocchi, IMI and Prvi Partizan offer a 158 grain FMJ round at 850, 935 and 984 fps, respectively. Their subsonic velocity is ideal for suppressors. The usual big name U.S. manufacturers, CCI, Federal, Remington and Winchester, don't offer anything over 147 grains.
Heavy cast 9mm bullets are available from several online vendors. A 160 grain RN version is the most common. X-Treme Bullets offers a 165 grain plated RN. One used to be able to get IMI's 9mm 158 grain FMJ bullets, but these seem hard to find nowadays. Some folks use 158 grain .38/.357 caliber revolver bullets in their 9mm.
Finding heavy bullets isn't a problem, but finding load data for them is.
There simply isn't much load data for the super-heavy 9mm bullets. Most manuals stop at 147 grains, though Hodgdon and Vihtavuori have data for 150 grain bullets. The current Lyman manual (49th Edition) does not have load data for anything heavier than 147 grains, but older manuals do. The Lyman 44th Edition has data for Bullseye, Red Dot, Unique and Herco for 158 grain cast lead bullets (bullet mold #358311) and is available here. Powder formulation might or might not have changed a bit since then, so I don't know how valid the data is today. Just keep in mind that the information is 48 years old. They don't list an overall length.
As luck would have it, I didn't have any of the powders in the Lyman manual, nor could I find any at local stores. I contacted Hodgdon, Western Powders and Alliant to see if they had data for heavy bullets. None had pressure-tested data, but Western Powders offered an estimated load range for 160 grain bullets with Accurate No. 7, starting with 5.0 grains for about 700 fps, and a maximum of 6.1 grains for about 800 fps.
I also asked the heavy bullet makers for load data, and Black and Blue Bullets responded with a load they used in a revolver: 2.6 to 2.7 grains of Vihtavuori N310 loaded to 1.250" or shorter. Note that 1.250" is much longer than the 9mm Luger's maximum overall length of 1.169". None of the other heavy bullet makers I asked had load data.
I also searched around the web to see what other folks were using. People are using a wide range of powders from fast (N310) to slow (Accurate No. 7) for these heavyweights.
In the absence of pressure tested data (with the possible exception of the old Lyman manual), I relied on QuickLOAD (QL) internal ballistics software (version 22.214.171.124 ) to set limits for my tests. The SAAMI maximum average pressure limit for the 9mm Luger is 35,000 psi, and the limit for 9mm +P is 38,500 psi. My goal was not to find the highest velocities for a given powder, but simply to find some loads that would work and did not have excessive QL pressure estimates.
QuickLOAD (QL) estimates pressure based on the volume of the case, bullet weight, length, material (friction?), seating depth and the burning properties of the gunpowder. QL makes educated guesses. But it is still guessing, and is not the same as rigorous lab testing with a piezoelectric transducer under controlled conditions. The author/s of QL is/are fully aware of this and the software comes with many warnings and disclaimers with these facts in mind. I report the estimated pressures, but I do not claim or imply that they are accurate. I only report them to show what the QL software calculated.
Six bullets and eight gunpowders were used. I loaded 9mm and .38/.357 caliber revolver bullets. The 9mm bullets were Bayou Bullets 160 grain polymer coated cast RN, X-Treme Bullets 165 grain plated RN and IMI 158 grain FMJ. The .38/.357 bullets were Armscor 158 grain FMJ, Berry's 158 grain plated RN and Rainier 158 grain plated HP. The gunpowders were Accurate No. 7, Alliant Power Pistol, Hodgdon Titegroup, Ramshot Silhouette, VihtaVuori N310 and N320, and Winchester 231 and Super Field (WSF).
I used Winchester and Federal brass and Winchester small pistol primers. Velocity was recorded with a Shooting Chrony chronograph at about 10 feet. Velocities are the average of a 10-shot string.
These bullets are long, which means they go deep in the case and should be seated to a long overall length to prevent excessive case bulge. Most 9mm brass starts to become thicker right around where the base of these bullets sit. This is one reason that some heavy 9mm bullets, such as the Hornady 147 grain and IMI 158 grain bullets have a boat tail. The boat tail prevents the bullet from excessively bulging the brass where it starts to thicken. If the case bulges too much, it won't fit in the chamber.
Cases tend to bulge to varying degrees with many of these bullets. I tried seating the 158 grain Armscor FMJ .357 bullets in Winchester brass, but they bulged the brass too much and would not fit in my chamber. I thought it might be due to their slightly larger diameter (0.001-0.002"), but that seemed unlikely because they were significantly shorter than the X-Treme bullets which did not excessively bulge the brass. Curious as to why the X-Treme bullets fit, I pulled one after seating it and saw that the base was being slightly swaged to a boat tail shape. Plated bullets are relatively soft and readily deform. The base of the Rainier and Berry's plated bullets were also swaged a little. The reason the shorter FMJ bullets were bulging the case so much was because the base of the FMJ bullets was reluctant to swage.
Not all brass is the same, and some Federal 9mm brass has thinner walls at that position. They accepted the Armscor FMJ bullets without excess bulging, and they fit in my chamber. This means that some brands of brass will be more forgiving than others with these long bullets. Whether the bulged cases will fit in your gun will depend on your chamber's dimensions.
Fiocchi factory 158 grain FMJ ammunition chronographed an average of 936 fps from my test gun, a Glock Model 19 (4" barrel). The Fiocchi rounds' overall length measured 1.135".
I tried a reduced charge of Black and Blue Bullets' recommended load with 2.5 grains of N310 with Bayou 160 grain bullets at an overall length of 1.155". It produced 761 fps but I experienced some cycling malfunctions in the Glock because it produced so little recoil. QL's estimated pressure for this load was high at 41,415 psi. I reduced the load to 2.3 grains to keep estimated pressures reasonable, but at an average of 738 fps, none of these rounds cycled the gun reliably. This powder is awfully fast for this application and won't produce much of a recoil impulse or velocity at standard operating pressures.
Fast burning powders generally use small charge weights and approach the maximum recommended pressure limit rather quickly and might produce only modest velocities. The low charge weights and low velocities translates into a low and slow recoil impulse which can be quite pleasant to shoot. However, the low recoil impulse also means that they might not reliably cycle some 9mm pistols with standard weight recoil springs, and a weaker recoil spring might be required for reliable function. A couple of the reported loads would not reliably cycle my Glock with the factory recoil spring. Those loads are noted in the tables.
In general, loads with fast powders that used low charge weights and produced velocities below 800 fps did not reliably cycle the Glock. If you want slow moving bullets but need reliable cycling, use a slower powder. It will require more weight for the same velocity as fast powders but the additional weight of the slow powder will produce more recoil force. Good candidate powders for this application from the ones I used are Accurate No. 7, Alliant Power Pistol, and Ramshot Silhouette. Or you can try a weaker recoil spring.
Folks interested in high velocities should use slower burning gunpowders as they tend to produce more velocity than faster gunpowders for the same pressure. Accurate No. 7 and Power Pistol are good powders for this role, and Accurate No. 7 was able to match Fiocchi factory velocities with Bayou and Armscor bullets within safe estimated pressure limits.
Bullet shape varies and some bullets are longer than others even though they weigh the same. Longer bullets take up more space in the case and will produce higher pressure if they are loaded to the same overall length. If you're using long-for-weight bullets, you might need to reduce the charge weight to keep pressures within safe operating levels.
A couple of the test loads had an estimated pressure in the 9mm Luger +P range, as noted in the tables. If you want to keep your pressures below the standard pressure limit, drop the charge weight by 0.1 grains for those loads. I did not see an obvious sign of excess pressure with these loads, as indicated by excess bulging of the cases in the unsupported region of the chamber. Follow safe guidelines and use caution when developing your handloads and watch for pressure signs.
Some folks prefer the recoil impulse of heavy bullets because it feels more like a push compared to the snap of light weight bullets. These heavyweights were delightful to shoot, so if you're looking for soft-shooting, hard-hitting bullets, give them a try.
The author is not responsible for mishaps of any kind, which might occur from the use of this data in developing your handloads. It is the user's responsibility to follow safe handloading guidelines to develop safe ammunition. You use this data at your own risk. No responsibility for the use or safety in use of this data is assumed or implied.