February 08, 2016
My recollection of the first time I seated a bullet into a primed and charged cartridge case has long since faded. All I really remember is that it was a long time back. My dad began familiarizing me with reloading handgun ammunition at a young age. He taught me the handloading ropes meticulously and didn't allow me to handle gunpowder or charge cases until I had plenty of experience with the less dangerous stuff.
My favorite task in Dad's reloading room was casting bullets. Looking back, it's a little surprising, actually, that he allowed me to handle that hot lead at such a tender age. He was a huge fan of the .38 Special and .357 Magnum and reloaded for those calibers more than any other. That being the case, I cast an untold number of .38-caliber bullets.
Our favorite .38-caliber bullets were cast using the famous Lyman No. 357446 and No. 356156 molds. They threw almost identical pills, except No. 356156 is a gascheck bullet. The recipe we used for the lead was 1:15 tin to lead.
For heavy .38 Spl. and .357 Mag. loads we used No. 358156 with gaschecks. It was a very accurate, clean-shooting bullet, excellent for hunting, especially in the hollowpoint version. No. 358156 is outfitted with two crimping grooves. Crimping in the upper groove proved best for standard .38 and .357 rounds. Crimping in the lower groove permitted more room in the case, thus allowing space for more powder. We used 13.5 grains of 2400 powder, which propelled our 155-grain slugs at around 1,150 fps. That's not a load to be used in lightweight revolvers.
For my 13th birthday, Dad fixed up a beat-up old Colt First Generation single-action revolver in .45 Long Colt. The old thumbbuster had been down in Mexico for many years, and it had been enthusiastically abused. When he first traded for the old gun, it looked like someone had been using it to stir cauldrons of chili. After the old man finished refurbishing the Colt, it was a thing of beauty. He replaced most of the internal parts and springs and the barrel and the cylinder, and he fitted it with figured walnut stocks and bead blasted the frame.
The replacement barrel and cylinder were Second Generation parts. Due to the fit of the throat and barrel, the gun wouldn't shoot standard factory .45 Long Colt ammunition worth a hoot, making it necessary to cast and size bullets for the gun.
I always enjoyed casting .45 bullets and loading the cartridges — I just like the look and feel of them. Needless to say, I put together a lot of .45 LC hand-loads after receiving that old SAA. I used my dad's favorite load, consisting of 9.0 grains of Unique behind 250- to 265-grain cast bullets. I cast the Lyman No. 454424 semiwadcutter bullet, which was accurate and easy to work with.
Years after gaining all that practice casting bullets and reloading for the old Colt hogleg, I became more interested in the .44 Special and the .44 Magnum. Of course, I had to put yet another one of Dad's favorite loads to use, one he borrowed from the great Elmer Keith.
The Lyman No. 429421 bullet was designed by Keith and is still relatively popular with today's .44 revolver enthusiasts, along with No. 429244, the gascheck version of the same pill. The Keith bullet generally runs about 250 grains, is very accurate, and hits hard when it comes to hunting game. For .44 Magnum loads, I've always preferred using 21 grains of 2400. Keith's preference of 7.5 grains of Unique is still a great combination for the .44 Special.
My reloading now isn't as prolific as it was back in the old days, partially because I don't have the time. This is unfortunate as it's a fascinating pastime that was taught to me by a real expert in the field. Regardless, I remember many of the lessons he passed on to me during our reloading and shooting experiences — little pieces of advice you don't always see in reloading manuals or gun magazines.
Bits of Handloading Wisdom
Among those bits of reloading intelligence was something he harped on constantly while we worked in the roll-your-own room: check your work, then check it again. Double powder charges or no charge in a cartridge case can mean real trouble. We used a one-stage press for everything and reloaded cartridges in phases. The primed and sized cases were charged in a single stage, then placed in a loading block. We'd then take the block outside into the sunlight where we could see each charged case clearly to ensure uniformity.
Overkill? Perhaps, but we never had a double charge or a blown barrel from lodging a bullet in the barrel from a no-charge.
Not sure about a powder in your dispenser? Toss it. It's not worth taking a chance over a few bucks.
Another bit of counsel in particular has really stayed with me over the years: Never shoot anyone else's reloads, no matter who they are.
This advice might seem a little insensitive, but it must be followed. A few years back, one of our old friends, a prominent Texas rancher who had reloaded tens of thousands of rounds of ammo throughout his life, experienced a horrible accident. We're still not sure what happened exactly, but it's likely he wasn't paying quite enough attention to the powder he was using to load .444 Marlin ammo. When he fired the first round, the rifle virtually detonated, and he almost lost his left hand over the incident.
I would've trusted this man's reloading skills over almost anyone I know.
The loading room has provided me with a lot of pleasure, many good memories, and a good deal of education over the years. There's been a lot of innovation in bullets, propellants, and other reloading components since I started fooling with it, but at the end of the day, I still love the old standbys — they won't steer you wrong.