June 30, 2021
By Layne Simpson
The .45 ACP has been with us for well over a century. During that time, it has established an untarnished reputation as one of the best personal-defense cartridges for autoloading pistols. And as proven long ago by Bullseye shooters, it is capable of a level of accuracy exceeded by no other handgun cartridge. John Browning’s grand old number has played a key role in the popularity of a number of competitive sports, so here are my favorite .45 ACP competition loads.
IDPA Compact Carry Pistol Division
Back in 1996, a group of shooting industry leaders headed by Bill Wilson formed the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA). Invitations for the first match held at the old Chapman Academy, near Columbia, Missouri, were sent out, and I had the pleasure of competing there. In August of the following year, I also competed in the first IDPA National Championships held at the United Sportsman’s Gun Club in Jefferson City, Missouri, and my report on the match was published in the April 1998 issue of Shooting Times. I used a Springfield Armory 1911 in .38 Super, and as luck would have it, I took top Expert class honors in the Enhanced Service Pistol Division.
IDPA originally had four divisions, but now there are more with Compact Carry Pistol added in 2015. Caliber is 9mm or larger, maximum gun weight with magazine is 38 ounces, maximum barrel length is 4.1 inches, and the gun must fit inside a space measuring 7.75 inches long, 5.38 inches tall, and 1.38 inches thick. Maximum rounds allowed in the gun is eight in the magazine plus one in the chamber. My Kimber Ultra Carry with a 3.0-inch barrel in .45 ACP qualifies with room to spare, and when loaded a bit beyond the 125 minimum power factor with 150- and 155-grain cast bullets, recoil and muzzle jump are quite manageable. As you can see in the accompanying chart, accuracy is plenty good for IDPA competition.
NRA Precision Pistol (Bullseye) Competition
In addition to being one of the top Bullseye competitors in the country, Jim Clark Sr. was an accomplished pistolsmith.
I had long wanted a 1911 in .45 ACP built by him, and when
I finally got around to doing so in the early 1990s, I considered it only fitting that my first one would be a Bullseye gun built on a Colt frame and slide. When shipping it, Clark recommended 3.7 to 3.9 grains of Bullseye powder behind a 185-grain cast semiwadcutter bullet for 25-yard targets and the same charges of Bullseye behind a 200-grain bullet at 50 yards. More recently, a couple of fellow gun club members who have attended the Camp Perry matches for several years mentioned that the 185-grain bullet from Zero Bullet Co. is one of the most popular jacketed bullets among today’s Bullseye shooters.
I have never shot my Clark gun in competition, but I enjoy shooting accurate guns, so it has punched many groups in paper over the years. Several years after adding it to my battery, I won a Kart barrel in .45 ACP at a USPSA match, and that accurate Clark 1911 suddenly became even more accurate when I installed the barrel. Whereas the gun mounted in a Ransom Rest had originally averaged 2.25 inches for 10 shots at 50 yards with its preferred loads, it consistently shot the same loads under two inches with the Kart barrel.
Because the .45 ACP headspaces on the mouth of its case, uniform case length is necessary for producing the best possible accuracy. While preparing a fresh batch of handloads for this report, I found very little variation in my Starline virgin brass, but they were all trimmed to 0.892 inch anyhow. Federal GM150M primers were seated with a Phase II Priming Tool from Sinclair International, and cast bullets were weight-sorted. All bullets were seated with a Redding Competition Seating Die and then lightly taper crimped. Cases that were fired a second time were full-length resized in a Redding Dual Ring carbide die. In addition to Bullseye propellant, as recommended by Clark, I also included Hodgdon Clays, and I used an RCBS MatchMaster to dispense all powder charges.
Unlimited Class USPSA Action Pistol Competition
I got into USPSA competition when most Unlimited Class competitors were shooting compensated, single-stack 1911s in .45 ACP. My gun was built by Al Dichiara on a Caspian frame and slide, and its Clark Custom barrel wears a full-profile compensator. The minimum power factor at the time was 175, calculated by multiplying bullet weight (in grains) times muzzle velocity and dividing by 1,000. As a cushion against variations in chronographs at various gun clubs, most of us loaded to a power factor of 180. I settled on a cast 200-grain SWC from Bull-X at 900 fps; unfortunately, the company is no longer in business.
After shooting the .45 ACP for about a year, I switched to a compensated single-stack 1911 in .38 Super wearing a Tasco ProPoint, which was the most popular red-dot sight used in USPSA competition at the time. Then came wide-body 1911 frames from Para Ordnance and STI International, and extended magazines holding 27 rounds of .38 Super immediately made the single-stack 1911 obsolete for Unlimited class competition. However, that first open-sighted, single-stack gun in .45 ACP is still with me, and I still enjoy shooting it with its favorite load that uses a 200-grain SWC lead-alloy bullet
Bowling Pin Competition
In the sport of indoor bowling, the pins are periodically replaced with new ones, and the old pins can usually be purchased at prices ranging from very little to nothing. Bowling pin matches used to be quite popular all across the country, and some gun clubs still hold them. Some events are timed, while others are one-on-one competition with the first competitor to knock a row of pins off a table winning the round. Simply tipping over a pin doesn’t count. It has to be blasted completely off the table. If it just lies down and refuses to roll off, you must keep on shooting until it does. I mostly used two compensated pistols in .45 ACP and still have them. One is a custom Colt Double Eagle, the other is a custom 1911 I once used in USPSA competition.
Bullet shape is important. A 230-grain roundnose bullet from the .45 ACP is effective with a dead-center hit on a pin, but an edge hit on its curved surface has a tendency to glance off and deliver most of its push into thin air while leaving the pin lying on the table. Adding a broad meplat to a roundnose bullet or switching to a semiwadcutter causes a bullet to dig into a pin with about any hit and send it flying off the table. Momentum is also important, and bullet weight is increased as much as is practical in the .45 ACP cartridge.
My favorite pin loads are built around 250- and 255-grain cast bullets. Even though cases practically last forever, I had long wanted to know what chamber pressures the loads were generating and recently had them tested in a transducer pressure gun with a 5.0-inch barrel. Starline cases and Federal GM150M primers were used. Respective start and maximum charges of W231 powder behind the Rim Rock 250-grain RNFP cast bullet are 4.8 grains (776 fps) and 5.6 grains (866 fps). Chamber pressures are 16,400 psi and 21,000 psi respectively. Respective start and maximum charges of W231 for the Rim Rock 255-grain SWC are 4.4 grains (732 fps) and 5.0 grains (815 fps). Chamber pressures are 16,500 psi and 20,800 psi respectively. SAAMI maximum pressure for standard .45 ACP ammunition is 21,000 psi.
Pistol Caliber Carbine Competition
Autoloading carbines chambered for pistol cartridges have become popular in divisions within USPSA, IDPA, Steel Challenge, and 3-Gun Competition. Some gun clubs are having Pistol Caliber Carbine Competition (PCC) matches with their own rules. After deciding to compete in one of those matches, I looked around to see which of my firearms would be most suitable. The original pistol-caliber carbines are lever actions, and while I have Marlins and Winchesters, low magazine capacity and snail-slow reloading ruled them out.
I then recalled a carbine conversion for 1911 pistols in .45 ACP offered by Wilson Combat several years ago. It works on all 1911 lowers, and I have mostly used mine on double-stack guns, such as a Kimber Polymer, a custom Para built by Wilson, and an STI Eagle built by Benny Hill. Competitors using 9mm PCC match guns with 33-round Glock magazines would have a huge capacity advantage, but a couple of 16-round magazines were on hand for my STI Eagle, and with good reload strategy while racing through a stage, I figured I would not be greatly handicapped. My handload with a Missouri Bullet Co. poly-coated 155-grain bullet generates only slightly more recoil than the 9mm Luger.
As it turned out, my overall accuracy with the .45 ACP proved to be as good as, and sometimes better than, competitors shooting 9mm guns, but elapsed times of some of the guys were a second or two quicker because on some stages they did not have to pause and reload a single time. I didn’t win, but I managed to finish high enough to make me want to keep on trying.
Well, there you have some of my favorite .45 ACP handloads for the various types of competition shooting I’ve enjoyed participating in through the years. Every one of them is capable of match-winning performance.