How to Choose the Right Gunpowder for Handloading

What’s up reloaders!
 
Welcome back, I hope you all are doing well.
 
Today we are going to talk about how to choose the right gunpowder for handloading.
 
First, we will cover modern smokeless propellants, burn rate, and how to use those two to make an informed decision.
Smokeless Propellents
 
In today’s world, you are faced with two different types of smokeless powder: single and double based. the only real difference between the two is the makeup of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. Single based consists of nitrocellulose and double based is made up of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. Is one better than the other? Well, that’s like asking the world’s best Barbeque sauce maker what’s in their secret recipe. There’s lots of other chemicals that are added into powders to set them apart from their competition. However, single based powders notably do burn cleaner.
 
Double based powders are used in relation when high velocity is required but ultimately do burn dirtier and can potentially cause faster throat erosion. Again, there are a number of exceptions with certain manufacturers double based powders that do burn clean and fast.
 
On another note, single based powders have a shelf life of 45 years while double based have 20. Now, this time frame can change drastically on storage conditions and so many other factors. I’ve used some double based powders myself that are super old that still perform great. However, “the big reason double based powders have a shorter life span when in comparison to single based, is because nitroglycerine attacks double bonds on nitrocellulose and eventually breaks it down. Over long term storage, moisture in the air will wick nitroglycerine to the surface, as the water ions condense and evaporate onto the powder surface, which makes the surface area of old double based powders nitroglycerine rich. This will spike combustion pressures.” -thehighroad.org/reloading
 
The big thing to take home is that heat will break down powder at a very fast rate and storing your propellents in ideal conditions is a must.
 
Burn Rate
 
Burn rate is another vital concept you should consider when choosing a powder. I found this excerpt that best explains it, “Generally, large case capacities mean you should select powders with slower burn rates. For example, Hodgdon H322 is a very popular, extruded, single-base powder often used for loading .223 Rem./5.56 NATO. It’s a relatively fast-burning powder that will also work for other AR-platform cartridges like the 6.8 Rem. SPC and .30 Rem. AR. Hodgdon’s Retumbo powder is also a single-base extruded powder, but it has a much slower burn rate and can be used with success in the much larger-cased .338 Lapua Mag.” -Shootingillustrated.com
 
How to Choose the Right Gunpowder for Handloading 3
“Additionally, as bullet weight for a specific cartridge increases, a slower-burning powder will often yield better results. A good example is the .308 Win. With light 110-grain bullets, fast-burning H4198 will work and deliver near-maximum velocities. Conversely, with bullets heavier than 130 grains, slower-burning powders like IMR 4895 and Varget will generally provide better accuracy and velocities.”- Shootingillustrated.com
 
 
So, now that I have an idea of what single and double based powders are, what should I look for?
 
I personally always look for powders that are temperature stable and meter exceptionally. One of the easiest things to do when looking through a huge list of companies’ propellents is by looking in your load manuals for powders listed under the projectile you plan on using. However, I also encourage you to do research on powders that aren’t so mainstream. Just recently we wrote an article comparing Varget vs Shooter’s World Precision – if you haven’t checked out their powders, I’d look into them- in which ultimately their propellents are not displayed in load manuals. In order to find their data, you must download it from their website. The reason I say this is because how many new powders have come out since you’ve had those load manuals sitting on your bench for the past 10 years. Seriously, think about it. With the internet now and new powder and cartridges coming out almost every other month from manufacturers, it’s good to broaden your options on propellents to get the “upper hand.”
 
Once you find a few powders to try, you should ask yourself: “Do I plan on using this in a hunting scenario where temperatures will spike from morning to afternoon?” Well, you should look into temperature stable powders. “Am I using an extruded powder in a volumetric powder dispenser?” Maybe I should look into a powder with similar characteristics that’s not an extruded powder, more like a ball or flake propellant that will help with metering. “I plan on switching from a light .308 110 grain load to possibly 150-175 grain.” I should look into a propellent like Varget that is slow-burning and will yield better accuracy. As you can see, there is some thought process that can go into making a well-educated decision rather than just biting the bullet and spending money on powders that won’t work.
 
Until the time comes where powder manufacturers start releasing small quantities, like a variety bag of certain propellents that you can buy for a flat fee to test out, you’re stuck with just trying out a number of different powders that may work. At least, you can limit some of that time now by using the thought process above.
 
 
Moral of the story, weigh your options out and choose accordingly. Don’t jump the gun too fast because you saw some guy on Facebook post his 300-yard 10 shot group in the same hole while the calipers cover up the rest of the target with some powder he just bought. If you know, you know. Not all great powders will yield the same results others have experienced.
 
 
As always, shoot straight, be safe, and happy reloading!
 
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How to Choose the Right Gunpowder for Handloading 5Blake has been writing reloading articles for three years and helping out within the community to further enhance reloading education. In his free time, he works within the community to help out new hand-loaders by educating them on the many variables that come with this wonderful hobby. His passion is solely based on educating others so that they may pass on that information to future generations, keeping the art of hand-loading alive.
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The Range Squirrel
The Range Squirrel

Thank you!
I have been looking for a resource where I can compare powder characteristics such as single/double, flake/ball/extruded as well as the readily available relative burn-rate info. Have you come across such a unicorn resource? I have a hard time finding out whether a powder is ball or stick without reading a number of reviews from different articles for each individual powder to glean it out.

Chicowize
Chicowize

Very nice article Blake, that definitely does help with selecting bullet/powder choices. Thanks for sharing

TreeTopFlier
TreeTopFlier

Really nice writeup. I’ve always liked reloading because there is a lot too it with a good bit of science involved. I’ve also been amused by the amount of wives tails and down right witchery that has been infused in it as well. Probably could do a series on reloading mythbusters. Good articles like this keep things grounded. Thanks