Is reloading safe? Without a doubt, that must be the most common question that first comes to mind when a person considers handloading for themselves. And why wouldn't it be?
Within the chambers of our shotguns, rifles, and the like, a controlled explosion forces the projectile through the barrel. That's right, an explosion, and uncontrolled explosions can be dangerous, as we all know. But before you shy away from buying your first press, let's consider what the dangers and their seriousness are.
There has been a push nationwide in the popularity of muzzleloader weapons, especially with the advent of the in-line muzzleloader rifle. The improved accuracy and longer range proves to be very enticing for those who hunt in areas limited to shotgun and muzzleloader use. Smoke poles use a refined version of the earliest available gunpowder, black powder. Black powder differs greatly in comparison to smokeless powder, the modern gunpowder used in today's cartridge and shotshell ammunition, in both safety and use.
The two differ greatly in many aspects, including chemical makeup and burning speed. Considering safety, today's modern smokeless powder ranks above its ancestor in that it is classified as a propellant rather than an explosive. In laymen's terms, that means that in contrast to black powder, smokeless powder burns quickly, but progressively. The gas released during that burning process builds pressure, and forces the bullet or shot towards the target. Rounds propelled by black powder are sent flying similarly, but finely ground black powder produces extreme pressures quickly, leading to dangerous stress within a firearm. Thus, black powder must be used in a larger grain size for safety, which in turn slows the burning process. In a nutshell, today's smokeless powder is safer in finer grains and faster burning speeds than the powders of the early days, if handled and used properly. The bottom line is that there is more room for error.
I imagine that my short comparison of black versus smokeless powder hasn't convinced you that handloading is as safe as resting in your recliner at home, and it shouldn't! Millions of handloaded rounds are fired each year without incident, but only as a result of meticulous attention to detail and patient, step by step process. Handloading is not a reckless hobby, and it's a safe one if proper safety precautions are taken. Following is a handy list compiled from a number of reloading information sources, product manufacturers, and handloading manuals. Though not exhaustive, it's a good place to start. If you do handload or are considering it, strive to become as knowledgeable as you can by reading some of the many books available and talking with experienced handloaders.
Basic Reloading Safety Precautions
1. Before you begin, understand exactly what you are about to do and why it must be done a particular way.
2. Follow the directions! Use a manual and follow its recommendations exactly. The mathematical calculations developed for different loads corresponding to specific calibers or gauges has been carefully determined, and these formulas are provided to ensure that handloads remain within safe parameters.
3. There is a limit. Never exceed the manufacturer's recommended maximum powder charge. Again, calculated powder charges are determined within safety limits. Excessive pressure resulting from excess powder charges can cause severe damage to your firearm and serious injury or death.
4. Based upon the research you've done, write down a step by step procedure, and stick to it. Consistency with that sequence will help guarantee safety and quality.
5. Be organized. Choose an area just for reloading, preferably a separate bench, and keep it neat. Lay out only the components that are necessary for the operation at hand. Be sure that all components are labeled clearly.
6. Concentrate on reloading. Set aside time during which you won't be distracted or disturbed. Choose a time when you're well rested, and not apt to make mistakes because of drowsiness. Lead is a poison, and can cause health problems. Refrain from eating or snacking when handling lead.
7. Choose an area to set up your reloading equipment where flammable components such as powder or primers will not be exposed to heat or flames. Never smoke while handloading.
8. There is always a possibility for an explosion, expecially in the case of primers. Always wear safety glasses.
9. Keep all reloading components and your equipment out of the reach of children. Handloading requires precision, and children handling your reloading equipment may change previously determined adjustments.
Handling and Using Powder
1. Load for your weapon. Begin with a charge that is at least 10% below the maximum recommended charge. Powder charges found in manuals were developed using a manufacturer's test weapons, which may differ in capacity in comparison to your own. Start low and work up to your desired charge.
2. Store powder carefully. Smokeless powder is extremely flammable, and should be stored in a cool, dry place, preferably in a lockable cabinet. Always use the original packages, keeping them tightly closed when not in use.
3. Powders are manufactured for specific uses. Use each powder only according to its specified use and according to the manufacturer's recommendations. Never mix different powders together. Remember that smokeless powders and black powder or Pyrodex® are very different. Never use them interchangeably.
4. If your powder charges are measured by volume automatically, use an accurate scale to test weigh the first charge, a number of charges during the process, and your last charge. Automatic measures make reloading faster, but must be monitored for accuracy.
5. Clean up carefully. During each reloading session, dispense only the estimated amount of powder needed for the chore at hand. Always return excess powder to its original container. Use a broom and dust pan rather than a vacuum to clean up spilled powder. A vacuum could cause an explosion. Wash your hands thoroughly immediately after reloading.
Primers are the most active, and therefore potentially dangerous component involved with reloading. They may look small and harmless, but they must be handled with care and used appropriately to ensure safety.
1. Refrain from adjusting the primer system. During the priming process, if resistance is experienced, stop and determine why. Never force a primer into position. Shotshells or brass casings should be disposed of if a primer will not seat properly.
2. Never remove a live primer from a cartridge or shotshell. Fire the primer in the appropriate weapon before removal.
3. Primers should be stored in their original containers, clearly labeled. Never use a primer that you can not identify. Heat and or humidity can deteriorate primer dependability, so store them in a cool, dry place, preferably locked in a cabinet.
4. Use only what is needed. Primers differ in explosive force, and using a "hotter" primer that causes over-ignition leads to higher gun pressure. Use the least explosive primer possible that still provides reliable ignition.
5. Avoid contaminating primers with petroleum products such as oil or grease, which can affect ignition reliability.
General Reloading Precautions
1. Examine carefully every shotshell or brass case before reloading it. Look for split mouths, dents, or other damage, and discard all cases that are not in good condition.
2. Label all loaded cartridges or shotshells, especially if stored in a used box. Specify the caliber or gauge, primer used, powder type and charge weight, bullet or shot and the weight, and the date when they were reloaded.
3. When using automated powder or shot measurement bushings, check each periodically with an accurate scale, monitoring the precision of the bushing system.
4. Always use the recommended wad in shotshells. Wads differ in their ability to seal gasses, and they are chosen for particular cases and loads for a reason.
5. Steel shot, buffered lead shot, and bismuth shot are loaded to very different specifications in comparison to regular lead loads. Never load a non-lead load to lead load recommendations. Use a manual developed specifically for the material you are reloading with, and follow those instructions exactly.
6. Periodically check the length of reloaded rifle or pistol cartridges to ensure that the bullet has been seated to the proper depth.
7. Use a depth guide to ensure that each case contains only one charge of powder to avoid double charging a round.
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