Sunday, December 19, 2021

Don't Blow Up Your Pistol--Consistent Powder Charges

With the current ammo shortage creating challenges for many shooters, some are turning to reloads and or reloading. While reloading can be rewarding and fun, you must be very careful to follow proper procedures. 

I was recently recording a shooter on video for training purposes when a round he fired had a substantially louder report and a great deal of smoke. The blast of smoke hit him in the face and he flinched away automatically. We looked at each other and both of us said almost in unison “Well that was not good.” (See picture sequence below)

I asked him if he was OK and he said yes. He only had some soot spots in several areas on his hands that coincided with openings in the Springfield XD-M grip such as the area around the magazine release button. The XD’s slide was jammed about halfway to the rear and the remains of the cartridge were still in the chamber. Later examination showed that the extractor was severely bent and blocking the slide’s movement. There was no obstruction in the bore.

The Instant the Round Fires 

Cartridge Ruptures

He eventually disassembled the pistol and everything was intact except the extractor. The barrel showed no bulge nor was the frame cracked. The only damage to the frame was one spot where the rail had a small gouge.

Gouge in Rail

We used a FreeBore to remove the cartridge case from the chamber. It was clear that when the round fired, the pressure completely ruptured the case and all but obliterated the head stamp. Two circumstances could cause this amount of over pressure, either the bore had an obstruction or there was too much powder (i.e. an overcharge) in the cartridge.

Blown Case

I believe that this was an overcharged round and not the result of an obstruction in the bore. The video showed that the previous round had fired and the cartridge case ejected normally (see below). I also believe that the incident in question was not the result of the cartridge case weakening. I have seen cartridges fired in unsupported chambers resulting in the cartridge web failing; however, the damage to the cartridge in those instances was not the cartridge's full destruction.

Previous Round Firing

Reloading can be a safe and cost effective way to augment our ammunition supply; however, improper or inconsistent powder charges can cause serious problems. For example, when you fire a round with no powder or too little powder in the case you will typically have a bullet lodged in the barrel. If you hear a slight “pop” instead of a bang when firing a round, stop, properly clear the firearm, and make sure the bullet exited the bore.

With pistols and rifles, be careful about automatically doing a “tap/rack” and trying to fire another round during a match or in training. If the bullet did not exit, firing another round will create unsafe pressure that may cause a bulge in the barrel at best and may destroy the firearm and cause injury if the barrel bursts. I’ve seen shooters destroy four barrels (and two pistols) due to reloaded ammunition with no or too little powder in the case and the shooter automatically performed a “tap/rack.” 

The other side to that coin is an overcharge. An overcharge can also destroy your firearm and may cause serious injury. If you believe you have overcharged a case and it got by you, you must not shoot any rounds in that batch of reloaded ammunition.

How do we prevent this? Consistency in the reloading process is critical. The ideal procedure when using a single stage press is to confirm that the powder measure is dropping the correct charge and is stable. Then visually confirm that the powder level is consistent in each case as you load. This is not always practical with a progressive or an automated reloading machine however.

When using progressive or automated reloading machines, I weigh the powder charge when I first begin the reloading process. I weigh as many powder charges as necessary to be certain that the powder measure is stable and dropping the correct powder charge before I begin reloading. I then stop and repeat the weighing procedure for every 100 rounds the machine loads. I do not mix that particular batch of 100 rounds with other rounds until I confirm that the powder charge is still correct. Although mildly tedious, this prevents me from loading hundreds of suspect rounds when vibration or other factors have caused the setting on the powder measure to drift slightly.

You must also be careful if you have a stoppage or jammed case in progressive or automated reloading machines. As you work to clear the jam, you can inadvertently cause the powder measure to drop another charge into a case. If this goes unnoticed, you can end up with an overcharged round. My solution is to completely clear all cases before restarting the machine.

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Saturday, December 4, 2021

RIA VR82 Pattern Testing

A friend and I have been evaluating the 20 gauge Rock Island Armory VR82 shotgun as an alternative to the commonly-used 12 gauge as a home defense shotgun. The 20 gauge Rock Island Armory VR82 may be an acceptable solution for smaller statured people. We are still experimenting with the VR82s and have not reached a solid conclusion concerning their suitability and reliability. 

Recently I did some pattern tests with three 20 gauge #1 buckshot loads out of my VR82 using a full choke. I tested the Rio Ammunition Group 20 ga Game Load with nine pellets of #1 buckshot at 1345 foot per second (FPS) velocity , the Monarch High Velocity load with nine pellets of #1 buckshot at 1345 FPS, and the Nobel Sport nine pellet #1 buckshot at 1300 FPS. I was not able to obtain any Federal #1 buckshot nor any other US-manufactured 20 gauge #1 buckshot.

Over a couple of sessions, I fired five rounds of each manufacturer’s #1 buckshot load. Additionally, since I noticed the mis-labeling of 12 gauge commercial buckshot loads, I opened shells from all three manufacturers and measured the diameter and weight of the pellets. All actually contained #1 buckshot.

The pictures below show a representative shot from each load at the indicated distance--they are not to scale with each other. 

At ten yards all of the loads demonstrated an acceptable pattern. The Rio load’s average pattern size at ten yards was 4 inches. The Monarch was 6.25 inches and the Nobel load was 8.5 inches.

At fifteen yards, the Rio load opened up to an average of 9.25 inches. The Monarch load was 10.75 inches and the Nobel load was 11.5 inches. These are average measurements so the Monarch and Noble load did throw larger patterns. The Rio load was pretty consistent between 8-10 inches.

At twenty yards, the Rio load opened up to an average of 12 x 12 inches. The Monarch load was 22 x 14 inches and the Nobel load’s pattern was so large that I did not bother to continue with that round at that distance.


Within normal urban house distances, at ten yards and below all of the loads throw an acceptable pattern.  The Rio load is probably acceptable out to about 12 yards.

It is low light training season in Texas and I did the VR82 pattern testing on an afternoon just prior to beginning a low light practice session with a fellow shooter. As an experiment, we both fired Rio, Monarch, and Nobel loads in low light and after dark. The muzzle blast from the Rio and Monarch loads was pretty tame; however, the Nobel load’s muzzle blast was impressive.

That being the case, we recorded several examples of the Nobel Sport #1 buckshot load. I have seen flares of sparks when shooting shotguns (bird shot and buckshot) at steel targets previously, but these were impressive. I believe that it is some metal in the alloy other than lead causing the sparks. At the time we were shooting, I thought the streak of light in one of the stills was material coming back off the target. When I looked at the video I realized it came out of the ejection port. Also the flame coming out of the ejection port in one of the stills surprised me. I'm guessing burning powder grains.

Linked below are two short video compliations of a two-shot and a three-shot sequence with the Rock Island Armory VR82 20 gauge shotgun against steel targets just for fun.

Video of Two Shot Sequence

Video of Three Shot Sequence

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