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Reloading the 9mm parabellum: the old warhorse is reaching its full potential on the target range.


Boy, was I wrong. The brass I had was so variable in size that turning out reliable ammo was difficult. Some cases were so oversized I practically had to jump up and down on the press handle to get them into the sizing die. (It didn't help that some of the brass had been fired in submachineguns.) Other cases were so thin they wouldn't hold a bullet securely. The dies were out of round, sized the brass too much (but not down far enough), had the wrong diameter expanding bell and they crimped unevenly.

The resulting ammo was wretched and I gave up on reloading the 9mm for about 10 years. I began shooting and reloading the .38 Super, as did many IPSG shooters in the early 1980s.

My point of view changed when Team Smith &Wesson started tearing up the practical-shooting circuit with exotic S&W pistols in 9mm. Brian Enos and J. Michael Plaxco weren't ones to use inaccurate or unreliable pistols, so something must have happened while I wasn't paying attention.

Everything had changed. Die makers were making consistent, properly-dimensioned dies that crafted dependable ammo. Brass was now much more uniform.

The adoption of the Beretta Model 92 by our armed forces in the 1980s also had an effect. Once the M9 was adopted, it wasn't long before its use was mandated at the Camp Perry matches. As soon as the bullseye shooters started using it, you knew that ammo and components would improve.

Just how accurate can a 9mm be? I was recently talking with Irv Stone at Bar-Sto, and I asked if he was going to make a 1911 for the "any centerfire" portion of Camp Perry. Would he make it in .38 Super or 9mm?

"Nine millimeter," he quickly responded. "If you build the rest of the pistol right, a properly fitted 9mm barrel with match ammo will deliver groups down near an inch at 50 yards."

PPC Competition, once the exclusive field of revolvers built to shoot wadcutter ammo, has been almost taken over by tack-driving pistols in 9mm. The Steel Challenge, where the .45 and .38 Super used to duke it out, now finds almost every other shooter using 9mm.

To reload dependable, accurate 9mm ammo, you need a solid, well-built press, a powder scale and dial calipers. I happen to currently load on a Dillon, but I started with an RCBS and loaded many thousands of rounds on it before switching.

My first choice in a scale was also RCBS, a beam scale. Accurate and reliable, I found when I started doing much more reloading research that a digital scale was faster to use. Always keep your scale out of drafts, as even a slight puff of air can alter readings.

Every machine tool store will have a huge selection of dial calipers. The trick is to keep yours zeroed--and don't drop it or set heavy objects on it.

Powder selection in the 9mm is limited to the fast and medium burn-rate sections of the powder charts. The case is so small that any powder that isn't dense, potentially takes up too much room.

The small case leads to an efficient cartridge. For example, in the 9mm you can get a 125-grain lead bullet to 1,050 fps with 4.2 grains of Bullseye. To do the same in a .38 Special you need 4.9 grains of the same powder. That .7 grains may not seem like much, but it means the difference between loading 1,666 rounds and 1,428 rounds from one pound of powder.

To get good accuracy and absolute reliability, you need to check and tune four things while reloading: case sizing, belling diameter, crimp and bullet diameter. If you have an old set of dies, do yourself a favor and buy new ones. Unless your dies have been made within the last 10 years, you may find they are just not made precisely enough to turn out suitable ammo.

Buy a carbide sizer. The single biggest hassle to reloading is lubing cases for which you cannot buy a carbide sizing die. Trust me on this. The cost of a carbide sizer for a rifle case can be daunting, but for a handgun cartridge, the cost is not so much greater than that of a plain steel die that the savings are worth the hassle of using lube. The sizer must size as far down to the extractor groove as possible. Follow the diemakers instructions to lock your die down as far as possible. There is no such thing as "neck sizing" when dealing with a pistol cartridge.

Check your belling expander diameter. My belling stem measures .3525 inch and I have found that it makes the case neck tight enough to hold 9mm bullets at .355 inch against the impact of the feed ramp. Any larger and the bullets might set back--any tighter and some pistols show a loss of accuracy. I have a box of machined and polished belling stems in various diameters to show as the cost of my experimentation.

The belling die also expands the case mouth and for its setting you will have to experiment a bit. If you don't bell enough, the shortest cases will not be belied, and you'll shave your bullets when seating them. The shavings will clog your seating die and eventually produce shorter-than-expected rounds. They can also get wedged at the case-mouth upon crimping and cause wedging failures on feeding.

If you bell too much, you overwork your brass, leading to mouth cracks and an early demise. And the overly large being risks creating a slight bulge under the crimp. The bulge is the remnant of the bell that the crimp didn't touch and can again cause a failure to fully chamber. You want just enough belling to allow easy bullet seating, and no more.

Crimp can be a difficult thing to measure and set. When I began reloading 9mm anew, I found that I had too much crimp. I was using the setting I'd worked up for the .45 ACP which was .005 inch under the finished bullet and case thickness total. A .451-inch bullet, plus two walls of .011 thickness came to .473, minus .005, comes to .468-inch. (I use the same setting for lead bullets, .452-inch.)

The problem was, with the 9mm, that gave me a crimp of .372 inch, and that was too tight (.355 + .022 - .005 = .372-inch). I didn't know it at first, as the first couple of pistols I loaded for were very forgiving in that regard. But the next one, my Beretta M-92, was not, and I quickly found when using lead or plated bullets such a crimp was too tight.

I experimented and found that with a crimp of .376-inch I could have reliable feeding and accuracy as well. While only .001 under total, it works for me. I can only assume that the tight crimp was stressing the lead or plated bullets and harming accuracy.

The last variable to fuss over is bullet diameter. In the old days, many 9mm bullets were actually sized closer to what a .38 revolver would take, .357 or .3 58. Why? Back then, who cared? We assumed that an inaccurate 9mm was due to the military-surplus bore being oversized or pitted.

We were wrong. In many cases, the bores were actually under-size. I have a Radom that is almost accurate enough to be a Bullseye or PPC pistol. The bore measures .348-inch and the grooves measure .353. Any previous owner who thought it lacked accuracy would have been wrong to try larger bullets.

Using lead bullets, a hard-cast bullet measuring .356-inch should be your first choice when developing loads for your 9mm. With jacketed bullets, use those measuring .355. Spend your first efforts at developing a reliable load working out the details of overall length, crimp and proper sizing.

Once your reloads work 100 percent, start fussing over accuracy I'm surprised at how many reloaders try combination after combination searching for an "accurate load", when they don't have a benchmark group from factory ammo with which to compare their efforts. If your pistol shoots large patterns with your ammo, and tight groups with someone else's, then you may be right to suspect your ammo. If there is no discernable pattern regardless of which ammo is used, have the best shooter at your club try your gun. If they can't get it to shoot straight, your problem may not be ammo related.

If your pistol won't shoot tight groups with either factory ammo or your own reloads, perhaps you should be sending it back for warranty work before making yourself crazy with reloading details. I have an EAA Witness that wasn't quite up to snuff. I sent it back for warranty work and for a sample target, and when it came back, it was a pistol to marvel over. Where before it did about three inches at 25 yards with Remington Match ammo, when returned, it did an inch and a half with Winchester white box, and with the Remington Match it shoots tight sub-inch clusters.

I use hard-cast 125-grain roundnose bullets for just about all my reloads. They can be pushed fast enough to make the needed power-factor for competition. Also, they are inexpensive and soft in recoil.

For some applications I have a shelf full of DuroCast 147-grain flat points. I've found that some pistols prefer the longer bullet. Also, some 9mm carbines function better with the heavier bullet. In plated bullets, I've had good luck with both West Coast Bullets (800/482-2103; www. and Rainier (800/638-8722; The West Coast bullets are spectacular in my Beretta M-92 and my Caspian 9mm 9-pin gun, and the Rainier bullets in my Colt 9mm Carbine make it accurate enough to be a 100-yard USPSA/IPSC competition rifle.

The only situations I have found where primers make a difference is that when loading PPC or Bianchi Cup ammo, Federal small pistol primers have a slight edge. But that edge only exists when I'm using Hornady XTP bullets in Starline cases with Titegroup (and I can only see it when I check accuracy in the Ransom rest.) Fellow gun writer Bruce Gray, who has done quite well at the Bianchi Cup shooting a 9mm, insists on groups no larger than two inches at 50 yards for his practice ammo. He expects more from his match ammo.

If you are looking primarily for accuracy, it's worth spending a small amount of effort sorting brass. The shooters who are after every single point will insist on using brass, all of the same brand and batch. For the rest of us, simply toss the odd names or headstamps that are uncommon and the surplus brass of unknown lineage to reduce the incidence of shots out of the main group. Sorting beyond that is a waste of time. If you really need the best accuracy, buy a bag or box of new brass from Starline, or match ammo and keep track of it.

In which competitions would you use the 9mm? Just about every aspect of handgun competition besides Metallic Silhouette and Cowboy Action have room for a nine. Even ICORE has some 9mm shooters. (S&W made some 9mm revolvers--if you can pry one out of the hands of a collector.) None of these matches require overwhelming power or velocity, but all require at least some accuracy.

In any discussion of 9mm, talk of maximum velocity soon rears it ugly head. Flow much is enough? How much is too much? For some shooters, there is no such thing as "enough" velocity. The 9mm is not a suitable hunting cartridge, except for small game. But for most of the competitions you might enter with a 9mm, you've got more than enough velocity when your Power Factor reaches 130.

Power Factor is practical shooting shorthand for momentum. Multiply the bullet weight in grains times the velocity in fps. Drop the last three digits and round to the nearest whole number. As an example, a 125-grain bullet at 1,050 fps gives 131,250. Dropped and rounded, it comes to 131. Some competitions have a minimum PF that you can use for score. If you shoot a USPSA/IPSC match and don't post at least a 125 PF, your scores will be zero. The Steel Challenge is a match that does not have a PF threshold, and whatever reliably works your pistol (and shoots accurately) will serve you well.

How high can you go? That depends on what reloading manual you read, and what pistol you are using. As short as some barrels are, expecting full performance is folly. If you must have maximum velocity, use a Glock 34, or a 1911 in 9mm, rather than a Kahr compact. And higher velocity comes at a price. You pay for the velocity in louder muzzle blast, harsher recoil, shorter brass life and an increase in the possibility of developing a flinch.

Personally, when I need the most velocity a 9mm can offer, I just use factory 9mm +P or +P+ and put the reloading time that ammo would have represented to other uses.

The USPSA Board of Directors just voted to allow 9x19 to be used in its matches loaded to major. That is, it can be used at a 165 PF or higher level for a higher score. While the change only allows open guns to declare major, this change should produce a new batch of reloading data for the 9mm. The new data will be aimed at producing 165-PF loads while staying within the pressure limits of the 9x19 as laid down by the Sporting Ammunition Manufacturing and Marketing Institute. When that data is published, you'll be able to get even more velocity out of your 9mm, assuming your pistol is up to it.


HODGDON POWDER CO. is recalling a small number of one pound cans of its Lil' Gun powder because some may create excessive pressures when loaded in cartridges or shotshells using standard data. Such a condition, if present, may cause injury to the user or bystanders and damage to the firearm.

Those in possession of Lot No.103080221 of Hodgdon's Lil' Gun powder in 1 lb. cans should call Hodgdon's customer Service Dept. (800J 622-4366 or (9 131 362-9455 for a D.O.T. approved return shipping container at no charge to the consumer. Hodgdon will replace the product at no charge, too.
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Author:Sweeney, Patrick
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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