Pistol Powders


One of Duke’s most used pistol powders is the relatively new Trail Boss by
Hodgdon because he favors many cartridges dating from the black powder era.

Fifty-six years ago, I embarked on my career as a handloader focused solely on the .38 Special for an S&W K38. Today, I’m loading for handguns chambered for 25 different cartridges ranging from .32 Auto to .45 Colt.

My very first reloading manual, Lyman Reloading Handbook #44 (1967), is still on my desk. Along with it is their new one, #51 (2022). Handbook #44 lists 34 choices for all smokeless powders, of which pistol powders amounted to 13. Handbook #51 lists 152 smokeless powders. At least 55 could be termed “pistol powders.” By “pistol powders,” I’m referring to those usable in repeating handguns like revolvers and semi-autos, not the single-shot hand cannons, many of which are chambered for full-power rifle cartridges.

Surely all of you readers have heard the modern cliché, “Too much information!” Well, I paraphrase that to mean “too many pistol powders.” Life was simple back in 1966. The older gents who helped me get started in reloading said, “Just get a can of Bullseye and use 2.7 to 3.0 grains with 148- to 158-grain cast bullets.” What to start with today? I would be hopelessly lost. Also, powders cost enough now that most of us can’t just buy pound after pound of different types for experimentation. That’s where we few gun ’riters enter the picture. We’re supposed to try powders and report the results. Still, it’s virtually impossible to try all 55 of today’s smokeless “pistol powders,” even with the companies helping us out with supplies to work with as long as we don’t get greedy.

So, here’s my take on pistol powders after 56 years of using them to load several hundred thousand rounds. (I stopped keeping track in 1980 after exceeding 80,000.)

For accuracy at velocities up to about 750 to 850 fps, Bullseye and W231, aka HP38, are winners. That’s speaking of most handgun cartridges from .32 Auto to .45 Colt. My experience with Red Dot is more limited, but it’s been the top accuracy performer for me in .45 Auto-Rim and .44 Special at the before-mentioned velocity levels.

Although now, in my senior years, I have no need for magnum revolvers, but when I did, my favorite was 2400. During one of my early “projects,” I was able to get 50-yard five-shot machine rest groups reliably of 1.5″ with an S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum using 2400. I’ve always considered handgun loads giving 850 to 1,000 fps as “service loads.” For such, my top pick is Unique or Hodgdon’s Universal.

It is virtually impossible to double charge with Trail Boss powder, even in voluminous
cases like these .44-40s. The case at right has the proper charge of Trail Boss.
The case at left has a double charge plus some that spilled over.

Teach An Old Dog New Tricks

Admittedly, I’m a dinosaur. However, I’m not averse to learning about new propellants. When Hodgdon/IMR introduced Trail Boss early in this century, I gave it a try because many of my favorite handguns are chambered for cartridges introduced in the black powder era. That means they have far more case volume than necessary for smokeless powders. And, for the most part, revolvers for which they are chambered are not known for their strength.

Trail Boss was designed to fill that volume yet not cause pressure to enter the danger zone. Mistakenly dump in a double charge and you will have spilled powder to clean up. Trail Boss is a fine smokeless powder for mild loads in revolver cartridges from .38 Special to .45 Colt. I even use it for .45 ACP to save wear on a couple of my collectible Colt 1911s. (Yes, Hodgdon does list it for .45 ACP on their Internet Load Data site.)

However, there are exceptions. Trail Boss doesn’t give enough oomph in small-volume cartridges such as .44 Russian or .45 S&W Schofield. I tried it, but my chronograph said bullet speeds were in the 500 to 600 fps range. For those rounds, plan “B” is to fall back to Bullseye or W231/HP38. Those power the smaller cartridges’ bullets into the 700 to 750 fps band.

Duke considers Bullseye and W231 (HP38) as his “accuracy” pistol powders.

Slap Fest

Another old cartridge meant to give 750 fps with 195/200-grain bullets was the .41 Long Colt. However, those bullets were hollowbase and only 0.386″ in diameter. They were then fired from Colt SAAs with barrel groove diameters nominally of 0.400″. I have three .41 Long Colts and three HB bullet molds from which I’m trying to get adequate accuracy. Those bullets need a good slap in their HBs to expand 0.014″ and grip rifling yet keep pressures safe. Bullseye hasn’t worked. Unique works okay, but the best results so far have been with Hodgdon’s Titegroup. Newer fast-burning propellants such as Hodgdon’s Titewad or Vihtavouri N310 might be even better — if I can find some.

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