Zeke’s Bench

by Matt Zietlow

I’m probably a lot like most of you in that my reloading manuals are a very handy reference, but when it all comes down to it they rarely give more than a rough idea of what I can actually expect from my particular handgun/rifle/chosen load. Coincidence? Nah, not really. As anyone who has ever read any of the "fine print" can attest to, every manual uses different components, guns, testing apparatus, etc. This can seem frustrating at times, but it actually encourages the inquisitive side for many of us "experimenters". There are instances when it would be handy to have the exact combination a manual quotes, but most often we find the closest thing possible and work safely up (or down) from there. Accuracy, the chronograph, and visual pressure indicators can then typically serve as our progress charts.

Using the reloading manuals as a general guidebook, I take great pleasure in trying all sorts of combinations of powder, primer, crimp depth, and just about anything else I can think of just to see the effect. Being a bona-fide engineer, this inquisitive and detail-oriented nature may be a result of my college training. Or, perhaps I may have suffered some traumatic injury as a child. Forced to eat too many vegetables? Not enough discipline? Hard to say, really. Nonetheless, I do like to tinker. And, I thought who better to share it with than a bunch of other shooters and reloaders? So, I thought I’d begin a series of "real-world" shooting and reloading trials I’ve done or am planning on doing. These are designed to perhaps give you a better understanding on how something may behave outside the lab. The goal here was to provide useful information, plain and simple. I hope you enjoy it!

"The 19-grain Powder Test"

Just about everyone here enjoys shooting medium to large sized revolvers. We all seem to have our own preferences for components (especially powder), but for the most part it usually boils down to just a few favorites. For heavier loads, the usual suspects are H-110 (aka 296), AA #9, 2400, and perhaps IMR 4227. A relative newcomer to this list with a good resume is Lil’ Gun. There certainly are a few others, such as Blue Dot, but there’s another reason I picked these. A quick look at the loading manuals shows reasonably close charge weights for all five of these powders. Notice here that I said reasonably close, nothing more. What this means is that they all overlap somewhere between their respective minimum and maximum loads. Okay you say, so what? Well, to me this looked like a prime opportunity for some head-to-head testing! Most of us have probably at one time or another tried all of these individually. But, how about all of them at once, with everything else remaining constant? What I wanted to see was how all of these would perform given the same bullet, case, primer, charge weight, crimp, and last of all fired in the same gun on the same day. As an old professor of mine once said, "To truly evaluate an experiment, YOU CAN ONLY CHANGE ONE VARIABLE AT A TIME!".

Now keep in mind I realize there are differences in burning rate for all of these. For now, I’m not concerned with getting maximum or identical velocities with these powders. I just want to see how each one performs (based on visual indicators and velocity) with regards to the others. Remember, only one variable at a time. If we vary charge weight AND powder, it will distort our results. Since we all probably use some of these powders, hopefully my results will make you sit back and say, "Hey Zeke, that’s pretty dang interesting. I think I’ll be able to use that.".

Looking at the various max and min loadings in my manuals I arrived at a charge weight of 19.0 grains for each powder. I then thought about borrowing a line from Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic "Sixteen Tons" and titling this article "You load 19 grains, whaddya get? Another day older and deeper in debt.". But, copyrights being what they are I thought the better of it. Caliber of choice for the test? The venerable .44 magnum. Why the .44 and not the .45 Colt? Like I said, several reloading manuals were referenced for this test, and not all of them listed charge weights this heavy for the .45 Colt. The .44 magnum also fits nicely in the middle of such calibers as the .357 mag, .41 mag, .45 Colt, and the .475 Linebaugh. Seemed like a happy medium to me.

The total list of components is as follows:

Firearm: S&W Model 629 Performance Center, 6" ported barrel, 4X scope

Caliber: .44 magnum

Case: Federal

Primer: CCI 300

Bullet: Fusilier Imperial, hard-cast, FPGC, sized .430, weight 275 grains

Powders: H-110, AA #9, 2400, IMR 4227, Lil’ Gun

Charge: 19.0 grains for all

Field conditions were as follows:

Location: NE Nevada

Elevation: 6, 480 feet

Temp: 51 degrees F

Wind: Light (3-5 mph)

In keeping with my theme of allowing only one variable to change, every effort was made to load each round the same. All cases were trimmed to equal length in a Wilson case trimmer prior to loading, and all bullets were seated and firmly crimped at the same time to insure die settings wouldn’t vary. Primers were numbered on the loaded rounds to track which load was which.

To evaluate my 19.0 grain test subjects, I fired a total of 10 rounds each. The gun barrel was completely cleaned between each 10-round string. This was done so an unbiased observation could be made as to powder residue, leading, etc. for each load. All shooting was done from a sandbag rest. Even though I wasn’t testing for best accuracy, 5-shot group sizes were recorded (fired at 50 yards). Velocity was recorded 10 feet from the muzzle with a Competition Electronics chronograph. But again, the object wasn’t achieving highest velocity, just comparing one powder’s performance with the others. Finally, I attempted to describe the "feel" of the recoil for each powder type. Pretty subjective, but it is something most of us find interesting.

Now for the results. Velocity was pretty much as expected if you would have consulted several reloading manuals beforehand. However, the numbers still give us something to work with comparing all of these powders with identical charge weights and load components. Most manuals only give velocities for min and max loadings for each powder. This is somewhat useful, but remember all powders have an ideal "working range". Some are wider than others, and this test gives some indication which are most efficient for this level of performance.

So what does all this tell us? Well, each of us may interpret it differently. However, there were a couple of things that did strike me as interesting. Of the five powders, IMR 4227 ranks slowest in terms of burn rate, followed by Lil’ Gun, H-110, AA #9, and finally 2400 being the quickest. (Note: some manuals list AA #9 ahead of 2400 in burn rate.) For my 19-grain test, IMR 4227 gave the lowest velocity by a considerable margin. This was expected. However, the next lowest was H-110, not Lil’ Gun. In fact, the Lil’ Gun load averaged over 100 fps more than the same load of H-110, putting it just below the AA #9 and 2400 performance. Now, I hear all you in the back row shouting "H-110 needs magnum primers!" Okay, so why not also for Lil’ Gun? It’s still a ball powder and burns even slower than H-110, yet it achieved significantly higher velocities with a standard primer. The answer likely lies with Hodgdon’s new premium powder technology. Lil’ Gun is touted to have improved ignition characteristics and can use less powder for similar velocities (assumably compared to H-110). That would appear to be the case here. To really analyze the H-110 vs Lil’ Gun issue though, a higher-end load with perhaps an even heavier bullet should be used. Regardless, at this performance level AA #9 and 2400 seemed to have the edge in velocity, accuracy, and therefore efficiency as well.

Another interesting observation was felt recoil. The H-110 load, being second slowest in velocity, still had at least as much felt recoil to me as the faster loads with AA #9 and 2400. In fact, it felt a bit "sharper". The Lil’ Gun load seemed to have essentially the same amount of recoil as well. The one thing I could possibly attribute this to is the porting on the barrel. According to manufacturers, porting is more efficient with higher pressures. If this is the case, perhaps AA #9, 2400, and Lil’ Gun generated slightly higher pressures than H-110 and enabled the ports to work better, bringing the felt recoil level more in-line with slightly lower pressure loads. These higher pressures would also explain the higher velocities. I personally am skeptical that two small ports on this heavy-barreled gun would have that much effect. Plus, my reloading manuals all show pressure ranges in the 30,000 c.u.p. range for all four of the ball powders (22,000 for the IMR 4227), which leads me to believe it really comes down to which is most efficient at this level.

None of the five loads showed any signs of leading, nor did any of the loads show any appreciable difference in the amount of unburned powder left in the barrel. All of the loads chronographed reasonably consistent, with the possible exception of H-110. Again, magnum primers may have made a difference. The groups shot with H-110 also tended to vertically string, which is often a sign of erratic ignition. None of the other loads demonstrated this tendency.


The 19-grain Powder Test – Results Table

Powder Type

Charge Weight (grains)

Average Velocity (fps)

Extreme Spread (fps)

Standard Deviation (fps)

Average 50-yd Accuracy (inches)






1 1/16"

AA #9











2 1/4"

Lil’ Gun





1 5/16"

IMR 4227





1 3/8"

Note: All velocities were 10-shot averages; accuracy average is for two, 5-shot groups @ 50 yds

So are there any general statements that can be made here? Well, first keep in mind that this is only one gun and one test scenario. Overall, the 19-grain level and 1250 fps range for this weight bullet seemed best suited for AA #9 and 2400. For your true top-end magnum loads, Lil’ Gun and H-110 may fare better. Magnum primers may also be a good idea for one or both of these two. IMR 4227 may just need more powder to perform at these same velocities. Of course that would mean less loads per pound and higher cost as well. That could be warranted if accuracy performance was increased, but it’s doubtful one can improve much beyond the 7/8" group average turned in by the AA #9 load. It could be that IMR 4227 fits best in the Unique level of performance. But, all of these will mean more tests and yet another good reason to shoot, reload, and shoot some more!

write Matt