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Common Sense: The reloader's most important tool
by Mike Haas, 3/7/2004
Copyright ©1995-2004 Mike Haas
Easy link to this article: http://ammoguide.com/?article=cs040307

Few would question that each shooter who puts powder to case needs to have a basic understanding of the factors involved. Procedures, safety concerns, technical knowledge, reference material and experience will all come together and have a direct impact on the success of one's reloading efforts. But Common Sense, that valuable commodity which can't be purchased from any store, is the most important tool one can have at the bench.

While we have no weighty political concepts to develop, borrowing from the first paragraph of Thomas Paine's famous pamphlet on government Common Sense will serve to get us started:

"...[A] long habit of not thinking a thing wrong,
gives it a superficial appearance of being right..."
Attention to detail and adherence to procedure is important, but Common Sense comes into play when the unexpected looms its ugly head!

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance of Common Sense is to show what can happen in its absence. This true story involves a Rangemaster in California (exact location withheld) - someone, believe it or not, charged with monitoring the activities of other shooters! Years ago, our hero was having accuracy issues with his own, new AR-15 rifle.

While his new rifle should have been much more suspect than the factory .223 ammunition he was using, it was a reasonable decision to examine the rounds. What was not reasonable, however, was the decision to weigh individual powder charges and make assumptions about factory-assembled ammunition. What was even less reasonable was to mix the powder from several boxes together and subsequently recharge all cases with the average charge of that mix dispersed throughout. This valiant attempt at consistency brought catastrophic failure of ammunition and firearm on first shot - a split receiver and pieces were all that remained of his new rifle. Fortunately, no physical injury resulted.

Well, it all seemed to make sense to our Rangemaster. The ammunition was from the same maker in the same kind of box. It was the same bullet at the same velocity and even had the same part number. The only discernable difference between rounds was that the powder charge varied significantly among them. Surely that was a manufacturing problem, right? Wrong!

Without experience in commercial manufacturing techniques, our Rangemaster did not know that ammo makers commonly switch internal components, such as powder type, between different lot numbers of the same product. This is done for various manufacturing reasons, such as availability from different sources, but makers work hard to insure their ammunition performs consistently externally, lot to lot, despite the use of different components internally. The (near) fatal flaw was in assuming that because everything looked the same, it was the same. Thomas Paine strikes again.

Common Sense tells the prudent reloader not to make such assumptions regarding internal components of any kind. Many powders look sufficiently similar as to be indistinguishable and manuals frequently caution against powder identification based on any visual means, as the results of a mix-up are likely to be dramatic. If you leave powder in an unmarked container (like a measure) and later can't positively identify it as to type, Common Sense suggests you discard it, regardless of quantity. For the tight budget, this can appear a cruel penalty, but sure to prove far less expensive than a mistake. Thomas Paine would probably declare it in bold scribe - always promptly store powder in its original container immediately after use.

Sometimes, thankfully, we are treated to no more than humor when we leave Common Sense behind. An acquaintance had finished his first bedding job - a bolt-action rifle the barrel of which he chose to free-float. Concerned with moisture and grime in the air gap that traversed the length of stock and barrel, he came up with the idea of filling the cavity with wax. He even cleaned the edge flush with the stock. It actually looked pretty good, that is, until that weekend when he took his first couple shots. Shooting from an uncovered rest under that summer Pennsylvania sun, barrels tend to get hot and stay there awhile. Unfortunately, the wax didn't and created problems elsewhere in the action as it ran (not to mention creating a legacy of mirth).

Common Sense can also be used to prevent the unexpected. It dictates close attention to the operation of your equipment, regardless of complexity, as it processes your ammunition components. Don't assume your powder measure remains consistent through an entire load session. Rather, manually check it's charges periodically to catch any drift or non-linearity as the weight of the powder store above it decreases (if a change is seen, "top off" the measure more often).

Common Sense is an excellent trouble-preventive. As a young lad, I would closely watch the elders I went shooting with. One friend who often accompanied us was religious about checking his bore for obstruction before taking that first shot each trip. "That's a good idea that everyone should really do," I thought. One time, his cleaning rod actually encountered an object on its normally effortless journey through his .30-06 barrel! Imagine the look on both of our faces as be pushed out a full-length No. 2 pencil!

One area that exhibits a virtual vacuum of Common Sense is in that of the "Accidental Discharge" (AD). For such an event to occur, a series of safety violations and incorrect handling procedures have normally already taken place, during any one of which a small amount of Common Sense would likely have prevailed. One story that repeatedly comes to mind was related first person in the pages of a popular shooting magazine. It involved a law enforcement officer dealing with his normally cocked-and-locked .45 handgun while engaged in the confines of a small water closet.

As so often precipitates such incidents, the first mistake was that the safety was inadvertently left off. Then the officer did something that, by his own admission, defied explanation. He decided to hang his .45, by the trigger guard, on a nail stuck in the wall. You may be able to envision the outcome already - when the mass of his .45 fell and pushed the trigger against the nail, it fired! But that's just the start of this story!

The subsequent recoil caused the handgun to erratically bounce back and forth, the trigger guard against the nail, initiating another round to fire. Then another. And another. For the entire magazine capacity, this was a true .45 auto - gone full auto, that is, as it cycled against that nail to the terror of the owner. Again, no injuries resulted, but I think we can bet that the officer never made that mistake again!

Common Sense will help you stay out of trouble. A reloading manual may make you aware that with some handgun rounds, such a small amount of fast-burning powder is required that relatively large amounts of case volume remain unused. It may explain that this presents the danger of throwing a double charge, i.e., inadvertently putting two powder charges in the same case. Of course, twice the correct charge of powder is likely to ruin the gun that fires it and possibly harm the shooter.

Many books will tell you what double-charges are and why they are to be avoided, but few will tell you how to make sure that you don't throw them. Common Sense will tell you that some kind of personal system is needed that helps insure you don't make this mistake. It will also help you determine strict procedures to keep charged and uncharged cases physically separate as well as a visual check of powder levels before bullet seating.

Common Sense is more than being careful. It is an overall approach to reloading and shooting that involves caution, alertness, thoughtfulness and attention to detail. Applying it in ample quantity can greatly increase one's enjoyment of the shooting sports.

Mike Haas




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