Monday, May 17, 2010

Loading the .32 S&W Long

Read this disclaimer before proceeding: The information provided herein is intended only for entertainment. I can’t be looking over your shoulder when you shoot or make ammunition. So get this straight: I, my agents, assigns, or anyone else that I might even remotely know ASSUME NO LIABILITY or responsibility whatsoever. You’re completely on your own. It is incumbent upon you to be or become knowledgeable about the necessary safety requirements for this pastime.


For the past two years I’ve had a lot of fun shooting euro-fifi center fire guns. Unlike most of us, I’ve taken the original intent of the game to heart; there’s supposed to be a .22, center fire and .45 phases within the classic 2700 match. What’s been apparent long before I ever first showed up on the line was the principal use of .45s for two of those events.

For most shooters it makes a lot of sense and there’s nothing wrong with only shooting two guns. There’s less guns and related gear to buy, fewer guns to learn how to shoot, whereby it makes the overall process of simply competing a lot easier on most shooters.

I’ve had this romantic vision of the past, where a shooter’s skill was measured by their ability to manage different pistols during each phase.

I’m not alone in my idealistic renderings of the past, a few friends including my mentor sees shooting center fire as a refined and genteel pursuit. But then again, if my mentor had his way we’d all arrive at the match wearing dress shirts with silk ties, only later being refreshed between stages by sipping citrus spritzers graciously offered by the club’s caterer.

Shooting center fire is by my experience a fun and legitimate form of precision shooting. Unfortunately, building accurate rounds can be somewhat problematic. Large caliber pistol rounds are far more forgiving than their diminutive counterparts; so much so, there’s a common belief by many CF shooters that the only truly accurate and reliable .32 rounds are the ones purchased off the shelf. Granted there’s a lot of good manufacturers of .32 ammo, but don’t let that deter you from crafting your own.

Due to its small size and extremely weak charge maintaining consistency can be somewhat of a challenge. And if you’ve become accustomed to just grinding them out on a progressive press like any other bullet, consider skipping the remainder of this post by reading something else. The manufacturers’ of the progressive presses that I’ve used have never truly taken into account petite shell cases; their latitude for tolerances is geared for things much larger and therein lays the nub.

Let me answer a question I’ve heard for years. Can you consistently build .32 ammo that’ll maintain 50 yard X-ring accuracy? … Yes, and I’ve been doing it for quite some time.

For those of you who require load development, best look elsewhere. What I’ll be presenting is several basic tips on how to make consistent match rounds and identifying a few unique pitfalls.

And be apprised, the following is intended for those of you who are well experienced in reloading straight walled pistol rounds. So my assumption will be: I don’t need to explain the entire reloading process. I’m simply addressing some unique issues relating to the .32 SWL cartridge.

Considering the typical variables that we’re all generally concerned about such as, twist rate, actual bore diameter, OAL, crimp, bullet type and size, powder selection and volume, becomes incredibly crucial. Why? Because each round may have several elements of minor tolerances failures which in turn becomes magnified when the bullet is ultimately printed on the target.

Think of it this way, there’s an engineering concept called ‘tolerance stacking.’ The stacking process is when someone (hopefully an engineer) determined what the minimum and maximum dimensional limits would be for each component and the finished item. By having multiple separate tolerances with overly generous dimensions, a finished round can appear more than sufficient when first inspected, but may consistently perform poorly and erratically.

As a practical example, should a round have a single item slightly out of tolerance, such as a minor ignition problem, the entire lot may work and perform very well by our subjective standards. Heck, we might not even detect a flaw in performance or functionality.

But what if that same round had the same minor ignition problem and another minor but hard to detect powder weight problem as well? At this point the round’s lack of accuracy becomes noticeable. Add other sloppy variables into the mix and further inaccuracy is compounded. Eventually, if enough items are out of tolerance, it’ll be anyone’s guess how poorly those rounds will perform.

The bottom line is if you’re going to craft rounds that diminutive all the elements in your control must be managed to a high degree.

As a warning (and I’m certain I’ll be proven wrong by someone) I’ve never have had much luck with cast bullets this small.

My suspicion is cast bullets are simply too darn hard. For good engagement bullets this small are required to be soft. Generally most WCs have a skirt and I’m certain they’ll perform as advertised provided there’s enough flexibility with the base material. Swaged bullets generally are more consistent in their lot weights and overall dimensions. Due to the process of swaging the material is required to be much softer than cast bullets.

The first order of business is to slug the barrel. Something we all talk about but few actually do. Since engagement is so critical for good accuracy, there’s no excuse not to.

.32 caliber WC bullets are generally made in .311, .312 and .314 inch diameters, with weights ranging from 83 to 100 grains. If possible try to locate several of the largest diameter swaged bullets from a local source, and then rap several through the barrel.

Take a caliper and make several measurements from each slugged bullet, then average the outside dimensions. As a rule of thumb you’ll need to purchase bullets that are .001 to .0015 of an inch larger than the slugged rounds.

There after, I’d take the time to randomly check the weights of 50 to 60 bullets within a lot of a 1000. An electronic scale is a godsend at this point. And should you determine there’s any more than a .10 grain differential, be prepared to weigh out the entire lot.

If there’s excessive deviation, you’ll need to identity a group of bullets with almost identical weights to be intended solely for the long line. The remainder could then be dedicated to the short line or practice.

Regardless how you come to acquire brass, new or otherwise, you’ll need to address several items.

If you’re using mixed head stamps one item that can be problematic is the size of the primer pockets. From one manufacturer to the next, much like the other dimensions, they’ll all be different. And unfortunately some will be too small for the home reloader to safely deal with.

Some pockets will be so tight you’ll start to wonder if a few of those puppies will detonate on you during primer seating. You’ll need to initially take all of your brand new or mixed headstamp brass and resize the primer pockets. If not you’ll be in for a big surprise by having torqued, distorted or partially seated primers.

Most would be well advised since we generally have a few thousand cases to invest in an RCBS Case Prep Center. It’s a useful tool that’ll save you from carpel tunnel syndrome and you can be assured of their uniformity.

Earlier, I mentioned a potential problem with progressive presses. For the most part I’ve noticed that Hornady’s Lock-N-Load, RBCS’s Pro2000 and Dillon’s three primary presses, their shell plates will work fine on the down-stroke with any well made set of dies.

Ah, but during the up-stoke—almost all of them will routinely fail to some degree.

Generally the shell plate’s cutout for the case’s rim appears to be a little too generous. So, when attempting to prime, it’s not uncommon for the case rim to bind inside the shell plate’s relief cut. It’s quite common for the rim of the case to become wedged and forced out of vertical alignment and then enter the subsequent die during the down-stroke out of plumb. It’s a recipe for crushing or disfiguring cases.

In the past I’ve nursed primed cases along in my progressive press but it’s distracting and potentially dangerous.

By ‘nursing’ along I mean: manually touching each shell within the plate to verify they move freely without binding prior to pulling the handle for the next down-stroke.

A safer alternative is to deprime, resize and bell the cases (with an empty powder measure), then remove them from the press. After assembling what would be considered an adequate quantity, I’ll hand prime them. It’s faster, more controllable and there’s better feel to validate the primer has been properly bottomed-out.

To complete the remaining steps, one would simply return the cases at the powder drop station (with freshly installed powder) and proceed with finishing the remaining rounds.

Charging and metering these things can be quite a chore too.

The majority of progressive press powder measures and even traditional stand alone measures with micrometer tuning may simply have an excessively large charge cavity. What’s really the problem is charge size. A lot of reference books will note charges having extremely fast powders with loads as low as 1.1 grains, to as high as 2.0 grains. Most small or extra small charge bars will be far too large to meter a consistent reproducible level of powder throws. The inherent deviations are generally too broad to be tolerated.

It’ll come down to three things.

The first being powder selection. Whatever powder you decide to use it must meter extremely well. Obviously something like Clays is out of the question but VV N310, Tightgroup, Bullseye, Solo 1000, and R-1 meters extremely well and has the necessary burn rates (snap) this round requires.

The second is concern about consistently replicating a throw. As mentioned above most powder measures are not up to the task and an upgrade may be in order. Consider acquiring an Arrendondo charge bar from Unique Tek. This product was especially designed for extremely light charges, and as well, powders which are extremely fine in their structure.

At the very least use the smallest charge bar available from you current manufacturer.

The final item is to consider trickling charges up for the long line. Don’t pooh-pooh this idea. We all might get away with not doing this for larger rounds but .32's are very unforgiving.

As an example, consider having the classic 4.0 grains powder charge with a 200 grain bullet for a .45 ACP round, and in the process, allow or expect a .10 grain maximum deviation in powder throw. Most of us would consider this acceptable. It’s about a 2.5% deviation in powder weight.

Take a traditional target load for the .32 and it may call for a charge of 1.5 (some as low as 1.1) grains of N310. Then if we were to allow the same weight deviation of .10 grain (due to the powder measure’s mechanical limitations) it becomes an allowed 7% swing in weight. Having that much latitude in weight and it’s reasonable to assume there’ll be lots of vertical stringing.

Now that we’ve deftly avoided detonating primers in our face, crunching shell cases during belling, and have maintained reasonably accurate powder throws—bullet seating can be an art in of itself.

If you’ve ever taken the time to inspect the stem of a .32 bell die, the first thing which comes to light is the ogive of the stem. Generally its outline flares very quickly. And if you’re not careful it’s extremely easy to over bell a case. Due to its very limited size, don’t depend on the crimp die to overcome this flaw, it doesn’t work. Careful and deliberate bell adjustments are incredibly necessary or you’ll end up with a lot of cases slightly bulged just behind the case’s crimp.

Even placing bullets onto a belled case must be done with care. Maintaining vertical alignment is incredibly important. Don’t be surprised when you’re in a hurry after seating you detect small amounts of lead shavings. Care should also be exercised when applying pressure to the press’ arm by doing it in a manner that is slow and consistent; only then will you be able to avoid shaving portions off the projectile, provided the bullet maintains its vertical posture during seating.

There are a few who insist on crimping cases using a roll crimp. It’s their point of view that ignition will be erratic without it.

I’ve experimented with roll crimps and have never noticed any benefit to ignition or the round’s consistency towards accuracy. Although it does shorten the life of the brass.

A uniform taper crimp works well. About the only thing that’s truly required is there be some kind of a light crimp. Crimps with flush WCs are designed to aid in loading the round into the chamber, that’s its only task. The adhesion that grips the bullet in place is from the walls of the resized case.

Excessive crimps do nothing more than distort the bullet’s profile and resize the bullet.

After you’ve made a pile of new rounds I’d highly suggest any you intend to take to a match pass through a gauge.

I’m not aware of anyone currently producing a .32 cal. case gauge. Although, a Martindale type of gauge can be acquired by going to your local machine shop and having a precision .337 inch hole milled through a hardened oversized nut. A little tool like this is worth its weight in gold.

With such a tool you’ll easily determine obvious failures such as: crimp errors, belling errors, bullets that may have been seated off-axis and cases that may be unsalvageable due to irreparable base bulges.

Don’t be dissuaded from producing your own .32 match rounds. Granted the process can be a little troublesome at times but it’s worth it once you price out the current cost of manufactured ammo.

Some time and a little experimentation will bring you right up to speed.



If you need a source for load data, try here first.  And another is here.

4 comments:

captdan3 said...

Very nice blog. It was very helpfull in deciding for me to start reloading the 32 S&W Long.
Thanks,

Dan Long
Boston, MA

Luigi said...

Very interesting. What do you think about AOL? Many of us seats the bullet flush with the mouth, others at 24.6 mm (0.968) maybe depending on the bullet. By the way even the bullet has the nose (!), seating at 24.6 mm a little bit of lead protrude the mouth. Tell me what do you think, Luigi.

Ed Skinner said...

I emailed a link to this article to Don P here in Phoenix who is having some struggles with his Pardini. Hopefully something in your write-up will be of benefit to him.

Tony said...

Ed,

One of the strange things about a SP &HP Pardini, when it comes to their lack of reliable functioning, just might be their springs. Poor reliability is generally an indicator the gun needs almost all new springs, and not just the recoil spring.

The design is a straight blow back and all of its timing is based upon the response time of the all the springs working in harmony, including the mag’s.