The Big 9mm Powder Smoke Test

It all started innocently enough. I was shooting a normal IDPA skills stage—three target arrays of three targets each, one centered at about 3 yards, and one left and one right at about 7 yards. The string was a simple draw and fire two rounds on each target, 18 rounds total. Easy enough. Except, by the time I worked my way over to the right target array—about 9 seconds and 12 rounds in—I couldn’t see anything but a big cloud of smoke. I placed the dot where I figured the scoring zones would be, and broke 6 more shots. I ended down 3, so some of them didn’t land where they were supposed to.

The RO was laughing and said, “What powder are you using?” “N320,” I replied. “Huh…that’s supposed to be one of the good ones.” “Right?!?” And that’s where it started. My quest to find a less smokey powder. Spoiler alert—it’s not the powder that makes the biggest difference. But we’ll get to that shortly.

The Powders

I began devising a test that would result in several measurable data points and one subjective one. I figured if I was going to go through all the trouble to find a powder that didn’t smoke as much, I may as well be sure it’s accurate and meets power factor for IDPA. I happen to know that my gun is pretty happy with 124 grain bullets running between 1050-1100 fps, so I chose loads I hoped would land me in that range. For the most part, I was spot on.

I had been reading about Alliant’s new Sport Pistol powder, which is said to be specially formulated to not burn the polymer coating off coated bullets. Since I was shooting Acme Hi-Tek coated 124 gr. Round Nose, this sounded like a powder to include. IMR recently released Target, which is alleged to be a very accurate and consistent powder, so I picked up a pound of each. Already in stock was a pound of Hodgden’s HP-38, and Tightrgoup, the aforementioned Vitavourhi N320 and Shooter’s World Ultimate Pistol. I had my powders. 

Looking through previous load data and several manuals, I worked up three loads for each. I built each load so that the center load should run right around 1050 fps., give or take. That was somewhat of a guess with certain powders, as many didn’t have load data for coated bullets, and some I hadn’t shot before. I ended up being right on with 3 powders, close with one and a bit hot with the other two. 

As I load on a Lee Pro 1000 progressive press with an Auto-Disc powder measure, I weighted out charges, and carefully poured them into a disc hole I thought would be close. Once I determined what the closest measure was, I threw 4 charges, weighed the total and divided by four. After a little bit of back and forth, I had determined what my middle charge weight would be. The low and high charges were simply the next measure down and up.

The table below shows what I landed on, with the Mid Goal column being what I was going for. The Act. columns show what I actually got.

With that all out of the way, I set about loading all the rounds. I loaded 15 rounds of each load, or 270 rounds total. The plan was to shoot 10-round groups at 10 yards over the chronograph from a rest to see how they all shot. I wanted to measure not only group size, but also velocity, standard deviation and extreme spread. Standard deviation turned out to be boring; the worst was 14, the best 5 with the average 10.

Once all the shots were fired, the targets scored and all data entered into a spreadsheet, I generated the following graph:

Click to enlarge

There’s a lot going on there. Some of the data points had targets that I needed the load to hit before I would consider it for ongoing use. These are denoted with the red, green and yellow horizontal bands. Velocity, for example, has a ideal band between about 1050 and 1115 fps. In the past, the gun has generally shot well in that band, and those speeds generate acceptable power factors. 

I also was hoping to keep my extreme spread below 35, which wasn’t too much of a challenge. As often happens, it surprises me when a load with one of the highest extreme spread produces one of the best groups. When it came to groups, I wanted to see less than a 2.5” group. That’s better than I can shoot at speed, and figured if the rounds hold that, a miss is probably my fault. Thankfully, 9 were less than 2.5”, and two were very close. In fact, if I raise the standard to 2.75”, all but 4 of the loads hit that, with two more being over by hundredths. 

Analisys

After pouring over the data and looking at all the targets, I determined I had five loads that would be acceptable given my criteria set. Interestingly, two loads come from the same powder, Ultimate Pistol. Also interesting, Ultimate Pistol is one of the least expensive powders in the test at $21.99/1 lb. at Midsouth Shooters. The most expensive powder, N320 ($34.99) produced good, and very consistent results, but none of the groups met my 2.5” standard—though all are admittedly close. 

Let’s Get Smoking

So, we have some loads that look good on paper, but the point of this exercise is to see how smokey they all are. For that, I headed to my local indoor range, Nashville Armory. I set up a camera on the bench to capture footage of a five rounds, shot at 5 yards, competition speed. The results were fascinating, if not disappointing. 

I lined up all the clips in Final Cut Pro so that we can see them all side by side. I am including each string three times; first at full speed, one at 25% slo-mo, and another full speed. The difference between the first and last is that in the first set of clips, I lined up the first shot; in the last clip, I lined up the last shot. I’m reasonably consistent, but I wanted to see how much smoke their was after the first shot, and how long it lingered after the last. Take a look

As I said, the results were a bit disappointing. All powders generated a significant amount of smoke with the Acme bullets. After slowing it down and watching more closely, it appears that three powders clear out faster; Sport Pistol, Target and HP-38. The most expensive powder, N320 and the least expensive, Ultimate Pistol are the smokiest a full 6 seconds after the last shot is fired. 

Still Smokey After All These Shots

Well, that didn’t get me where I wanted to go, though it did explain why I lost the target in a cloud of smoke. But it got me thinking. What if it’s not the powder, but the bullet? This is the obvious conclusion, of course, but I’ve been shooting polymer coated bullets for the last two years and have had otherwise great luck with them. I had a built-in bias towards the poly bullets because they’ve worked up until now, and they’re cheap. 

I’m typically getting 3,000 124 grain Round Nose delivered to my house for about $0.06 per bullet. On the best days, finding copper plated or jacketed bullets below $0.10 is hard, and most times you’re looking at $0.12-.15. Not a huge deal if you shoot 100 rounds a year. But I shoot 12,000 or more, and those pennies add up to dollars quite fast.

However, I had to know; would copper bullets make that big of a difference? Yes. Yes, they do.

The Copper Test

Having narrowed my load list down a little bit, I ordered up 1,000 Berry’s 124 gr. Plated Round Nose bullets. Rather than shoot three loads of each powder, I chose two. Again, I was guessing a little bit on where velocities would end up, but I was in the ballpark on all but one.

The procedure was exactly the same as before. Ten rounds at ten yards over the chronograph from a rest, then 5 rounds in front of the camera to determine smoke volume. The observant reader will note that I loaded 15 rounds of each load, but only fired 5 in front of the camera. That leaves 10 rounds of Acme and 5 of Berry’s for each powder. I shot those at steel plates partially for fun, and partially to gauge recoil impulse. I didn’t bother to try to quantify recoil because it was nearly impossible to tell them apart, save obvious velocity differences. 

Here are the loads I tested with the Berry’s bullet.

When I started looking at the chronograph data, the results were somewhat fascinating. With the Acme bullets, we had SDs ranging from 5-14 with an average of 12. Not bad, but as a percentage, it’s a bit of a range. The Berry’s bullets generated SDs from 9-21with an average of 10. The SD of 21 was really one way out of range load with IMR Target. If we remove that load, the range shrinks from 9-16, with an average of 13. If nothing else, these are reasonably consistent loads. As John MaCarthur used to say, I don’t know if it’s significant, but it’s interesting. 

Looking at the big chart with the rest of the data, we see more interesting trends. 

Click to enlarge

First, you’ll notice that every load grouped under my 2.5” standard, some well below. Score one for Berry’s. What is interesting is that only four of the twelve loads landed under 35 fps extreme spread. I see this in rifle reloading quite often—the most accurate load has one of the higher extreme spreads. So while the Berry’s bullets had better accuracy, the ES numbers were a bit worse. Since I’m shooting IDPA primarily indoors at ranges under 25 yards, I’ll take accuracy over ES.

I had no trouble getting loads between 130-140 power factor (except HP-38, I guessed poorly on that one). In the end, I landed on three loads that I’m very happy with, and three more that would work. Another bit of fun trivia, the only powder to deliver two acceptable loads is Ultimate Pistol. Perhaps it really is the ultimate pistol powder. With the Berry’s bullets, N320 was easily the most accurate, but Sport Pistol is not far behind. Oddly, Sport Pistol was also very accurate with the Acme bullets, but N320 was the worst overall with Acme. 

Smokin’ and Shootin’

But what about the smoke? On one hand, I’m surprised by this, on the other hand, I’m not at all. As you can see from the video below, the Berry’s bullets produced significantly less smoke with all of the powders. So much less that it’s hard to even call a winner. I actually made a timing error when I shot these targets; I ran the target out to 7 yards for the Berry’s test instead of 5, and I was trying to get -0 hits, so I was a bit slower. 

However, looking at the last shot synched clip, it’s pretty clear that N320, Ultimate Pistol and HP-38 clear out the fastest. Now, it should be noted (because if I don’t, someone else will) that this is not a scientifically valid test. I shot Acme and Berry’s on different days, in different bays, the AC was on both times, but at slightly different rates, and I was shooting at different speeds. 

But even with all those caveats, there’s no denying that the Berry’s bullets generate significantly less smoke than the Acme bullets. Which leads me to the inevitable conclusion that the bulk of the smoke is actually the polymer coating burning off the bottom as the bullet leaves the barrel. 

Going Forward

So, now what? The first thing I thought of after editing the video was, “Hmmm, I wonder if say, Blue Bullets or Black Bullets or Bayou Bullets are any different than Acme?” At some point, I may try them. However, I believe all of them use the same Hi-Tek polymer coating, and if the smoke is the coating burning off, it won’t matter who puts it on. That’s still a theory, though.

Initially, after doing the math and figuring out that it would cost me an additional $300-400/year to switch to Berry’s bullets exclusively, I was going to go that route. Then I got looking at the data again in preparation for writing this article.

I had decided my IDPA competition load would be the Berry’s bullet over 4.8 grains of Ultimate Pistol. UP is easy to get locally, and it’s readily available online for very reasonable prices. 

That load delivers a power factor of 132, and shot a 1.915” group (with 9 of those shots being under 1.5”). With the Acme Bullets, 4.0 grains of Sport Pistol nets a power factor of 131, and a slightly better (1.516”) group size. Point of impact is also pretty close. Sport Pistol had the least amount of smoke—or at least the quickest clearing of smoke—with the Acme bullets and costs about the same as Ultimate Pistol. 

Thus, I have decided to continue shooting Acme bullets with Sport Pistol for practice and Berry’s with Ultimate Pistol for competition. One pound of Ultimate Pistol and eight pounds of Sport Pistol will cover all my 9mm competition-related shooting for a year. Since I’m going from $34/pound (I formerly shot N320 for everything) to about $20/pound, I’m saving $125/year in powder. That more than offsets the increased cost for the Berry’s bullets for matches. 

Angels on the Head of a Pin?

Now, it would be easy to make that case that I’m splitting hairs here and this is much adieu about nothing. And that’s fair. 90+% of the time, in our IDPA stages, I’m shooting, moving, shooting, moving and so on, and the smoke is not a factor. However, our club has been doing a skills stage nearly every match, and that involves a single position each time. I really didn’t like losing the targets in the smoke. 

Moreover, my previous load, 4.1 grains of N320 and the Acme bullet, delivered a 2.6” group, whereas my new competition load is 1.9”. Now that I’m shooting carry optics and really working hard at improving my accuracy, I’m trying to shoot as many head shots as possible. The -0 scoring region of a head box is 4”, so that 3/4” may make a difference.

It would also be fair to ask why I’m not sticking with N320 and Berry’s for match bullets. I have two reasons for this; cost and metering. N320 is $34/pound, Ultimate Pistol is around $22. Granted, I’ll be shooting a pound or two a year, but still. N320 is a short stick powder, while Ultimate Pistol is a ball powder. I have had at least a half dozen no-powder or low-powder loads with N320 in the last year because the sticks log jam in the powder measure. Most times I catch them. A few times I didn’t, and one caused a squib that ruined a barrel (thankfully, that was all). The last thing I want in a match is to running a stage in high-speed, low-drag mode and touch off a squib, think it’s a dead primer, tap-rack and bulge another barrel. Sport Pistol is a flake powder that also meters extremely well.

Does any of this mean you should change your powder and bullets? Not really. If you have a load you’re happy with, shoot on. Personally, I’m a numbers and data guy, and I enjoy testing things and seeing what changes. Keep an eye out for my 6mm Creedmore Case Prep test. 

At the end of the day, all the powders were the same, and different. With Berry’s bullets, it looks like all the loads are more consistent. However, I only did two charges per powder instead of three, so the spread is smaller. 

One could also look at this and say the group sizes are not that impressive, the distance being 10 yards and all. However, I can assure you I’m the limiting factor for that. I suck at shooting groups with a pistol. When I pick up a pistol, I have this internal desire to shoot fast (that’s a big reason for trying to shoot all head shots at matches—to slow myself down to the speed I can see). I know I shot these groups too fast. Someone with more patience than I could surely drop these group sizes by 50% with minimal effort. 

But, this represents me and my shooting. And while I love shooting one-hole groups with my 6mm, with a pistol, I want to be combat accurate, quickly. Perhaps I’ll do a follow up test next spring when it’s not 95 degrees with a 75 degree dew point and see if I can compare a few different loads for group size and POI shift.

For now, I’ve loaded up enough match ammo to get me through the new year, and have a good start on practice ammo. Though I’m pretty sure my UPS guy is going to hate me in a few weeks when I order 6,000 Acme 124 grain freedom pills…

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