A painful reminder

Here’s a reminder and a warning to all those who reload their ammunition.  (I used to do that in South Africa, but I’ve never had the time to get back to it in the USA.  Maybe one day . . .)

A man almost lost the use of his right hand, and did suffer terrible injuries to his fingers. All because he picked the wrong bottle of powder off the shelf.

The shooter, Denny K., was assembling some rounds for his brand new 7mm-08 Savage hunting rifle. He thought he was loading with Hodgdon Varget. Instead he had filled his powder measure with Hodgdon TiteGroup, a fast-burning pistol powder. The labels are similar, so the mistake is understandable. But the results were devastating.

Posting on the Firing Line, in a thread entitled “Lucky to Be Alive”, Denny writes:

“This is the hardest post to post. I know if I had read it a week ago my comment would have been: ‘You have no business reloading’. I had everything perfect, except pouring the wrong powder in the powder measure. I type this slowly with my left hand, embarrassed but … possibly saving someone else a tragedy or, like me, a long drive to the Emergency Room and surgery to save my finger.”

. . .

Denny wrote: “The seven-hour period it took to go to ER, transport to Trauma Center and surgery made me think it was a Savage rifle issue. Brand new rifle, new brass, triple-checked loading data. The next day I was humbled when I realized the Varget powder was still sealed.”

There’s more at the link, including a photograph of the victim’s rather gruesomely injured hand.  Not for the squeamish.

Reloading is fun, interesting, and a lot cheaper than buying factory ammunition . . . but it has its dangers.  They can involve powder, like the tale above;  or they can involve carelessness in other ways.  My favorite is a friend of mine in South Africa who smoked a pipe.  One day, while reloading, he happened to spill a box of primers on the floor.  While picking them up and returning them to the box, he accidentally dropped one without noticing it.  It fell into his open tobacco pouch on the table below his hands.  Next time he filled his pipe, he stuffed the primer in along with the tobacco.  A few minutes after lighting the pipe, there was a loud noise and it blew apart in his hands, sending fiery tobacco shards all over the living-room carpet.  Fortunately, apart from stinging from the impact, his hand wasn’t injured;  but his better half was NOT amused . . .



  1. Reloading rules to live by:
    1. Check your supplies – powder, primers, loading data, etc.
    2. Keep your powder separate from your powder measure, and only get one out at a time. I keep mine in a sealed ammo can across the room.
    3. No smoking period – gun powder is flammable at a minimum. No fire means no fire.
    4. No Alcohol. DUH.
    5. No kids. Teens and pre-teens, maybe, but it really depends on the individual. It they'll be a distraction, they don't come in the room.
    6. Check your supplies – powder, primers, loading data, etc.
    7. Check your powder measure settings and weight scale settings. DON'T assume they are the same as when you reloaded yesterday. EVEN IF YOU LIVE ALONE – Gremlins are real and it's not paranoia.
    8. Did I mention, checking your supplies and settings?
    9. Visually check that you have similar levels of powder in each case BEFORE the bullet is seated.
    10. Periodically check that your powder measure is throwing the same charge it was when you started.

  2. Adding to the above:

    If for ANY reason, you are distracted, phone, someone at the door, etc, either finish the task you were doing before attending the the distraction, or throw out everything on the press and start over.

    This is true for a single stage press and especially true for a progressive one.

    I keep my pistol powder in a separate cabinet from my rifle powder, and any powder in the powder measure has a label inside the powder measure showing what kind of powder it is. (just in case there is some left over ). (I generally don't leave powder in the hopper when I am done reloading, but still….)

    Check dimensions and powder weights at least every 25 rounds, and at the beginning and end of the runs.

    Failure to do so can be….interesting.

  3. Primers are the real danger from simple handling. More than one primer feed stack from a progressive has been found embedded in the ceiling.

    Bruce's words are pure wisdom.

    back in the late 70s I was handloading some ammo in the carport and dropped an open can of IMR 4031, as I recall. It spilled about quarter cup of powder and I swept it up and left it in a pile to dispose of after I finished reloading.

    When I turned to it, I lit it with a match, and the result was surprisingly vigorous. The flame shot up to the 8' ceiling and spread out to about 3' around along the ceiling. Only burned a few seconds, but I learned about smokeless powder from that.

  4. Best laugh I've had all day! (The pipe & primer story, not the other. Even my sense of humor isn't that dark.)

  5. Good argument for having completely separate reloading areas for pistol and rifle. I've been doing that since day one.

    41 gr of fast pistol powder in a rifle case…OUCH!

  6. From Bruce, above: "2. Keep your powder separate from your powder measure, and only get one out at a time. I keep mine in a sealed ammo can across the room."


    Smokeless powder burns – rapidly, as Quartermaster, above, mentions – and in confined space that rapid oxidation is expressed in the form of an explosion. "…a sealed ammo can…." regardless of where it's located performs surprisingly well as that confined space. The metal in the can will become excellent schrapnel should the powder somehow ignite. Should a quantity of smokeless powder ignite, it will burn intensely and rapidly, almost certainly destroying by heat whatever is adjacent to it and quite probably setting the structure on fire. Fires are capable of being extinguished, the aftermath of explosions is completely different.

    There's a reason explosives are shipped and stored in thin wooden crates assembled only with nails, and a similar wooden crate is also acceptable for small quantities of smokeless powder (check with your local fire marshall – many local codes limit how much smokeless powder may be stored in a residence; it's usually in the neighborhood of five pounds, maximum).

    A good alternative is a non-functional dorm room refrigerator (even a discarded or very cheap functional one works well, too). Leave it unplugged and do not alter or add to the magnetic door closure in any way; should the powder ignite you want the gas expansion to easily push the door open and allow the flames out rather than suffer "kinetic disassembly" of the refrigerator. Schrapnel is schrapnel regardless of its source. Pro tip: put your "powder fridge" in a well ventilated shed away from any living structure; sheds and lawnmowers are cheaper to replace than your home. The insulation in the fridge will help dampen any temperature swings in the shed.

    (Why a dorm fridge? They're small. and as such limit the amount of powder one can store. Larger empty refrigerators work just as well, but the greater space tempts one to store larger quantities of powder than is prudent).

    Bruce's other points are good and following them will reduce the likelihood of unfortunate incidents, but his powder storage technique is to be avoided completely and at all times.

    For those who reload, I would suggest if you have never seen a powder fire you should very carefully create a small one for its educational value. Very few reloaders are aware of just how rapidly – and intensely – smokeless powder burns in an open environment.

    One ounce (437.5 grains) of your choice of powder will burn quite impressively. Flake shotshell powders commonly used in pistol loads (Unique, Red Dot, Clays, etc.) and compressed ball powders (Hodgdon 110, Winchester 231, AA #2, etc.) burn quickest and most spectacularly but the burn rate of even slower rifle powders is pretty impressive. Place one ounce only of powder on the ground in the middle of an outdoor fireproof area well away from anything that is combustible and use a several-foot long ignition device so you can stand well back.

    I'm assuming you wear safety glasses when handling powder and primers, so I'll also assume you have them on during this experiment.

    When you've completed the exercise, imagine several pounds of that burning from under your workbench.

  7. Is there a way to make pistol cartridges that are typically loaded to the brim (such as 9×19) go kaboom?

  8. Smokeless powders need to be stored in a location with a fairly even temperature. heat causes them to deteriorate, and tool sheds outside the house are not a good choice of storage location. In the winter, if it's not humid, that would be fine, but not the summer. You'd be surprised what one month of storage at 90 degrees+ will do to smokeless powders.

  9. You'd be surprised what one month of storage at 90 degrees+ will do to smokeless powders.

    Not at all. Which is why I recommended storing them in an unplugged refrigerator, which is insulated, and placing the fridge in a well ventilated shed. The point was to get medium to large quantities of high combustibles away from being in or adjacent to living quarters, such as attached garages.

    Speaking of which, I'd suspect a great many reloaders do keep powder in their garages which, in places like Florida, Texas, southern Louisana, Arizona, et al spend a large percentage of the year in low 3-digit temperatures. I know mine in Florida did.

    It would be interesting to see one of the firearms related publications conduct a well structured test on storage temperature and humidity with things like coolers, unpowered fridges, unpowered chest freezers, etc. in both types of climates. It might lead to a (relatively) inexpensive powder storage chamber designed to control both. I'd guess that something insulated in a similar maner to one of the 12 volt freezers designed to be powered by a solar panel system – such as the SunDanzer line, which has 4+ inches of high R-value insulation – might be a good choice if active humidity controls could be included, and designed to allow for "gentle" disassembly so as to not contain rapid combustion. Some dessicant materials may work for humidity control, assuming the user can keep up with the time and labor requirements for maintaining the dessicant; it should also be noted that some mass market moisture absorbers have corrosive properties, and I am not aware of any testing done on changes to smokeless powder properties or performance related to exposure to outgassing from such chemical dessicants.

    I didn't mention using unpowered chest type freezers in my previous comment – and most emphatically, do not suggest or recommend them now – because they too easily suffer "horizontal surface syndrome" – stuff piled on the lid – which would serve to help contain rapid combustion of powder, potentially turning it into a metal-cased bomb. A chest freezer on its end, moving the "lid" into a "front door" configuration could avoid that but most people probably wouldn't think the problem that far through.

  10. @Y – RE: humidity controls. Not all powders are sold in airtight containers. Alliant powders, for example, uses paper containers (as in " pressed cardboard") for their powders sold in one pound sizes. It's treated paper, sure, but it's still paper. Even plastic containers, depending on their composition, are not completely impermeable to moisture.

    Also regarding moisture, don't forget condensation. Storing powder in an air conditioned environment then exposing it to warmer, more humid air (think Florida) risks "moisturizing" the powder with condensation. Ideally, all powder would be stored and handled in a consistent environment controlled for both temperature and humidity.

    The problem with moisture is not "killing" the powder – manufacturers store very large quantities of powder in water to reduce potential fires and explosions, drying it before packaging; the problem is burn rate varies with moisture content so powder loaded in a Minnesota January (<20% humidity) will produce slightly different results than the same load assembled in a Florida garage in August (>70% humidity). And, eventually, moisture – and heat – will accelerate deterioration of the powder. It will still "work" but with substantially inconsistent results.

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