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>> Bargain Powder Hazards :: By J. Marshall Stanton on 2004-07-10
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Handloaders are a thrifty bunch, on the whole, when it comes to our reloading components. We may spend multiplied hundreds of dollars on our equipment over a period of several years, but when it comes to the components of our ammo, while we demand excellence in quality, we are bargain-hunters at heart.

I am no exception to this seemingly universal attribute to those of us who roll our own cartridges. If there’s an overstock sale on primers, powder or bullets, I’ll be one of the first ones there to get the best selection and best deals. Too, I’ve been known to be a garage/yard sale junkie, and at times found bargains galore in reloading gear and components.

It’s the bargain-hunting propensity in all of us that may invoke poor judgment when purchasing reloading components. The center of this focus is on the fallacy of buying gunpowder, of any form from unknown sources. Sure, we’ve all done it! The wowser find of an 8 pound caddy of Unique at an estate sale for five bucks! Yep, did one of those a few years back. How about multiple full cans of IMR powders in various configurations for a buck a can at a yard sale? Did that one too, to the tune of close to thirty pounds of powder at a flea-market.

Unfortunately, all of us who have been in this game long enough have played into buying powder just as described here. It’s a natural thing to do, shucks almost better than getting a wall-hanger ten-point on opening day! The thrill of the find pushes the common-sense veil away, and caution recedes to the influence of greed.

The days in which we live are much different than those a couple decades previous. Honor, honesty and integrity fast are becoming anachronisms of modern ideology. Things are not always what they appear to be, and when this involves something as volatile as modern smokeless gunpowder, allowable margins of error are slim to none. A discrepancy in labeling, packaging or mixed contents can literally split the shadow between life and death.

Whether the errant labeling of a canister of powder comes through negligence, carelessness, cognizant deception, or by malicious intent, potential results remain the same.

Looking at a hypothetical situation: someone unintentionally pours AA #5 powder from a powder measure back into an H870 powder canister, then sells the powder at a moving sale or it is disposed of through an estate sale. The results are the same, and the individual responsible for the mix-up may not even be aware of his error in the loading room. Too there is the case where this scenario plays out, and then finding the error, he or she does not want to lose all of the investment of the powder that is now contaminated, so our hero sells it at a gunshow or garage sale to recoup at least part of his money from the powder. To the unscrutinizing eye, these powders are very similar in appearance, both being relatively fine spherical powders, determining such a mislabeling could prove nearly impossible to discern, especially to the casual glance when not expectantly looking for such. In these cases the purchaser is none-the-wiser, and subject to a potentially life threatening event.

Beyond the rather innocent, yet negligent possibilities of powders being improperly packaged or labeled, is the very real, and increasing possibility of intentional deception for malicious intent. It would not take many instances of handloaders being seriously injured or killed by “handloading accidents” in a relatively short period of time, in order to instigate immediate strict regulation or restriction of our now freely available (yes in most states) reloading components. Those “accidents” if proven to be caused through the use of handloaded ammunition would be an ideal springboard for the gun-grabbing lobby in this country to make further inroads into our lawful access to handloading powder and primers in order to protect all of us from ourselves.

Is this a far-fetched scenario? I don’t know, but I’ll share with you the sequence of events that has made me seriously ponder the viability of the afore-mentioned scheme, and the impetus behind writing this short article.

A neighbor, while attending a local gunshow, purchased a pair of eight-pound jugs of H414 powder from a gentleman walking through the show carrying the powder with for-sale signs taped on each. The price was less than a quarter of dealer-cost per jug, and being the consummate bargain hunter that all good handloaders are known to be, he bought both of them after ensuring that the factory seals were properly in place. Yahoo, what a coup!

Fast forward nearly a month and my neighbor cracked the first canister of his bargain H414, and loaded some .270 Winchester ammo. The load was 50.0 grains H414/Hornady 130g SP/CCI Large Rifle Primer/Winchester Brass. This is a straight textbook load directly from his Hodgdon reloading manual, and is at the low-end of the spectrum for powder charge-weight in this component combination. Like me, he has a rifle-range on his property and loaded only three rounds, using a RCBS 10-10 reloading scale to weigh each charge of powder. The test rifle was a custom-barreled Mauser action with a Douglas tube chambered in .270 Winchester, and a Ramline synthetic stock.

Results are self-evident in the photographs of this rifle. No description need be made for the total and complete destruction of this once, very-accurate rifle. The receiver ring is broken, both primary recoil lugs sheared, the tertiary safety lug sheared off, the bolt handle broken off, extractor sprung, ejector tweaked, floor-plate broken and blown out, extractor-retaining clip sprung, stock shattered, firing pin broken, and the chamber hopelessly swelled. In short, aside from the bolt-shroud and safety, not one other part is salvageable from this wrecked rifle! The blessing is that my neighbor suffered only a fat lip and superficial lacerations to his left fore-arm in this catastrophic explosion.

Explanation? Post-disaster examination and resultant investigation by the neighbor revealed that the canister of powder consisted of a layered mixture of at least three distinctly different spherical powders! In addition, the Hodgdon white and black seal on the mouth of the jug was intact, but held in place with a barely noticeable layer of rubber-cement! Close scrutiny of the second eight-pound powder canister revealed identical treatment of the safety seal and mixed powder contents. Both jugs of powder were intentionally sealed to give the impression of a factory fresh jug of powder!

Immediately I examined several factory-fresh powder containers in my shop to determine removal potential of the factory seal without damaging it beyond reuse. Very little care is required to remove that factory seal and keep it in serviceable condition for later reuse.

Since admission to gunshows is largely a cash proposition, and this transaction was strictly a cash-and-carry purchase, tracking or identifying the purveyor of this doctored powder is nearly impossible from a practical standpoint. Too the intent of this particular deception is questionable as well. Since only God knows the hearts of men, it is shaky ground making conspiratorial suppositions based upon partial information regarding the responsible individual. However, the remaining fact of a replaced and glued factory seal solidly supports a conclusion that this act was both willful and purposeful in its deceptive details.

Further muddying the waters is yet another report of a similar occurrence in the Seattle, Washington area this spring as well. Are these two events pure coincidences? It certainly is possible. However, regardless of the origins of these two events, whether they are benign or malignant in their intent, the results remain the same. Fortunately no loss of life or limb resulted from these “accidents” but in each case a very strong firearm was utterly destroyed. Culmination of either incident potentially could involve loss of life or limb not only of the shooter, but bystanders as well.

The upshot of all this? If the source or vender of that powder is not known to you, and the pedigree of that particular can of powder isn’t reasonably well documented from distributor to you, seriously consider passing up that powder! If someone gives it to you, and you don’t positively know the history behind it, politely and graciously accept the propellant powder and discretely and safely dispose of it to prevent someone else, unawares, from potential disaster.

In conclusion to this text, I would hope that everyone reading this will take a vivid mental picture of the wrecked rifle action below, and consider the deadly potential it represents. Then STOP, and recall that mental picture each and every time you are tempted to buy a canister of “bargain” powder!

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