Loading Full Wadcutters in the .45 Colt


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Loading Full Wadcutters in the 45 Colt

By Glen E. Fryxell

Back in the early 1990s I got to know Dave Ewer and had him build a variety of guns for me. One Saturday morning in 1996, he and I were sitting around my dining room table having a cup of coffee and talking about various gun projects, and he found out that I had a Remington Rolling Block in .43 Spanish that had a very good bore. His eyes lit up! He had been looking for a Rolling Block in a black powder cartridge for years, but had never found one that was in good shape and affordably priced. I had played with the Rolling Block and had had fun with it, but wasn’t really doing anything with it at the time, and I had the appropriate bullet moulds, loading dies etc. to go with it. Dave really got a case of the “gotta-have-its”. Problem was, he had no discretionary capital at the time. He was a highly skilled gunsmith, as well as highly skilled negotiator, so he started pushing for a trade of his gunsmithing skills for my .43 Spanish. At first I was reluctant, then he mentioned that he had a 6” .45 caliber bull barrel that might be available for revolver conversions. My curiosity was piqued! I was shooting a lot of bullseye at the time, and had built a nice 1911 for the .45 stages, but bullseye competition was invented as a revolver game and I had a wild hair about making a full wadcutter .45 Colt revolver to shoot in the .45 stages. Dave asked me if I had a suitable donor gun to serve as a platform to build this gun on, and I did (a 4” S&W Model 29). He had suitable action parts (target hammer, wide target trigger, etc.) and could make a front sight blade any configuration that I wanted (Patridge, of course), and he would be willing to donate the parts and labor in trade for the Rolling Block. The .45 Wadcutter Project was up and running!

The purpose of a wadcutter is to get as much bearing surface as possible for best alignment as the bullet crosses the barrel/cylinder gap and enters the forcing cone to be engraved by the lands. Ideally, this leads to better accuracy at typical pistol competition distances (50 feet to 50 yards). The fact that wadcutters are seated deeply in the case means that they fill up space in the case so the light powder charges used in target shooting will be less position sensitive, leading to more consistent velocities. Also, wadcutters are generally somewhat lighter than normal for the cartridge/caliber so the recoil impulse is reduced, making recoil recovery easier for timed fire and rapid fire strings. In addition, the wide, flat face of the wadcutter cuts a clean full-diameter hole in the target, making it easier to score targets (and far less ambiguous than the poorly defined bullet holes of RN bullets). The one drawback to the wadcutter design is that it has the aerodynamics of your average brick. Since bullseye competition is carried out at well-established distances, this is not an issue because the gun is simply sighted in for that distance and the curved trajectory isn’t an issue. However, eventually the aerodynamics of the wadcutter cause it to become unstable and start to tumble. Personal tests with .38 caliber button-nosed wadcutters showed me that they are stable in flight out to about 90 yards, then things start to get a little unstable around 100 yards, and by 120 yards the wadcutters are tumbling wildly. I wanted a .45 Colt wadcutter gun for the simple reason that I wanted to be able to show up at a 2700 Match and shoot all 3 stages with revolvers, should the mood strike me. I already have 5-screw K-22 and K-38 Target Masterpieces that are superb bullseye guns for the .22 and Centerfire stages of a 2700 course of fire. I needed a .45. Dave was just the man to build it for me.

Dave took the .44 Mag cylinder of my S&W Model 29 and re-chambered it using a tight .45 Colt reamer (.480” body), and .4515” throater reamer. He then hand polished the throats to .452”. He then fit the 6” .45 Colt bull barrel to the frame and cylinder. Since this was a gun that was going to be shot exclusively with cast bullets, he cut the barrel/cylinder gap at .005” so that lead and/or lube fouling would not bind up the cylinder in the middle of a match. Then he re-cut the forcing cone with an 11 degree forcing cone reamer, and fit the ejector rod to the new barrel. He installed the target hammer, and the wide target trigger I had requested (all the while telling me that if this were his project he would be using a smooth service trigger), and then he gave it a very nice action job.

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The .45 Colt Bullseye gun, built by Dave Ewer.

Back in 1996, .45 caliber wadcutter bullet moulds didn’t exactly grow on trees. Today, you can get one from Mountain Molds, NOE, Accurate, Arsenal, and probably several other mould makers. At the time NEI (now out of business) was pretty much my only choice, so I placed an order with Walt for a 225 grain flat-faced bevel-based .45 wadcutter mould (NEI #297). I cast up a bunch of these, and then loaded up a preliminary test load (if I recall correctly it was with 7.5 grains of Winchester 231). This load shot reasonably well, and I used it in a couple of matches, but Life got busy in the late ‘90s and this project slowly faded into the background.

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NEI flat-faced wadcutter mould.

Now I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the Ideal 454309, a 235 grain (#2 alloy) round nosed wadcutter, made specifically for the .45 Colt. With a cherry number like 309, it would appear that this design was introduced right after the turn of the 20th century. Such was not the case. It was introduced in Ideal Handbook #32 (published in 1936). “Recommended to those who wish a sharp shoulder wadcutter for the .45 Colt Revolver. See Tables of Charges.” Those charge tables included 5.0 grains of Bullseye for 785 fps, and 10.5 grains of Unique for 1000 fps. I have a single-cavity mould for the Ideal 454309 (this mould does not have any factory vent lines cut in the mould faces, so it was made sometime between 1927 and 1949). The idea of casting enough bullets for a 2700 match with a single-cavity mould didn’t have much appeal, so I let this mould sit snugly in my mould box for many years. In any event, the idea of a full wadcutter for the .45 Colt is clearly not new…

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The Ideal 454309 mould

(By the way, these velocities reminded me, have you ever noticed how published wadcutter loads are always sub-sonic? Clearly, they are not aerodynamically efficient for supersonic flight, but so what? People push other blunt designs supersonic all the time (e.g. WFN, etc.). I haven’t tested this yet (but I intend to soon), but I believe it’s because wadcutters are SO bad aerodynamically that they don’t survive the transition back down through the sound barrier as they slow down, and immediately start to tumble when the bow wave collapses over that shoulder. We’ll see….)

Then I found a 2-cavity H&G #155 bullet mould. This is catalogued as a 200 grain wadcutter for the .45 Auto Rim and .45 Colt cartridges, introduced in November 1951. A button-nosed wadcutter in a 2-cavity mould -- just what I had been looking for! It was made when H&G was still down in San Diego, meaning it was made before 1964 (when the company moved to Oregon).

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The H&G 155 bullet mould.

Typical target loads for the .45 Stage are a 200 grain SWC (e.g. Lyman 452460 or H&G #68) in a 1911 at about 800 fps. So that’s what I was aiming for, accurate bullseye loads at roughly 800 fps, with a full wadcutter in the .45 Colt. I doubt the nose makes much difference in accuracy at 50 feet (indoor bullseye distance), but I believe that the button nose of the button nosed wadcutters helps it remain stable at longer ranges, and since I might use these loads in outdoor bullseye competition (where the Slow Fire stage is at 50 yards), I focused on the button-nose wadcutter design to work up these loads.

So a few hundred bullets were cast using the 2-cavity H&G #155 mould, using 5 lbs of an unknown alloy (soft enough to scratch with a thumbnail) from Dave’s estate, hardened up with 2 lbs of linotype (final BHN = 15). Bullets dropped from the blocks at about 203 grains, and were .455” and round. They were sized .452” and lubed with 50/50 (by weight) beeswax/moly grease.

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The H&G 155 loaded into the .45 Colt.

Test loads were assembled with a variety of fast pistol powders, with estimated velocities in the 800 fps range (a couple turned out to be a little faster). The 6” S&W .45 Colt revolver was previously zeroed with typical .45 Colt loads (i.e. 255 grain Keith SWC at ~900 fps).

Bullseye powder seemed like a sensible placed to start. The starting load for Bullseye in the Hodgdon #26 Manual was 5.5 grains (which is reported to deliver 821 fps and 12,100 CUP). This easy shooting combination provided only so-so accuracy. I suspected that groups might tighten up with an increase to 6.0 grains, and they did, but not quite as good as some of the other powders. The chronograph revealed why – the average velocity was 843 fps (similar to the others), but the extreme spread for a 5-shot string was 88 fps

I have had very good results with Red Dot in .44 Special wadcutter loads, so I wanted to try it in the .45 Colt as well. I started with 6.0 grains of Red Dot underneath the H&G 155. This load was very accurate, and shot to center with 6 o’clock hold (i.e. same POI as typical .45 Colt loads). Average velocity was 841 fps. This is an outstanding target load.

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5-shot group with 6.0 grains of Red Dot.

PB is an under-appreciated powder for handgun ammunition. It is one of the cleanest burning powders I have ever used, and is very accurate in standard pressure loads. It’s a little bit faster than Winchester 231, and very clean. I have gotten some exceptionally accurate cast bullet loads in other handgun cartridges using PB and I really wanted to find out how PB did with the H&G wadcutters in the .45 Colt. The starting load for PB and 200 grain bullets in the Hodgdon #26 Manual was 7.0 grains (which is reported to deliver 929 fps and 13,400 CUP). I chose to start with 6.8 grains of PB in the hopes of holding the velocity down below about 900 fps. This load proved to be very accurate, and like the Red Dot load above, shoots to center with 6 o’clock hold -- another excellent target load. Average velocity was 820 fps.

Ewer 45 Colt bullseye gun and H&G 155 and PB.jpg
5-shot group with 6.8 grains of PB.

American Select is another under-appreciated powder for handgun loads. If anything, it might be even cleaner burning than PB. It is just a little bit slower than Bullseye, but faster than PB. I chose to start with 6.8 grains of American Select underneath the 203 grain H&G 155 wadcutter. This load is very accurate, and during these tests it shot exactly to the point of aim (i.e. at 6’oclock with a 6 o’clock hold). As hinted at by the lower point of impact, this accurate load is going a little bit faster than the previous loads, clocking 911 fps. This American Select load would make a superb small game/vermin load.

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5-shot group with 6.8 grains of American Select.

Accurate Arms #5 is also a very useful powder for handgun loads. I chose to start with a very mild load of 7.2 grains Acc. Arms #5 with the H&G wadcutter, and I found that my choice was a poor one. This combination produced vertical stringing, and significant unburnt powder. My choice had taken AA#5 out of its preferred pressure range, resulting in inconsistent combustion and poor accuracy. Getting this pair to work well together is probably going to require increasing the powder charge a couple of grains. This would probably take the velocity outside of my targeted range, so I chose to drop this powder from further consideration in this project.

Have you ever noticed that for the large bore full-sized pistol cases (i.e. .38-40, .44-40, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt) that 7.5 grains of Unique always seems to work pretty darned well? I just had to try it. Pressure and recoil were mild, and accuracy was acceptable, but not great. Kicking this up to 8.0 grains might possibly tighten things up a bit.

Hodgdon list 8.0 grains of HP-38 as the starting load for 200 grain bullets in the .45 Colt (782 fps and 11,800 CUP). My powder measure settled on 8.1 grains of HP-38, so that’s what I started with. This load was clearly warmer than the others tested, with snappier recoil and a lower point of impact. I’m pretty sure that the velocity was notably higher than the other loads. The group was mediocre. Reducing the charge to 7.0 grains of HP-38 settled things down a bit, with an average velocity of 860 fps, and a standard deviation of 18.

These wadcutter loads would also be good in the S&W Model 1915 that was formerly a .455 Webley Mark II, and was later rechambered to .45 Colt. It has .456” throats, and is not heat treated so must be relegated to low pressure loads (<16,000 CUP). These target wadcutter loads do that nicely, and are easily recognized and identified. This bullet drops from the blocks at .455” and so it should be right at home in those fat throats.

Also, this wadcutter might also prove useful in my 5-screw S&W .45 Schofield revolver….

This was a fun little project. My preferred target loads are the Red Dot and PB loads, and the American Select load would make a dandy field load, and could easily double up and do some target work as well. Time to dust off my bullseye skills...