Top Bullseye shooters have mixed up some soft-spoken, but superbly accurate, handloads for competition.
It’s doubtful that any centerfire handgun caliber has been fired at more targets than the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol). It owns one of the three categories in Bullseye competition (.45) and is usually the gun of choice for most competitors in the centerfire segment as well. Still, it is often said that when chambered in a Colt 1911 style handgun, it is a hard caliber to master. To become competitive, most shooters will require a lot of live range practice—an expensive proposition unless the shooter is also a handloader. But how can a shooter develop his technique when he’s not sure which handload will perform the best?
The answer: Examine handloads the top shooters have already developed and use their expertise to begin your own load workups. Following are several precision Bullseye loads that deliver the minimum energy level necessary to cycle the handgun’s action—to minimize point-stealing recoil—but which have delivered superb accuracy in the hands of champion shooters.
As a straight-walled rimless pistol cartridge, the .45 ACP headspaces on the mouth, or leading edge of the cartridge. Because of this, trim length is critical, and you must not use a roll crimp. Instead, a taper-crimp die is recommended to ensure that bullets will not slip under recoil or other forces generated as the firearm cycles. This crimp should be applied in a separate step and must not be part of the bullet seating processes.
If military brass is to be used, then the primer crimp must be removed. It is also a good idea to condition primer pockets to ensure uniform primer seating depth for consistent ignition. One of the best tools on the market for this is the RCBS Trim Mate Case Prep Center.
During World War II brass was in sort supply and thousands of .45 ACP cases were manufactured from steel. While much more rare today than in the past, these still appear on tables at gun shows. If you find some, do not use them for handloads because they can stick in the chamber, causing the handguns’ extractor to break. In fact, for serious competition, most of the shooters we interviewed agreed that fresh factory brass is the best choice.
Most competitive shooters will choose semi-wadcutter bullets because of the inherent accuracy they supply and also because of the clean hole they cut in paper targets. Full-wadcutter bullets will usually result in feeding problems, and often any lead bullet or jacketed bullets that expose a lot of lead will require some modification of the feed ramp to ensure reliable feeding.
The SAAMI Maximum Average Pressure for the .45 ACP is 21,000 P.S.I. The Maximum Average Pressure for the .45 ACP +P is 23,000 P.S.I. For Bullseye shooting, these figures are not that important since most Bullseye loads are mild. The standard Bullseye load is usually a 185-grain semi-wadcutter bullet propelled around 750 to 800 fps, which is well below maximum pressure.
John Farley’s Loads
Eight-time National Champion John Farley of Americus, Georgia, shoots Springfield guns. He casts his own bullets from a Hensley & Gibbs mold that he has had for a couple of decades. His mold is designed to cast a 185-grain semi-wadcutter using straight Linotype. Farley uses wheel weights and enough Linotype to bring the bullet weight to 193 grains. While the composition of wheel weights varies, usually bullets from that material will weigh about 197 grains. Farley will melt a lot of wheel weights and will run test bullets adding Linotype until the bullets come out at a consistent 193 grains. He will then cast the rest of that lot of alloy into bullets. Usually this will be about 4 or 5 parts wheel weights to one part linotype, depending on the wheel-weight alloy. Because of this variation in alloy for wheel weights, using a straight weight-to-weight ratio will not produce consistent results. However, by running test bullets and adjusting the alloy to a target weight, the consistency needed for winning accuracy is assured.
When wheel weights are used for casting, care must be used to wash them first to remove any accumulated sand. Then flux and stir once to blend the alloy, and after skimming the clips of the mix, flux and stir again to float any suspended sand particles, so they can be skimmed off. It might be advisable to even flux and stir a third time. Also, you must flux and stir each time more alloy is added.
Farley loads in Winchester or Federal cases. “I prefer Winchester cases,” he says. “The cannelure is a little lower on them and I seat the bullet base to the cannelure. The Federal cases have the cannelure a little higher on the case, and the bullet must be seated past it. This causes a slight bulge in the case. While I have never had a problem resulting from it, either in accuracy or in feeding, it is always in the back of my mind.”
Farley uses 3.8 grains of Hercules Bullseye pistol powder and primers from Winchester, Federal, or CCI. “I like Winchester the best,” he said. “I often save the Federal primers to use in my revolver for PPC shooting, but they work well in the .45, too,” he added.
In a well-tuned gun, this load will shoot consistent 1.5-inch groups at 50 yards. This is excellent accuracy, and the velocity will be near or slightly higher than factory loads.
Farley also holds all the national records in PPC for the semi-automatic division using this same load. In Bullseye shooting his personal best is 2,652 out of a possible 2700 points, which ain’t too shabby!
Farley is friends with another well-known shooter named Allen Fulford. Fulford has retired from shooting due to failing health, but he was one of the best ever to play the game. Farley told me that Fulford shot 185-grain Nosler Hollow Point jacketed bullets with 5 grains of Accurate Smokeless Powder Nitro-100 powder.
“It is a very accurate load,” Farley said. “But you need a little more powder to obtain the same velocity when using a jacketed bullet instead of a cast lead bullet due to the increased friction of the harder copper alloy jacket.”
“Babe” Magnan’s Loads
Marty “Babe” Magnan of Leominster, Massachusetts, prides himself on shooting revolvers in Bullseye competition and with good cause. He was the first man to break 2,600 with a revolver in the National Championships at Camp Perry. He also was the first person to shoot above 2,650 with a revolver, a feat he has achieve four times.
He shoots Smith & Wesson double-action revolvers, firing them single action for all segments of the match. He even has different grips he designed and made himself that he changes, one for slow fire and another for rapid fire. He does this to reposition his thumb for rapid cocking during the rapid-fire segment.
In the Smith & Wesson Model 25-5 he uses .45 Auto-Rim cases from Remington. He says that ACP cases work fine using half-moon clips, but the auto rim cases are a lot more convenient.
“Those Smiths are fussy,” he says. “They usually won’t shoot well with most bullets. Hard ball or jacketed factory loads give poor accuracy, and a lot of guys get rid of the guns thinking they are no good. But, with the right load and bullet, they are X-ring shooters.”
Magnan experimented with dozens of different bullet molds and alloys, firing thousands of bullets to find something that shoots well. He said he actually wore out a Ransom pistol rest testing handguns. He says the only thing that will work for cast revolver bullets is Linotype. Anything softer will not shoot accurately. The primary reason is that the bullet will upset and bulge in the forcing cone, and while reforming it will not hold the rifling in the barrel.
He settled on the Hensley & Gibbs No. 78 mold. This mold is designed to cast a 215-grain bullet, but with the harder Linotype alloy, they weigh about 204 grains. This bullet was designed by the legendary Harry Reeves specifically for revolver shooting. It has a long body with a short nose and performs well in revolvers. Magnan has redesigned the bullet and built his own molds, keeping the long body, but lightening it to 175 grains. This keeps recoil down for faster recovery times and is very accurate. Because it is a long bullet, he seats it deep in the case and taper crimps on the front band, which is slightly undersized. With the long bullet seated deep in the case he decreases the powder space, raising pressures, and is able to get higher velocities with lighter-than-expected powder charges. He lubes all his bullets with Alox that he makes himself.
All the cases are primed with Federal Large Pistol primers.
When developing a load with a new lot of powder he adjusts the powder charge until he reaches a velocity of 825 to 850 fps. He says this is the most accurate speed band he has found. He likes a slightly higher velocity to decrease the time in the gun for the bullet, which he feels is conducive to improved accuracy.
He formerly used Dupont P-5066 powder because it was bulky and filled the cases well with light charges, but it has been discontinued for years and his supply is low. Lately, he has been using Scot 453, which is a duplication of the old 452AA powder, but the plant that makes it burned down and now that isn’t available.
Magnan says he also uses 4.6 grains of Winchester 231 with good results, but that most of his loads are now built with Green Dot powder, usually about 4.6 grains for 50-yard loads and 4.3 grains for 25-yard loads. But, again, he adjusts the exact charge for that lot of powder to produce the velocities he wants.
Rather than the fast-burning Bullseye powder favored by 1911 shooters, he likes a slower-burning power so that the initial acceleration is a little slower. In a revolver, this progressive burn rate creates less bullet upset in the cylinder and forcing cone. This improves accuracy. He still achieves the desired velocity by using a slightly higher charge weight of the slower powder.
Federal Factory Recommendations
Gunbuilder Jim Clark, Jr., says he shoots the traditional load of a 185-grain cast bullet from a Hensley & Gibbs mold for all his 25 yard Bullseye work. He uses 3.5 grains of Bullseye powder. But if he has a scope mounted on the slide of the 1911 he ups the charge to 3.9 grains to allow for the increased weight on the slide and to ensure positive cycling of the action. He further notes that at 50 yards he shoots Federal 185-grain factory loads.
“Federal publishes the group sizes of a given lot of ammo,” he said. “If they are particularly good the government buys up the lot for their shooters, but once in a while we get our hands on some of the good stuff. It can’t be beat at the 50-yard line where accuracy is so important.”
Legendary military shooter Bill Blankenship agreed. He said, “We just shoot factory ammo and if a lot is good we buy the whole thing.”
Another top shooter, Jim Fulwood of Atlanta, shoots for police teams, and he dittos these two shooters’ remarks. He shoots only Federal factory loads, which he says duplicates the performance of Magnan and Farley’s handloads.