REACH OUT! – EU COMPLIANT POWDERS Part 1
Thinking of a name for this piece, the 1960s mega-hit for American boy-band The Four Tops popped up in my head. Bad news as Reach Out! [I’ll be there] is one of those tunes you can’t shake off for days. Still, it’s an appropriate bit of plagiarism as our subject is the effect of the EU’s REACH initiative which keeps a whole raft of handloading powders OUT of our hands, and following on from there, what can we do about it? Well, for starters we’re no longer an EU member, you might say, so let’s just drop these regulations. Nothing will change here soon, if ever, though. In fact, it’s more likely currently non-compliant powders’ formulations will change as eco-friendly standards spread. Certainly, every new grade introduced over recent years complies irrespective of source, the companies’ marketing people often describing them as ‘green’.
So what have we lost? Note, I refer solely to rifle grades. (Things look better with pistol / revolver / shotgun powders with a far larger percentage of long-established products surviving.)
- All Hodgdon brand tubular extruded grades as manufactured by Thales / ADI in Australia. That’s every one of the eleven Hodgdon ‘Extreme’ grades from H4198 to ultra slow burners like ‘Retumbo’ and H50BMG. Throw in Trail Boss and 8208 XBR, the latter a 12th ADI manufactured ‘Extreme’ grade that Hodgdon Powder branded IMR for some marketing led reason.
- Older Hodgdon brand ‘spherical’ grades from St. Marks Powder Co. with the sole exception of H110 – that is H335, H380, BL-C(2), H414 and Hybrid H100V. Winchester 748 and 760 also fall into this category.
- All older IMR rifle powders, everything other than the five recently introduced lines with ‘Enduron’ in their names. We lose eight rifle powder grades not counting the misnamed 8208 XBR. It’s goodbye to old friends, some introduced as long ago as WW2, IMR-3031, 4064, 4895 and more.
Still with us:
- Hodgdon H110, Leverevolution, Superformance, CFE-223, CFE-BLK, Li’l Gun ‘sphericals’. Also the various Triple Seven BP grades and Pyrodex BP-substitutes.
- New or recently introduced IMR 4166, 4451, 4955, 7977, 8133 Enduron. They are double-based, temperature-stable, short-cut extruded/tubular propellants with anti-coppering additives.
Everything else that was on the UK market pre-REACH is unaffected. In alphabetic order, all products from:
- Alliant (‘Reloder’ grades plus ‘AR-Comp’)
- Explosia (Czech Lovex brand powders)
- Reload Swiss
That’s because their products are made in Europe and where older grades were going to be non-compliant their manufacturers made changes to their ingredients long before the EU implemented the new regulations. Alliant tubular Reloder powders’ inclusion may come as a surprise to some, this being an American company, but members of the range are made either by Eurenco Bofors in Sweden (alongside Norma powders) or Nitrochemie Wimmins A.G. in Switzerland, the Reload Swiss manufacturer. Likewise the US Western Powders company’s Ramshot ball-type propellants that we’ve had here for some years thanks to Henry Krank & Co. are made by Eurenco P.B. Clermont in Belgium and are shipped to us direct missing out a 7,000 mile round trip to Western Powders Inc’s place in Montana.
…….. and Found
There is good news offsetting the bad. First, the Swedish Norma range has been introduced here post-Reach implementation. I should really say reintroduced as we had Norma powders a long time ago. The eight double-based tubular extruded grades cover a wide range of burning rates and applications and are attractively priced.
Then we have improved temperature-stable Reloder lines added to the Alliant range subsequent to Reach. Re16 and 23 join the older AR-Comp (which the UK importer never bothered to order prior to Reach), and a new Reloder TS 15.5 grade will shortly go on sale in the US, with availability here late this year or early next. (TS 15.5 is described as having the same applications as existing Re15, but is slightly slower burning.) Manufactured by Bofors in Sweden, these double-based propellants are differentiated from older Reloder grades through the adoption of TZ Technology, a patented process that as with Hodgdon’s Extreme wonder-chemistry reduces nitrocellulose’s tendency to change its burn behaviour in line with temperature. They have anti-coppering agents too.
We also have new Vihtavuori ‘high-energy’ grades – N555, N565, and imminently the very slow-burning N568. An anti coppering agent has been added to all grades in the large Viht range, and temperature stability improvements made to at least some powders, in fact I suspect all of them by now. So, there is in fact much cause for cheer rather than it being all woe.
The Fab Four
Nevertheless, the saga isn’t just about numbers, but has to consider individual product performance. Four Hodgdon extruded grades are particularly missed – H4895, VarGet, H4350, and H4831sc. They are not only excellent performers in suitable cartridges, but are notable for their flexibility thereby giving wide application ranges. Look through a comprehensive reloading manual like Sierra Number VI and there aren’t many entries that don’t have loads for at least one of the quartet, exceptions being either very small or very large cartridges. However, they weren’t perfect, VarGet in particular gaining a reputation for significant lot to lot changes. Many of the old DuPont-era IMR grades, especially 3031, 4064, and 4895, are excellent and flexible performers too.
Plus Ça Change
Before we get too misty eyed over some pre-Reach Garden of Eden we’ve been brutally ejected from, things were actually far from rosy on the European Hodgdon scene in recent years. It may well have been that VarGet, as an example, met all your handloading needs, but could you get your hands on any? Then when you finally found some, many retailers limited sales to one or two tins per customer. Whilst this might have been OK for some deerstalkers and field shooters where a pound or two lasted a good long while, it was hopeless for many high volume range shooters who not only burn a lot of powder in a season but want replacement supplies to be from a single production lot to avoid continual retesting and retuning loads. Well before they even heard of ‘Reach’, many frustrated British shooters had moved to European brands, especially Vihtavuori and Reload Swiss.
VarGet was the most popular line in the Hodgdon range for many years and therefore most likely to be out of stock. However, H4350 mounted a strong challenge for that dubious distinction in recent years given its role as the go-to propellant for the new wave of ‘in’ cartridges – the mid-size sixes and 6.5s that have displaced the H4895 / Varget-consuming 308 Winchester on the range and to a lesser extent in the woods, especially in the USA.
American firearms and factory ammunition sales, not to mention handloading activity, have seen massive growth over the last couple of years, so all Hodgdon products are in desperately short supply over there. (…… and everybody else’s too!) Shooting forums are full of plaintive wails and queries about who has X in stock, alternatively what can be used to replace it, and many of these posts now relate to H4350. Moreover, Hornady as an example doesn’t have its own private magic supply of the powder it loads into vast numbers of 6.5mm Creedmoor factory cartridges – it comes from Hodgdon in bulk lots of tons. So, the growing demand for factory ammunition creates yet more competition for available component supplies, subsequently impacting on handloaders.
A Research Exercise
Well, we are where we are, and moaning about Brussels won’t make us any better off. The good news is that we have a LOT of alternative propellants from the six companies previously listed, seven with Norma added, as producing Reach-compliant products. With the possible exception of special-purpose Trail Boss, there are alternatives worth considering for every single lost grade, usually multiple alternatives. (Even Trail Boss has possible replacements, Vihtavuori N32C ‘Tin Star’ and Lovex DO-60 / SW Buffalo Rifle.) However, my intention is to concentrate on the ‘Fab Four’ – H4895, VarGet, H4350, and H4831sc – and identify / test possible replacements.
Putting the two fastest burners, H4895 and VarGet, together makes for three exercises and sets of range tests. The latter involve a different rifle and cartridge for each group, shooting small batches with rising charge weights at 100 yards off the bench using a Labradar chronograph to ascertain MVs and MV spreads. Naturally, it involves firing the four ‘lost grades’ too to provide benchmark performance levels. Flexible though many modern powders are, that cannot be done with a single cartridge with such a range of burning speeds across the quartet, hence three rifles. H4895 / VarGet get 223 Rem loaded with the 77gn Sierra MatchKing (SMK); H4350 has 7mm-08 Rem with Sierra’s 160gn Tipped MatchKing (TMK); and the plan at the moment is that when I get around to H4831sc and its alternative powders, that’ll be in 284 Win, also with an SMK, the 180gn VLD-type design. Barrel heating and wear considerations see three-round batches and groups used for 7mm-08 and 284 Win, whilst the little 223 gets four-round lots. Should the 284’s barrel be too far gone by the time I get around to the H4831 alternatives, I’ll use a 243 Win Howa Varminter in lieu loading Lapua brass and whatever bullet I can find enough of. Otherwise, it’ll be 30-inch heavy barrel F-Class rifles.
Step one saw the three cartridge/bullet combinations modelled in QuickLOAD and researched in loading manuals and online factory loads data. Luckily, updated manuals appeared last year from Lyman (50th edition), Sierra (No. VI), and Nosler (9th edition). Sierra VI was particularly useful for the 7mm-08 / H4350 alternatives exercise as it includes 160gn bullet loads-data for many Reach-compliant alternatives including the newish IMR-4451 and Alliant Re16 which aren’t in my old QuickLOAD version.
One problem with American manuals is the absence of some of our more important powder makes. Reload Swiss is entirely missing of course as the marque isn’t available in the US (some products rebranded as Alliant Reloder grades aside), but Vihtavuori entries have also largely disappeared from recent editions. Fortunately, by way of compensation Nammo Vihtavuori Oy has really expanded its online loads data for many cartridges with more bullets and some older loads apparently reworked. Some Explosia / Lovex products are being successfully sold in the US under the Shooters World label with new names and just starting to get the occasional reloading manual slot, but that’s another range that is largely missing.(Shooters World is building its own pressure-barrel tested SAAMI loads database available on its website, an increasingly useful facility.)
For various reasons, H4350 became number one on the test programme, and I managed to get most range-work in by the end of last year before we were kicked out for yet another three-month Covid lockdown. I added the non-compliant H414 ‘spherical’ powder to H4350 as a second benchmark grade, this being a popular 4350 alternative for many field shooters who didn’t want to weigh every individual charge, rather rely on powder measures.) As I write this, H4350 / H414 are ‘done’ and I’ve just started on 223 Rem and 77gn SMKs for the VarGet / H4895 exercise. This part should be completed by autumn leaving the H4831 alternatives exercise for next winter all being well.
Terminology is important. I’ve used ‘alternative’ and avoided ‘substitute’ as the latter can be read to mean ‘the same thing as’. I’ll stress now and will no doubt repeat that NONE of the powders tried are ‘substitutes’ in that sense for the lost Hodgdon products – every potential replacement was treated as a new start with loads researched and worked up from reduced levels in line with normal handloading practices, looking for over-pressure signs. The exercise isn’t intended to come up with absolute top, pushing the envelope, pressure loads either, nor to seek super velocities. Nor is it about identifying every powder grade that can be used in each of the three cartridge-bullet combinations, only those with similar charge weights and MVs to members of the lost quartet.
Stage 1 came up with these potential candidates. Note how many contain nitroglycerin!
H4895/VarGet (223 Rem and 77gn SMK)
Alliant: AR-Comp*, Re15* (Re TS 15.5*?)
Hodgdon: CFE-223*†, Leverevolution*†
Lovex: SO62, DO73.5*†, DO73.6*†
Norma: 201*, 202*, 203-B*
Ramshot: X-Terminator*†, TAC*†, Wild Boar*†, Big Game*†
Reload Swiss: RS40*, RS50, RS52*
Vihtavuori: N530*, N135, N140, N540*, N150
H4350 / H414 7mm-08 Rem and 160gn TMK
Alliant: Re16*, Re17* (Reload Swiss RS60)
Lovex: SO65, SO70
Norma: URP*, 204*
Ramshot: Big Game*†, Hunter*†
Reload Swiss: RS60*, RS62
Vihtavuori: N550*, N555*, N160
H4831sc / 284 Win 180gn SMK
Alliant: Re19*, Re22*, Re23*
IMR: 4955*, 7977*
Lovex: SO70, SO71
Norma: 204*, MRP*
Ramshot: Hunter*†, Magnum*†
Reload Swiss: RS70*
Vihtavuori: N560*, N165, N565*
*: extruded powder containing nitroglycerin; *†: ball-type containing nitroglycerin.
Some Lovex powders are available in the USA as Shooters World products. Those listed above and available from this source are: Precision (SO62); Long Rifle (SO65); 4350 (SO70); Match Rifle (DO73.6).
Only Hodgdon Leverevolution from the above list has eluded me, all others available to test. I don’t know if the French SNPE / Vectan rifle powders are still imported, but I’ve not seen a mention of them for many years and had no supply source. A few grades find themselves in two categories – for example, Ramshot Big Game is bracketed with VarGet and H4350; Norma 204 with H4350 and H4831. This is because they lie on intermediate points between the two powders’ burn rates and applications, and look as though they might land within both groups’ criteria. There will be others that some readers believe I’ve categorised incorrectly based on their reading of burning rate tables and lists. Viht N150 and 550 are usually shown as having the same burn speed as the 4350s, and N160 as IMR-4831. Explosia’s table puts Lovex SO65 on the same line as Hodgdon VarGet. I’ll explore this issue further in a future Tangential Topics feature, but will say at this stage, and most emphatically, that many burn rate chart classifications are well out of line with real-life usage and experience, in some cases to the point of being seriously misleading. The Viht trio appear to be considerably ‘faster’ than most charts show whilst Lovex SO65 is considerably ‘slower’ than its maker’s table suggests.
To be continued. Part 2 will cover H4350 alternatives and range results.