This issue contains an account of the first World Championships of the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA). When the IDPA magazine Tactical Journal reported on this event in their Fourth Quarter 2011 issue, they included an equipment survey. Of the 356 competitors who answered as to the ammo they used in this obviously important match, 190 replied that they used handloads, and 166 said they used factory.

This was interesting for a number of reasons. Most competitive shooters I know are set up to load their own. To compete seriously, you have to burn a lot of ammunition, not only in the matches themselves but also in practice. That costs money, and the economy of loading your own is often the only thing that allows the winners to get good enough to win in the first place. Some of us remember that before the great Rob Leatham became a professional shooter for Springfield Armory, his sponsor was Dillon, the leading manufacturer of reloading equipment. Rob has publicly stated that without being able to reload massive amounts of practice ammunition on his Dillon progressive reloaders, he never would have become as skilled with a gun as he did.


Many a new shooter thinks reloading is too technically complex and is totally beyond him. That will change as he gets more into shooting, and his confidence builds, and he makes the acquaintances of veteran shooters at gun clubs and matches who will be happy to get him started at loading his own.

Some other people aren’t ready to make their own ammunition yet for other reasons. Consider the college student living in a no-guns dorm with his firearms secured in a locker at a local gun club, or a young soldier living on base who can keep private firearms at the armory and check them out when needed. Each has arranged to have their guns accessible for recreational purposes…but neither has any place where they’re likely to have room to set up reloading equipment, or be allowed to store powder and primers.

Or, consider the young married couple starting out in a small studio apartment. Space is at a premium, and even a decent beginning setup for reloading will constitute the workspace of a good sized workbench, not to mention heavy boxes of bullets and bulky buckets of brass. Of course, there might also be a spouse who looks in horror at canisters of gunpowder and cries, “You’ve brought explosives into our home!?”

Finally, there are some who’ve sat down with pen, paper, and calculator and determined that from the economic side, reloading may not be all it is cracked up to be. A single careless moment at the reloading bench can obviously have catastrophic consequences. The reloader wants to be sharp, alert, and wide-awake while practicing this craft. The realization that the spare time moments when the reloading will take place may be during afterwork hours when the shooter is exhausted, is a realization that gives some people pause.

Reloading Vs. Handloading

“Reloading” and “handloading” would seem to be synonymous, but they’re not, necessarily. To some who’ve gotten into it, “reloading” means activating the lever on the progressive press and seeing how many hundreds of practice rounds they can crank out in an hour. Anyone who has worked in a factory knows that when you push for higher production output faster on the same equipment with the same personnel, you do so at the risk of a decrease in quality control. To serious shooters, “handloading” means something different: it’s a labor of love in which each cartridge is meticulously assembled, often hand-weighing every powder charge, like a jeweler crafting a fine piece of jewelry. While in “reloading” the goal might be maximum ammo production in minimum time, with an obvious return in cost economy, in “handloading” the purpose is to make perfect cartridges so exactly correct that they will outshoot factory ammunition.

To the reloader, the objective is lots of inexpensive ammunition, to allow for more shooting and skill building. To the handloader, a very significant part of the objective is the personal satisfaction of making something the best it can be made. Thus, for the handloader, the act of making the cartridges is not just a means to an end, but a source of satisfying recreation in and of itself.

For those looking strictly at economy, their own time has to be factored into the equation. Particularly if working with entry-level equipment instead of the best progressive loading presses, that time adds up. When the individual examines his own potential for applying those hours to overtime at work or to a second job, it sometimes works out that it’s more economical to skip buying the reloading equipment and to put the time in at work instead of at the bench, and simply purchase the most economical store-bought ammo he can find for practice and match shooting.

Case In Point

I was present recently when four veteran shooters were discussing this topic. The occasion was an ICORE (International Congress of Revolver Enthusiasts) shooting tournament. It turned out that all had bought factory ammo to shoot the match, each for a slightly different reason.

The man we’ll call Shooter A is a career state law enforcement officer, presently assigned to work with a Federal drug task force. His department issue gun is a Glock chambered for .40, the only handgun caliber for which his agency supplies ammunition. In the past, limited amounts of practice .40 were issued to each member of his agency, but recent budget cuts have killed that practice. If they want to shoot at anything but a department-approved training or qualification day, they have to buy their own. He was shooting .38 Special for the match, and had purchased several boxes of Speer Lawman 158-grain +P. That was more than he needed to make ICORE’s relatively low power factor. Except for the flat-nose full metal jacket bullet, ballistics remain the same as the famous old FBI load. I used thousands of rounds of this Lawman load from 2005 to early 2011, because it was the only generic factory .38 round that would reliably make IDPA’s 125,000 power factor minimum in Stock Service Revolver class. It’s good stuff, very reliable and very accurate and clean burning.

Shooter B works at management level in a retail store, has a CCW permit with permission to carry at work, and practices to hone his skills with at least one shooting match per month. He was also shooting .38 Special, and had acquired a case of Federal’s American Eagle in that caliber with 158-grain roundnose lead bullets. Their conical shape reloaded very smoothly for him, and he was extremely pleased with their accuracy. He has won awards shooting that ammo at matches out of a Smith & Wesson Model 67, custom-tuned by Scott Mulkerin.

Shooter C rounded out the .38 Special contingent among these four handgunners. A firearms instructor and sponsored shooter, he uses Winchester factory ammo furnished to his pistol team. It’s gray-box “standard line” in the same configuration Shooter C was using, a round-nose 158-grain lead bullet at standard velocity. “I can’t reload ammunition that shoots tighter than this stuff, and I’ve tried,” he says. By the time the day was over, he had won his fourth consecutive match with the Winchester .38 ammunition, all out of the same Bob Lloyd Custom S&W 686.

Shooter D was firing .45 ACP, using a moon-clip revolver in ICORE’s Limited division, while the others were shooting in Classic division with six-shot revolvers and speedloaders. His choice was also a six-shooter, one that he uses in IDPA and holds a current regional championship with: a Jerry Miculek signature Model Smith & Wesson 625. His ammunition choice is Federal American Eagle 230-grain full metal jacket “hardball.” He says, “I’ve never found any factory ball that shoots more accurately than the American Eagle. It has the most sensitive primers, and with a custom gun with a light action and the headspace issues you get with springy moon clips, that’s important. Finally, it has the best taper crimp I’ve ever seen on a .45 ball round, and it’s the least likely to hang up with a case mouth against a chamber mouth when I’m doing a speed reload.”

None of the four could remember the last time they’d had a misfire with any of the factory practice ammunition they were using…and none had any reliability issues at the match.

Other Brands

The demand for generic training ammunition is such that we can’t always get our preferred brands. Fortunately, there are several good brands on the market. Winchester’s generic load is sold under their “USA” brand, in a white box. As a result, a generation of shooters has come to colloquially refer to it as “Winchester White Box,” or “WWB” for short. Sold heavily in “super” retail stores, it is probably the most commonly seen factory brand at non-bulls-eye pistol matches. I see a great deal of it in classes, too, and quality is generally very good. WWB has been used widely as training ammo from LAPD to NYPD, and the latter agency for several years in the 1990s even issued it as a duty load for the street.

Remington’s economy brand is Remington-UMC (for the Union Metallic Cartridge company that Remington absorbed many decades ago). Its green and white packaging distinguishes it from the green and yellow box of the standard-line Remington product that they call the Express series. I’ve shot many thousands of rounds of Rem-UMC, primarily their super-accurate 9mm 147-grain full metal jacket target load and their 230-grain .45 ACP hardball, and been very satisfied with it. Over the last several years, I recall only one bad round, and it was readily detectable coming out of the box. In the early 1990s I saw a number of case-neck separations with Rem-UMC .357 SIG practice rounds, but I saw that in other brands too before the industry learned how to make the bottleneck casings correctly for this particular cartridge.

Speer’s Lawman and Federal’s American Eagle brands, mentioned here earlier, have performed very well over the years for me and my students. Both companies offer other brandings that are not quite at the same tier. I’m not that impressed with Speer’s Independence line, nor Federal’s Champion ammo, both currently made to sell at the lowest possible price point. With the Champion, accuracy has been very disappointing, especially when compared to the same company’s superb American Eagle.

In the early days of PMC brand ammunition, few of us were impressed with its quality. Times change, though, and so do companies. PMC I’ve tested lately has been quite reliable and surprisingly accurate, though the latest batch I saw in 9mm left a lot of residue in the gun (9mm).

MagTech from Brazil offers low-priced practice rounds whose accuracy is sometimes nothing short of astonishing. More than once, I’ve seen inexpensive MagTech ball outshoot much more expensive American ammunition in handguns I’ve tested for this or that magazine. Fiocchi ammunition can be found on sale at good prices. It seems to be consistent, and to give good accuracy. A great many of my students have used up a case of Sellier & Bellot at one or another of my classes, with no issues. Privi Partisan ammunition from Serbia has its fans, but I don’t have enough experience with it to offer either thumbs up or thumbs down.

Aluminum case ammunition? That would be Speer’s Blazer brand. I’ve seen matches won with it, but I’ve also seen the occasional batch of .45 that just didn’t run well in some guns. The aluminum case’s rim dimensions in .45 ACP are such that it doesn’t like to go in and out of revolver moon clips, and it will occasionally prove incompatible with this or that extractor design. On the other hand, I’ve used many guns that ran just fine with the aluminum Blazer.

Speer also makes Blazer Brass, a completely different product that appears to be situated between Lawman and the aluminum Blazer in their tiered array of economy ammo. I’ve used Blazer Brass in quantity only in .45 ACP, but have always had good luck with it.

I make a point of staying away from steel-case ammunition. I’ve seen some extractors break prematurely when used with this stuff, and I know gunsmiths who despise the stuff for similar reasons. Even so, the price is hard to beat, and I know one state trooper who kicks butt and wins guns and overall match championships shooting Russian-made steel case 9mm and .45 ACP in his Glocks. Sellier & Bellot offers some steel cased rounds, but they are sheathed in brass and I’ve never seen them cause an extractor breakage.

Surplus Ammo

I remember buying pristine, non-corrosive US military surplus ammo for $5 for a box of fifty .45 ACP cartridges, and the same for a box of twenty 7.62mm NATO rounds. Of course, I am very old and those prices have gone the way of 29-cent-a-gallon gasoline. Military surplus handgun ammo is pretty thin on the ground today. Century Arms at this writing is offering non-corrosive Malaysian military surplus 9mm luger at $475 for 1,700 rounds, but I haven’t tried it and can’t comment on it. Caveat emptor, and all that.

Remanufactured Ammo

Commercially reloaded ammunition was a mainstay of serious shooters who didn’t roll their own, back in the day before generic factory ammunition became popular. This tends to be a cottage industry, and you will often find a small business set up with progressive loaders turning out ammo to serve their local region. Quality varies, but some are excellent.

The two nationwide remanufacturers with whose products I’ve had the most experience are Black Hills Ammunition and Georgia Arms and Ammo. Both offer a wide array of products. The Glock factory shooting team won world and national championships shooting Atlanta Arms stuff, and over the years I’ve personally won state-level championships shooting Black Hills Blue. This is the nickname for their remanufactured line, because it comes in a blue box, and is thus distinguishable from Black Hills Red, which is the company’s famously high quality virgin ammunition. You won’t go wrong with either.

Carry Loads

Carry ammunition —“duty rounds” — are what you call upon to save the lives of your loved ones and yourself. It’s the last place to compromise for price advantage. I would strongly recommend the premium brands from the four manufacturers who generally get police bids, and whose ammunition is therefore the most “street-tested” out there. That would include, in alphabetical order, Federal HST, Remington Golden Saber, Speer Gold Dot, and Winchester Ranger.

Occasional bargains can be found. In .44 Special, Speer makes an affordable Blazer load with the premium Gold Dot hollow point. Remington-UMC 125-grain semi-jacketed hollow point .357 Mag is a low-priced duplicate of the original best full power self-defense load in the caliber. Winchester white box 230-grain .45 ACP hollow point is the exact same standard-line load they used to sell only to cops, and expands well, especially when fired from 4.5-inch Glock or 5-inch 1911 barrels.

The bottom line? Reloading is a great hobby, and a tremendous source of pride for the shooter who has learned to do it. Winning a match or bagging a deer with a round you made yourself is like eating food from your own garden—the personal gratification seems to enhance the flavor of it all. However, if you don’t have the time or the inclination to reload your practice/training ammo, don’t despair. It may cost more, but the ammunition industry has you covered with some very fine generic ammunition.

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This issue contains an account of the first World Championships of the International Defensive…