Handloading Safety


Common Safety Practices

Avoid Interruptions

First, and foremost, don't become impatient and take shortcuts.  Second, try very hard to avoid interruptions during a loading activity.  Most of us load rifle cartridges on a single stage press and will do the various loading steps in batch.  That is we will resize a bunch of cases at once before priming and so on.  At the very least, complete whatever batch task you are working on before setting things aside to attend to other matters.  Some handloading procedures can be more easily interrupted than others.  You can easily see which cases have been resized or trimmed or have had their primer pockets cleaned.  I strongly suggest, however, that you do not interrupt charging the cases and leave charged cases sitting around waiting to have the bullets seated.  This is not recommended for a few good reasons.  First, it is not good to leave the powder open to the environment because it can absorb moisture from the air and be subject to other types of contamination.  Second, it is very easy to bump the loading block and knock a few grains of powder from several cases, resulting in the need to dump them all and start over.

Keep the Loading Bench Free of Spilled Powder

When you handload, you will have powder spills from time to time.  A major spill, such as knocking over a whole cartridge case or dropping a canister, should, of course, be cleaned up right then.  The few kernels that accumulate on the bench during a handloading session should be cleaned up at the end of the session.  While on this subject, it is not advisable to use a Dust Buster or something similar because it is not advisable to have combustible propellant accumulating in the vacuum's dust bag.  A handy  1/2" stencil brush, which can be purchased at about any crafts store, can be used to brush the spilled kernels into an old coffee can that has a little water in it.  This brush is also handy for brushing dust and burned primer residue off the loading press and primer catcher tray.

Wear Safety Glasses

There has been a time or two over the past several years that Iíve had a primer detonate unexpectedly.  One time the anvil bounced off my glasses with enough force to chip the lens.  Needless to say, this would do nothing for continued good eyesight.  Always, always wear safety glasses when reloading or shooting.  Make no exception.  Always wear them.

Do Not Smoke While Handloading

Do not ever smoke while loading cartridges.  This is not a social statement. If you are a smoker,  you do not need to have a hot ash drop into a canister or hopper of smokeless propellant.  Your whole day, or evening, will be ruined!

Positively Identify Your Propellant

Make very sure you never mistake propellants, by accident or otherwise.  Be very sure, for example, that when you reach for H4831 you do not pick up IMR-4831.  Along with this consideration, is the excellent advice never to have out more than one propellant at a time.  It is very easy, if you have more than one can open, to fill your powder measureís hopper inadvertently from the wrong can.  Likewise, it is quite easy to empty your hopper into the wrong can.

Positively Identify Your Bullet

Along with positively identifying your propellant, it is important not to mix bullet weights inadvertently.  Be positively sure that if you want to load, say, 165 gr. bullets you do not mistakenly pick up a box of 180 gr. bullets.  Many bullets look the same or very similar, and it takes a practiced eye to see the difference by simply looking at them.  Just as it is advisable not to have out more than one propellant at a time, it is also advisable not to have open on your bench more than one bullet weight, brand, or type.

Monitor the Zero of your Scale

Check the zero of your scale frequently.  This doesnít really take any more effort than good observation habits which you, the handloader, should have anyway.  With electronic scales, when you have charged the case from the scale pan, set the empty pan back on the scale.  Before weighing the next charge, look to be sure the scale is still reading zero with the empty pan in place.  Beam scales are more inconvenient in this respect, but it is good to check the zero periodically during the loading process.  If the scale is jiggled during the loading process, by all means check the zero right then.

Follow the Load Recommendations in Loading Manuals

At least until you become a very experienced handloader, always choose the starting loads listed in your manual and then work them up gradually.  Do not exceed the recommended maximum load shown in your manual.  If you have more than one manual, you are likely to see different starting and maximum charge weights listed for the same cartridge, propellant, and bullet weight.  Don't let this confuse you because it is the result of the differences in chambers, component lot variations, measuring techniques, and so on.  It is because of these variations that you are well advised always to start with the minimum charge weight recommended in the manual or set of manuals.  Another technique when you are consulting more than one manual is to take the average of all the starting charge weights, and start your loading with that average charge weight.

Primer Handling

Safe primer handling and use is an absolute necessity if you desire to keep all your fingers and your eyesight.  From time to time, you will find it necessary to decap an unfired primer.  The safest way I know to do this is to pull the bullet, dump the powder back into its canister, and fire the primed case in a firearm.  In the past, a standard recommendation was to squirt a little penetrating oil or gun oil into the case and set the case upright on its base for a couple of hours.  Recent tests have convinced me that this is not an absolute certain way to deactivate a primer.  This technique did work for me in the past, and until recently I had never had it to fail.  Recently, though, fail it did.  I don't know whether the primer's foil seals are more resistant to oil contamination than they used to be or if the pellet itself is more resistant to the oil.  For whatever reason, the old oil method simply does not make primers inert.

Decapping live primers is not recommended, but if you choose to do so, use extreme caution.

Store your primers in a cool, dry place away from sources of heat, and keep them in their factory packages because these are designed to protect the primer and to isolate the effects if one should detonate. Do not dump a bunch of them into some kind of jar or can.  Trust me, you do not want to be anywhere around a bunch of exploding primers!  MG Julian Hatcher relates a story in the 3rd edition of Hatcher's Notebook, page 525, about a technician in some ballistics lab bouncing down a hall with a bucket of primers.  The darn things exploded with fatal consequences to the technician.

Handling Smokeless Propellant

Smokeless propellant is quite safe to handle and store if you use a little common sense.  Since it is a flammable solid, it will burn if subjected to temperatures high enough to reach its kindling temperature.  It will not, however, vaporize and dissipate explosive vapors throughout your dwelling like gasoline, or other volatile liquids, can and will.  It is best to keep the propellant in its factory container, and store it in a cool, dry place away from sources of heat.  Smokeless powder may deteriorate over time and will generally develop a reddish "coating" if it does deteriorate.  It is then useless as a propellant but makes an excellent fertilizer for the flower bed.

Unconfined, smokeless propellant will burn with a fairly hot flame that can certainly cause fire to spread.  Enough smokeless propellant, under certain conditions, can also detonate.  Hatcher also relates a story or two about this.  Some years ago, apparently shortly after World War I, experiments were conducted to see under what circumstances, if any, a large can of smokeless propellant could be made to detonate.  In one test, a person sat about 100 feet away and fired into the base of a 150 lb. drum of smokeless propellant.  In Hatcher's words, "Instead of igniting, it exploded with great violence, and turned the startled firer end over end.  It seems that if there is more than about 2 feet of powder above the point of entrance of the bullet, the powder may explode instead of simply igniting."  Obviously, various jurisdictions have laws and regulations concerning the storage of smokeless propellants.  Handloaders need to make it their business to learn prevailing laws and regulations and obey them.


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