Top 10 Reloaded Handgun Cartridges #2: .45 ACP
Date: Aug 25 2021
In the 1870s, the U.S. Army adopted the .45 Colt and later the shorter .45 S&W Schofield as its official cartridges for revolvers. In spite of both proving to be exceptionally effective in battle, in 1892 the army adopted the .38 (long) Colt in a newly designed double-action revolver with a swing-out cylinder. This change was short lived as battles soon followed wherein the cartridge (with a nonexpanding bullet) often proved weak as a fight stopper. The most notable example took place in the Philippines, where Moro warriors took multiple chest hits from the Colt .38 yet would stay on their feet and inflict serious injury with their bolos. The old black-powder Colt SAA .45 was brought out of retirement, and a new generation of soldier again learned just how reliable the .45 really was; one well-placed hit and the fight was over.
Army personnel were quick to recognize the need for change and made it publicly known they were looking for and would be testing new handguns chambered in .45 caliber with similar performance to the .45 Colt and Schofield, but utilizing smokeless powders. Details are sketchy (and often conflict), but it appears John Browning designed the Colt Model 1905 .45 caliber as a result of this request. After testing the Colt production pistol, the army purchased 205 units; however, the Army Board wanted additional safeties and a cartridge firing a heavier bullet. (This cartridge was originally loaded with a 200-grain bullet at around 900 fps.)
Browning went back to the drawing board, refining and improving his original .45-caliber pistol design. He then traveled to Connecticut and worked side by side with Colt personnel to make certain the new prototype guns were produced exactly as he wanted. The Model 1911 and the new .45 ACP load containing a 230-grain bullet were submitted for tests commencing on March 3, 1911, and consisted of firing 6,000 rounds with cleaning and oiling after every 1,000 rounds. When the gun became too hot to hold from continuous firing, it was quenched in water. After there were no malfunctions or parts breaking during the 6,000-round test, it was then checked for function with dented and damaged ammunition and submitted to dirt and acid rust torture tests. The 1911 not only passed all tests but did so with a perfect record, as no parts were broken or stressed and there were no misfires or malfunctions. (Competitors also submitted guns, but they failed to function reliably and many parts broke.)
On March 20, 1911, the Army Board heartily recommended the new Model 1911 pistol and the .45 ACP cartridge to be officially adopted as our military pistol and cartridge. The Chief of Ordnance and the Secretary of War made the adoption official on March 29, 1911.
The .45 ACP 230-grain ball load produced something between 810 to 850 fps (depending on source) and as the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the cartridge and Model 1911 proved superior to all other fighting handguns. In an effort to conform to NATO standards, our military replaced the proven .45 ACP with the 9mm in 1985. Interestingly, the .45 ACP is still frequently used by elite units such as Special Forces and Navy SEALs and several specialized units as their combat round.
In spite of its semi-retirement from the military, the .45 ACP seems to remain popular. It is the service caliber for many local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, though most users are civilians. It is still commonly used in bullseye and IPSC/USPSA matches and has even made a good showing in IHMSA competitions at distances up to 200 meters. Most .45 ACPs are purchased for personal and home protection or for pure shooting fun.
Over the years I have owned a variety of .45 ACPs, mostly in 1911 configuration, but also many good revolvers. I am very fond of the cartridge, particularly when chambered in a quality 1911-style pistol. When the handgun is set up for reliability and accuracy, it can be nothing short of spectacular, as can be witnessed by the extreme speed and accuracy of competition shooters. The cartridge is also useful for small to medium game hunting and, if the right load is used and kept within its limits, can take deer-sized game.
When it comes to handloading the .45 ACP, the vast majority of shooters are most interested in duplicating standard factory loads. In other words, the specialized bullseye shooter will develop light, paper-punching target loads specifically for his pistol. The IPSC (or action) shooter will want ammunition that just barely makes “major,” which is bullet weight times velocity, to equal or exceed 175,000. Even though these shooting sports are popular, their participants only account for a very small portion of .45 ACP owners. It seems that most shooters just want to duplicate one of the many factory loads available with similar components, or they are interested in inexpensive practice loads, usually containing cast bullets.
If using a semiautomatic pistol for defense or even sport, there is no reason to feed it ammunition that is not 100 percent reliable. In other words, some pistols will not feed certain bullet designs, typically flatpoints or large hollowpoints, 100 percent of the time. This is not a big problem, as the old 230-grain ball load feeds reliably in most guns and is much more effective than many people believe. Keep in mind that even if expansion doesn’t occur, it is still a large caliber and heavy bullet, which are what make the .45 so very effective and reliable. If a gun has a problem feeding ball loads or hollowpoints are still desired, return the pistol to the factory or have it tuned by a professional.
In the accompanying handload data, I have intentionally omitted +P loads for several reasons. To begin with, firing a steady diet of heavy loads through most .45 semiautomatic pistols, especially those set up with standard factory springs, can accelerate wear, yet only offers slightly greater terminal performance. Many handloading manuals contain no +P data, and I can only speculate why some have chosen to omit this data. I might point out that the SAAMI recommended pressure limit for the .45 ACP is 21,000 psi, while +P loads are rated at 23,000 psi. The problem lies in the short case, as pressure can jump very quickly with +P powder charges, which in the .45 ACP can be dangerous. Keep in mind, factories have a distinct advantage in that they have sophisticated and very expensive pressure equipment to carefully develop every new batch of +P ammunition. The slightest changes in components, such as variations of powder from lot to lot, a change in bullet or even primer, can quickly raise pressure, which can be difficult for the hobby handloader to detect.
In experimenting with 240-, 250- and 260-grain jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) bullets from Sierra, Hornady and Speer, functioning was okay in some pistols but proved unreliable in others. And with their low velocities, expansion is often questionable. I view heavyweight bullets in .45 ACP semiautomatic pistols as specialized and have therefore omitted them from the load data. (They would be a better choice in a .45 ACP revolver or when loading for the .45 Auto Rim cartridge.)
Before beginning this project, I thumbed through some old .45 ACP notes starting in the late 1970s. Many of the components used during that time are not even available today, and some of the guns tested are no longer in my possession. With a variety of new powders and bullets available, I didn’t want to mix the old loads with the new, as the results would likely be distorted. All loads in the tables were developed using new Starline brass, which is of excellent quality and available consumer direct at 1-800-280-6660.
Just for reference, water capacity of the Starline brass is 26.7 grains, while Federal brass held 25.7, Remington 25.3, Winchester 25.7 and Speer 26.9 grains. With a primer installed the Starline case weighed 84.8 grains, with Federal cases weighing 88.3, Remington 89.7, Winchester 92.0 and Speer 85.3 grains. To assure proper case- to-bullet fit, which is very important for both pistols and revolvers, all cases were full-length sized before loading.
Maximum case length for the .45 ACP is .898 inch, and minimum trim-to length is .888 inch. Since the cartridge headspaces at its mouth, it is important to keep case lengths within these limits.
To maintain correct headspace, a taper crimp die should be used rather than a roll crimp, or misfires and high pressure can result. Applying a taper crimp is also important to help prevent the bullet from getting pushed into the case during the cartridge’s rather violent transition from magazine to chamber. For example, as the slide slams forward it picks up the cartridge from the magazine, then drives the bullet nose hard into the feed ramp and finally into the chamber. Inertia alone, from the speed of the closing (or slamming) slide, can seat the bullet deeper, especially if using heavy cast bullets without a sufficient taper crimp. A bullet seated too deeply in a short pistol case and charged with fast-burning powders can double or even triple chamber pressure. I have seen cases ruptured and guns damaged from this very problem. A taper crimp can also help prevent the bullet from jumping crimp in revolvers.
Many .45 ACP dies come with a taper crimp seating die; however, it is best to seat and crimp as separate operations, which if using a progressive loader requires a separate die. The taper crimp should measure .470 inch.
In most semiautomatic pistols, it is essential to keep the overall cartridge length within SAAMI’s recommendtion of 1.190 inches minimum and 1.275 inches maximum to achieve reliable feeding.
With the extreme popularity of the .45 ACP, there is a huge variety of bullets available to fill any practical purpose the cartridge will be used for. Jacketed hollowpoint bullets designed specifically for semiautomatic pistols have come a long way in the past decade, as their nose profile generally allows better feeding than most early designs. Most of the various 185- and 200-grain JHPs expand reliably as they offer substantially higher muzzle velocity than 230-grain bullets. I have had especially good results with the Speer 200-grain Gold Dot HP, as it feeds almost as reliably as the ball loads, expands and penetrates very well.
I was very impressed with the consistent accuracy of the Speer 200-grain semiwadcutter/total metal jacket (SWC/TMJ) Match bullet. It was tried with many powders, and while some were certainly more accurate than others, it didn’t seem to care what powder drove it downrange, as groups were always good to excellent.
Cast bullets can work very well in the .45 ACP; however, there are a few tips that might help prevent disappointing results. Most .45s have rather shallow rifling so it is necessary to cast bullets hard, preferably with a Brinell Hardness Number (BHN) of 19 to 22, to help them hold the rifling and prevent leading. This becomes especially critical if velocities are high, or exceed 1,000 fps. It may be beneficial to slug the bore to determine the size of cast bullets to use in a given handgun; however, most guns will perform best with bullets sized to either .451 or .452 inch.
When I first started casting bullets for the .45 ACP, I used Linotype and NRA formula alox bullet lube. This combination worked fairly well on a variety of bullet designs; however, the soft bullet lube smoked excessively and would build up in the action, which required cleaning more frequently than desired. In the years since, I have tried many lubes, some of which have been good and others nothing short of poor. Ballisti-Cast lube produces little smoke and keeps residue buildup in the action to a minimum yet still lubricates the bullet and barrel.
Good results were obtained using Hornady’s 200-grain C/T swaged lead bullets. It seemed that as long as velocities were kept between 750 and 800 fps, accuracy was very good and there was very little bore fouling. On the other hand, when velocities were increased to between 850 and 950 fps, bore leading became a concern.
Probably the most popular cast bullet for the .45 ACP is a 200-grain SWC commonly known as the Hensley & Gibbs 68. This bullet is very accurate, generally feeds reliably and can be cast hard enough to produce excellent accuracy at velocities up to and exceeding 1,000 fps. It seems to be at its best when driven to around 900 fps with fast-burning powders such as Winchester 231, Alliant Red Dot or Hi-Skor 700-X.
Keep in mind that when developing loads using cast bullets, they often produce higher velocities when driven by the same powder charge as a jacketed bullet of the same weight. With full-power loads the velocity difference is usually between 60 to 90 fps, depending on powder used. For example, a charge of 5.0 grains of Alliant Bullseye was used with the Nosler 230-grain full metal jacket (FMJ) and the Laser Cast 230-grain roundnose bullet. In a Kimber 1911 with a 5-inch barrel, the former bullet reached 804 fps while the latter produced 877 fps. Similar results were observed using 5.7 grains of Winchester 231 but using the Hornady 230-grain XTP and again the Laser Cast 230-grain roundnose. The former achieved 834 fps while the latter reached exactly 900 fps. This has been observed many times with different powders and is only mentioned so that charges might be reduced when using cast bullets to achieve the same velocity.
If time is taken to find the right combination, cast and swaged lead bullets can produce excellent accuracy, are inexpensive and easy on barrels.
In developing the .45 ACP handloads, 16 powders were selected. The overall accuracy and consistency were astonishing, as many times the extreme spreads dropped to below 10 fps for a five-shot string. The cartridge is very forgiving and easy to load, and the Kimber Model 1911 Custom Classic often produced groups measuring one inch at 25 yards.
I have favored Winchester’s 231 as a general-purpose propellant for the .45 ACP (using cast and jacketed bullets) for many years, and it is still a tough one to improve upon. It burns clean, and extreme spreads are usually around 20 fps as long as the ammunition is assembled carefully. It is not the best choice for higher-velocity loads, but the .45 is not about high velocity anyhow.
Alliant’s Bullseye remains as one of the most popular .45 ACP powders ever and, in spite of its age, still provides excellent results with a variety of bullets. Red Dot produced the most consistent velocities and some of the best groups, and Alliant Unique is definitely a better powder for the .45 ACP. It burns cleanly, and extreme spreads are reasonable. (This is not a company claim but is the result of my tests.) Because of its medium burn rate, it is better suited to heavier 230-grain bullets. Alliant’s Power Pistol produced excellent overall results with full-power loads. It burned cleanly, was accurate and gave top velocities while keeping pressure within limits.
Hodgdon HP-38 is another great general-purpose propellant for the .45 ACP. It burns cleanly and is suitable for midrange cast bullet loads or in duplicating non +P factory loads. Hodgdon Titegroup shows promise and deserves further testing.
When using any of the faster- burning propellants it is possible to double charge a .45 ACP case, which is disastrous. Be certain your loading procedures, whether using a single-stage or progressive press, will prevent or catch a double-charged case.
The two primary test handguns included a Kimber Model 1911 Custom Classic with a 5-inch barrel and a Smith & Wesson Model 625-6 Mountain Gun with a 4-inch barrel. Both have proven to be very accurate.
Early on in the tests, the Kimber seemed to produce slightly higher velocities than expected, so several loads were cross-referenced in an out-of-the-box Colt 1911, also with a 5-inch barrel, which produced on average 20 to 30 fps less velocity than the Kimber. The Kimber’s higher velocities were likely due to its tighter chamber and excellent match-grade barrel.
Over the years I have tested many .45 ACP revolvers, and their velocities are often higher than expected. Obviously there is some velocity loss due to the barrel-cylinder gap; however, some of this loss is recovered in the long throat (or freebore) before the bullet engages and meets the resistance of the rifling. Basically revolvers with longer cylinders (or longer freebore), such as the Ruger Blackhawk, tend to produce higher velocities than a revolver with a shorter cylinder.
The .45 ACP loads in the tables are within SAAMI pressure limits of 21,000 psi, and according to various laboratories, most are at 19,000 psi or below. Keep in mind, if you are shooting a 1911-style pistol, make certain the recoil springs are correct for the loads being used to prevent premature wear and unnecessary battering of the frame.
To help eliminate variables and determine the most consistent powder/bullet combinations, Federal GM150M (Gold Medal Match) primers were used for all loads.
The .45 ACP is easy to reload, and if reasonable care is exercised in selecting components and assembling ammunition, reliability and accuracy can be excellent as long as the firearm is up to the job.