Reloading ammunition is a popular pastime, both to save money and tailor ammunition to a shooter’s specific needs. For rifle cartridges, it’s generally very easy to produce ammunition that is both better and cheaper than the factory offerings.
There are dozens of gun powders available for the reloader to choose from. None of them are bad, but some are clearly more versatile than others. This guide explains why many reloaders flock to certain powders, and what advantages those powders have.
No one gun powder does it all, especially in reloading rifle cartridges. I will detail seven powders that will cover 95% of the needs of reloaders, as well as where they perform the best.
Common Powder Choices for Common Rifle Calibers
|Most Common Powder||2nd Option||3rd Option||4th Option|
|.223 / 5.56||IMR 4198||H335||CFE223||Varget|
|6.5 Creedmoor||H4350||Reloader-15||Norma URP||Reloader-17|
|.280 Ackley Improved||Reloader-19||H4350||H4831||Reloader-22|
|7mm Rem Mag||H1000||Retumbo||Reloader-22||H4831|
|.300 Win Mag||H1000||Reloader-22||H4350||H4831|
The chart above is by no means scientific. If you’re wanting to know what powders to use for a particular cartridge, this chart is a quick-reference to see where each powder generally fits in, and what may be more versatile. But you really do just need to use a load manual and try a few powders to know what’s best and safe for your rifle.
Very Fast Rifle Powder: Hodgdon CFE BLK
Hodgdon CFE BLK is a fast-burning spherical powder and is relatively new to the market. The BLK naming is in reference to the .300 AAC Blackout cartridge, and the powder is tailored to its needs. It also produces excellent velocities when used the 7.62x39mm.
It also has uses in the big-bore AR-15 cartridges like the .450 Bushmaster and .458 SOCOM.
While not many people are going to use this powder, in its role it is very popular. CFE BLK bridges the gap between very slow handgun powders and slower, traditional rifle powders. For reloaders of the .300 AAC Blackout, this powder gives them a good powder option at all bullet weights, from light 110-grain bullets to subsonic 200-grain plus bullets.
As a spherical powder, CFE BLK is very dense and can fit a lot, comparatively, into a small case. When case capacity is an issue, spherical powders can deliver better velocity numbers just because they can pack more in there. Remember though, always follow published load data.
The 7.62x39mm has been, historically, a cartridge almost no one reloads. The bullets are .310 and .311 instead of the common .308. The majority of rifles chambered in the cartridge just aren’t that accurate, and imported ammo from overseas has been cheap and plentiful. About that last point…
With the federal government taking measures to stop the importation of Russian ammo, expect reloading of the 7.62x39mm (and 5.45x39mm) to become more common. And, it is my personal opinion, that gun-owners should not count on the next Republican administration to reverse this tread. I’m open to being surprised, but when was the last time you bought Chinese-made ammunition?
Medium Extruded Powder: Hodgon Varget
Hodgdon Varget is a medium-burning extruded powder and is part of Hodgdon’s Extreme line of powders. It is also one of the most popular rifle powders made.
As a medium-burning rifle powder, it does best in common cartridges like the .223 Remington and .308 Winchester. People will also use it in slightly more over-bore cartridges like the 30-06, 7mm-08, and the 6.5 Creedmoor.
What makes Varget a superior choice above most of its competitors is its extreme temperature stability. Temperature stability is the ability to produce nearly the same muzzle velocity regardless of the ambient temperature.
While no powder is completely temperature stable, Varget is more-or-less as close as one can get. Even swings of 100 degrees Fahrenheit will produce single-digit velocity changes. Now, hopefully, you never see this in a single day. But it does mean a single accurate load can be worked up and used year-round for long-range shooting.
This is more important for competitive shooters than it is for most hunters, as competitions are generally held year-round. And, as many competitive shooters have learned, leaving ammunition in direct sunlight during summer can make the cartridges hot enough to cause discomfort when handling.
Varget gives excellent case fill when used in .233 Remington and .308 Winchester. At max loading, it usually results in a compressed charge.
There is one big downside to Varget though, it’s a victim of its own success. As most reloaders know, when the shooting public goes nuts with gun and ammo buying, reloading components can go out of stock for years. Varget is one of the worst examples of this.
If you try Varget and like it, it is a wise choice to keep a hefty reserve should it be unavailable for up to 2-3 years.
Caveats on Extruded Powders: Varget is an extruded powder, meaning the physical form of the powder is that of small pellets. This has both some benefits and drawbacks. Extruded powders, generally speaking, are the top choice for reloaders chasing accuracy and temperature stability.
The drawback of extruded powders is they do not flow like spherical powders. With each pellet being larger in size, this can lead to less consistent weights when metered from a powder dispenser or even worse, complete stoppages as the pellets bind together in the hopper.
This can be overcome by a number of little tricks reloaders do, such as flicking the powder reservoir with their finger, or any other number of ways to manually agitate the pellets. The other options are to weigh every charge or use powder dippers.
Extruded powders can also struggle to easily flow into small-caliber cases. With .30 caliber cases, this is a mild annoyance at best. With .22 caliber cases, almost every charge needs to be “encouraged” not to bind at the mouth of the case. Reloading 6.5mm cases are somewhere in between.
None of this is to say don’t use extruded powders, but it’s a bit slower during the reloading process.
Medium Spherical Powder: Ramshot TAC
Ramshot TAC is a medium-burning spherical powder primarily used for loading .223 Remington cartridges for use in the AR platform. It also works well in .308 Winchester. Spherical powders are also commonly referred to a “ball powders”, with Winchester having that labeling as a registered trademark.
As a spherical powder, it will flow out of powder dispensers and through small case necks very well. For people and manufacturers who need to produce a lot of ammunition, spherical powders are the standard. Essentially all non-premium factory ammunition in rifle cartridges use spherical powders.
The market for medium-burning spherical powders is loaded with good choices. I haven’t come anywhere near using all of them, and I doubt many people have. I like Ramshot TAC specifically because it is useful for a wide range of bullet weights in .223 Remington and Ramshot publishes 5.56x45mm load data for it.
Another reason Ramshot TAC is popular with .223 Remington reloaders is its efficiency with 55-grain bullets. For me, those make up 90% plus of my reloads. Budget 55-grain bullets, which aren’t that good at long ranges anyway, don’t need to chase top velocities. When a powder recipe starts asking for a 28 grains charge at .223 Remington pressures, it’s getting on the slow side.
Ramshot TAC isn’t too fast for good performance with the heavier 75 and 77-grain bullets either, though I generally don’t load the more expensive bullets with spherical powders. In all my time reloading, I have gotten better accuracy results with extruded powders. But for close-range practice ammo, I’d rather use spherical powders that are very easy to work with during the reloading process.
There is usually some savings to be had by using spherical powders over extruded types, but the real benefit is time and hassle saved while reloading.
Medium-Slow Extruded Powder: Hodgdon H4350
Hodgdon H4350 is a medium-slow burning extruded powder and is part of Hodgdon’s Extreme line of powders. Like Varget, this is an iconic powder and is extremely temperature stable.
When dealing with any powder labeled 4350, it is important to remind newer reloaders that there are several powders that use this number in their label. The original, IMR 4350, was and is excellent when used in the 30-06. It was popular enough for other manufacturers to create their own powders in this burn range and label it as a 4350 powder.
Remember, each powder is an individual, and load data should never be interchanged. Just because it says 4350 doesn’t mean it’s the same powder, just that it’s similar in burn speed. Hodgdon H4350, tends to be one of the faster 4350 powders available.
As a temperature stable extruded powder, Hodgdon H4350 carries the same benefits and drawbacks as Varget, just at a different burn range. It also carries the same drawback of being out of stock for years with each ammo panic.
H4350 is ideally used in the 30-06 and the new “whiz-bang” 6.5mm short-action cartridges, with the 6.5 Creedmoor being the most popular. These cartridges, while trendy, have become extremely popular because they are low-recoil but still have plenty of power for deer and pig hunting.
Magnum Powder: Reloder 22
Reloder 22 is an extruded magnum rifle powder sold by Alliant. Unlike the other extruded powders mentioned on this list, Reloder 22 is not temperature stable. Still, it is excellent in its intended use.
Also, as a note, I am spelling the name correctly. The powder is called Reloder 22, not Reloader 22.
Where Reloder 22 shines is getting the most out of long-action magnum cartridges. Velocity wise it will often produce 100 fps more than its competitors, and it also has a reputation for delivering excellent accuracy.
So with what I have written about the advantages of temperature stable powders, should you consider a powder that is known for being temperature unstable? If it fits your needs, then yes. Remember, big game hunting doesn’t typically happen at both 100 degrees and -20 degrees for most individual hunters.
Using Reloder 22 is no harder than sighting in your rifle at the start of hunting season, as opposed to in the middle of the summer.
Grandpa’s Favorite Powder: IMR 4350
IMR 4350 is an extruded, medium-slow burning rifle powder sold by Hodgdon as they now own the IMR branding. It is an excellent older powder and has been used for generations to make accurate reloads.
This powder, along with many other legacy powders, still performs very well. While newer alternatives have been released with different benefits, namely temperature stability and better velocity in over-bore cartridges, IMR 4350 performs no worse than it did 50 years ago.
IMR 4350 made its name in being better in 30-06 reloads than the original military powder, IMR 4895. It delivers better velocity in all bullet weights and most reloaders find it more accurate with the heavier 165 and 180-grain bullets.
It can also be used .270 Winchester, most of the popular 6.5mm cartridges and the belted magnums as well.
And to be honest, most shooters don’t need extreme levels of temperature stability, though there is no downside in having it. Remember, factory ammunition is not tuned for hot or cold weather and doesn’t use the most advanced powders available. Still, large and small game are still ethically harvested with it every year.
If you know not to develop loads in the dead of winter or the blistering heat of summer, and this powder gives you excellent results, then use it. IMR 4350 didn’t develop its reputation in a vacuum.
This can also be said for a variety of other older, extruded powders, including; IMR 3031, IMR 4895, and IMR 4064. If I were to accompany you to a sporting goods store and every powder imaginable was in stock and available for purchase, these probably wouldn’t be recommending these powders first. However, if you are getting good results with them, or can’t find newer alternatives, give it a try.
Special Use Powder: Hodgdon H4895
Hodgdon H4895 is a medium-burning extruded powder and is part of Hodgdon’s Extreme line of powders. It is very similar to Varget in burn rate but has never been as popular for use in full power loads. Where it does shine is reduced power loads and it’s the most popular powder in that role.
Hodgdon advertises that any published load for H4895 can be reduced down to 60% and still have consistent ignition. Hodgdon considers this load data for “Youth Hunting, Informal Target, and Plinking” and publishes a short PDF on its use found here.
H4895 is also used as an alternative for people who struggle to find accurate loads with Varget, as they deliver very similar velocity numbers.
This is a good list of powders that focus on reloading the most common cartridges available to the US shooting public. Since I don’t shoot heavy magnum cartridges, I have omitted any powders slower than Reloder 22.
I really do recommend trying the newer and more advanced powders available instead of the older legacy powders if you are starting from scratch.
If you are reloading in bulk quantities, spherical powders are much easier to deal with in the reloading process. And while I have gotten good accuracy results from them, my best and most consistent results have always been from extruded powders.