Picking New .45 Colt Loads For Ruger’s New Vaquero
by Dave Workman
Senior Editor

Having long been fascinated with the .45 Colt as a cartridge, and with the Single Action Army as a firearm, this writer has waited and watched, looked and labored over the years for the right gun to come along, and the right opportunity to explore the potential of the ammunition.

The stars came together late last year when I latched onto one of the “New Vaquero” models from Sturm, Ruger (1 Lacey Pl., Dept. GWK, Southport, CT 06890; phone: 203-259-7843; on-line: www.ruger.com) and determined that here was a sixgun that just might address every need I demanded. It was accurate. It had a smooth-as-silk action. It was well-balanced. It was tougher than nails, in the tradition of the Ruger Blackhawk and Ruger’s original Vaquero which, as everyone knows, was just a Blackhawk-size gun without the adjustable sights, and styled in the traditional appearance of a frontier smoke wagon.

Alas, the test revolver had a 5&Mac251;-inch barrel, and I’ve had this “thing” for the single-action with either a long 7&Mac251;-inch tube, or the short 4-5/8-inch bore. The 5&Mac251;-inch barrel length has never done much for me aesthetically, although on that test gun, it truly delivered the goods.

So, I told Ruger’s Margaret Sheldon and Ken Jorgensen that I wanted another one of these guns, that they’d probably not ever get it back, and that it needed to wear a 7&Mac251;-inch barrel. Weeks went by as we all waited for the factory to build a run of that particular model, and finally, I got an e-mail from Sheldon tipping me off that a sixgun was en route.

In the meantime, knowing that I would be delving into the finer aspects of reloading for this handgun, I got hold of Steve Johnson at Hornady (3625 Old Potash Hwy., Dept. GWK, Grand Island, NE 68803; phone: 308-382-1390; on-line: www.hornady.com) about the company’s New Dimension reloading dies he had told me about during the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show in January.

To be up front about this, I’ve been a devoted fan of carbide dies from RCBS (605 Oro Dam Blvd., Dept. GWK, Oroville, CA 95965; phone: 916-533-5191; on-line: www.rcbs.com) for many years for my handgun reloading, but I’ve had good success with my Hornady dies on a single-stage press for rifle cartridges as well. Suffice to say, I’ve had very good luck with all of my reloading dies, whether they come from RCBS, Hornady or Lyman (475 Smith St., Dept. GWK, Middletown, CT 06457; phone: 860-632-2020; on-line: www.lymanproducts.com), so maybe I’ve lived a charmed life in that regard.

But I was intrigued and wanted to give these New Dimension dies a chance, and since I knew they’d fit my RCBS Piggyback reloader, I ordered up a set. I was not disappointed. Johnson said Hornady builds these dies with a tooled D2 steel ring coated with titanium nitride at the mouth of the sizing die.

“We found that going with this did better than carbide and it’s a lot more durable,” Johnson insisted.

Whether it is or not, I can attest that these dies have worked without a hitch, on both brass and nickeled brass that Speer uses in its Lawman ammunition line. They have sized a lot of brass smoothly, and that’s my bottom line. I suspect they will last a lifetime.

Bullets and Powder
Johnson also sent me a few boxes of Hornady’s superb 255-grain flat nose pre-lubed lead bullets, plus some XTP jacketed hollowpoints, and a couple of boxes of Hornady Cowboy ammunition.

I likewise hooked up with Jason Nash for some 250-grain lead semi-wadcutters from Speer (2299 Snake River Ave., Dept. GWK, Lewiston, ID 83501; phone: 208-745-2351; on-line: www.speer-bullets.com).

By the most incredible of coincidences, it also turned out that this year, Hodgdon and IMR (6231 Robinson, Dept. GWK, Shawnee Mission, KS 66202; phone: 913-362-9455; on-line: www.imrpowder.com) has introduced a brand new reloading propellant for the Cowboy Action crowd called, appropriately, Trail Boss. This stuff features kernels shaped like little donuts, and Chris Hodgdon told me that it is virtually impossible to throw a double load in a cartridge case, and after running up 100 rounds, I believe him.

True to his word, Hodgdon got me a pound of Trail Boss in May, when he had promised that the propellant would be ready for distribution.

Having consulted my reloading manuals, I also discovered much to my delight that there are loads listed for this cartridge that utilize one of my favorite pistol powders, Hodgdon’s HP-38, along with loads for Bullseye and Alliant 2400, among others. I happen to have a fairly well-stocked reloading bench, so I now had all the components necessary.

I use CCI pistol primers almost exclusively unless a particular test or assignment calls for something else. I’ve never had a problem with these primers, and I use them also in my .45 ACP loads, of which I go through hundreds, if not a couple of thousand or more in an average year, just plinking and “keeping my eye in.” And that’s just the shooting I do in one caliber.

Naturally, I did a little studying up with my loading manuals before dropping a single powder charge.

Establishing Accuracy
When I did the earlier test on the New Vaquero, I had rounded up stocks of ammunition from various sources, including: Black Hills Ammunition (PO Box 3090, Dept. GWK, Rapid City, SD 57709; phone: 605-348-5150; on-line: www.black-hills.com), Speer/Lawman, Remington (870 Remington Dr., PO Box 700, Dept. GWK, Madison, NC 27025-0700; phone: 336-548-8700; on-line: www.remington.com), and Winchester (427 North Shamrock St., Dept. GWK, East Alton, IL 62024-1174; phone: 618-258-2000; on-line: www.winchester.com).

I had plenty of that left over from a test of the Ruger and another great sixgun for the Cowboy Action crowd, the new Gaucho from Taurus (16175 NW 49th Ave., Dept. GWK, Miami, FL 33014; phone: 305-624-1115; on-line: www.taurususa.com), so when my longer-barreled gun showed up, I quickly retired to the Snoqualmie Valley Rifle Club range and established that this wheelgun, like the first, was spot-on accurate at 25 yards without any filing of the front sight. This surprised me some, because the front blade on the New Vaquero is rather high, and is made that way for folks to file a bit if necessary.

Jorgensen had confided in me months ago that this was a big concern of Ruger’s when they designed the New Vaquero: accuracy. Take my word for it, from somewhere on high, Bill Ruger is smiling down on the people responsible for this project, because they’ve delivered a winner.

Well, so much for the factory ammunition. The big challenge now was throwing together handloads that could do the same thing. But I had established a baseline of accuracy in that I knew whatever I aimed that revolver at, I was going to hit so long as I didn’t flinch or otherwise screw up.

Settling on Loads
Any reloader knows that different loads marry up with different firearms . . . differently. You can brew up ammunition that will cut X-rings all day long in one .308 rifle, for example, but in another rifle of the same model, that ammunition might only turn in a mediocre performance.

I began by checking various manuals for what they listed as the “most accurate” load, which is not necessarily the most powerful load. As always, when starting a project with a new cartridge, begin your loads about 10% back from a recommended load, and work up.

Hodgdon had supplied me with new loading data for Trail Boss, which I found to be remarkably reliable. Using 5.8 grains of Trail Boss—which pretty near fills the .45 Colt case to volume capacity—I have produced a load with which I can, using a two-hand hold, hit an empty 12-gauge shotshell hull at 20 yards consistently. I know guys with souped-up target pistols who can’t do that.

The stuff burns clean, and I’ve decided that this is what I will use exclusively with the 250-grain Speer LSWC. With my Chrony Alpha chronograph set 7 feet from the muzzle, that load scoots along at a moderate 746.7 feet-per-second (fps). That’s right in the neighborhood of where Cowboy competitors like their lead pills to be clocking for range work, and—specifically for my purposes since I’m not a Cowboy impersonator—rather bad news for rabbits and other small game.

Game Getter
Yes, I confess. . . . I bought this sixgun not for “shootin’ matches” but for shooting game and for general outside use.

I’ve also thrown together some loads using the same bullet ahead of 15 grains of 2400, reduced slightly from the maximum listed load of 15.4 grains of 2400 in the Speer No. 13 Loading Manual. As many people know, 2400 has something of a reputation for burning dirty in some guns, but we’ll see over time whether that turns out to be the case with the .45 Colt cartridge. I’ve used it off and on in cartridges from .38 Special to .41 Magnum, and at times there is a residue of little yellow flakes, but not always.

Likewise, after some trial and error, I settled on 6.8 grains of HP-38 behind the 255-grain Hornady bullet, which turns in a zippy 853.4 fps across the chronograph screens. That, incidentally, was the highest velocity recorded, and is the maximum load listed by Hodgdon for that bullet weight. It might just make a pretty good defense load, if the .45 Colt is all I have in an emergency, which is to say, a hell of a lot better than a club, rock or pocket pistol! It will also produce terminal results on cottontails, varmints and predators.

For comparison purposes, Hornady Cowboy Action factory loads using the same 255-grain lead bullet clocked 752.3 fps, Black Hills factory loads using a 250-grain lead flat point bullet were nearly identical at 759.9 fps, and Speer’s Trail Blazer round with a Speer 230-grain lead flat point in a disposable aluminum case moved along at 777.7 fps.

I will note something which others will likely encounter. It’s the odd odor from the Trail Boss loads after they are fired. It smells rather like ammonia or, believe it or not, urine, and not at all like typical burned gunpowder. Hodgdon checked with his resident expert on Trail Boss powder, Mike Daly, and he could not say why there was that kind of an after-odor. But don’t let the smell get you. This stuff shoots like the proverbial house on fire.

On the Horizon
I am still experimenting with Hornady’s 230-grain XTP, and right now I’ve settled on a powder charge of 6.8 grains of HP-38, but that could take some tweaking. Likewise, Nosler makes a fine 250-grain JHP for which the maximum charge of HP-38 listed is 6.7 grains. But this experimenting is still on-going, and between now and the fall hunting season, I may just see what kind of horsepower I can get out of these loads, as well as some using Bullseye powder.

As readers will observe from the accompanying photos, I’ve also been busy at the leather bench, knocking out a holster and gun belt for this new Ruger. I’ll probably write a bit about that experience in an upcoming issue of Gun Week.

I want to add a word of caution here—on a couple of levels. First, all the loads listed in this piece are lighter than maximum listed loads in the manuals. One does not need to release his testosterone when shooting a revolver chambered in .45 Colt. One also does not need to push the envelope just to see whether he or she can blow up a gun.

There’s something else: Several of today’s manuals will have two sections on the .45 Colt cartridge. One section discusses loads of common pressure below the industry maximum of 14,000 psi. The other will detail loads to be used only in the Ruger Blackhawk, original Ruger Vaquero or Thompson/Center single-shot. They are stiffer for guns that can handle stiff loads.

Do not use them in the New Vaquero or other traditional single-action or double-action wheelguns chambered in .45 Colt.
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