Blow Up!

This is what a bad reload can do. After I searched a 100-ft. radius, this is all I could find. I never found the bolt.
This is what a bad reload can do. After I searched a 100-ft. radius, this is all I could find. I never found the bolt.

It happened almost two years ago, but I remember it all too well. In addition to my .357 Magnum revolver, I had four rifles for which I decided to reload ammunition: an old .32-40 Winchester for which shells are not commonly available; a .38-55 for which I have to special-order the ammunition; a pre-‘64 M70 Winchester .30-06, which I had completely restored; and a new .300 WSM in a M700 Remington.

So, after much studying, I came home with a new RCBS kit, .300 WSM dies, primers, and only one kind of powder, H-4350.

After loading and shooting over 80 rounds of .300 WSM, I was enjoying the reduced cost per shell, but it was already mid-March and I had hundreds of hours of work to do on my farm in Washington state.

It was sometime in June of 2007 when my friend Patrick stopped to see me and brought some gifts to go with my reloading stuff. There was a case tumbler, a set of .30-06 loading dies, three or four smaller items, and a can of HS-6 pistol powder, even though I still did not yet have the dies to load for my .357 revolver. I put it all on the shelf and went back to work on the farm.

This was my pride and joy, a pre-’64 Winchester Model 70 in .30-06. I had refinished the stock, adding a sissy pad, and I had the metal reblued.
This was my pride and joy, a pre-’64 Winchester Model 70 in .30-06. I had refinished the stock, adding a sissy pad, and I had the metal reblued.

By August 1, with my normal work up to date, I decided to reload some more and improve my shooting accuracy before hunting season. This time I was loading for my restored M70 in .30-‘06. Since the book called for a low of 53 gr. and a high of 57 gr. of H-4350, I loaded some shells at 54 gr. That, I was sure would keep me well within the safe range.

On August 10 I drove 28 miles up into the mountains of Gifford Pinchot National Forest to a lonely spot where we had set up a safe firing range.

Now that my M70 had a new sissy pad, newly finished stock, new barrel, new bluing and new scope, I was ready to prove that the hours I had spent in refinishing it had not been in vain and that I could shoot a good tight group with that new barrel. I set up the shooting bench with sandbags and everything I needed. I wanted to know what the gun could do before I did any off-hand shooting.

When I touched off that first shell, all hell broke loose. My prized ‘pre-64 M70 Winchester, which my dad handed down to me, blew into hundreds of pieces. Small chips of the stock were raining down on my head. The barrel landed 34 feet from where I pulled the trigger. There was blood dripping from my right thumbnail. My face felt partially numb from the blast, so I touched it with my left hand and my palm came away covered with blood. I discovered later that only my safety glasses, which I wear all the time, saved my eyes. The lenses were covered with little chip marks from flying metal.

What went wrong? I had to know. So as quickly as possible I gathered up all the pieces that were close by and easy to find, threw them in the car and asked myself, “What next?”

I was alone and 28 miles from home with only one way to get there. I had to drive . . . at least until I found a Forest Service truck or a sheriff’s patrol car. I wiped the blood off my glasses so I could see and started down the mountains. As it turned out, I was only twelve miles from home when I met the first car of any kind, but by then I knew that I could make it to the house.

After three days of doctor visits, I loaded the gun and my metal detector into the car and drove back to the mountains. With the metal detector I searched a 100-foot radius from my firing position and never found the bolt or any other pieces of the gun.

To get more stories from Gun Digest, the World's Greatest Gun Book, Click Here
To get more stories from Gun Digest 64th Edition, the World's Greatest Gun Book, Click Here.

On the way home, I stopped at the home of another friend, Keith, in nearby Amboy. I knew that he was a marksman in the Marines and now he both repaired guns and built custom rifles that are sold at auction at NRA banquets. I wanted to know if he and his expert friends could determine what went wrong.

The poor guy took one look at what was left of my gun and went white with the fear that one of his reloads caused the explosion. I had to assure him that it was not his reloads that I was shooting. It took a while, but after he calmed down, he took one of the remaining shells I had loaded with 54 gr. and gently removed the bullet from the case. Then he poured out the powder on a white paper, and with a bad-news expression said, “That’s pistol powder.” Pistol powder!

Keith then went to his supply room and returned with three canisters of powder. Upon comparison and talking to me he concluded that I had loaded 54 gr. of HS-6 into those .30-06 cases instead of 54 gr. of H-4350.

It was only then that I realized what I had done: in early April my wife had asked me to put my reloading powder in the safe because the grandkids were coming to visit. Then the gifts that Patrick had brought me, including the HS-6 for my .357 revolver,  had gone onto the same shelf from which I removed my H-4350 – or what I thought was my H4350.

And finally, having played it safe and purchased only one type of rifle powder, I had reloaded for my M70 without checking my powder container and without a thought of that HS-6.

By the way: it takes only 9 gr. of HS-6 to load a .44 Magnum shell. Keith later informed me that although my ‘06 was designed to withstand a chamber pressure of 50,000 psi, he and his mathematical friends figured that my 54 gr. of HS-6 pushed that pressure up somewhere between 235,000 and 285,000 psi.

The bottom line? Slow down. Never assume you know what you have. When reloading, check each powder container and each measurement to prove that you are right.

No, I still don’t know why I’m alive after such an explosion only nine inches from my face. Maybe that Old Man Upstairs still has a job for me that I do not yet know about. As my friend Keith suggests, “Maybe that job was to write this story and keep someone else alive by not making a similar error.”

Believe it: yes you can. You can mix them up. I’ve seen it done.

This article appeared in the 2010 Gun Digest, 64th Edition book. To Order, Click Here.

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