Handloading for the Semi-Auto Handgun

Handloading for the Semi-Auto Handgun

Like any reloading project, building rounds for a semi-automatic pistol has its own set of challenges. Semi-autos have tight tolerances, but many of its bugaboos can be avoided by handloading for accuracy and reliability, not maximum velocity.

The first semi-auto handgun I ever owned was a Smith & Wesson Model 59, bought with my first paycheck when I took my dream job as a biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Back in 1978, those of us in the Wildlife Division had to provide our own sidearms (we were all commissioned officers, but only the wardens in the Law Enforcement Division were issued guns in the form of the Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolver). Since I had to buy my own, I wanted something more appropriate than my Model 28 hunting revolver for daily carry. I had a good supply of surplus 9mm ammo and for that first year, every evening after work, rain or shine, I practiced with that pistol behind my barn.

As a target I used a playing card and in each session I would run through about 15 rounds from 5 to 25 yards, drawing and firing one, then two, then three shots at the different distances. In October 1979, all that practice paid off when I was attacked by a huge Saint Barnard/Labrador cross, a feral dog that surprised me deep in on National Forest land miles from the nearest road. I have no doubt that pistol saved me from a serious mauling.

Popular Calibers

The most popular semi-auto calibers have traditionally been the 9mm Luger and the Colt .45 Auto; the 9mm being the most widely chambered handgun round in the world and the .45 ACP being the cartridge against which all other semi-auto rounds are measured. There is a perennial argument over which is better for self-defense, the high-capacity 9mm or the striking power of the .45. I personally would not want to be the recipient of either one, but history has shown us time and again that torso hits with the .45 are less survivable.

Handloading the semi-auto pistol can be tricky; one must match the velocity and bullet weight to reliably work the action, while still achieving the accuracy necessary for consistent groups. This means there is a narrow window of acceptable velocities for a given bullet weight.

Couple this with using a style of bullet that will reliably feed, and we see that care must be taken when loading.

Compounding the handloader’s concerns is the nature of the extremely fast powders used for these cartridges—the difference between a reliable, accurate load and a wrecked handgun (or personal injury) may be as little as 1/10 of one grain of powder.

It’s my advice to load for reliability and accuracy and not the highest possible velocities. True, many pistols operate best near their maximum load, but approach that listed maximum with extreme care. A good chronograph can be a big help in developing these loads for this reason, as you should look for velocities with the smallest possible shot-to-shot variation.

My Load Data

In my Beretta 92FS, the Hornady 124-grain full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet on top of 5 grains of Unique delivers an average of 1,100 feet per second (fps) for 10 shots with only 4 fps difference between the highest and lowest velocities. I use Winchester brass and some of my closely guarded supply of Federal 100 primers.

With this load and pistol last year I watched my son Wade repeatedly bounce around a coffee can at 130 yards. The Hornady FMJ bullet feeds wonderfully and in more than 400 rounds I have had no malfunctions. Using a 5-grain load of Winchester WSF and this bullet has not been as consistently accurate as the Unique load, but it operates the pistol fine and seems somewhat milder, although velocity average is very close to the Unique load.

In my Colt Government 80 series (her name is Hard Candy), 7 grains of Unique under the Hornady 230-grain FMJ in Winchester cases and Federal 150 primers is my only handload. If I don’t shoot it, I’m shooting UMC factory ammunition. This pistol loves the 230-grain bullet and will not group lighter bullets worth a hoot. This load in a Smith & Wesson Model 1917 killed the biggest wild hog I have ever laid hands on—a 424-pound monster—with one shot at 15 yards. Later that same day, the fellow who owned the revolver used that load to shoot a ragged one-hole group of five shots at 40 yards.

Handloading for the semi-auto pistol can be rewarding and economically smart. Pay attention to detail, load for reliability and accuracy and see for yourself.

This article appeared in the April 22, 2013 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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  1. For many years I too used Hercules Unique powder then came the bad news it was bought out by Alliant. I bought the Alliant brand of Unique and had nothing but trouble with it. Velocities varied as much as a horrifying 200 fps and when working with maximum loads in the .45acp it was too much for even an old Fashioned Series 70 with all forged parts to handle. The firing pin stop would slip down under recoil jamming the gun on the forward movement of the slide in the loading sequence. Bullets flew out of the magazine and even did summer saults in the magazine. Replacing the gun with all new springs and a heavy duty recoil spring as well as heavy magazine springs were fruitless. I then fell back on the old reliable Bulls-eye. No it would not give as high a velocity for combat loads but it was close enough for all practicable means and I had none of the mechanical failures I had with Unique proving there was nothing wrong with the gun but with the manufacture of the powder,

    • Been using Unique for years because I can load all my handguns and shotguns with one powder. Never had a problem in any of them.


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