Five Favorite Handgun Powders

By Bob Shell
It is frustrating to have developed good loads with a certain powder & then it is out of stock. That is why I pick handgun powders that have been around a long time.

45 win mag L & 45 auto use different handgun powders for best results
45 win mag L & 45 auto use different handgun powders for best results
Bob Shell
Bob Shell

USA-( Like long gun powders, there are a wide variety of suitable handgun powders.

Also like rifle powders, in order to be one of my favorites it has to have been around for a long time and stand a good chance of being in production years from now.

It should have some versatility and in fact a couple have some use in rifles.

I have loaded everything from a 25 auto to a 500 S & W, so there is a lot of differences in the propellants that I use. It is frustrating to have developed some good loads with a certain powder and then the powder is gone.

Yes, you can usually buy it somewhere years later but at some point it will dry up or become much more expensive. It is also true that a good replacement load can be developed with another powder but I was disappointed when Alcan 7 was dropped as it was one of my favorites at the time.

Handgun Powders

Winchester 231 Smokeless Powder

Winchester 231 Smokeless Powder
Winchester 231 Smokeless Powder :

In the 1970’s I was doing a little match shooting with a 38 special and a couple types of cast bullets. I was using two propellants at the time Bullseye and WW 230, both of which I liked. Winchester dropped 230 and went to 231 which is an improved version of the Winchester 231 Smokeless Powder. I tried it in the 38 and have been using it ever since.

Among other rounds I use it in is the 25 auto and the 380 and 9 mm Luger. Many other similar size rounds have been used with 231 with success. Like any propellant it might not be the best in all of the applications I use it in but it works well enough to produce good ammo. With a light bullet, it is one of my favorites in the 45 ACP.

Alliant Powder Unique Smokeless Powder

Alliant Powder Unique Smokeless Powder 8lb Keg
Alliant Powder Unique Smokeless Powder 8lb Keg :

I can’t imagine any loading bench operating without the next powder which is Alliant Powder Unique Smokeless Powder. It has been around since the late 1890’s and is still one of the all-time favorite handgun powders in use today. That is no accident. It can be used in almost any handgun round, although it is not the best for everything.

It used to be somewhat dirty burning but it has been cleaned up in the last few years. It is flexible almost beyond belief, especially in the type of work I do. It is a good powder for cast bullets in rifles and makes a good blank powder for rifles. For handguns, it would be slow for really small rounds though it would work in a pinch and of course in large rounds would not be ideal for high velocity ammo. For moderate loads, using cast bullets in a 41, 44, and 45 Colt it would be hard to beat. It is a relatively low density flake powder and easy to ignite both desirable traits. It may very well be the most flexible powder currently being produced. If I am making some general purpose cast bullet ammo in a 41, 44, or 45 Colt I always grab Unique. The amount depends on the bullet weight and what velocity level I want it to be. I always buy it in 8 LB. kegs.

Old revolvers such as this Eley work best with Unique type of handgun powders.
Old revolvers such as this Eley work best with Unique type of handgun powders.

Alliant 2400 Smokeless Powder

Alliant 2400 Smokeless Powder
Alliant 2400 Smokeless Powder

Another fine old timer is Alliant 2400 Smokeless Powder. It has been around for many years and with good reason. While not suitable for small rounds, with rounds from the 357 on up it really shows its merits, especially with heavier bullets. It is at its best with full handgun powders loads as it can produce good velocities and reasonable pressures. In a 357 using jacketed bullets from 140 grains on up performance is impressive. I have a friend I load for using 2400 and a 158 grain jacketed flat nose and he harvests a lot of deer using his Ruger Blackhawk. For 41, 44 mag and 45 Colt heavy loads it is one of the best performers available.

With light loads it tends to burn dirty, so that is where Unique would come in. For some obsolete rifles, it works well and in a 351 WSL with a 180 grain it is the best.

The LAR Grizzly works well with 2400 and similar powders
The LAR Grizzly works well with 2400 and similar powders

Heavy Bullet Gun Powders

These are some of the best slow burning powders for magnum handguns & heavy loads
These are some of the best slow burning powders for magnum handguns & heavy loads

The next powder is meant for magnum cartridges using heavy bullets. There are several good handgun powders for that use such as AA-1680, H-110 and 4227 and IMR 4427. In addition, WW 296 would have to rate up there.

They are all similar and as long as they are used as designed, they will do well. Such rounds as the 454 Casull, 460 and 500 S & W and any other similar rounds do well with these propellants. In a 41 or 44 magnum with heavy bullets, they are also good. They are not real flexible as smaller rounds and reduced loads should not be attempted with these propellants.

I have seen reduced loads using 296 fail to push the bullet out of the barrel, which can cause a dangerous situation. Most of the reloading manuals warn against using less than the minimum listed and I strongly suggest that you follow that. In fact, while safe the minimal loads are usually inconsistent. If you observe a large muzzle flash during day time shooting chances are pretty good that the load is too light.

I lump these handgun powders together because of their similarities and the fact that they are at their best in a large handgun with full loads. In a Circuit Judge rifle, I use 296 with a 300-grain hollow base bullet to good effect.

S & W 44 mag works with a lot of different powders depending on which load is choosen
S & W 44 mag works with a lot of different powders depending on which load is choosen

Flexibility is something that I consider very important. That is one reason that I like the 30-06 so much is its flexibility. The same holds true with powder choices. There are many good propellants available but some may work in a narrow range of calibers. I use some of those powders but they would not be in my favorite five. If I shot one specific caliber that took a narrow range powder to perform best then it may rank among my favorite five.

Accurate 5744 Handgun Powders

Accurate 5744 Powders
Accurate 5744 Powders :

My last choice took some thought because of the type of work I do. With that thought, I went with the Accurate 5744 Powder. For smaller caliber handguns it won’t do well but the heavyweights it is fine. With a 500 S & W it is a great performer. It has an advantage of being able to be loaded down and still work. Therefore, to a point in a 460 or 500 you can reduce the load and still get decent results. Another use that I really like is its ability to work well in old black powder rifles producing safe loads. In a 12.17 X 44 with a 300-grain bullet it is my favorite load. Even when under loaded it still works though some unburned granules are visible.

The 460 S & W needs the slowest burning handgun powders for best results.
The 460 S & W needs the slowest burning handgun powders for best results.

To Many Reloading Powder Choices

Choosing five Handgun Powders or Pistol Powders is not easy. As mentioned above, I use a lot of Unique but if for some reason I can’t get it (it is popular and out of stock a lot) then I go to Herco as it is very similar and works well. There are times I use either Red or Green Dot, as they are a bit faster and may work better in some small rounds. In a 357, 41, and 44 mag using light bullets at high speeds then I will grab some Blue Dot. I have used a lot of Bullseye and for really small rounds and blanks it is hard to beat. If you load a broad spectrum of rounds it is a good idea to have a second or even a third choice in case your favorite powder is unavailable. In the last year or so it has been all too common to have your favorite not available.

Shooting a 357 which can work with many types of powders depending on the load used
Shooting a 357 which can work with many types of powders depending on the load used.

That illustrates the importance of keeping good reloading records. That way you can keep track of all your loading info, both good and bad. Keep a record of your bad loads so they won’t be repeated in the future.

With the panic buying that goes on much of that stuff is grabbed off the shelf even if the buyer doesn’t have the ability to use it.

How many basements and garages have too much unnecessary ammo and supplies which will eventually go bad if not used? More often than not they end up selling it because they need the money for something else. Real or imagined many folks will go on a buying binge if there is a threat to their gun rights.

I would suggest that if more people voted wiser in the first place ( Vote Trump ) then we would not have to worry about that.


About Bob Shell:

A Custom Reloader of Obsolete and Antique Ammo, Bob Shell, writes about the subject of Guns, Ammo, Shooting and Related Subjects. For more information, visit:

  • 9 thoughts on “Five Favorite Handgun Powders

    1. Bob,
      I am a certified official for track meets. Several y ars ago, Winchester .32 blanks became very hard to obtain and very expensive at over $1/ shell. Thus, I have been reloading blank .32 S&W shells for years with FFFg Goex for use with my starter pistols. Fortunately, Track of the Wolf is in my hometown, and am able to buy black powder a pound at a time along with .32 shot cards at their retail store. I recently had the idea of using something other than FFFg which would be easier to clean my pistols, especially since I started to use an open barrel .32 at NCAA and USATF track meets. Open barrel is not allowed at high school level so I will continue to use my NEF Starter pistols there, but if I find a good powder , would transition away from black powder for all my applications. What do you recommend?

    2. I like experimenting to see what powder works well for a given set of components. And if possible I try to use “ball” powders as they meter better. I would think that a person of Mr. Shell’s age and experience would know that H-110 and Win 296 are in fact the same powder. But then he gets paid by the word so being verbose is a money maker for him.

    3. At minimum I need 7 powders to keep all of my guns happy trail boss,Unique,IMR 4198,IMR 3031,IMR 4350,H-50BMG and A 5744.I have over 400 guns and these powders will keep everything I have humming along just fine,naturally I have many more powders but these seven If I could only have two it would be 3031 and A 5744,if I could only have one I’d shoot myself with A5744.

        1. I try and buy brand new unopened 8 pound jugs of powder and I have bought at gun shows and gotten some killer deals but usually buy from retail outlets and always use cash and never buy through mail order because of the paper trail it creates. If the Obama yrs.were good for anything they taught use how to fly under the radar and never trust the govt. with anything,to many of my friends are letting their guard down just because were have been granted a temporary reprieve but the day of reckoning is coming and when rather than if the democrats get back in control all holy hell is going to break lose and Geo.Bushes patriot act will be turned against us.

        2. I buy my firearm related stuff using only cash and I take no receipts,I dont use the internet to buy,I dont use the US mail to receive,its strictly cash and carry.We are enjoying a temporary reprieve right now but it will end and we’ll wind up being outlaws pretty soon because the dems are really going to sock it to as punishment for Trumping them in 16,Mark my words,I dont like it either but its coming..

    4. I have been reloading for over 50 years; .. if I knew then , what I know now….
      Truth is:
      All one really needs are 4 powders; Unique; 2400, 4895, and 4350.
      Every one of the rest are pretty much mute.
      In truth, I could get on quite easily with just two; Unique, and 4895.
      And that is for everything I will re load, or have ever reloaded!
      I’m sure there are specialty ctgs.,out there, where those powders will not work ; IE: 25 auto, 7.62×39, ..military ammo in 5.56, …maybe a few others, but for the vast majority, unique, and 4895 are all the powders a guy ever needs.

    5. Generally, ammunition does not go ‘bad’ unless subjected to moisture. And the author should have mentioned both Bullseye and AA #5; both of which meter through a pistol powder measure quite smoothly (unlike Unique).

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