29-JAN-2005

Greetings all.

A shooter for 10 years, I'm a relatively new reloader having purchased a Dillon RL550B about a year ago. To date, I've made and shot perhaps 3000 rounds without incident. Recently, however, I learned a most valuable lesson from what could have been a life-altering experience. I'll share this first-hand account with you hoping to educate reloaders and shooters about the potential dangers of our sport. I realize that this incident was most likely caused by inexperience and carelessness, so there's no need point it out :)

I was the proud owner of a Colt Anaconda 6-inch .44 magnum with a nice red-dot sight. Reloading was the only way I could afford to shoot it on a regular basis. Several days ago, I was at the indoor range terrorizing unsuspecting sheets of paper as I usually do: mostly .45ACP's through my 1911 and an occasional cylinder or two with the Anaconda.

Both guns were shooting great. About 30 minutes into the evening's activities, I once again load up the revolver and step to the line. First shot was a bullseye, as was typical for this rig. Second shot - KABOOM. I felt an unbelievable recoil and was pelted all over my face, chest and arms by fragments of metal and glass. An incredible pressure wave stunned me as if I were punched in the head. I shook it off and looked around. The scope was on the floor. The gun was still in my hand, but didn't look as it did mere seconds ago. A friend rushed over and with clear presence of mind, checked me for injuries. Whew. I emerge without so much as a scratch. Miraculous, considering what just happened. The shooting stall contained the flying shrapnel. Approved safety glasses, without a doubt, saved my vision. Long sleeves, a cap and good ear protection also prevented certain injury. I hate to say it, but dumb luck played a part as well.

At this point I gather up the pieces and attempt to make sense of this catastrophe. It's not good. My second shot violently exploded, splitting the cylinder into three pieces and causing chambers one, two and three to be blown wide open. The shock caused a chain reaction, immediately setting off rounds three and four. The bullet from round three was recovered on the floor near my feet. It was severely mangled because it's exit path was partially blocked by the frame of the gun. Unsupported by the cylinder, the brass case blew open as if it were made of paper. Luckily, both bullet and case didn't fragment too badly and perforate surrounding humans, including me. Round four went off cleanly down range, though not through the barrel. Round five was somewhat damaged - the bullet was pressed into the case by about one-eight of an inch. A little more and it may have detonated as well. Round six was in perfect condition.

The rest of the gun was equally distorted. The top strap was nearly separated from the frame. Seams between the various metal parts were wide and uneven. I thought "Damn, it's completely destroyed".

Here's where my education begins: Lacking any sophisticated test instruments, the load I was using felt comparable to any factory ammo I had used in the past. 9.0gr of Titegroup behind a 240gr SJSP. This was 10% below the maximum load as published in the Hogdon manual. It shot with consistent accuracy and was economical because it was the same powder as I had used in the .45. I now realize my quest to economize reloading may well prove to be the source of this misfortune.

Titegroup is a very fast, clean powder requiring low charge weights for large calibers. Prior to this event, I reasonably assumed this to be an ideal situation. Less powder, less fouling, less cost = more trips to the range. That is until you realize a few things. 9.0gr in a .44 magnum case is, more or less, a drop in a bucket. In subsequent tests I've recently performed, it's all too possible to double charge a round and have it go unnoticed in a progressive loader. That is not to say that I've been loading with a casual attitude. I cannot, for the life of me, recall a moment of distraction where I could have possibly doubled one up. Nevertheless, I now own several fragments of stainless steel that were once a finely crafted firearm. Happily, none of those bits are lodged in my forehead. For all those interested, you can view high resolution photographs of the beast's mortal remains here.

It is my hope that sharing this horror story will inspire folks to take an extra bit of care while enjoying their sport. I've since sent the gun to Colt for expert analysis. While it's my speculation that a double charged round caused this, perhaps a post-mortem by the factory will render an alternative conclusion. Unlikely as it may seem, I'll post an update if the latter is true.

1-MAR-2005 UPDATE

I spent a good half-hour on the phone with the Colt engineer that performed the post-mortem. Their metallurgical tests showed no problems with the grain structure or hardness of the steel. In a nutshell, the gun was not defective. Unfortunately, Colt would not officially speculate on the cause of the failure. Off the record, the engineer did say it was most likely a double charge.