Thursday, February 26, 2015

Adventures in Reloading: The 7.62x38mmR Nagant

There's still at least a dozen guns in the safe that I've not written about yet, but it's the dead of winter. We got 10" of snow last weekend in the Shenandoah Valley. Though I've done a bit of shooting in December and even one cold day in January, for me winter is really about getting ready to shoot when it warms up. So, I've been puttering around, checking inventories and determining what I need to load. Recently, I acquired another Nagant M1895, this one birthed in 1915, making it a cool 100 years old. Wanting to shoot the old girl, I checked my stocks, and discovered I was nearly zero balance on ammo. Time to fix that.
And then there were two. Top: 1915 M1895 Nagant, bottom: 1944 M1895 Nagant (Izhevsk)
When I bought my first Nagant, a 1944 Izhevsk, I didn’t like that factory ammo was hard to get, fairly expensive, and surplus ammo (at the time, anyway) was non-existent.  Internet commandos told me that the Nagant revolver could shoot the .32 S&W cartridges, and even the more modern .32 H&R Magnum, “without problems”. To that, I say Nyet, Comrade, that's not where you should be trying to save rubles. It’s never good practice to shoot a cartridge in a gun for which it wasn’t designed, so I discounted that “option” immediately. Besides, .32 S&W rounds aren't generally stocked at your local Wal-Mart, so that wouldn't help anyway. Reloading seemed the obvious choice. I do it for every other cartridge I shoot, and I wasn't about to let the peculiarities of the 7.62x38mmR change that. I decided that my criteria for reloading the Nagant would be as follows: the cartridges I made would have to be safe (good), inexpensive (cheap), and provide a gas seal (fast). Basically, I wanted a factory-type cartridge for less money, just like with any other reload, with no compromises. That's doable, right?
I like Venn diagrams, but this one is making excuses so I set out to prove it wrong.
Long story short, after some exhaustive internet research, in which a great many men opined, but only a select few spoke with Truth, here’s what I wound up with:
  • Brass: Once Fired Prvi Partizan 7.62x38r
  • Bullets: Grafs .308 98gr copper plated DEWC
  • Dies: Lee .30 Carbine Sizing Die, Lee .30 Carbine Powder Thru Expanding Die, Lee .32-20 Bullet Seating and Crimp Die (modified), #19 Lee shell plate
  • Powder and primers: IMR Trail Boss, CCI 500 Small Pistol Primers
Tools of the trade: Lee .32-20 seating/crimp die (disassembled), Grafs .308 98gr DEWC, and IMR Trail Boss

*DISCLAIMER: I am not a ballistics expert. Actually, I have a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science. If that doesn't scare you off, then I salute your bravery, but know this: following anything I've written after this point is completely at your own risk. If you are unwilling or unable to accept personal responsibility for your decisions and any potential negative consequences resulting thereof, then click here.*

The Dies: You could spend more money (a lot more) on bonafide 7.62x38r dies, but my “inexpensive” criteria ruled that out. Internet commandos told me I could use .30 carbine dies, and they were actually right! I already had a set of 30 carbine dies, and they resized the brass to within a couple thousandths of the factory rounds. Purchasing a .32-20 seating/crimp die was cheap. But Lee Precision had the *audacity* to design their .32-20 seating die to seat a .32-20 bullet, so alas, it wouldn't place the bullet deep enough in my 7.62x38r case in order to give me the coveted gas seal. So, I again deferred to the internet, which told me to cut a section of bolt, and put it inside the die to give some extra length to the seater plug. Lo and behold, it worked perfectly, the internet commandos are 2 for 2! The #19 shell plate came from my 9mm Luger die set, and the small rim of the 7.62x38r case fits it nicely.
Cut a 1/4" piece of bolt and drop it in the seating screw. Then reassemble. A *spent* .22 cartridge case could also work.
The Bullets: Projectiles were an easy choice, after researching. The Nagant’s bore diameter is a subject of debate amongst those who like to debate such things, but I'm not interested in debate, just facts. Here's the truth: the surplus Soviet ammo that I acquired mikes out at .308, so that’s what I went with. No sense arguing with Ivan, he knows best. Sure, I don’t doubt that you could use a lead bullet of .310-.311 diameter without problems, but the weight and caliber of the Grafs bullets are nearly perfect for the Nagant revolver (apparently Grafs has them made specifically for that purpose), and they were pretty cheap at $10 per 100.
The Powder: This part was somewhat of a leap of faith for me. Designed for cowboy action shooting, IMR Trail Boss is a fluffy, donut shaped, fast burning powder which fills cavernous revolver cartridge cases nicely. Believe it or not, IMR actually encourages you to experiment with it, which is both refreshing and kinda scary at the same time. The gist of the link above is that as long as you don’t compress it, you can pretty much fill any cartridge case to the end of the bullet, and have safe pressures. That would be a max load; taking 70% of that volume gives one a starting load. I settled on a load of 3.5 to 3.8 grains. I knew I wasn’t going to get top velocities, but I also knew I wasn’t going to blow up the gun or myself, so hooray. And the Nazis and Red Army deserters I'm shooting at are made of paper, so velocity isn't much of a concern. Primers were a no-brainer; I used what I had on hand, but to avoid confusion, any small pistol primer will do.
They're like little, gray, explosive donuts. Breakfast of champions.
The Process: I load everything on a Lee Classic Cast Turret Press. In my opinion, if you’re only going to own one press, this is the one to buy. It’s a great compromise between a progressive and single stage, and still allows you to load larger rifle cartridges (up to .30-06 with auto-indexing!) without any trouble. I set the sizing and expander dies up normally, and run the cases through as my Lee Autodisk Pro dispenses the Trail Boss. Seating the bullet and getting the appropriate crimp takes a bit a of time to set up correctly, but once it’s done you won’t need to touch the dies again. Here's how I do it:  First I screwed the seating die in to provide zero crimp, then I adjusted the bullet seating screw to seat the flat nosed wad cutter about 0.06” below the case mouth. This is a bit deeper than the commercial factory loads (but shallower than the ~0.08" below flush surplus bullet), but it’s necessary to get the correct crimp. Without a crimp, the cartridge will be too fat to enter the Nagant’s “forcing cone” (it doesn't have one, hence the quotes), and you won’t be able to cock the revolver.
This is a good indicator that your crimp is small enough to allow the round to chamber when you cock the hammer.
Once seating depth was where I wanted it, I backed out the adjustment screw completely, and screwed the die in about one full turn. I ran the cartridge through it and inspected my crimp. You really don’t need to crimp the case mouth too much…again, just enough to allow it to provide the gas seal. You want to use the least amount of crimp possible in order to prolong case life. I test fitted my completed cartridge after removing the cylinder from my Nagant . If it fits, place the cartridge back into the press, run up the ram and adjust the seating depth screw down until it touches the bullet. You’re done, and can now seat bullets and crimp the cartridge mouth in one smooth stroke for all subsequent cartridges.
From left to right: Ivan's cartridge (surplus), Fiocchi commercial, and mine (reloaded Prvi Partizan). The top of mine is shiny because I buffed with 000 steel wool so you could see the crimp better.
So, how do my reloads shoot? Better than I do, which is actually better than it sounds. The heavy single action trigger on the Nagant doesn't lend itself to accuracy, as I mentioned, but my rounds shoot at least as good as the surplus stuff, and a mite bit better than the commercial offerings. I don't have a working chronograph right now (I don't want to talk about it, so don't ask) but I estimate my loads are moving around 700 fps. Yeah, it's slower than mil-spec, but it's safe, and the cases drop right out of the cylinder, ready for reloading again. And for less rubles. How much less?
  1. Used brass: Free! (after the first shooting, anyway)
  2. Bullets: 10 cents per round ($10 per hundred)
  3. Powder: 1.5 cents per round ($16 per 9 oz can)
  4. Primers: 3.5 cents per round ($35 per 1,000)
Total: 15 cents per round, which works out to $7.50 per box of 50. Compare that to $22 per box of 50 for commercial ammo, or $13 for surplus, and we have a winner.
Score one for the proletariat!
You might be saying "but, an estimated 700 fps? That's not even close to Russian factory spec. You didn't satisfy the "fast"criteria!" OK.  I'll admit that's up for debate. But, my rounds are at least as fast as the commercial offerings out there, if not a bit faster. I'm sure I could get them closer to the 950-1,000 fps range of the Russian surplus if I used a different powder, but I don't have much inclination to try. I'd love to see real data on pressures and velocity from a major bullet manufacturer, or even better, a powder company, but until then it's Trail Boss for me. Regardless, there's something inherently Russian about reloading the 7.62x38mmR in this way: my reloads are definitely reliable and economical. I think the Party would be pleased, no?
And that's all that *really* matters, right?