.40 smith and Wesson Winchester

 Loading the .40 Smith and Wesson

The .40 Smith and Wesson is reputed to be one of the most difficult handgun cartridges to reload successfully. I have read horror stories on the various reloading forums about how difficult this this cartridge is to reload.

Frankly I don't believe it so I am going to find out for myself.

I am going to pretend that I don't know anything about reloading handgun cartridges. I truly do not know anything about the .40 Smith and Wesson. When starting this test, I have fired less than a box of factory loads, and not a single reload in a .40 Smith and Wesson.

I am going to pretend that I have not read all the dozens of things that many self styled experts say are absolutely necessary for successful reloading.

I am going to return in my mind to about 1958 and remember only what I had learned at that time about reloading the .38 Special with cast bullets. (I will make a concession here and use Lee bullet casting equipment because it is so very popular.)

I am going to deliberately try to screw up anything possible.

I will begin with the following equipment.

Handgun 1

SIG P229

Handgun 2

S&W 4014

Handgun 3

Browning Hi-Power Single Action


Hornady LNL Single Stage


RCBS 3 Die Carbide


Lee TL401-175-SWC


100% Clip on Wheel Weights




Lee 20 lb Production

Casting Method

Bottom Pour.

Sizing Die

Lee Push Through .401


100% Undiluted Lee Liquid Alox


100 Range pickups unsorted, untrimmed, tumbled.

Selected by grabbing a handful out of the storage bin that contained around 2500 sorted only by caliber. Some are dented and oval mouths.

Glock style head bulges were tossed into the scrap brass bucket. Nothing else was eliminated.


Accurate No. 2 - Starting load 4.0gr. Maximum load 5.1 gr.


CCI  No. 400 Small Pistol.

Load Source

Various Lyman manuals.

Step 1) The first step was to cast some bullets, starting with a brand new Lee mold. Cast about 300. That should give 250 keepers for testing. For details of this procedure, see: First_cast_with_new_Lee_Mold.

They must also be lubricated. Since this is a tumble lube bullet and since it is the most inexpensive and easiest method for beginners, that is what I will use. I will follow the instructions that come with the Lee sizing die kit.

Step 2)  Clean the cases. Tumbled six hours in well used Lyman walnut shells. I expect half that time would be enough with new media.

Step 3)  Select 100 cases with no effort to do anything consistent. Reach into a box of about 2000 cases and pull up a fist full. Place them one by one into a 50 round loading block with no selection for any defect save one. Found two with bulged heads and tossed them into the scrap bucket.

I selected 100 cases because I want to load in batches of 50. I will want to make around a dozen dummy rounds and I will lose some at the range. I should be able to complete the experiment with this number of cases without going back for more.

Step 4)  Open the RCBS three die set and read the instructions. Install the sizing die in the press and adjust it according to the instructions provided with the die set.  Run the ram to the top if its stroke. Handle all the way down. Screw the die into the press until the mouth of the die contacts the top of the shell holder. lower the ram and screw the die in one eight turn further. Lock the locking ring up tight.

Step 5a)  Screw the decapping stem out until the decapping pin is barely visible. Insert the first case into the shell holder and run it into the die. Then screw the decapping pin down until it contacts and ejects the spent primer. Then turn it down one more full turn of the screw. Now tighten the lock nut.

Step 5b) Alternate method of adjusting the decapping pin. With no case in the shell holder, raise the ram to the top of the stroke. Screw the decapping pin down until it extends a little more than one eighth inch into the primer hole in the shell holder. Test it by resizing a fired case. If the primer is not ejected, screw the decapping pin down one full turn and try again. Repeat until the primer is ejected. Tighten the lock nut on the decapping pin.

Step 6) Locate a container for the resized cases. A loading block if you have one or a small box if you don't.

Resize all the cases. Moving them from one container to the other as you resize them. Alternatively, if you have a single 50 hole loading block, place all cases mouth up. Remove them one at a time and resize them. Replace them back in the same loading block -  base up. This will allow you to identify the resized cases because the primer is missing. It also allows you to inspect the primer pockets. I never clean primer pockets in handgun reloading.

Step 7)  Setup and adjust the expander die.

Screw the expander die into the press until the mouth of the die is one eighth inch or so above the shell holder when the ram is at the top of its stroke. This setting is not critical. The critical adjustment will be made with the expander plug. Tighten down the die lock ring and lock it in place with its set screw.

Screw the expander plug all the way our of the die. Insert a resized case into the shell holder and run the ram up to the top of its stroke. Leave it there. Now screw the expander plug into the die until you feel resistance. That will be when it reaches the mouth of the case. Continue to screw it into the die, forcing it into the mouth of the case. Use only finger pressure. At some point, the screw will become very hard to turn. This happens when the expander step on the expander plug has come into contact with the case mouth.

Now turn the expander plug down one half turn. Remove the case and attempt to insert a bullet. It will not enter the mouth of the case. Repeat this step until the mouth of the case is expanded just ( barely ) enough to accept the bullet. The bullet should enter the mouth of the case about one sixteenth to one eight inch. No more. You will not be able to see any expansion of the case mouth, you will not be able to feel any expansion of the case mouth. It will not look like a "bell".

Note that the bullet is a snug fit into the case mouth. If you expand this photo by clicking it, you can just see the slight hint of expansion. You probably will not be able to see it or feel it with your fingers.

Expander Die Settings Click on this image to expand it.

Another view of the expanded case mouth. The case on the left is freshly resized with the same resizing die settings as the case on the right. The case on the right is the very same case as shown above with the base of the bullet inserted. Note that the case on the right is very slightly larger at the mouth. This is most visible at the bottom of the photo.

If you have a micrometer, the unexpanded case will measure .417 at the mouth. The expanded case will measure .417 one eight inch behind the mouth and .422 at the mouth.

Obviously your case measurements will differ from mine because your dies will differ.

Lock down the locking nut.

Expander Die SettingClick on this image to expand it.

Step 8)  Run all your cases through the expander die.

Step 9) Initial adjustment of the bullet seating die.

Take a resized and expanded case and place it in the shell holder. Raise the ram to the top of its stroke. Remove the bullet seating stem from the die and screw the die into the press. Screw the die down until it stops. This is the point where the crimp ring is touching the mouth of the case.  Now insert a bullet into the case and run it into the die all the way. Nothing will happen because the seating stem is not in place. Insert the seating stem and screw it in until you can feel it touching the top of the bullet. Now lower the press ram a little and screw the seating stem in one full turn. Run the case and bullet back into the die as far as it will go and then remove it and look at the bullet. It will be seated very slightly deeper. Repeat this process until the bullet is seated deeply enough for the cartridge overall length to meet your requirement.  In this case, I used 1.135 as my goal. When I got close, it was actually 1.133.

Now that you know exactly where the seating stem should be. Forget it and back it out three or four turns. At this point you have a dummy cartridge with the bullet seated to the correct depth but with no primer or powder. Now turn the die body into the press about one eighth turn and run this bullet back into the die ( with the bullet seating stem backed out. ). This will force the case mouth into the crimping ring. Repeat this process with very small adjustments of the die until there is no visible crimp. The case wall should be perfectly straight. If you have a micrometer or caliper, the diameter at the exact mouth of the case should be the same as the diameter of the case one eight inch behind the case mouth. The case will not be perfectly round so don't worry about a half to a full thousandths. For a visual example, expand the photo above with the two cases mouth-to-mouth The mouth of your case should look like the case on the left.

At this point, I stop with the crimp adjustment. Lock down the die body lock ring, and screw the bullet seating stem back into the die until it just makes contact with the tip of the bullet.  Your seating die is not perfectly adjusted to seat and crimp this bullet in a single operation.

If you feel like you just absolutely must have more crimp, advance the die body about one eighth turn further into the press. This will move the cartridge case 0.009 inch further into the crimp ring. Different brands of seating dies will behave differently at this point depending on the shape of the crimping ring.

A general rule of thumb I use is: If it is crimped enough you can see it without an 6 to 10 power magnifier, it is crimped too much. ( This applies only to straight walled semi automatic handgun cartridges. )

Step 9)  Re-prime all the cases.

Step 10)  Charge the cases with powder. Place the charged cases mouth up into a loading block.

Step 11) Hold the loading block under a light so you can see the level of the powder charge in all the cases simultaneously. This will make uncharged cases and double charged cases really noticeable. Correct any that are not charged correctly.

Step 12)  Seat your bullets.

Click on the image to expand it.

First Cast With New Lee Mold.

This is not directly related to the reloading but since it was a brand new mold, some are going to ask how did it work? ( I do not buy commercial cast bullets so it was necessary for me to cast them.)

I am aware of the Leementing concept and agree with most of it. Some of it seems unnecessary to me and a lot of it is contradictory. That said the Lee two cavity molds are generally of very low quality and usually need some "finishing" before they work satisfactorily. I only buy Lee six cavity molds. They are of significantly better quality,

This is what I did, with this new mold:

Since this is 1958, I don't have a lead thermometer. The rule of thumb I was taught was that if the paraffin fumes don't self ignite, the pot is not hot enough. Let it cook until the fumes self ignite. I now know that that happens around 650 degrees.  Since I now have a thermometer, I monitored the temperature during the session. It varied from 650 to 775.

I degreased the mold once with Berryman's B12. I find that 409 also works very well for the initial degreasing. After degreasing,  I filled the mold 20 times as fast as I could go and dumped the bullets in the sprue bucket. I knew that none of them would be any good so I didn't even look at them. By this time, It was taking around 12 to 15 seconds for the sprue puddle to harden.  I set the mold aside opened, and let it cool while I dumped the roughly 120 bullets and sprues back in the pot and fluxed again.

Then, I repeated the same procedure.

By this time the bullets were mostly smooth, well formed and slightly frosty.  At this point, I repeated the initial procedure of setting the mold aside to cool and re-melting all the bullets and sprues.  When I started casting again, I started dumping the bullets on my drop pad, setting the open mold aside to cool and inspecting the bullets. About half of them were keepers. I don't cast "by the clock" but since I knew some beginners would be reading this, I timed a few steps.  At this temperature, 700 degree pot, 50 degree ambient temperature. It took the sprue puddle 15 seconds to harden. I then dumped the bullets on the drop pad, set the open mold aside to cool and inspected the bullets. The entire cycle, from one filling to the next filling took 1:15 to 1:25 minutes.

Remember, I don't watch the clock. I adjust the cadence by how long it takes the sprue puddle to harden and when the bullets become sticky ( stick in the mold ) or too frosty, then I slow down.

After about 20 more fillings at this pace, all six cavities were dropping perfect bullets every time.


Sizing and Lubricating Lee Tumble Lube Bullets 

I used the simplest possible procedure following the Lee instructions.

First I sized the bullets by pushing them through the Lee .401 sizing die. I do not lube them before sizing them. I lubricated them with Lee Liquid Alox exactly as described in the Lee instruction sheet that comes with the sizing die kit.

Lee Liquid Alox Lubricated BulletsThis is the amount of lube I used. Note that on the lubricated bullet, the driving bands are also brown "in real life" The lighting for the photo makes them appear shiny. The bullet on the left is after sizing and before lubing. The bullet on the right is after sizing and after lubing.



How to determine the overall length of the finished cartridge - OAL

There are three conditions you must meet.

1) It must be short enough to fit in the magazine.
2) It must be short enough that the front band of the bullet does not inhibit the closing of the slide.
( This is the purpose for using the barrel as a Gauge. )

3) It must feed reliably from the magazine into the chamber and allow the slide to lock into battery. It must do this when you work the slide manually, AND when the firearm is fired.

To test this issue, make three or four dummy cartridges with no powder or primer. Deliberately seat the bullet out too far. Then gradually turn the seating stem in about one turn, reseat the bullets a little deeper, and test for all three conditions, by loading them into the magazine and manually cycling them through the action. Repeat until everything works manually. When everything works reliably, stop. Seating the bullet deeper will only raise pressure and eventually it will be too short to feed reliably.

Now load about a dozen and check them at the range.

DO NOT LOAD 100 rounds and then find out later that they will not work.






Shooting Results S&W 4014:

Load Test No. 1.
Load 4.0 grains Accurate No. 2.
Handgun No. 2

Control groups were fired to check me out before attempting to judge the reloads. The control groups were fired at the same range, at the same target, and with the same rest as the .40 S&W would use later. The control groups were fired from my best Smith and Wesson Model 19 using my favorite target load. This is a known quantity.

All groups were fired from bench rest at 15 yards using the factory sights on each handgun.

I always like to know the minimum load that will cycle reliably so I started with the minimum. 4.0 gr. I expected failures with this load so I only loaded ten of them. I fired them five at a time from the eight round magazine. To my surprise every one fed and cycled perfectly and shot to the same point of impact as my Winchester 165 gr FMJ Target/Range loads.

Control Groups:

Group 1 6 shots


Group 2 6 shots


Test Groups

Group 1 4.0 gr 5 shots


Group 2 4.0 gr 5 shots


Group 1 4.4 gr 5 shots


Group 2 4.4 gr 10 shots


Group 3 4.4 gr 10 shots


Group 3 4.4 gr 15 shots



Control Group 1 6 shots


Group 1 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 1 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 3 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 4 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 5 4.2 gr 10 shots


This barrel now has 400 rounds
fired and shows no signs of any leading


Shooting Results SIG 229:

Load Test No. 1.
Load 4.2 grains Accurate No. 2.
Handgun No. 1


Control group 1 6 shots


Group 2 6 shots


Test Groups

Group 1 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 2 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 3 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 4 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 5 4.2 gr 10 shots


This barrel now has 350 rounds and shows no signs of leading


Leading results with both guns was much better than expected. There was absolutely no sign of leading. I ran a dry mop through the bore and it shone like a mirror. I didn't clean it so any lead from the next test rounds can add to the first batch rounds. To see what I mean by Zero leading, see:  Bore Leading - ZERO leading Loads


Shooting Results Browning Hi-Power:

Load Test No. 1.
Load 4.2 grains Accurate No. 2.
Handgun No. 3


Control group 1 6 shots


Group 2 6 shots


Test Groups

Group 1 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 2 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 3 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 4 4.2 gr 10 shots


Group 5 4.2 gr 10 shots


This barrel now has 80 rounds and shows no signs of leading


home | products | about use-mail


Right 1

Right 2

Right 3