Unique, the Powder That Really Is

This post describes the characteristics, applications, and tips for measurement of Alliant Unique gunpowder.

History of Unique

Good things last a long time in the shooting sports arena. Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, Unique gunpowder is one of those good things.  Smokeless powder development was centralized in the Dupont company after DuPont absorbed Laflin and Rand and Unique came out of that development.  When Hercules Powder Company split from DuPont in 1912, Unique was one of the new company’s premier propellants and it has remained available to the present day.  It is now made and offered by Alliant Powder, a division of the huge company, ATK (Alliant Techsystems), that also controls such well-known names as Bushnell, Weaver, Federal, Speer CCI, RCBS, Savage, and others.

Chemical Facts

The two main components of Unique powder, nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin, were both invented in the 1840s. It was the Swedish chemist, Alfred Nobel, famous for using nitroglycerin to make “Dynamite,” that first investigated a mixture of nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose as a small arms smokeless propellant.  The successful product that resulted in 1888 was called “Ballistite.”  In the present day, smokeless propellants still contain either nitrocellulose alone or nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin, and are known as “single-base” and “double-base” powders, respectively.  Other, minor components are included in modern smokeless powders and this, along with fabrication of powders as flakes, balls, or sticks leads to the myriad of powders available for pistol, rifle, and shotgun today.  Unique is a powder of the “flake” variety, being actually composed of small disks about 0.06″ in diameter.

Applications of Unique

Unique can be used to boost pistol bullets, rifle bullets, or shot charges out the barrel of your chosen boomer. Sound versatile?  Yes, Allliant calls Unique the most versatile of powders, and that is perhaps the ground of its uniqueness.

That is not to say it is a top performer in all of those applications. I believe most shooters consider it to have greatest applicability for handgun reloading, and I agree.  It is my handgun projects that would suffer most if Unique were to disappear.  It is, however, also very good for 1-1/8 and 1-1/4 oz. loads in the twelve gauge shotgun and it may be used with smaller gauges.  With rifles, it must be confined to light charges with cast bullets.  Such loads often give excellent accuracy for plinking and small game applications.

It is the moderate burning rate of Unique that gives it great success with handgun cartridges. You can use it to load the .32 S&W, and you can use it to load the .45 Long Colt, and you can use it to load everything in between those case capacity extremes.  Now that is real versatility.  With 3.5 grains you can push a 95-gr bullet at about 1000 fps from a 4-in .32 S&W Long.  Regular and +P loads to 920 fps are possible in the .38 Special and.44 Special.  Use 10 grains to kick a .45 Colt 255 grainer out at 950 fps, maybe a little more from the strong Ruger Bisley or Super Blackhawk.  Eleven grains will give about 1200 fps of scoot with a 240-grainer in the .44 Magnum.  These are all serious, effective loads for hunting or self defense, achieved with modest charge weights.

Reloading with Unique

The excellence of Unique has long been tempered by two criticisms. It is said to be dirty, too much residue remaining after firing.  Secondly, the flakes do not feed well through a powder measure, thus making it difficult to get uniform charges in your loads.

The firing residue has never bothered me much, although I can see that folks who get in a rage when a bird poops on their car might complain. No matter, Alliant has recently improved the combustion characteristics and it now burns more cleanly.

The measuring characteristics are more difficult to deal with, but, really, all big boys and girls should be able to have success in measuring Unique with a little practice.

I will tell you what I do. I use a Lee Perfect Powder Measure, a plastic and aluminum, rotating drum device that

The Lee Perfect Powder Measure

The Lee Perfect Powder Measure

usually costs less than $25 and generally gives good results with stick and flake powders.  I fill the reservoir about ¾ full with Unique while shaking it back and forth.  Then, with the measure supported on its stand, I play pittypat, pitty-pat, pitty-pat-pat-pat with my fingers on the side of the reservoir for at least a minute.

The powder being well settled I am now ready to adjust for the weight I want using the rather crude micro adjustment of the cavity in the drum. The main thing to remember as you try to zero in on your desired weight is:  do not adjust the measure on the basis of one throw.  It takes more time, but I throw ten charges at a setting and weigh the total.  The average gives me a very accurate idea of what the measure is throwing and what adjustment I need to make to get to my desired weight.  It may take several adjustments, but when I get there, I charge all of the cases I want to load with no further weighing.  Then I visually check the powder levels before seating bullets.


Wanting to load some moderate .38 Specials, I set the Lee measure as close as I could to 3.8 grains. Then I threw five sets of ten charges each and weighed each set of ten.  These weights for the series of five sets were 38.4 gr, 38.6 gr, 39.0 gr, 38.6 gr, and 38.4 gr.  This excellent uniformity shows that the long term stability of weights of Unique thrown by this kind of measure is very good.  The throw-to-throw variation in weight is small enough to always average out in ten throws.

Then I sized and capped 20 pieces of .38 Special brass and charged them with no further weighing of the charges from the adjusted measure. I finished the loads by seating hard-cast, 148-gr, double-ended wadcutters.  At my range, I used a 6″ Smith and Wesson Model 14 to fire the 20 rounds consecutively over my Pro Chrono, with the following velocity results.

Low, 934 fps, High,, 988 fps, Ave 969 fps, Extreme spread 54 fps, Std Deviation 18 fps.

For a second trial, I loaded 20, .32 S&W Long cases with 3.4 grains of Unique using the method described above, and using a cast, 95-gr cast semiwadcutter. At the range with my Smith and Wesson Model 30-1 with 4 in. barrel, the first ten shots averaged 976 fps with a spread of 52 fps and a Std deviation of 18 fps.  The second set of the load was not quite as uniform, same average velocity, but a spread of 71 fps and a Std deviation of 24 fps.

For comparison I fired 10 rounds of .32 Long using 3.3 grains of Hodgdon Universal Clays and the 95-gr bullet.  The average velocity was 978 fps, extreme spread 53 fps, std deviation 18 fps.   Thus, the uniformity of the Unique loads is comparable to that of loads using Universal, a powder that many feel has no special measuring problems.

Note that these are very strong loads for the .32 Long and should only be used in modern revolvers.  No old top-break revolvers allowed for this one!

This level of uniformity for Unique loads in two different calibers is very good and I am quite satisfied with it for general shooting activities.  Note that my charge weights are relatively low.  Even better relative uniformity could be expected for heavier charges in larger calibers.


Shifting gears here to something else on my mind.  I occasionally look at some of the shooting forums, and I sometimes see posts about “making my own black powder.”  It seems to be a survivalist thing arising from the idea that when the apocalypse comes, even though powder might not be available, one could, perhaps, still lay one’s hands on some charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate.  Thus, a means for sustenance and self defense would be at hand.

There are a couple of reasons, at least, that this is not a good idea. First, in spite of the simple formula, it is not easy to make good black powder.  It is easy to fail.  Second, it is a very dangerous activity.  You could kill yourself or members of your family, even when seeming to be very careful.

If you wish to persist in the face of these difficulties, well, OK, but I will tell you what I would do. I would get an 8-lb canister of Unique, maybe two, and squirrel them away in a cool, dry place.  Then, when it hits the fan, I could load any handgun round I wanted, any shotgun shell of 20 gauge or above, and any thirty caliber rifle with cast bullets with a smokeless powder giving good performance and requiring no special handling or cleaning effort after firing.  Oh, I must not forget to lay in a good supply of primers and bullets, also.  My guess is that I would tire of living in the post-apocalyptic world long before the Unique was used up.

What To Use?

One of my choices would be my Ruger Bisley Blackhawk in .45 Colt. If you want to blast with a real fistful of handgun, then this very strong, well made revolver is for you.  With 7-1/2 inch barrel I have loaded it to 1200 fps with H110 pushing a 250-gr jacketed bullet.  Others have exceeded this.  With Unique, I can exceed 1000 fps with cast or jacketed bullets, and that would take a deer with a good shot at close range.  The Bisley grip frame is one of the best for shooting heavy loads, and my gun was known to shoot 2-inch groups at 50 yards back in the days when I had a Leupold 2X handgun scope attached to it.

Ruger Bisley Blackhawk .45 Colt

Ruger Bisley Blackhawk .45 Colt

Better for hunting and self defense would be a lever action carbine in .45 Colt, to pair  with the Bisley. I do not have one at the present time, but would consider a Winchester Model 92 pattern by Winchester or Cimarron, or possibly a Marlin Model 94.  Holding up to 14 rounds, these arms would give you quite a bit of firepower.  Not enough, but quite a bit.

Sorry for the digression…..

Measure your Unique carefully and use it happily.

This entry was posted in Personal History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.