A Hard Look at Black Hills Ammunition


by R.K. Campbell

photography by R.K. Campbell

December 13th, 2005




Over the years I have used a variety of ammunition, from my own handloads to the most expensive offering from custom shops.  During the writing of my book on the 1911 pistol, I fired over 50,000 rounds of ammunition during the course of nine years. As time passes and my experience grows, I remain impressed with Black Hills Ammunition. This company is by no means a modest operation, as they have secured military contracts, but they are not the giants of industry that some of the better known names are. Their size allows a focus on quality, performance, versatility, and the consumer. Best of all they can respond to changes in the industry quickly.

Black Hills is best known for quality handgun ammunition but they also offer a good line of rifle cartridges, including the .308 Winchester,  .30-06 Springfield, and .300 Winchester Magnum. Their .223 ammunition is much in demand by the United States military.  Since I am primarily a handgunner, the focus of this report is handgun ammunition. I like to test handguns with a variety of loadings of different weights and velocities. As might be expected, handguns often show a marked preference for one load or the other. Quite often Black Hills ammunition is at the top of the list for accuracy and performance.

There are several types of ammunition offered by Black Hills in the handgun line. These include quality remanufactured loads, Cowboy Action loads, hunting loads, and personal defense loads.  I will take an overview of these loads and give the reader a good indication of the predicted performance.

Remanufactured Ammunition

Remanufactured ammunition is a big asset in a busy training schedule. You can accumulate one thousand brass cases and send them to be loaded at a considerable savings. For the first go around, you may purchase quality ball ammunition for practice and be careful to retain your brass. I have not recorded a significant difference in accuracy between new ball and remanufactured ball ammunition from Black Hills. General ballistics are the same. The most popular loads are the 115 grain jacketed 9mm and the 230 grain .45 ACP ball load. There are also high quality .38 Special remanufactured loads available as well as several types of .40 caliber Smith and Wesson.  I have used literarily cases of the 9mm load in training with excellent results.  However, there are two standouts that should be mentioned.  The least expensive Black Hills .45 ACP loading is the 230 grain RNL bullet in the remanufactured (Blue Box) line.  The use of a lead bullet is unusual, and Glock shooters must not use this loading. I have found this load to be on the mild side, at about 800 fps from most pistols. Accuracy may run from good to superb. This load is easy on the gun and shooter, allowing the shooter to concentrate on sight alignment and trigger manipulation before moving to heavier defense loads.  A second stand out is the Black Hills 200 grain SWC.  This load averages about 850 fps and features a sharp-shouldered semi wadcutter with a flat nose. For competition, target practice or even small game hunting, this is a good load.  The SWC has proven feed reliable in every pistol I have used it in.

Suffice it to say, the remanufactured blue box and inexpensive red box ball loads are more than accurate enough for most forms of competition and a great boon for training.

Cowboy Loads

Black Hills supplied cowboy shooters with good economical loads long before most of the major makers jumped on the band wagon. The Black Hills boxes are quite attractive, reflecting the western spirit that cowboy shooting represents.  While the .44-40, .45 Colt and .44 Special are covered, hard to find numbers such as the .32-20, .38-40, and .45 Schofield are also offered.  There is a new cowboy load for the popular .32 H&R Magnum, and the .38 Special and .357 Magnums are featured in the cowboy load line.  Some may ask why we need a .357 Magnum cowboy load. After all, the 158 grain SWC is only moving at 850 fps in the remanufactured line, and the cowboy load mimics this velocity. The longer case seems to load more positively than the .38 Special, offering a smoother, faster reload in the popular .357 Magnum caliber single action revolver.  There is a longer jump from the cylinder to the throat when using .38 Special cases in the Magnum cylinder. Overall, the Magnum load, while mild, should be more accurate than the .38 Special when fired in Magnum cylinders.  For beginners breaking into cowboy shooting, the .357 Magnum chambering is ideal. Lets face it, if you travel to a match and run short of ammunition, or somehow the ammunition does not arrive with the pistol - and all competitors have this type of story to tell if they have been at it long enough - you may not be able to easily buy or borrow .32-20 or .44-40 ammunition. With the .38 Special, any outlet that offers ammunition should have .38s on hand.  My personal favorite cowboy caliber is the .44-40, but my cowboy gun is sometimes a house gun and a hunting handgun. For pure cowboy shooting, the .38 is hard to beat. The story with the Cowboy loads is all the same - a lead bullet at about 750-800 fps and good accuracy. As an example, I recently sat down and carefully fired a 75 foot one-and-one-half inch group with Black Hills .44-40 cowboy loads from my Navy Arms Deluxe Gunfighter. While cowboy shooting is a great sport, Black Hills is also keeping quite a few old time shooters going by producing ammunition for their .38-40 and .44-40 revolvers. There is also a mild and accurate .45-70 rifle load I often use in my Marlin lever action.  Black Hills Cowboy loads are loaded with smokeless, not black, powder and burn clean with a minimum of powder ash. As many of you know, loading modern smokeless powder in the cavernous .45 Colt cartridge case can be a daunting proposition, with gas blow by (marked by smoky cases) common. Black Hills has put considerable research into their cowboy loads.  As I mentioned, another benefit is that the many good revolvers chambered for the .32-20 and .44-40 now have a reliable and inexpensive source of ammunition.

Hunting Loads

The .32 H&R Magnum is a popular small game cartridge. This is not the cartridge I would wish to use for personal defense, but my experiments tend to give the .32 Magnum an advantage over the slightly faster .22 Magnum against small game. For game to thirty five pounds or so, the .32 Magnum can be decisive. It is gilt edged accurate in the better loadings. The Black Hills .32 Magnum offering pushes an 85 grain JHP to just over 1,000 fps from my 4-5/8 inch Ruger.  This is a good, accurate small game cartridge that can be chambered in a .22 caliber size handgun.

In the .357 Magnum, we begin to see the type of power that can cleanly take a deer sized animal, given good shot placement.  I qualified the long range accuracy of the 158 grain JHP some time ago. This load is accurate, clean burning, and with enough power to go a good job on mid-size animals.  From my 6-1/2 inch barrel Ruger Blackhawk,  a one-inch 25 yard group is not out of the question. The .357 Magnum is quite a cartridge, one that probably does not get the respect it deserves. As an all around caliber, few cartridges equal the first Magnum. 

Black Hills offers a .44 Magnum 240 grain JHP that is accurate, clean burning and clearly has adequate penetration and power for thin skinned game. This is a standard loading that has performed well for generations, taking game up to Boar and Bear.  An even more powerful loading is the 300 grain JHP.  This load breaks about 1,100 fps from my Taurus M 44 .44 Magnum four inch barrel revolver. Accuracy is excellent. Recoil is slightly elevated over the 240 grain load, but remains manageable. For larger bears or truly tough old hogs, this is the load to consider. For deer, it allows a raking or quartering shot with more confidence.

Personal Defense

Being involved in law enforcement for over twenty years and in high level security for several more years, as well as being concerned with the well-being of honest citizens, I have tested more personal defense handgun ammunition than any other type. 

Quite a few concerns have one standout load or the other in various calibers, but if limited to one maker for all my personal defense needs, Black Hills would fill the bill. Much of what matters in personal defense is the shooter's responsibility. Marksmanship and a cool head mean the most, but we should deploy the most effective personal defense ammunition.  But ballistic performance takes a back seat to cartridge integrity. The loading must be resistant to the elements, including water, oil, and solvent. In semi autos, the bullet must be secure in the case, not being pushed into the cartridge case when a round is chambered. In revolvers, the bullet must be tightly crimped to avoid the bullet jumping from the case when the revolver is jolted in recoil. It may surprise you that certain highly touted loadings do not have this type of integrity. Black Hills has shown that the "Big Three" do not have the corner on quality control; the smaller concerns may be able to maintain a higher standard. Another important standard personal defense ammunition should adhere do is a full powder burn. When powder does not burn completely in the barrel, a ball of fire known as muzzle flash can exist. This ranges from an orange glow to a full blown ball of flame.  A full powder burn is an advantage, particularly at night.  This full burn gives more consistency and is a sign of a good loading.  Some calibers are more prone to muzzle blast than others.  Full power .357 Magnum load will exhibit both blast and flash, while the .45 ACP can often be counted on for a few sparks and nothing else.  Black Hills loads generate the minimum of muzzle flash, showing careful selection in powder.

The .380 ACP is a minimum defense load used by many shooters. The Black Hills 90 grain load has exhibited good function and feeds in small pistols not noted for feed reliability with a wide selection of ammunition.  This load does not use a frangible bullet that gives up too much in penetration, but uses a type that will penetrate adequately while offering some expansion potential. That is all we can ask in this caliber.

The .38 Special defense load uses the Gold Dot bullet in 125 grains. I have found this loading to be mild to fire and accurate, offering good penetration. We can chase after any combination in the .38 but the fact remains the main advantage of this caliber is accuracy and ease of control. We have this in the .38 Special Black Hills load.

In .357 Magnum, the 125 grain JHP load is proven in interpersonal combat. The Black Hills load is sensibly reduced from the 1450 fps loads common a generation ago. Mid frame revolvers simply could not take the pounding of such loads, and the shooter had extreme difficulty in managing this load. The Black Hills load falls in the popular mid range for this loading. Yet, expansion and penetration are optimum. I have fired several boxes in my Ruger 2 ¾ inch Magnum with good results and accuracy is gilt edged in the six inch barrel Colt Python.

In the 9mm Luger, dismal results have plagued this cartridge.  In common with the .38 RNL bullet, the 9mm full metal jacketed bullet has shown poor results in gunfights.  The bullet simply pushes flesh aside rather than cutting, and the wound is often smaller than the caliber. The bullet bumps internal organs and exits, often leaving a highly mobile and angry felon for the defender to deal with.  The 9mm has advantages including ease of control and accuracy in a quality handgun. The 9mm Luger also has sufficient velocity to allow the use of an expanding bullet. We have seen loads offered that expand too quickly, providing inadequate penetration, and others that penetrate too deeply with a minimum of expansion. The Black Hills loads bracket the choices in 9mm Luger, and are among the best choices in 9mm Luger for personal defense or law enforcement. There is no better choice than the 115 grain +P to be found anywhere in my opinion. 

The 115 grain EXP is simply an Extra Power load, designed to offer the best performance in a standard loading. Some of us are leery of using +P loads in a favored Browning High Power.   Several quality semi autos have demonstrated less reliability when fed +P loads on a regular basis, so this is a valid concern.  But the EXP is no slouch in velocity.  This load shows 1220 fps in most pistols and perhaps 1260 in the longer barreled Glock and Browning High Power.  This load uses a 115 grain JHP that offers good expansion, plumping up to .68 caliber in 9 inches of ballistic media. This is a level of power I am comfortable with in personal defense. 

The +P loading is surprisingly fast - over 1300 fps in practically any four inch barrel 9mm, and faster still in the High Power. This load uses a bullet designed for more penetration. At this velocity, we may take advantage of a greater balance of penetration and expansion, allowing the user to deploy a load capable of taking out light cover and intermediate objects. As an all around 9mm combat load, this is a fine choice. This load is equal in performance to the vaunted +P+ law enforcement only loads but is available to the public.   If we had had this load in general issue when the 9mm first became popular as a police handgun, we might still be using the caliber.

The 124 grain JHP is an interesting load. This is a moderately fast load at just under 1200 fps.  The addition of 9 grains of weight in the 9mm changes the cartridge more than we would expect. A longer bearing surface gives greater accuracy potential and steel target gongs seem to react more to the 124 grain bullet.  It is an excellent choice, with the balance of penetration and expansion leaning more toward penetration while retaining good expansion. If your personal scenario includes felons in vehicles or behind light cover, this is the load of choice.

Black Hills also offers the 147 grain JHP loading. I am not a fan of this weight but some are and Black Hills would be missing a considerable market share in failing to offer this loading. The bullet is accurate, as this weight was originally designed for accuracy. Penetration is on the long end, with expansion sacrificed. This load and the general run of 147 grain 9mm loads from major manufacturers run in approximately the same territory. Expansion is limited at .45-.47 caliber and the bullet generates about fourteen inches of penetration. If you want penetration with expansion of secondary importance, this is the load.  This is an accurate load.  In the past, 147 grain bullets were often loaded too light, generating 880-920 fps, and sometimes failed to cycle all pistols. This load has proven reliable in several 9mm handguns and is as good a choice as any in this weight.

The .40 S&W caliber is an effective cartridge with many good traits.  I am stymied in this category, as all three Black Hills loads I have tested work great. In the 9mm I like a fast bullet and in the .45 a heavy for the caliber bullet. In .40 caliber, either concept has proven to work as well as the other.  Black Hills avoided loading the 155 grain loads too hot and the 180s too light and has produced excellent choices.  The 155 grain 1100 fps load is probably my favorite. This load gives satisfying results in ballistic testing, with a good balance of accuracy and expansion.  The 180 grain load at about 980 fps is milder to fire and quite accurate.  I somehow feel that the 180 grain load will appeal to .45 fans and the 155 grain load to those leaving the 9mm behind for the .40. Either should work just fine.  However, the standout is the 165 grain EXP or Extra Power load. This load breaks 1125 fps from my Baby Eagle, giving excellent accuracy.  This loading offers a combination of caliber, weight, and velocity not common found in handguns. I have taken deer with a 155 grain .40 caliber load; I know this weight would prove even more effective.  This is easily the .40 caliber load most suited to law enforcement or in any scenario that may include heavily clad felons. Frankly, I like my light lovely High Power 9mm and have great faith in the .45, but this load could convince even a jaded handgunner of the worth of the .40 caliber cartridge. 

The .45 ACP 185 grain loading can confuse a handgunner using this load for the first time. It feels like a target load, with less recoil than the 230 grain pills we are used to. But this load uses a well designed jacketed hollowpoint that breaks 1000-1050 fps in most Government Model .45s.  This is a good combination of accuracy, reliability, and terminal performance.  The hottest 9mms are overshadowed by this loading, but let’s take the 185 grain load on its own merits. The 185 is faster than the popular 230, so bullet upset is a given in most situations.  It is easy to shoot well and quite accurate in most pistols.  This is a fine general purpose loading.

Black Hills 230 grain JHP has a well deserved reputation for speed and power. Loaded to a higher velocity than most factory 230 grain JHP loads, this loading usually breaks 870-890 fps in a Government Model 1911.  Accuracy is excellent.  Expansion is often at .75 caliber, with expansion in the 12 inch to 13 inch range. This is an excellent choice for the all around .45, offering reliability, accuracy, and hitting power.  I have fired about as many of these loads in my .45 ACP revolvers as in the auto, always with excellent results. This is perhaps the most often encountered Black Hill loads in police circles. Officers working in Northern climates, where felons are often heavily bundled, appreciate the advantages of penetration with a 230 grain JHP.  If the hollowpoint plugs and does not expand, well, you have a .451 inch bullet.  My tests show this loading has a high expectancy of expansion in practically any scenario.

Even more impressive is the 230 grain +P.  Jeff Hoffmann wanted to offer a true showcase load and this is the Mack Truck of .45 auto loads as advertised.  This is basically a legitimate offering of a heavy duty handload used by those of us ‘in the know’ for years. Using a heavy charge of Unique powder, I have jolted the 230 grain XTP to 920 fps.  I have used this load with moderation. But the Black Hills load has much more research and development behind it, and almost certainly generates less pressure than my handload. This load breaks 920 fps from most Government Model pistols, sometimes slightly more from a Glock 21.  This is a powerful load that can be counted on to penetrate up to sixteen inches of ballistic media while expanding to .72 inches or so. For the person using the .45 auto as a backup when hunting or when hunting mid sized game, this is an outstanding choice.  Recoil is there and I use this load in moderation. For officers working areas in winter months, with felons most often in heavy clothing or in vehicles, this is an excellent service load.


I have used quite a number of .223 loads from Black Hills. Do we begin with the excellent 52 grain match load or go on to the 77 grain load proving so effective overseas? For general use, the 60 grain JSP offers an advantage over the 55 grain in penetration and effect, and is ideal for carbines such as the Ruger Mini 14. These are excellent loads, giving fine performance. The results obtained in my Howa, with scope, follow:

100 yard five shot groups from benchrest

52-grain Match 0.6 inch
55-garin JSP (remanufactured) 1.25 inch
55-grain FMJ 1.2 inch
60-grain JSP 1.0 inch
77-grain JSP 0.5 inch

The .308 168 grain bullet offers excellent accuracy.  Between the World Wars, the 173 grain bullet was deemed most accurate and stable in the .30-06. However, it was discovered that a hollow point version would be even better balanced. The hollow point .308 173 grain bullet turned out to weigh 168 grains, and when the .308 Winchester was developed the 168 grain Sierra BTHP proved startlingly accurate. Black Hills loads this in match grade ammunition that can be purchased in bulk at considerable savings.  For hunting, Black Hills Gold loads include the 150 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip.

I have used several .30-06 loads with excellent results, but again I feel that the Ballistic Tip load gives the best service overall. For heavier game you may order a Black Hills Gold .30-06 loaded with the Barnes X bullet.  Overall, these are fine choices.

Recently  I had the opportunity to test several Black Hills Gold loadings in .300 Winchester Magnum. Using a Howa bolt action with Leopold scope, I was able to secure several one inch 100 yard groups.  The Barnes X bullet in 180 grains gave excellent results.  The Nosler Ballistic Tip is never a bad choice for lighter skinned game and also gave good results. There are things the .300 Winchester Magnum will do that the other .30s simply cannot, and when using this caliber the Black Hills loads are outstanding choices. 

Specialty Loads

Many agencies and private ranges conducting training with steel reaction targets now use frangible loadings. Of special construction, they are to jacketed bullets as pressed board or sawdust is to wood.  These bullets disintegrate on metal, turning to a cloud of dust. Black Hills produces several versions that have proven quite accurate from several of my handguns.

I have enjoyed excellent results with Black Hills ammunition. More often than not, my personal defense handguns are loaded with this capable ammunition.  I can give no higher recommendation.

General Accuracy Results

Pistol Used Caliber & Type Velocity (fps) 25-yard Group (inches)
FM High Power 9mm 115 gr. FMJ 1152 3.0
FM High Power 9mm 115 gr. FMJ 1180 2.5
FM High Power 9mm 115 gr. EXP 1288 3.0
FM High Power 9mm 115 gr. EXP +P124 1332 2.0
FM High Power 9mm 124 gr. JHP 1221 1.9
FM High Power 9mm 147 gr. JHP 990 2.5
Ruger Speed Six 357 Mag. 125 gr. JHP 1250 3.0
S&W Model 19 357 Mag.  125 gr. JHP 1359 2.0
CZ 40 .40 S & W  155 gr. JHP 1148 3.5
Baby Eagle .40 S & W   155 gr. JHP 1164 2.5
Baby Eagle .40 S & W   165 gr. EXP 1169 2.0
Baby Eagle .40 S & W 180 gr. JHP 980 1.9
High Standard G Man .45 ACP 200 gr. SWC 855 1.25
High Standard G Man .45 ACP 230 gr. RNL 780 1.5
High Standard G Man .45 ACP 185 gr. JHP 1001 2.0
High Standard G Man .45 ACP 230 gr. JHP 877 1.9
High Standard G Man .45 ACP 230 gr. JHP +P 955 2.25
Springfield GI .45 ACP 230 gr. JHP 890 2.6
SIG P220 .45 ACP 185 gr. JHP 922 2.0
SIG P220 .45 ACP 230 gr. JHP 853 1.0

R.K. Campbell

Got something to say about this article? Want to agree (or disagree) with it? Click the following link to go to the GUNBlast Feedback Page.

Click pictures for a larger version.


The author used several thousand rounds of Black Hills ammunition during a test of the H and K pistol.  Both the pistol and the ammunition gave fine results.



A decade ago, the author’s ready excursion pieces were loaded with Black Hills ammunition.  Unfortunately, due to low demand, the .38 Super Black Hills load is not always available, but the author hoarded a few boxes for use in his ‘Super’.



The 230 +P load is a bit rugged to control in a compact 457 Smith and Wesson but gives excellent results if the shooter is up to the task.



This young shooter enjoys firing Black Hills .45 ACP in a vintage 1917 revolver.



This stainless Ruger often rode with the author in his patrol car, loaded with Black Hills 60 grain JSP loading.



Black Hills offers an outstanding selection in .40 caliber. The blue box loads are commercial remanufactured loads, the Red Box line is new ammunition. Performance is comparable, but the Red Box has better case mouth and primer seal.



There’s something about a cowboy gun and Black Hills ammunition...



This is an expanded 9mm hollowpoint from Black Hills - excellent performance!



This Howa rifle, with Nikon scope, gave excellent results in all testing. Black Hills certainly compliments any good rifle.



These loads maximize the .300 Winchester Magnum, offering considerable choices in bullet style. Both prove quite accurate, with the Barnes X bullet getting the nod for heavy game.



The frangible loads produced by Black Hills give excellent results and should be considered a must have training aid when using metal targets.