Hodgdon CFE BLK: Best Varmint Cartridge Loads

Hodgdon CFE BLK: Best Varmint Cartridge Loads

Hodgdon CFE BLK powder - a Copper Fouling Eraser propellant - is perfect for 17 Hornet, 17 Ackley Hornet, 17 Fireball, 218 Bee and 221 Fireball handholds.

Lead photo by Michael Anschuetz

Hodgdon CFE BLK powder is in the series of Copper Fouling Eraser propellants. CFE 223 was introduced in 2012, and CFE Pistol followed in 2014. Nitroglycerine content makes them double-base propellants.

Like some other spherical powders, Hodgdon CFE BLK performs best in cartridge case capacity/bullet weight combinations that allow 90 to 100 percent load density. Slightly compressed charges often deliver the lowest shot-to-shot variations in velocity, while dropping much below 90 percent can result in high velocity spreads. Having a burn speed close to H4198 and IMR 4198 makes CFE BLK suitable for use in a variety of applications, including the .17- and .22-caliber varmint cartridges covered in this report. And CFE BLK does have several advantages over those two propellants.

CFE-BLK-Varmint-1
The burn rate of the new Hodgdon CFE BLK is similar to that of IMR 4198, but its spherical shape allows it to flow through a powder measure with no detectable variation in charge-to-charge weight. For that level of consistency, each charge of IMR 4198 has to be weighed on a scale.

Hodgdon CFE BLK Powder Loading Advantages

Due to a higher density, more CFE BLK can be packed into a case. According to my measurements, its gravimetric density is 0.980 gram per cubic centimeter, the same as for water. When a Redding Handgun/Small Rifle measure is set to throw 20.0 grains of CFE BLK, it throws 16.3 grains of IMR 4198. High density is especially important when loading small-capacity cartridges. The Hornady and Ackley versions of the 17 Hornet are examples. Whereas squeezing in enough IMR 4198 to reach top velocities with those two can be challenging, maximum charges of CFE BLK drop in with a bit of room to spare.


The new powder also flows through good powder measures with minimum charge-to-charge variation in weight. This is especially important when loading ammunition on a progressive press. Smooth flow is also convenient to those who load on a single-stage press as it allows powder charges to be dispensed by a measure as opposed to the slower method of weighing each charge. Whereas the Redding Model No. 2 scale used in my tests detected no weight variation in charges of CFE BLK dispensed by the Redding measure, IMR 4198 varied by as much as 0.3 grain.


Last but certainly not least, the ability of CFE BLK to reduce copper fouling in barrels gives it a big edge for high-volume shooting of prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and other varmints. I began my shooting tests by using Barnes CR-10 solvent to ensure no copper fouling lurked in the barrels of the test guns. While shooting, I cleaned powder fouling from their barrels after each 25-round string, but applied no additional copper solvent.


The camera rod of my Lyman borescope is too large in diameter for .17-caliber barrels, so for three of the test rifles I relied on cleaning patches wet with copper solvent to detect the presence of metal fouling. The barrels of the Ruger Model 77/17H and the Remington XP-100 had accumulated some, but it vanished after only three applications of solvent. The fouling was a bit heavier in the Marlin 1894, but it was easily removed. Absence of copper fouling in the Shilen barrel of the SSK Industries Contender and the barrels of the Cooper Model 21 and the Sako L46 indicated extremely smooth bores.

Hodgdon’s Ron Reiber was the first to try CFE BLK in the field. During May 2016, he thinned the Idaho rockchuck and ground squirrel populations with a custom pistol in 17 Hornet built around a single-shot Sako A1 action. Rod Herrett stocked the gun, and Fred Smith fitted its 15-inch Shilen barrel. Reiber’s load consisted of the Remington 6½ primer, Hornady case, and Hornady 20-grain V-Max seated out to lightly engage the rifling. Muzzle velocity was 3,488 fps at a chamber pressure of 46,400 psi. Several five-shot groups fired at 100 yards measured less than 0.250 inch. In testing the ability of the powder to “Erase Copper Fouling,” Reiber fired a 467-round string during the varmint shoot with no cleaning, except for occasional dry-brushing to sweep out powder fouling. Patches wet with Barnes CR-10 pushed through the bore revealed a total absence of copper fouling.

Now let’s take a close look at the performance of CFE BLK in several varmint cartridges.


CFE-BLK-Varmint-2

17 Hornet

Rifles chambered for the various .17-caliber centerfire cartridges often have extremely long chamber throats, and the Ruger Model 77/17H test rifle is one of them. The 20-grain bullet of Hornady factory ammunition had to free-travel 0.102 inch prior to rifling engagement. While accuracy was better with that ammo than I had anticipated (averaging 1.55 inches at 100 yards), seating bullets in handloads to lightly contact the rifling shrank group size considerably. An overall cartridge length of 1.815 inches with the Hornady 20-grain V-Max exceeds what the Ruger magazine is capable of handling, so those rounds had to be manually loaded directly into the chamber. When shooting ground squirrels and prairie dogs with a bolt-action rifle, I seldom use its magazine anyway.

The 17 Hornet was given a S.A.A.M.I. maximum overall cartridge length of 1.720 inches to ensure its compatibility with the magazines of rifles originally designed for the .22 Hornet. The magazine of the Ruger rifle will handle longer. It fed cartridges measuring 1.750 inches just fine, but to avoid any feeding issues in the field, I reduced COL to 1.745 inches. That put bullets 0.060 inch off the rifling, and while accuracy was not as good as with bullets touching the rifling, it was considerably better than with a longer jump.

Use of the Remington 6½ primer improved accuracy in Reiber’s gun as well as mine. Its cup is softer than that of the Remington 7½ primer, but neither of us experienced pierced primers when using a charge 0.3 grain shy of maximum. When using that primer in this cartridge, it is important to begin with a starting load and keep a close eye on fired primer condition while carefully working up. If Hodgdon’s recommended maximum of 12.8 grains is used, switching to the Remington 7½ or Federal 205M primer is advised.


Regardless of the powder used, velocity spread can be a bit high with the 17 Hornet, although it seldom affects accuracy enough to matter within the effective varmint-shooting range of the cartridge. When it comes to choosing a primer, it and the 17 Ackley Hornet can be finicky from rifle to rifle. A friend of mine has two custom rifles in 17 Hornet, and accuracy from one is best with the Remington 6½, while the other prefers the Winchester WSR. A Cooper rifle I shot performed best with the Federal 205M. The Ruger test rifle used in this report preferred the Remington 6½ primer. Like I said, different rifles, different preferences in primers.

17 Ackley Hornet

During my youth, I shot a custom single-shot rifle in 17 Ackley Hornet built on a Winchester Model 1885 action belonging to one of my father’s hunting pals. He owned no powder scale and simply filled the case to the brim with IMR 4198, seated a bullet on top, and commenced to terrorize the local crow population. I was reminded of him while loading IMR 4198 in the Ackley cartridge in order to compare its performance with CFE BLK. Hodgdon’s recommended maximum of 12.5 grains with a 20-grain bullet fills a case formed from Winchester 22 Hornet brass to its brim.

If the owner of that first rifle in 17 Ackley Hornet were still here, he would likely be tickled to see a load with his favorite powder slightly better the accuracy of CFE BLK. But the difference was not great. Either powder is an excellent choice for P.O. Ackley’s little cartridge, but loading CFE BLK is faster because it flows through a good powder measure with much greater uniformity in charge weight.

CFE-BLK-Varmint-3
The author tested handloads built with CFE BLK in the varmint cartridges (left to right): 17 Hornet, 17 Ackley Hornet, 17 Remington Fireball, 218 Bee, and 221 Remington Fireball. He used the following bolt-action, single-shot, and lever-action rifles (left to right): Ruger Model 77/17H, SSK Industries Contender, Remington Model 700 LTD, Sako L46, Marlin 1894CL, and Cooper Model 21.

I was curious to see how Hornady’s factory load would perform in my SSK Industries rifle. I first pulled bullets and dumped powder. Running the cases through a 17 Ackley Hornet full-length resizing die with its decap pin removed resized case necks and bumped the shoulder back just enough to allow entry into the chamber of the rifle but left the primer in place. The original powder charge was then poured back in, and the factory bullet was seated to the original overall cartridge length of 1.712 inches. A lot of trouble for sure, but it satisfied my curiosity. I had expected chamber pressure and velocity of the factory load to be a bit lower in the improved chamber, and they were, but accuracy in my rifle was quite good. With the case shoulder bumped back and bullets reseated, it averaged 0.64 inch for five, five-shot groups at 100 yards.

And for those who have grown weary of forming 17 Ackley Hornet cases from 22 Hornet brass, I have included a CFE BLK load in Hornady’s 17 Hornet case. As I mentioned, running the case through a 17 Ackley Hornet full-length resizing die bumps back the shoulder, allowing it to fit into the Ackley chamber. It ends up with a shorter neck than a case formed from 22 Hornet brass, but prairie dogs don’t seem to mind, and accuracy does not suffer.

17 Remington Fireball

While the 17 Fireball is about 300 fps slower with all bullet weights than the 17 Remington, it is probably more popular today because it burns about 20 percent less powder with each squeeze of the trigger. When carefully prepared handloads are fired in good barrels, accuracy of the two cartridges is the same. And while the burn rate of CFE BLK is too quick for the 17 Remington, Hodgdon recommends it for the smaller cartridge.

Remington factory ammo measures 1.810 inches in length and due to a fairly long chamber throat in the test rifle, the bullet is required to free-travel 0.183 inch prior to engaging the rifling. Despite their long leap through space, five of the 20-grain AccuTip-V bullets consistently landed inside an inch at 100 yards. And accuracy improved with a shorter jump in my handloads. The interior magazine length of Remington Model 700 rifles chambered for this cartridge is shortened at the factory by the installation of a filler block. Although overall cartridge length is restricted to about 1.950 inches, there is still more than enough room to seat bullets close to the rifling should doing so be necessary or desired.

I started my search for accuracy by seating the Nosler and Berger bullets so that they lightly kissed the rifling. Bullet jump was then extended in 0.005-inch increments until the sweet spot was found. It varied among the three bullets tried. The Berger 30-grain bullet delivered only slightly better accuracy with 0.005-inch jump than with no jump, and an increase of another 0.005 inch opened up groups. The Berger 25-grain bullet preferred 0.010 inch. The Nosler 20-grain bullet was happiest at 0.015 inch.

Whereas CFE BLK proved to be an excellent choice for the two 17 Hornets, shot-to-shot velocity spread was quite high when it was asked to burn in the roomier case of the 17 Fireball. In addition to delivering much lower velocity spreads, accuracy was better with IMR 4198 and H335. Other rifles might disagree.

218 Bee

I have owned several rifles in 218 Bee through the years, the first being a Winchester Model 43. My most accurate—and one I still have—is a Sako L46. Another Bee I’ll hang onto for a while is a Marlin 1894.

The 218 Bee was developed specifically for the Winchester Model 65 lever action, and despite its extremely light recoil, it has always been factory loaded with tube-magazine-friendly bullets with flatnose profiles. The use of more streamlined pointed bullets in bolt-action rifles, such as the Winchester 43, Kimber 82, and Sako L46, flattens trajectory and increases downrange punch. But like most rifles in 22 Hornet, the barrels of those in 218 Bee have a rifling twist of 1:16 inches, which is not quick enough to stabilize many of the bullets listed for this cartridge in various reloading manuals. My rifle is extremely accurate with the Hornady 40-grain V-Max and Nosler 40-grain Ballistic Tip, but it will not completely stabilize the 50-grain versions of those two bullets.

Two of the very best choices are the Hornady and Sierra Hornet bullets weighing 45 grains. In addition to stabilizing in a 1:16 twist, their thin jackets make them more effective on varmints than bullets of the same weight and even lighter that are constructed for cartridges of higher velocities. The Sierra 40-grain Hornet is also quite good.

When preparing loads for the Marlin rifle, I started with two flatnose bullets: the Hornady 45-grain hollowpoint and the Speer 46-grain softnose. Like those bullets, the Sierra 40- and 45-grain Hornets expand on varmints quite nicely, but since they do not have flat noses, no more than one should be loaded in the tubular magazine of a lever-action rifle. One in the chamber and another in the magazine makes it a two-shooter.

Through the years I have handloaded for several lever-action rifles chambered for the 218 Bee, and recoil is so light I never found it necessary to crimp the mouth of the case into the bullet, so lack of a cannelure on the Sierra bullets is not a factor. While the S.A.A.M.I.-recommended maximum overall cartridge length is 1.680 inches, my Marlin 1894 feeds 1.720-inch-long rounds without a hitch.

Hodgdon’s listing of 18.0 grains of CFE BLK as maximum for 30- and 35-grain bullets needs clarification. The S.A.A.M.I. maximum average pressure for the 218 Bee is 40,000 CUP. Pressures generated in Hodgdon’s pressure barrel for an 18.0-grain charge behind those two bullet weights was only 33,500 and 35,700 CUP respectively. When dropped from a powder measure, an 18.0-grain charge fills a Winchester case almost to the brim, so when applied to those two bullet weights only, the word “maximum” indicates that 18.0 grains is the maximum amount of CFE BLK the case will hold. But by using a 7-inch drop tube, I managed to coax in 18.5 grains behind the Berger 30-grain and Hornady 35-grain bullets. Pressure indications were still quite mild in my rifle. Respective starting charge weights for those two bullets are 15.8 and 15.3 grains.

CFE-BLK-Varmint-4
Regardless of whether the .221 Fireball cartridge is used in a Remington XP-100 pistol or a Cooper Model 21 rifle, CFE BLK is one of the very best propellants available for use in handloads.

221 Remington Fireball

Whether in a rifle or a long-range handgun, the 221 Fireball is one of my favorite varmint cartridges, mainly due to its accuracy and a small appetite for powder. While perusing the CFE BLK data I received from Hodgdon, I felt a bit disappointed by the absence of my favorite ground squirrel atomizer in that cartridge: the Berger 30-grain hollowpoint.

The introduction of Lil’Gun by Hodgdon in 1999 was one of the best things to happen to the 221 Fireball, and I was curious to see how slower-burning CFE BLK would stack up against it. Starting at 18.0 grains of CFE BLK, I worked up to 21.5 grains, a charge that fills the case about halfway up its neck. Compression is light when the Berger 30-grain bullet is seated to an overall cartridge length of 1.830 inches. Velocity from the 10.75-inch barrel of the XP-100 was just over 3,100 fps, with accuracy as good as that particular gun has ever produced.

While shooting the Cooper Model 21, I experimented a great deal with bullet jump (or lack of it), and the Berger 30-grain bullet shot best when seated 0.005 inch into the rifling. Velocity from the 24-inch barrel exceeded 3,860 fps. The Sierra 40-grain hollowpoint also preferred 0.005 inch of rifling engagement. The Sierra 40-grain BlitzKing delivered the smallest groups when seated out to lightly kiss the rifling, while the 50-grain BlitzKing preferred 0.005 inch of jump.

Regardless of how bullets were seated, chamber pressures appeared to be on the mild side in the Cooper and Remington guns.

Determined to include a Berger 30-grain load in this report, I asked my friends at Hodgdon to shoot it in their 24-inch pressure barrel. Velocities from pressure barrels are usually higher than velocities from off-the-shelf rifles, but in this case it was quite close at 3,836 fps. A chamber pressure of 40,600 CUP is well below the S.A.A.M.I. maximum of 52,000 CUP for the 221 Fireball and also considerably below the pressure generated by a maximum charge of Lil’Gun with the Berger 30-grainer. Cases last just short of forever, an important consideration when choosing a powder for loading bucketfuls of cartridges needed for defending your position from hordes of crazed flickertails.

As much as I like Lil’Gun in the 221 Fireball, I have to admit CFE BLK has pushed it to second place on my preference chart. Accuracy of the two powders in my guns is about the same, but the new powder pushes 40- and 50-grain bullets faster at slightly lower chamber pressures. Muzzle flash in a 10.75-inch barrel is minimal, while touching off a charge of Lil’Gun is remindful of how the 221 Fireball got its name. All things considered, this new propellant from Hodgdon ranks among the very best choices available for Remington’s littlest .22-caliber centerfire cartridge.

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