February 27, 2020
Finnish company Vihtavuori says its products are “the best performing smokeless powders in the industry.” This claim is backed up by myriad local, state and national short-range benchrest records set using cartridges loaded with the company’s N133 propellant. And its rimfire powders are found in many Lapua .22 loads, which are always well-represented on medal stands in international shooting competitions.
Until recently, I was relatively unacquainted with Vihtavuori (pronounced VIT-ah-VOR-ee) gun powders. In the past they’ve often been hard to find, particularly in any sort of broad-spectrum selection. Plus, they’re significantly more expensive than most competing propellants.
Currently, the company has a new marketing agency in the United States and is making a push for recognition. Supplies are ramping up to meet anticipated demand, and packaging is undergoing a graphic design update. However, prices are still steep. So the pertinent question is: Does Vihtavuori deserve widespread recognition?
Savvy benchrest shooters certainly think so, and I set out to learn more. In addition to contacting company rep Geoff Esterline, I also reached out to Shooting Times reloading columnist Lane Pearce.
“They’re pretty understated,” Pearce told me. “They don’t tend to toot their own horn, but N133’s dominance on the benchrest scene tells the story.”
RifleShooter readers will be most interested in centerfire rifle propellants, which include the N120 to N170 line—a single-base gunpowder known for outstanding precision—and the N520 to N570 line, a double-based propellant engineered to produce maximum velocities.
Let’s start with the 100 series. As mentioned, it’s a single-base powder. The lower the number, the faster the burn. According to the burning rate chart in the company’s 2019 Reloading Guide, N130 is similar in burn rate to Hodgdon BL(C)-2 and Alliant Reloder 10X. The N133 I mentioned has a burn speed similar to IMR 8208 XBR and Hodgdon CFE-223.
In the medium burn rates, N135 is similar to IMR 4064 and Hodgdon Varget, and N150 is similar to Hodgdon H4350 and Reloder 17. For powerhouse rounds, N160 and N165 get into slow-burning territory and are admirable for large-capacity standard cartridges and magnums. Finally, N170 has a burn rate much like Hodgdon Retumbo.
That’s not a complete list of the 100 series, but it should provide a glimpse of how the line rates compare to the more common popular powders.
Vihtavuori’s 500 series double-based powders incorporate nitroglycerin, and the company calls this series “high energy.” According to Esterline, certain versions were engineered for specific tasks. For instance, N540 was developed for heavy-bullet use in .223/5.56 cartridges. N565 was designed specifically for 250-grain bullets loaded in the .338 Lapua Mag. But that’s not to say those propellants aren’t also suitable for a range of similar applications.
For comparison’s sake, N550 has a burn rate much like Reloder 19 and IMR 4350. N560 is similar to H4831 and Reloder 22. N565 gets into very slow-burning territory and is similar to Retumbo.
The comparisons are just that: comparisons. This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Absolutely do not substitute any data for other propellants.
If you want to try these powders, Vihtavuori’s reloading guide has plenty of data for most popular cartridges and several of the hottest new numbers. Also, unlike most reloading manuals on the market, Nosler includes a lot of Vihtavuori powders in its reloading guide. And, of course, Vihtavuori has an online data resource at vihtavuori.com.
Vihtavuori powders have several important characteristics going for them. One of the big ones as far as long-range shooters are concerned is temperature stability—i.e., producing consistent velocity across big swings in temperature.
Vihtavuori prides itself on lot-to-lot consistency, and Esterline noted that Vihtavuori is one of the few makers producing its own nitrocellulose on-site, and this enables the company to better control materials and processes.
Last but not least, Vihtavuori’s powders contain a de-coppering agent. Those who don’t like to clean rifles will appreciate that, and according to the manufacturer, it actually increases barrel life.
I procured a couple pounds of N160 and N565 to take for a spin. Picking three of my favorite test rifles, each vastly different from the others, I loaded 10-round test batches in three different calibers: 6.5 Creedmoor (N560 with Hornady 140-grain ELD Match), .300 Win. Mag. (N560 with Speer 190-grain Impact), and .280 Ackley Improved (N160 with 140-grain Federal Trophy Bonded Tip, N560 with 160-grain Federal Trophy Bonded Tip and N160 with Barnes 139-grain LRX).
All the rifles I used to test these loads are accurate, but I was still surprised to find that four of the five test loads averaged less than one m.o.a.—and keep in mind these were initial attempts, not carefully tuned accuracy loads. Two of the three .280 Ackley groups fired with the 139-grain Barnes LRX actually clustered into less than 0.5 m.o.a.
One word of caution: I suspect the maximum loads shown in Vihtavuori’s reloading guide are generated using European pressure standards, which commonly have a higher ceiling than those in the United States. I’m actually a big fan of that approach because it helps handloaders get the best out of their cartridges, but never exceed those maximum loads.
I found Vihtavuori’s gunpowder exceptional in every way but one. Extreme spreads and standard deviations of my handloads were a bit larger than I like. However, I suspect that a bit more work with bullet seating depth and neck tension would resolve that.