By Drew Dockstader, March 2015
While owning and operating a sporting goods business for many years I witnessed the different reasons given why customers reload or handload ammunition. Back in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, most of our customers reloaded their spent cartridges for simple economics. Back then it cost a lot less to reload cartridges than it did to buy new ammunition, thus saving money. Both metallic cartridges and shotshells could be reloaded for almost half the price of new ammunition if you saved and reloaded your spent cartridges. Many trap shooters were reloading back then, and we used to buy spent hulls from the ones who shot only new ammunition so we had a supply for those who reloaded. On the metallic side, we had a few benchrest shooters who loaded for accuracy, but most of the customers were loading for either cost savings or for the gratification of creating their own load. Another reason for handloading is that ammunition companies make their cartridges to work in most commercially manufactured firearms with a wide variety of chamber tolerances; therefore, it may not be as accurate as a more customized or tailored handload for a particular firearm and its chamber.
In the late 90’s, ammunition companies started to manufacture ammunition that was very competitively priced and there was a low priced ammo war amongst the various companies. This trend was good for the consumer who just wanted low cost ammo to shoot, but it killed reloading for many since hunters and shooters could buy new ammunition for almost the same price or, in some cases, less than they could reload.
The problem with a lot of this inexpensive ammunition was that it was not always consistent from one lot number to the next and with rifle ammunition, in many cases, it was not very accurate. Many of the big box stores, such as Walmart, had special makeup ammo that manufacturers made exclusively for them. Since it was usually put out on bid for a certain price point, the components were not always of the highest quality, so it usually did not perform as well as ammo that could be purchased from your local sporting goods store. Many of the hunters and shooters who discovered this started to handload or reload for more consistency in their ammunition. With the current lack of availability of some ammunition, there are many sportsmen who are turning to handloading or at least considering it. This trend is easing somewhat with some ammunition, but only getting worse with others such as .22 rim fire.
In the early 2000’s, many shooters and hunters became almost obsessed with being able to hit a target or game animal at great distances, in some cases well over 1,000 yards. Since there are so many factors that you cannot control when shooting at these distances, such as wind and temperature, you should plan on getting the things you can control right. Getting these factors right has created a new breed of very particular handloaders and handloading equipment. It has also spawned a plethora of custom long range rifle builders and custom ammunition manufacturers and handloaders. Along with this, there are many more companies designing long range rifle scopes with turret systems and rangefinders with programmable ballistic capabilities. However the latest and greatest equipment means little unless you have a very consistent and reliable cartridge to begin with. There are many great books written on handloading, and it takes a book to come close to discussing all of the topics associated with it, so I want to go over a few tips and procedures that may help you if you are a handloader or are thinking of taking it up, some of which are just as pertinent if you are buying custom ammunition or even ammunition from a sporting goods store.
At the recent SHOT Show, I was talking to one of the loading equipment experts at the ATK booth. He said something that makes very good sense. He said that there are two types of ammunition handloading – quantity and quality. If you are loading for quantity, you would most likely want to use a progressive loader where you can turn out a loaded cartridge with almost every pull of the handle. If you are a quality loader, you will most likely be using a single stage press with very accurate components and measurements to ensure your cartridges are uniform and consistent. There are several companies that offer great loading equipment for the handloader, and we will cover them and offer some reviews and comparisons in a future issue of the Huntin’ Fool magazine as well as other information on the subject.
Consistency, you may have noticed that I have used this word quite a bit already. Everything you do in your cartridge development must be consistent. If it is, you will end up with a great cartridge, whether you are using it to hit a gong at 1,000 yards or harvest that trophy-of-alifetime at a distance that is within your abilities. Consistency starts with quality components. Your brass, primers, bullets, and powder all need to be consistent and handled with care.
Starting with brass, all of your components need to be carefully selected. Brass can come from a particular manufacturer’s lot number. Most good handloaders will weigh their brass and select brass of the same or very close to the same weight. They should be trimmed for length and the case necks turned and deburred for uniformity. The brass should be cleaned and free of any debris, including the primer pocket and flash hole. Most rifles will perform better with fire-formed brass that has been shot in the rifle you are loading for. This produces brass that fits the rifle’s chamber exactly and aligns the bullet with the bore. You would then use a neck sizer die only. This will give you a lot closer tolerances in the chamber and allow the brass to be used for more loadings since it is not being full length sized each time.
Primers can vary in consistency also. I like to use benchrest primers since they are made with closer tolerances. Make sure you use the same primer that is called for in your load data. Switching primers on a given load can sometimes change the pressure greatly. Make sure your primer is seated all the way into the primer pocket and seats firmly with a little pressure but that it is not forced.
Not all powders are created equal. Some powders are better for extreme conditions of which the definition fits most hunting applications. A few of these conditions include elevation changes, temperature changes, and humidity changes. All of these can affect the way the powder burns. I have seen sub MOA loads out of a particular rifle at 5,000' become 3" groups at 100 yards when shot near sea level. Do your research and use powder from the same lot number. Also, start with proven load data from the most current loading book or website since powder characteristics may have changed from the data in an older manual. It’s always a good idea to start out with a load that is considered less than maximum. The thickness of the particular brass or tolerances in a given chamber may cause pressure issues. Work your way up with the powder charge, watching pressures and groupings. Many times the maximum velocity is not the most accurate, and I would rather have a slow hit on a target than a fast miss. Use a quality trickle loader, either manual or automatic, making sure the grains of charge are as close as possible to exact with each load dispensed.
The final component is, of course, a good bullet. There are many opinions on which bullets are best. Some are better for a benchrest shooter, punching paper, or hitting a gong at 1,000 plus yards, and some are better for killing game in the most humane way possible. For myself, when it comes to killing game I like a bonded bullet with a polymer tip, but many others prefer hollow points. It all depends on the intended game. That is the reason there are so many choices to choose from. Whichever you choose, make sure they are from the same lot number when possible and weigh them for consistency. For long range shooting, I prefer a slightly heavier bullet with a low ballistic coefficient (BC), which according to Wiki is “a measure of its ability to overcome air resistance in flight.” The depth at which the bullet is seated in the neck of the brass is very important. Many commercially manufactured rifles have a lot of free bore, which is the distance from the point of contact on the bullet to rifling in the bore. Many rifles shoot best when the bullet is seated so it just contacts the rifling, but this will cause an increase in pressure, so you must back off the amount of powder by a couple of grains. With a lot of rifles, the farthest out you can seat your bullet is dictated by the length of the rifle’s ammunition magazine. If your bullet is seated too deep, it can cause a reduction in chamber pressure, resulting in a reduction of velocity as well. Experiment with different seating depths, carefully noting the pressure signs as well as the accuracy.
Another note is to start out with a properly broken in barrel, free of rifling burrs. I have seen shot groupings shrink considerably just by breaking in a barrel properly.
Even if you decide handloading is not for you and you are going to purchase your ammo from a sporting goods store or custom cartridge manufacturer, make sure you buy it from the same lot number and purchase enough to last several years since the next time they produce the load it may not have the same components as their last lot. Also, sight your rifle in on a range each year that is as close to the elevation at which you are going to be using it at as possible.
Remember, watch for more tips and reviews on this subject in future issues of the Huntin’ Fool magazine. Be safe, and happy shooting!