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Accurate Powder
Rifle Magazine
June - July 2001
Volume 36, Number 3
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 211
On the cover...
A Ruger #1 RSI International in 7x57mm Mauser features a Burris 6X scope in Ruger rings. Photo by Stan Trzoniec.
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Before working up a hunting handload, we should first ask what we wish to accomplish. Twenty years ago the answer was easy: better ammunition than factories could produce. In the early 1980s, I chronographed some 130-grain .270 Winchester loads from one of the Big Three manufacturers. On an 80-degree day none broke 2,700 fps from a 22-inch barrel, and three-shot groups went 2 inches at 100 yards. Running some of the same cases through an RCBS full-length die, repriming with Federal 215s, dumping in 60 grains of H-4831 and seating a 130-grain Nosler Solid Base resulted in 2,950 fps and accuracy under an inch. Most factory varmint loads were also pretty sad, grouping five shots into 1.5 to 2 inches at 100 yards, barely adequate for prairie dogs at that range, and expansion was often erratic.

But in 2000 I shot a whole bunch of factory ammunition that worked wonderfully. In early June came some .223 varmint loads from Black Hills with the 50-grain Hornady V-Max and Ramshot powder loaded into military cases. This grouped five shots into 3/4 inch out of the slender 22-inch barrel of my Kimber 84 at close to 3,300 fps. A week later Winchester’s “affordable” USA-brand .223 Remington load grouped about the same, the 45-grain hollowpoint chronographing almost 3,500 fps. Both expanded on prairie dogs out to 400 yards, as far as most of us can hit PDs with a .223 or any other cartridge.

Both loads cost so little there’s not much advantage to handloading. Assuming average retail prices for components, you can load .223s for about 20¢ to 22¢ a round. The Black Hills and Winchester ammunition costs a little more, but you get empty brass afterward, which you can either load up or sell to friends too cheap to buy factory loads.

Today’s big game ammunition is great too. Last fall I took a Coues’ deer with 139-grain Hornady Light Magnum loads for the 7x57mm Mauser, which shot just about as fast and accurately as the .270 handload previously mentioned. Then I went caribou hunting with some Federal .30-06 loads with its 180-grain Deep-Shok that also grouped under an inch, chronographing close to 2,800 fps. I killed two bulls at 400 and 430 yards with excellent expansion and penetration.

For really big game you can also buy dozens of factory loads using Barnes X-Bullets, Combined Technology Fail Safes, Nosler Partitions, Speer Grand Slams, Swift A-Frames and Trophy Bonded Bear Claws. These group quite adequately for animals the size of elk or Cape buffalo and leave the muzzle at the speeds advertised, give or take 100 fps. Yes, indeed, some are faster than advertised, at least in my rifles.

So why handload? Aside from saving money, there are two other very important reasons: We like to, and because we handload, we shoot more. When we shoot more we shoot better and handle our rifles more confidently. I did not get to the point where I could make a very quick cross-canyon shot on a 90-pound Coues’ deer by shooting five boxes of factory ammunition a year and did not learn the 400-yard trajectory of a 180-grain .30-06 bullet by sighting in at 100 yards with 10 rounds of “expensive” factory stuff. Compared to real experts, I’m only a passable rifle shot, but what skill I possess came from thousands of rounds of handloads - well, and a few .22 Long Rifles.

Working up a load for a planned hunt also extends the pleasure of anticipation. Unlike Inuits and !Kung Bushmen, we can’t hunt year round, so we spend more time preparing, enjoyable in itself. There’s also a certain satisfaction in taking game with a load personally put together - something like shooting a pheasant put up by the Labrador retriever you’ve trained from the time it could barely drag a shoe across the floor. Instead of taking a deer with somebody else’s mass-produced ammunition, you’ve invested time and wisdom, which in hunting are often more important than mere money.

Today we have dozens of powders suitable for hunting handloads, almost as many Wonder Bullets and not only “standard” primers but match-grade primers, magnum primers and match-grade magnum primers. How do we narrow the possibilities?

We start with the bullet.

Today’s handloaders are incredibly lucky. When I started handloading in the 1960s, most bullets were very similar, whether made by Hornady, Remington, Sierra, Speer or Winchester: a gilding metal jacket around a lead-alloy core. Oh, we also had Remington Bronze Points and Winchester Silvertips, neither of which worked as well on big game as plain old softnoses, because they flew apart like popcorn. And there were Nosler Partitions, which worked very well on big game but weren’t as accurate as they are now.


Today we have bullets for every purpose imaginable. For varmints I usually load plastic-tipped bullets like the Nosler Ballistic Tip and Hornady V-Max. Both are incredibly accurate, flat-shooting and frangible, but for high-volume shooting they’re also a little pricier than softpoints and hollowpoints. Luckily we also have thin-jacketed bullets like the Sierra Blitz and Speer TNT that expand very well, though they don’t shoot quite so flat as the plastic-tips. These work fine in rounds like the .223 Remington, but when loading real screamers like the .220 Swift or .243 WCF, I tend to choose Ballistic Tips over anything else. Their solid base keeps them from disintegrating before reaching yonder varmint. Thin-jacketed bullets sometimes do this when pushed too fast, or even just shoot weirdly when their core melts in the jacket.

Lots of varmint shooters use moly-coated bullets. High-volume varmint shooting is the only place I’ve seen any advantage in moly, since it keeps barrel heat down, prolonging barrel life. On the other hand, you have to mow the stuff down every 50 to 100 rounds with a bronze brush and something like Bore Tech Inc.’s Moly Magic (2950-N Advance Lane, Colmar PA 18915). Otherwise some brands of moly, and/or the wax covering, tend to build up in the throat, causing pressure spikes. On a hot July day, these are not a good thing. I much prefer the blue coating on Barnes VLCs. It also keeps barrel heat down, but unlike moly doesn’t lay a hard coating in the barrel.

We have an equal array of big game bullets, some expensive, some not. Many hunters like to shoot deer with quick-expanding bullets like the Nosler Ballistic Tip or Sierra boat-tails. I’ve shot several deer with both, and they often kill spectacularly with broadside lung shots. I’ve also seen both come apart on bone, so much prefer less explosive bullets like the Hornady InterLock or Nosler Partition. Both expand readily, yet drive deeply. The Hornady does get a little tender much past 3,000 fps, so in really fast rounds the Partition works much better. (I’ve yet to take any game with Hornady’s new plastic-tipped SST, but reliable friends report it holds together well too.)

When working up a load for a more expensive bullet like a Partition, Barnes X-Bullet, Grand Slam or Swift Scirocco, and especially with one of the really pricey ones such as the A-Frame, Bear Claw or Fail Safe, I normally start with a cheaper bullet of the same approximate weight, usually a Hornady InterLock. You can even do the same thing with varmint bullets, trying some Remington or Winchester softpoints in your .223 Remington before sending some Ballistic Tips or V-Maxes downrange. The cheaper bullet provides an idea of what powder and charge may work, though you’ll always have to back off before working up again with the more expensive bullets.

When I started handloading, it was commonly advised to try several different powders, seeing which one produced the best accuracy, then fine-tuning the best powder charge. This wasn’t a bad idea back then, for a couple reasons. First, only about a dozen canister powders worked in bottleneck rifle cartridges, and maybe three of those dozen had similar burning rates. When loading for top velocity in the .270 WCF, for instance, the only suitable powders were IMR-4350 and H-4831. No other 4350s or 4831s existed, and neither did H-1000, IMR-7828, Reloder 19 or 22, Vihtavuori 560 or Accurate 3100. If H-4831 didn’t do the trick, you tried IMR-4350. These days nobody but bullet manufacturers (or maybe Ken Waters) has time to try every new Wonder Powder in a given round.

We also tried different powders because our rifles often had locking lugs that seated unevenly, poor action and barrel bedding or other ills that didn’t help accuracy. Back then even many gunsmiths didn’t know how to “accurize” a rifle. They knew how to replace firing pins and adjust triggers, but there wasn’t much demand for extra accuracy. So instead of fixing our rifles, we dinked around with powder charges, hoping to find something that vibrated right in our particular .270.

These days we know more about tuning rifles - or at least some of us do. Factory rifles may arrive in our hands with problems, but they’re often simple to fix, and “accurized” or custom rifles theoretically have their bugs squashed before we try any handloads.

Rifles show up at my house often enough to make my UPS man smile. With so many rifles to test, I simply don’t have time to load seven different powders and  head to the range for a whole day of barrel-burning. Consequently, over the years my “load development” routine has shrunk. My method is obviously not the only method, but it might save you some time.

Rather than test every suitable powder, I generally match one powder to the bullet selected, or maybe two. If I’ve worked with the cartridge before, then a “standard load” generally exists in my loading notes (see table). If I haven’t worked with the round, Ken Waters’ Pet Loads is consulted, or the Nosler, Hodgdon and Hornady loading manuals, which often suggest powders to try. Or I bug one of my custom gunmaker friends or some friendly face at one of the powder or bullet companies. These guys know what works and what doesn’t.

Recently I’ve started using the QuickLOAD computer program too, available from NECO (536-C Stone Road, Benecia CA 94510; or visit online at: www.neconos.com). As the name implies, this program quickly suggests suitable powders for almost any bullet and cartridge. You can manipulate pressure, barrel length, powder charge and any number of other factors, arriving at an approximate new load for most bottlenecked cartridges. The load must still be worked up carefully, as when taken from a manual, but QuickLOAD provides combinations not always available in manuals.

The program has its limitations, freely admitted in the instruction manual. It works fine with any noticeably bottlenecked round - in my experience, cases with bodies at least 1.3 times bullet diameter. However, QuickLOAD data for straight cases, or even slightly bottlenecked rounds like the .35 Whelen (shoulder/bullet ratio 1.25), shows more pressure and velocity than actual loads, though the suggested loads will all be safe.


Even though you can vary seating depth, QuickLOAD seems to be set up for standard rifle throats. When comparing its computer-generated loads with my loading notes of the past few years, velocities from standard factory rifles are normally very close. But oddball throat lengths throw the computations off. I have three .257 Roberts rifles: an old Remington Model 722, a custom job on a Mexican Mauser 98 action and a Ruger No. 1B with Ruger’s normal long-as-the-Mississippi throating. The 722 has the standard Roberts throat, designed for a short-action cartridge length of about 2.8 inches. The Mauser allows bullets to be seated out to about 3.1 inches, and the Ruger 3.2 inches.

QuickLOAD’s predictions for powder charges and velocities in the 722 work out amazingly accurately but are so far off in the Mauser and Ruger they might as well have been invented on a barstool. The same thing occurred when comparing QuickLOAD data with actual results from two .280 Remingtons, a factory Winchester Model 70 Classic Featherweight and a custom, long-throated rifle by Dave Gentry. Real-life data from the Model 70 was within 25 fps of QuickLOAD predictions, but chronographed results from the Gentry rifle differed quite a bit from the computer loads.

Given those limitations (and its $150 price), QuickLOAD definitely works as another tool for serious handloaders. You can even design wildcats with a good degree of accuracy. For the computerized rifle loony, it also helps find a starting powder and uses up time much more enjoyably than surfing the net, or even e-mail.

After choosing a powder or sometimes two, I load up 10 to 20 rounds in new or once-fired factory brass that’s been sorted for uniformity, seating the bullet about .030 inch from the lands (.050 inch for Barnes X-Bullets). In cartridges of 60-grain capacity or larger, I generally use a magnum primer, and also use magnums with any spherical powder in cases that use Large Rifle primers. During the process I check each load on a concentricity gauge to see how straight the bullets are seating. If there’s a problem, I try to correct it, since testing crooked ammunition is a waste of time.

Then I go to the range and shoot ‘em up, trying to pick a fairly calm day. Unless it’s dead calm, I also set up at least one wind flag, and sometimes two or three. I also use a target matching the sights of the rifle. Most often I use the excellent targets from Rifle and Handloader, which provide fine aiming points both for most scopes and iron sights. Lately I’ve also been using some targets from Mountain Plains, Inc. (1-800-687-3000) that provide finer aiming points for high-powered varmint scopes. Some designs are also taller than normal targets, which helps at ranges past 200 yards, where bullet drop sometimes does not agree with ballistics tables. All Mountain Plains targets also have a section at the bottom for recording loading data and target notes.

Sometimes neither of these targets work for some front sights or reticles, so I draw one with a Magic Marker on high-quality computer printer paper that, oddly enough, is covered on the other side by the rambling words of somebody named Barsness. The whole point is to make sure you’re aiming the rifle the same way each time. Aiming imprecisely is as useless as shooting crooked ammunition.

If the barrel of this Unknown Rifle fouls badly in 10 or 20 shots, then some other work is in order. If the barrel doesn’t foul much but the rifle still won’t shoot the way it should, there’s generally something else wrong with the rifle, and I attempt to fix it before dinking around with more loads.

I normally shoot three-shot groups in big game rifles, five shots in varmint rifles, chronographing each load at the same time. These first loads are pretty conservative, so it’s rare to encounter excessive pressures. Far more often than not, at least one load shows promising accuracy and velocity, which indicates some research does help. If so I go home and reload the same cases with the best load. If velocities aren’t quite up to par, I also load some test rounds with a grain or two more powder.

One of these usually shoots very well, often because the once-fired cases conform to the rifle’s chamber more closely. Some people like to shoot dozens of groups, proving just what I don’t know. If you’ve checked bullet alignment, sorted brass, picked a decent day, watched the wind flags and are sure of your aiming point, a particular load should group consistently.

Sometimes the first powder doesn’t work and not just because of poor accuracy. Here’s an example. I wanted a medium-game load for my .338 Winchester Magnum for a trip to Namibia after gemsbok, which can be taken at long distances. Unlike Ballistic Tips of .30 caliber or under, the larger Ballistic Tips are not frangible bullets. They still expand rapidly but refuse to turn inside-out like “deer-weight” Ballistic Tips.

This particular .338 will take more powder than average. I’d used this bullet before with conventional medium-slow powders like IMR-4350 and Reloder 19, but to barely attain 2,900 fps, both powders had to be heavily compressed. Some compression helps consistent powder burning, but when seated bullets start to creep forward in the neck, compression’s a bit much. So in this rifle the “correct” powders weren’t.

I consulted the manuals for a faster powder and picked Reloder 15, loading three rounds each of 63, 64 and 65 grains, the maximum listed in Alliant’s 200-grain data. The 65-grain load grouped three shots in .84 inch, and muzzle velocity was about 2,950 fps. I went home and loaded up some more, this time shooting a .56-inch group. Good enough! I loaded 40 and took them to Africa, where they not only took a very fine gemsbok bull but also a 75-pound springbok.

Since then I’ve shot the same batch of handloads at paper twice, several months apart. The first group measured .62 inch, the second .76 inch. The average for all four groups works out to .695 inch, almost exactly the .70 inch average for the first two. One group is not enough to base a load on, but two good groups usually mean pay dirt. I am sure some professional statisticians would disagree, but my experience with rifles suggests that shooting dozens of groups only provides statistics, not meat in the skinning shack.

I have encountered some other failures with the first powder tried. A favorite FN Mauser .270 WCF absolutely refused to shoot 130-grain bullets with H-4831, which is almost as odd as a Clinton truth. I tried different bullets, including Ballistic Tips, and even different primers, which in my experience rarely help big game loads, though sometimes shrink varmint loads. No combination grouped three shots into less than 1.5 inches. This is fine for elk or even most mule deer but pretty sad for long-range pronghorns. And the rifle shot much more accurately with H-4831 with 150-grain bullets, so I knew the fault lay with the load and not the little Mauser. Finally I tried every suitable powder on my shelves: Reloder 19 and 22, VV-N560, Winchester’s new XMR and Ramshot Big Boy. The search could have ended with any of them, since they all resulted in groups around one inch and muzzle velocities around 3,000 fps. In the end, RL-19 showed a slight edge in both velocity and accuracy, but it was an awful lot of work for that slight edge. I’ll still try any new .270 that comes through the door with 130-grain bullets and H-4831, because the dozen or so .270s I’d previously loaded for all shot well with that powder, just as Jack O’Connor suggested.

Finer accuracy can sometimes be gained by varying bullet seating. After finding the right powder charge, I sometimes seat bullets to different depths, about .010 inch at a time. This can be figured out by counting the threads on ordinary seating dies, but many companies offer micrometer seating dies, and Hornady sells a micrometer adjustment that works on any of their seating dies.

While trying these different loads, I keep using the same cases. Rarely does it take more than three firings of the same 10 to 20 cases to find the right load, not enough to seriously work-harden the necks. Accuracy tests remain valid, and three firings are also my pressure test. If primer pockets stay tight after three firings of the selected load, then the pockets will generally stay tight indefinitely. If they start to loosen, I back off a grain or so. (By the way, decreasing bullet seating depth also tends to increase pressures slightly, though I’ve rarely had to back off a charge as a result.)

Primer pocket tightness doesn’t sound as scientific as measuring case-head expansion or strapping on a strain-gauge wire, but every time I’ve had my loads tested in a lab, they’ve been under what’s considered safe pressures for that type of cartridge. I say “type” because SAAMI limits for the .30-06 are lower than for the .270 WCF, mostly because of the vast array of old military rifles in .30-06. But in a modern bolt rifle, there’s no reason not to load the .30-06 up to .270 pressures, just as there’s no reason not to increase other underloaded rounds like the .257 Roberts and 7x57mm Mauser. As long as primer pockets stay tight for three loadings, you’re safe. (This is very basic stuff; I’ll be examining techniques for pressure estimation more closely in an upcoming issue of Handloader.)

Aside from occasional anomalies like a .270 WCF that won’t shoot 130-grain bullets with H-4831, it generally takes between 20 and 40 rounds to work up a load using this method. Of course, if you really like working up handloads and consider the time recreation, you can keep trying to improve on the first load.

My Idaho friend Stu Carty recently fell in with some Oregon rifle loonies who spend their time trying to make factory big game rifles shoot itty-bitty groups. They “accurize” each rifle, then try endless combinations of loads, trying for at most .5-inch groups, sometimes doing even better. The resulting load is sometimes useless for hunting, but they have their fun. Which, after all, is the whole point. Isn’t it?

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