|June - July 2001
Volume 36, Number
A Ruger #1 RSI International in 7x57mm Mauser features a Burris 6X scope in Ruger rings. Photo by Stan Trzoniec.
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 Winchesters 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 theres
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.
Todays 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, Im 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 cant
hunt year round, so we spend more time preparing, enjoyable in itself. Theres also a
certain satisfaction in taking game with a load personally put together - something like
shooting a pheasant put up by the Labrador retriever youve trained from the time it
could barely drag a shoe across the floor. Instead of taking a deer with somebody elses
mass-produced ammunition, youve 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.
Todays 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 werent 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 theyre 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 dont 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 Ive 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 doesnt
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. Ive shot several deer
with both, and they often kill spectacularly with broadside lung shots. Ive 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. (Ive yet to take any game with Hornadys 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
youll always have to back off before working up again with the more expensive
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 wasnt 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 didnt 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 didnt help accuracy. Back then even many gunsmiths didnt
know how to accurize a rifle. They knew how to replace firing pins and adjust
triggers, but there wasnt 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 theyre 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 dont 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 Ive
worked with the cartridge before, then a standard load generally exists in my
loading notes (see table). If I havent 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 doesnt.
Recently Ive 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 Rugers 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.
QuickLOADs 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
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 thats 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 theres 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 its 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 Ive
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 youre aiming the
rifle the same way each time. Aiming imprecisely is as useless as shooting crooked
If the barrel of this Unknown Rifle
fouls badly in 10 or 20 shots, then some other work is in order. If the barrel doesnt
foul much but the rifle still wont shoot the way it should, theres generally
something else wrong with the rifle, and I attempt to fix it before dinking around with
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 its 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 arent 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 rifles chamber more closely.
Some people like to shoot dozens of groups, proving just what I dont know. If youve
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 doesnt
work and not just because of poor accuracy. Heres 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. Id 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, compressions a bit much. So in this
rifle the correct powders werent.
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 Alliants 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 Ive 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, Winchesters 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. Ill still try any new .270
that comes through the door with 130-grain bullets and H-4831, because the dozen or so
.270s Id previously loaded for all shot well with that powder, just as Jack OConnor
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 Ive rarely
had to back off a charge as a result.)
Primer pocket tightness doesnt
sound as scientific as measuring case-head expansion or strapping on a strain-gauge wire,
but every time Ive had my loads tested in a lab, theyve been under whats
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, theres no reason not to
load the .30-06 up to .270 pressures, just as theres 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, youre safe. (This is very basic stuff; Ill be
examining techniques for pressure estimation more closely in an upcoming issue of
Aside from occasional anomalies like
a .270 WCF that wont 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. Isnt it?