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Handloading 101: Why, How and How much?

Originally published in BC Outdoors Hunting and Shooting Pre-season 2011

by Al Voth

Do you ever get the feeling that the cost of ammunition is rising faster than the price of gold? Some cartridges are so expensive that they might as well sell by the ounce too. Unfortunately, metal prices will continue to rise and ammo prices will only go up, meaning many hunters who have never considered it before are now thinking about handloading. If you’re one of them then rest assured that handloading is much more a science than an art, which is fortunate because it means that anyone who can follow step-by-step instructions is capable of learning the task.

Should You Handload?

Before learning to handload any potential student has to ask him or herself if it is the right decision. Like most activities there are costs involved, not all of which are financial. The first point to ponder is why you want to do it.

Saving money is a commonplace motivation for handloading, and I used that excuse when I first started doing it in my teens. But in the real world it doesn’t work. Sure, your ammo will cost less, but then you will undoubtedly shoot more – way more. However, since shooting more is a good thing, and the illusion of economy is a decent goal, I sanction it wholeheartedly. Tell it to your spouse – just don’t count on it coming true.

Improved performance is another incentive. If that is your desire, but you define improved performance as achieving more raw power than factory ammo can deliver, you should immediately forget about handloading. Factory ammunition is loaded to a reasonable power level and exceeding it will only get you in trouble. Don’t try it. But if improved performance means more accuracy to you then you’re on the right track. Carefully tailored handloads can provide you with more accuracy than is available from most factory loads.

Two other things you need to consider before you begin handloading are the time involved and the place you will need to work. You must have both. How much of each you need will depend on how many firearms you are loading for, how much ammo you want to create and how precise you want to build it. You can scrimp on space, even to the extent of loading at the kitchen table, but cheating on time will only create poor performing ammunition that might be unsafe too. Don’t expect to craft top-notch ammunition unless you’re prepared to devote some time and attention to the task.

Closely associated to all this is the question I hear most often: “How much does it cost to get started in handloading?” My usual answer is: “About the price of a new rifle.” I realize that’s a broad range, but the reason I use this response is because a budget-conscious shooter will be thinking of a different cost than a high roller. And in the end both will be right, because working within their respective budgets both hunters will equip themselves with the necessary tools to create good ammunition.

Necessary Tools

This, of course, raises the next question: “What are the necessary tools?” The way I see it you can get by with about a dozen tools. I’ll detail them for you, but please keep in mind this is a list of tools and supplies that applies only to handloading centre-fire rifle cartridges.

The most important tool you’ll need is a reloading manual. This is your recipe book, so get a current edition that includes modern powders in its listings. Buy this first and, if you can afford it, buy several different ones.

Next is the handloading press. Get a bench-mounted model and buy the best you can afford. Most of these presses come with the capability to seat primers, but check to make sure. If not, you’ll need an additional tool to complete that process, something many handloaders prefer anyways. To get the press operational add a die set in your rifle’s specific calibre, with a shellholder to match.

The repeated reloading of a cartridge case will cause it to lengthen, necessitating the use of a case trimmer to keep that growth in check. A deburring tool will smooth the inside and outside of the case mouth after trimming, so put that on your list too. And, of course, you’ll need a way to measure case length and eventually the assembled cartridge. A caliper performs that function and, in my opinion, you can’t handload without one.

Balance beam scales used to be the only option for weighing powder, but now we have electronic models as well. Both of these are precision instruments so they’re not cheap. Be sure to care for whichever you choose.

You’ll also need a powder funnel to get those weighed charges into a case, lubricant for case resizing, a brush for applying it inside the necks, a loading block to hold cartridges, a sturdy box for the assembled ammo and a notebook.

The cheapest way to get all these products is to buy a kit from one of the reloading tool manufacturers. A well-equipped starter kit will have most of these items at a price considerably less than the cost of buying each individually.

Component Considerations

What you won’t find in any handloading tool kit are the bullets, primers, powder and cartridge cases needed to assemble ammunition. You’re on your own with sourcing these, a process that can leave new handloaders with a lot of uncertainty. To help get you started I suggest the following strategy.

Start with the bullets, selecting them the way you used to with your loaded ammunition: by thinking about what game you’ll be hunting and whether you want to pay the price for premium projectiles. The biggest difference for handloaders is that the selection now increases tenfold. When checking out manufacturer’s offerings pay close attention to the maker’s recommended use for each bullet. For example, Hornady makes seven different .30 calibre bullets weighing 150 grains. Each has a different purpose. Be sure to match your needs to the bullet-maker’s intended use.

Powder is the next decision, and this is where your loading manual has the last word. Look at the recommendations for your calibre and bullet weight. Check as many manuals as you have access to and chances are you’ll see some commonality in the lists. You won’t go wrong starting with one of these.

With primers choice is more simple. There are only two physical sizes – large and small – and the size of the primer pocket in your cartridge cases dictates which one you should use. After that, you have only standard or magnum strength in each of the two sizes. For this decision that reloading manual is your guide again. Follow its recommendation for whatever powder you decided on.

Your last choice is the brand of cartridge case and it’s the easiest decision of all, mainly because you probably have a good supply of empty brass from all that factory ammo you’ve been shooting. It’ll work just fine as long as it’s in good condition and you don’t mix brands. Use only one brand, buying more as necessary.

Making a Plan

Now, with tools in hand and set up according to manufacturer’s directions, the next big step is determining which load recipe you’ll be using for your rifle. Again, refer to your handloading manual, picking a load well below the listed maximum powder charge but still recorded as safe in the book. Loading a powder charge below what is recommended can be just as dangerous as going too high.

Be sure to plan an overall length for your loaded cartridges. This can have a major effect on pressure levels and accuracy, so start with the length suggested in the manual.

Your initial objective is to load three dummy rounds – cartridges with no powder or primer. You’ll use the dummy cartridges to familiarize yourself with the loading process and to check fit and feeding in your rifle. After that you can load twenty cartridges at a mild but safe power level. After shooting them successfully you can start experimenting to find a load that is accurate for your rifle.

Assembling Ammo

The first step in the assembly process is the lubrication of the cartridge cases. Start this process by applying a little lubricant to the bristles of your case neck brush and dispersing it with your fingers.

Then run the brush in and out of each case neck, applying a thin film of lubricant as you go.

To lubricate the outside of the cases put a little lube between your thumb and forefinger and then spin and rub the case over with those two digits to spread lube over its entire surface. How much lube? Be generous at first, running each case into the sizing die and watching for divots in the case shoulder. These are called lube dents. If you see them you’re using too much. If you use too little the case can become stuck in the sizing die – a most unwelcome event. Once you have a feel for how much lube is required you can complete the batch.

The process of setting up the sizing die in the press I will leave to the instruction manual that comes with your tooling. There are differences between manufacturers and you’ll get the best results by adhering closely to their instructions.

Your cases, however, aren’t ready for loading quite yet: you still have to check overall length with your caliper. The maximum length your cases should reach is listed in your reloading manual and a suggested trim length may even be given there as well. Set up the trimmer and shave off any excess length. Then use the deburring tool on the outside of the case mouth, spinning the tool just enough to remove all burrs. Next work the inside surface, going a little deeper and cutting a slight bevel that will aid bullet seating. The last step in preparing your cases is to remove all that slimy lube. I use a rag moistened with isopropyl alcohol, giving each case a quick wipe.

With a batch of squeaky-clean cases in hand you’re ready to start replacing components, the first of which is the primer. Of course for your dummy rounds you can skip primer and powder and go straight to bullet seating. But for live ammo and primer seating, I’ll refer you to the instructions that came with your tooling, as each is slightly different. The goal is to seat a primer completely into the pocket so that no part protrudes above the case head. If you have a round of factory ammo available, check the primer to see what correct seating depth should look like.

Adding propellant powder is the next step, and it’s an easy one – but it does require the most patience. Set up your scale on a stable, level surface and “zero” it according to factory directions. Be sure to keep it away from drafts, static electricity and electronic fields as this can affect accuracy. Weigh out each charge, dumping it into a case as you go. Once you have a batch done do a visual check to make sure you didn’t miss or double-charge any.

Bullet insertion is your final step and goes quickly, but you’ll need that second die for this task. By now you know to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to set it up. Get it right and then consult your notes to determine what overall length you’ll make these cartridges. The seating stem controls bullet seating depth, and with it backed out far enough so your cartridges are deliberately too long seat a bullet and take a measurement. Continue turning the seating stem into the die body, reseating and re-measuring until you hit the correct length. Lock it in place and it will be set correctly for the rest
of your ammo.

Fine-Tuning

No doubt you’ve heard and read about handloaders crafting “magic” ammunition that puts five bullets in the same hole at 100 metres. However, a beginner’s expectations should only be to craft safe ammunition that equals the accuracy you obtain from factory ammo. Once you’ve gained experience in handloading, and have perhaps added some specialized tools to your inventory, you can start pursuing that elite one-hole achievement. But even with basic tooling you can start to fine-tune handloads for maximum accuracy in your rifle.

At the elementary level we’re discussing here, and without a wholesale change in components, the easiest variable to play with is powder charge. You’ve been working with a light powder charge until now anyway, so it’s time to raise the power level up to that of factory ammunition and fine-tune accuracy as you go. It’s strictly trial and error from here on in, so that rule of scientific experimentation you learned in school still holds true: change only one variable at a time.

If you want to experiment then load at least three cartridges (five is better) at a low, but safe, powder charge. Then repeat the process, increasing powder weight in 0.5 grain increments until you reach the maximum powder charge listed in your manual. This will yield twenty or thirty cartridges that you will need to keep labelled and sorted for testing purposes. Take them to the range and, using a solid rest, shoot them at 100 metres. As you shoot each group onto a separate target watch for signs of excessive pressure. Just because those loads were listed as safe in the manual is no guarantee they really are in your rifle.

Watch for sticky bolt lift, excessive recoil, gas leakage around the primer pocket and a shiny spot left by the ejector on the case head. These are warning signs that mean you have already exceeded maximum safe pressure in your rifle and you have to throttle back significantly. However, presuming there are no pressure problems, you should end up with a handful of targets – some of which have significantly tighter groups than others. You may have to redo the test to confirm its validity, but once satisfied you can go into production and load a batch of cartridges at the charge level that was the most successful.

Of course, these aren’t your hunting cartridges – these are for practice. You do plan on practicing, don’t you? With all this cheap ammo you now have access to, you certainly should. And I wouldn’t take handloads on a major hunt unless positive they were safe and accurate in my rifle. Shooting a bunch in practice is the best way to uncover any problems or issues that might be lurking. While at the range another good habit is to take all your hunting handloads and load them into your rifle, cycling every one through the magazine and chamber to ensure they all fit and feed properly. It’s better to find a bad handload on the practice range than on the side of a mountain.

Is it Worth the Trouble?

Whether or not handloading ammunition is worth the time, effort and expense is a question only you can answer. For most serious hunters and shooters, there’s no question that it is. But the value of handloading doesn’t come from economy. After all, I doubt that you hunt for “cheap” meat – those days are long gone. Instead, it’s the intangible values that lead us to hunt and to do things like handload our own ammunition. Building and creating your own tools to harvest the game you hunt, and knowing that you’ve crafted something better than what you can buy, is well worth the price of admission into the world of handloading.

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