The Advantages of Handloading

By Bob Campbell published on in How To, Hunting, Reloading

I am the first to admit that factory ammunition has improved considerably during the past three decades. Consistency, accuracy, and performance are better than ever. This is largely due to the pressure put on factories by handloaders. Today, a handloader can produce more accurate ammunition than the factory.

Sierra Hunter round-nose bullets

This round-nose bullet is designed for close range knock down.

The improvement in factory ammunition is often labeled ‘Premium.’ That can mean expensive. Not that this ammunition is not worth the tariff, but few of us can afford an afternoon of shooting even the least expensive factory fodder.

There is another side to handloading that folks not associated with the process may not understand. Handloading can truly be enjoyable. It is rewarding to assemble ammunition that produces excellent performance. I regard cleaning my rifles as a chore, but a necessary one. The same may be said for many things in life. However, handloading is among my favorite pastimes.

The varmint shooter once stood alone in the demands placed on ammunition. Today, competition shooters and shooters in the 3-gun sports demand truckloads of ammunition that is accurate and affordable. Frankly, the average big-game hunter seldom realizes the differences in accuracy among loads, and he does not need the same accuracy. That is not say he does not want it, if he can have it!

two .308 Win. cartridges loaded with different bullets

Generally, exposed lead is good for expansion. That is why bullet in the top cartridge is most often preferred by hunters.

I think, slowly but surely, big-game hunters are looking to varmint shooters for tips on accuracy. The term ‘bean field rifle’ brought new meaning to long-range deer hunting. In the past few decades, I have seen reloading change considerably. Modern tools are more accurate than ever, and there are better ways of assembling cartridges. In this article, I have attempted to put together a basis for procedure that will benefit any shooter in putting together accurate, reliable ammunition.

There is more to the task than accuracy. The ammunition must be reliable. Few of us use single-shot rifles, and there are limits imposed by magazine dimensions. Ammunition must feed, chamber, fire, and eject properly and smoothly. The advent of semi-auto rifles accurate enough for true efficiency in the field adds another dimension to the handloading scene.

I think we have all experimented in assembling handloads with bullets seated so far out in the case they just touched the lands, and these loads can be very accurate. However, in doing so, they may also fail to feed from the magazine. The cartridge must first be reliable. While we may burn up a good bit of ammunition in practice and experimentation, I think a straightforward route to accuracy is possible. The ‘magic’ load, that one loading that maximizes a rifle’s potential, is a reality but not in the way envisioned by many shooters.

Magazine loaded with .308 Winchester ammunition

These loads are intended for the M1 Garand. Function is more important than top accuracy in the beginning.

It is true that a certain loading will often show better accuracy in one rifle than the other. That being said, the most accurate combinations I have found are often good performers in a number of rifles. In other words, the single most accurate combination yet tested in my personal Howa 1500 will often prove accurate in a variety of rifles. I have yet to work up a true accuracy load in one rifle that turned out to be a dog in others. As a side note, I have found the Howa 1500 to be among the most generous of all rifles in this regard, but then this is a modern rifle with years of experience reflected in design and execution.

Sure, handloading is about experimentation and personal preference, but it is possible to work up to a suitable load in a relatively short time—with a minimum of disappointment along the way. I think barrel break-in or shooting-in with a particular load and careful practice will produce better results than handloaders realize. A promising load may be abandoned too early if the first group or two doesn’t give outstanding results.

Some feel that a good bullet is the foundation of accuracy; others believe the powder choice is most important. They are both important, but the cartridge case should receive its share of attention too. The brass cartridge case is what makes all of this worthwhile. It is the single most expensive part of the loaded cartridge and the only reusable part. So, a certain amount of care should be given the brass case.

What component do you think is most important when reloading — brass cartridge case, powder, or bullet? Share your answer in the comment section.

SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

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Comments (12)

  • Dale

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    I’ve been thinking about reloading and mostly because of the expense of buying factory ammo. The second paragraph of this article somewhat alludes to that too. I got somewhat dismayed by OldGringos’ comment that you “do not save money reloading…you just get to shoot a lot more” until I thought about the comment. What I get from it is that if you would have spent $X to shoot a 1000 rounds, you get to shoot a 1000 times Y rounds after spending the $X. Has anyone figured out what Y is? I started tying my own flies for fly fishing to save money but quickly figured out that it probably cost me more money in materials and equipment but I am able to tie flies that you won’t find in the store so I’ve convinced myself, I catch more fish. I assume the same thing applies to reloading.

    Reply

  • Tim Ferrall

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    According to benchrest champion Kenny Jarrett, the inventor of the “bean field rifle”, the idea was to create a rifle that was superbly accurate due to its’ extremely tight and consistent tolerances. To accomplish this, he created his own action, blueprinting each one, bedded the action on pillars, and used an air gauge to ensure that his internal barrel variance was only +/- 1.5 ten-thousandths of an inch. He also has someone do an intensive barrel break-in before shipping it to the customer. There are other things done as well, but first and foremost it was about the rifle.
    I handload for over two dozen calibers, and have done so for decades. It is my opinion that factory ammo has become more accurate because the newer machinery keeps the variances smaller. It is also my opinion that all reloading components are important.. All of them must be not only consistent, but tailored to the particular firearm they are loaded for. That said, one thing that many reloaders pay little attention to is the cartridge case. This may be okay for average handgun cases, but rifle cases need to receive a lot more attention than I have time for here. I disagree that the “average big-game hunter” is not concerned with accuracy. The average distance that open-country big game is taken at keeps getting longer and longer. The folks that buy a box of 30-30 cartridges every 10 years are getting fewer and fewer in number. I also will state that your articles show a bias toward certain manufacturers, particularly when it comes to bullets. I much prefer your handgun reviews to anything else you write.

    Reply

  • Terry Nixon

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    Early in my 28 year career in law enforcement, I began reloading .38 Special using an original Lee Reloading kit. I went from that to an RCBS Reloader special kit in 1980, and on to 4 Lee Pro 1000’s, and a Lee Manual press for .30-06. I love reloading as much as firing. I consider my reloading similar to fine culinary talents. While the bullet, case, powder and primer are all eually important in my opinion, the chamber, barrel rifling and muzzle I feel are at least as mportant. In 1979, my brand new S&W Model 66 was extremely inaccurate. I found the lands and groves inside the barrel abruptly stopped and restarted again about midway. After a trip back to the factory for barrel replacement, I began to see real accuracy.

    Reply

  • Mike

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    Another thought. I double check my digital scale with my beam scale. I weighed a 140 grn bullet Hornady. It said on the digital scale 132 grains double checked on the beam scale 140 grain. What the heck! Change batteries still reading 132 grains. Flash of genius turned the digital scale over and pressed on the bridge and felt a crunch. A grain of powder had found its way underneath . Checked again and measured correctly,140 grains. So double check your powder loads between 2 sources occasionally and verify . A beam scale is a great investment for hand loaders.

    Reply

    • Barry Thomas

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      I double check every load with a Digital( to get close) then to a Beam Scale
      to trikle it up to weight. Calibrate everytime I use the scales

      Reply

  • Ron DePiro

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    Bob, you ask “What component do you think is most important” which cannot be fully answered (kind of like what component is the most important in making Pizza) …. The only one in terms of the whole is Patience, all others are congruent in contribution to achievement of success.
    Now if you isolate each component after patience you may get three thousand word essays (on each) so I take my leave with that being said.

    Reply

  • charles

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    I have been reloading longer than I care to think about was taught by my grandfather . many of the older cartridges are not available I load 3003 for a Winchester and a 1903 Springfield resizing 270 brass , I have a 270 so I overstamp the head safety counts care and knowledge are most important things in reloading

    Reply

  • Barry Thomas sr

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    Was talking reloading with a fellow at the range,told to try a certain powder for my AR. Found the powder and tried the load he suggested. First 3 shot were on the edge of a 1 inch black dot at 100 yds, measured under 3/4″.also not the best day 90 degrees and very humid

    Reply

  • OldGringos

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    A few years ago, I started noticing young guys showing up with a dozen or more different brands of AR 15s. Having used them for decades in the Army and Air Force, I was shocked actually to see that virtually all of them would shoot an inch or less (MOA) with cheap steel cased Russian ammo. I did see a problem now and again, when a small base .223 Rem chambered AR would show up and not work well the military grade 5.56 ammo. Duh?

    And over more than 5 decades I have bought a pile of new rifles, mostly bolt guns and I can only recall one, that would not shoot within an inch at 100. It is my favorite little Ruger RSI 308, it shoots 1.5 inches. I have a Win mod 70, 30-06 that will shoot .33 groups with Win Silvertip 168 grain and all factory ammo into less than one inch. It was made in 1976 and is original in every way.

    My point is this, I reload a dozen handgun calibers and 10 rifle calibers and 3 shotguns loads. I also cast numerous bullets including 4 buck, 0 buck and 000 buck. I reload for fun and economy. I have been shooting goofy multi projectile loads for decades and now see them on the shelf.

    I find very little reason to reload for accuracy. I do it for fun and economy. You do NOT save any money reloading so get that goofy Idea out of your head, you just get to shoot a lot more.

    Reply

  • Casey Charles

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    Given decent brass I think think the bullet is the most important component with regard to accuracy. It is the only component that directly interacts with the barrel. If the barrel twist is wrong for the bullet, accuracy will suffer. Dr. Mann and Harry Pope proved that a deformed bullet base will affect accuracy greatly. Pressure considerations aside, I don’t think a one or two percent variation in a powder charge would affect accuracy as much as a deformed bullet base

    Reply

  • Mike

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    Hornady’s #9 reloading manuals ERROR the Creedmore data for 140 gr bullets Winchester 760 powder is way off I loaded for my AR10. First shot Match factor and worked great. My loaded going by #9 loading manual I loaded 42.8 gr. Max load was listed at 43.2 gr. I got a pierced primer and one primer blow out so stopped of course. Notified Hornady and they said # 10 has been changed to 41.3 max form760. Got sloppy and relied on data. Even the big guys manufactures miss some times

    Reply

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