Ammunition

Handloading 101: Accurate Load Development

Hardy Old Lever Action Rifle Improved by Handloading

We have studied the basics of handloading on this blog before. Now let’s go a step further and study load development. It works!

Recently, I fired a number of handloads in my bolt-action .308 and, frankly, the results were so good it even surprised me. I had on the bench a rifle and load combination more accurate than I could hold.

That is a good place to be. The rewards of load development are many and tangible.

While load development pays off big dividends for rifles, the same principles apply to handguns, particularly Magnum hunting revolvers.

handloading 308 rifle
Handloading can pay big dividends for rifles.

Where to Begin

We begin to experiment with the usual variables—powder, projectile and overall cartridge length. The best program is to work with only one variable at a time.

Change the powder charge weight, not the bullet or overall length. If good results follow, consider changing the bullet to a premium model. You must begin with reliable data from the loading manuals.

While the accuracy load from the Hornady load manual may not be the most accurate in your rifle, it will not be a dog either!

First, decide what you wish to accomplish. Is it top-flight accuracy, energy or range? The bullet may be the first choice. The Hornady A-Max, V-Max, Match and InterBond bullets do different things.

Use a bullet that accomplishes the goal, whether the goal is practice, competition or large or small game.

handloading bullet choice
Bullet choice may be the first place to start. Hornady’s A-Max is a great option.

Power Testing

Next, choose a powder that has performed well for the maker. You may choose the highest velocity or the greatest accuracy.

By choosing a load that worked well for the writers of the loading manual—and they are trained ballisticians—you are on the road to success.

I begin by loading three or four cartridges with a given powder charge near the beginning load. As may be expected, a quality chronograph is a prerequisite of this type of experimentation.

One rifle may produce good velocity with the starting load; others demand more powder for a given target goal. I work in half-grain powder increments.

You may be surprised what a half-grain of powder will do as you approach maximum load density. (With pistol calibers, 0.1- to 0.3-tenth of a grain is a good spread.)

Change only one part of the equation at a time or you will not know which change resulted and caused the improved performance. Groups may be more or less accurate as you test loads.

If you have a problem with the cartridge case sticking, or excess pressure signs such as a flattened primer, stop and reduce the powder charge. A load that is safe in one rifle may be too much for another rifle.

handloading chronograph
A quality chronograph is a prerequisite of this type of experimentation

Other Experimentation

Bullet length and total bearing surface effect accuracy and pressure. As an example, simply substituting one bullet for the other may drive pressure up, although the bullets are the same weight.

The depth at which they seat in the cartridge case (or how they fit the bore) may affect the pressure. Remember, a lighter bullet produces less pressure with the same powder charge.

A heavier bullet creates more pressure in the cartridge case, but even changing bullets for the same weight may increase pressure. Handloading data isn’t general; it is specific.

The loading manuals list the overall cartridge length for a cartridge. Remember, the deeper you seat the bullet, the greater the internal pressure of the cartridge-powder-bullet combination.

When you are experimenting with an overall length (OAL), you are controlling the amount the bullet jumps before meeting the lands (rifling).

I often set my loading dies with a factory cartridge of the same bullet weight I am working with. If the bullet actually jams into the lands, pressure may go up as well.

So, “long seat” the bullet in very small increments, testing three to four cartridges for the best results.

handloading manual
A handloading manual, like Hornady’s Handbook of Cartridge Reloading, may come in handy.

If you are loading for a self-loading rifle, such as the PTR 91, you cannot deviate from the factory OAL, as neither the chamber nor the magazine accepts a longer cartridge.

As I mentioned, I finally found a combination that seemed to put all shots in one hole at 100 yards—and produced a three-shot hole in my .308 bolt-action rifle.

However, if the distance were to extend to 200 and 300 yards, the task becomes more challenging. Likewise, the rules differ for a self-loading rifle.

You must predict the powder selection upon the ability of the power to properly burn in the action.

Slow-burning powder suitable for the .30-06 to .300 Magnum isn’t suitable for the .223 or .308 self-loader, and the principles of powder selection and bullet selection apply.

Handloading Handguns

With the common handgun calibers, .38 Special, 9mm Luger and .45 ACP, the recipes are well-known. Stick with a standard weight bullet for the caliber and follow careful load practice and you will have a winner.

Sometimes, the use of a premium bullet, such as Hornady’s XTP, results in a considerable improvement in accuracy over standard RNL (round nose lead) or RNJ (round nose jacketed) bullets.

With the Magnum revolvers, you cannot vary OAL, but you can experiment more with different powders with medium to slow burn rates.

handloading 38 special
Stick with a standard weight bullet for calibers like .38 Special.

Conclusion

Handloading is a fascinating pursuit that pays big dividends in accuracy. Follow these rules, study often and always use safe load practice.

How proficient are you at handloading? Let us know any tips you may have in the comments below.

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Note: This post was originally published in January 2015. It has been updated for clarity and accuracy.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (11)

  1. If you’re trying to bring this old thread back to life, I’ll bite.

    With reloading gear purchased decades ago, I reload today to get pistol ammo at 1/3 to 1/2 cost for defensive practice/training — and to avoid being buried in once-used brass. .380ACP 9mm .45ACP

    I carry only factory-built duty ammo for self-defense. My objective in a reloading recipe is to put the same bullet weight at the same muzzle velocity as my carry ammo — to make pistol feel and function in practice be valid preparation for me and firearm to meet the training purpose.

    I’ll work up a recipe by making 5 rounds at each powder weight from the low end of published data, increasing by 0.2gr until I’m at or a bit above the published velocity of the duty ammo I want to match — usually 4 or 5 sets are sufficient. Shoot the lightest set of 5 rounds at 10yd to see where and how they group; collect the brass for that set to inspect for excessive pressure signs; make notes, then shoot and evaluate the next set if all is going well. If things don’t seem quite right, I may go up or down an increment or start over with a new powder. But if I get to the powder charge published for the velocity I’m after, and pressure signs are ok, and accuracy/consistency is ok, then I have a tentative load. I’ll make up 25 rounds of that mix, and shoot 5 more groups — if the gun, and cases, and targets all seem happy, then I’m happy. Write it up and tape to the bench. Be alert to performance changes when changing bullet, primer, or powder lot.

    I do not change OAL from published data. I have seen published recipes with astounding pressure jumps for very small powder increments with unusually short OAL given. I assume the powder charge has been compressed. I can’t measure pressure directly, so I don’t want to mess with compressed charges — there are other powders and other recipes available.

  2. I started with a Lee Loader back around 1974 and it produced fine ammunition. I soon became tired of using a hammer and started using a short piece of pipe with a screw type wood clamp to apply nice smooth pressure and loaded a lot of .357 with nary a scary primer moment. Later I bought an RL450 and have used it to crank out lots of rounds in 12 different calibers.

  3. Repeatable accuracy depends upon accurate data of lots of different trails and error, bias towards brands is not great, to find truth first throw out yours andvothers personal bias, let truth fall where it falls.
    I used to find what individual round was most accurate for each weapon using best equipment I could afford and consistency of results was what matters.
    Did pretty well for those times until an old fart bet me he could improve both accuracy and consistency, I lost, cost me an old Winchester lever.
    One simple guage I had never heard of made difference, it measured each bullets diameter and streightness once installed, if neck sized trued neck, wether after insuring proper length the case mouth was perfectly square reamed and Even if cases out of round.
    Found out the tolerances were different between firms , quality control was lacking, quantity not quality, and why one lot of bullets and cases varied from other lots.
    Simple but duper accurate, guage with a magnetic base and stand, which at time cost overb50 bucks, and my Winchester.
    A bullet not seated perfectly in todays quality weapons, while our strong bolts can force it somewhat straighter does so by loosening tightness of round in neck.
    Is it realy necessary for hunting rounds under 400 nope, but for those hunters today who think 800 yards and more is fair chase it definitely is.
    Want to find inconsistency, check out our newer so called polymer ballistic tips and copper or alloy bullets.
    Todays penny pitchers have tried to save money by thinning thickness of brass casings as well, so indeed find best quality.

  4. Jerry,
    Not sure about “in depth” ,but I have had very good luck with 55grn hornady btjsp over 21 grn of IMR4198 , cci small rifle. In a 1:9 twist 16″ barrel. 3000fps.
    Very accurate for me. YMMV

  5. Has anyone done any IN-DEPTH experimentation with .223 Remington/5.56×45 using a 1:9 twist rate?
    ‘Common wisdom’ says that only 62gr. and under projectiles will work properly.
    I’ve been experimenting with bullets ranging from 50gr. to 75gr. V-max, different types of powder (IMR 4895, BLC (2), W748, etc), and different velocities for each.
    Simultaneously, I’m loading and experimenting with a Remington model 722 (circa 1955) in .222 Remington, and since both calibers use the same projectiles, and powders, I’m texting that, as well.
    However, I have a job that keeps me away from home for 4-8 weeks at a time, and can only go out and shoot when I finally make it back home, provided the weather cooperates, so the testing is going slow.
    I’m just curious if I’m the only one who is trying to see if ‘cconventional wisdom’ is only for one loading, or if there has been extensive testing done?

  6. Bob,
    Like Gary H, I started with a Lee Loader and I still have it somewhere. My thought on that is I was not sure that I would enjoy the process and did not want to end up with a lot of stuff I did not want. Of course, I found it fascinating. I did splurge on one item at the beginning and did so. I bought a scale and have always weighed every charge I threw. I was just suspicious of precise accuracy of the powder dippers and did not want to blow my hand off, since I started loading for the .44 Magnum and I loaded right up to the max. I was hunting feral hogs in Florida and they either seem to die somewhat easily or they seem to be impervious to bullet energy. So, I wanted as much energy as I could get — safely.
    I still have the scale and still use it on occasions but I also have a much newer somewhat automatic, digital scale. I did not blow my hand off and discovered that I really enjoyed hand loading. The thing was that I also felt and thought I proved, that my hand loads were actually superior in performance to the factory ammo. Of course, that was 1965 and back then, there were not the boutique factory ammo choices that we have today.
    In sum, I started cheaply and did not regret it because I found out that I really enjoyed the process and did not have a lot of up front expense.
    Yes, later I did invest in more expensive and exotic equipment but by then I knew it was something I wanted to pursue. At one time, I was shooting competitively and was going through a whole lot of ammo on a weekly basis. Then, the reloading did pay off and I am convinced it saved me money and gave me a consistent experience, always shooting my hand loads instead of having taken pot luck with what I could buy locally.

  7. I agree with Steve. If you are going to start loading begin by purchasing top shelf equipment. You will eventually anyway so save some money and get it up front. If you are trying hand loading to save money then skip it. You will need to load thousands upon thousands of rounds to break even! I do it for the accuracy and satisfaction of shooting something that I loaded. You can learn a lot about how ammo and guns work this way.

    1. Dave, I’m sure you mean well, but I have to disagree with most of what you said. I’m not sure what you meant by “top shelf”, but in my area it has always meant the most expensive. Stores always put the most valuable stuff on the top shelf to keep it away from the kids hands. So when someone uses the expression “top shelf” here we mean the most expensive. You don’t have to start with most expensive reloading equipment to enjoy successful reloading. As a matter of fact I recommend against throwing $1000-$1400 at a Hornady Ammo Plant or Dillon 650 until you are sure you will be reloading enough rounds a week to justify it. If you have some experience reloading with a buddy and now you figure it is time to set up your own reloading room, then you really should buy one of the single stage starter kits. Hornady and RCBS both make good practical kits with everything you need to get started. As a matter of fact Cabela’s online has the RCBS Explorer Reloading Kit on sale right for $229.99 Sorry CTD. Or the RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme Master Reloading Kit for $329.99. RCBS is also offering a $50 rebate for any $300 purchase of RCBS products. I’m not here to advertise for anybody I was just looking to see what the kits were going for these days and found what I thought was a great deal for anyone thinking of getting into reloading. If that is still to expensive you can always start the way I did. I already mentioned it in Mr. Campbell’s first post on reloading. I started out over 40 years ago with a Lee Loader. It cost me $10(about the same cost as a set of dies for a press) and it has everything you need to get started. Lee still makes them. They are about $25 now. That’s still about the cost of a set of dies. They are not as fast as a progressive or even a single stage press but it is the least expensive way I no of to get into reloading. I didn’t call it the cheapest way because the finished loads are just as good of quality as any reloading process out there. If you purchase a loading manual and a set of Lee powder scoops you can even modify your loads to best suit your needs and firearm. Just stay away form the maximum loads. While I’m talking about manual I would like to suggest you buy the manual and read it first. It will tell you more about reloading than any of us can in this forum and if you decide not to enjoy reloading you can easily sell the manual. If you want to improve on that then buy a set of scales. Once you have done that for a while you won’t need any of us to tell you what you need next. You will be one of us and you will have your own opinions on what is best. As for Thousands of rounds to recoup your cost, I bought my manual, Lee Loader for a .308 and enough powder, primers, and bullets, to load five boxes of shells. It cost just a little more than five boxes of shells. Less than six boxes.

    2. Gary, I’m in agreement with you.
      I’ve been reloading for about 25 years, initially to develop more accurate loads, then I got involved in competitive shooting (USPSA), and then it got to be more of a monetary necessity.
      I primarily use Lee dies, since I’ve never had any disappointments with them, and don’t see why I should pay twice as much, or more, for ‘premium’ brands, since the Lee dies make as good, or better, ammunition as the more expensive dies.
      Even when I was competing, I was using a single stage RCBS ‘partner’ press, RCBS 502 scale, and Hornady powder measure.
      A mish-mash assortment, for sure, but this equipment has lasted me and has all been reliable.
      I retired my RCBS .38/.357 dies 5 years ago, because the dies didn’t full-length size the brass properly, and I had trouble getting some 3-4 time reloads to fit the cylinder, so I bought some Lee dies (4-die set), and now my reloads fit the cylinders.
      I also cast many of my bullets, use Lee 2-cavity molds, and Lee bullet sizers.
      Funny how most of my equipment is in red cases! And I still obtain very good accuracy, and when I was competing, didn’t have any trouble keeping a good supply of ammunition on hand.

  8. folks-if there is any place you splurge do it on the dies.Just got Redding Dies and they are TOP SHELF! They make exacting measurements a breeze.If you can spare the change get the competition series .Good luck’Obama releases five French kill three-bad week.

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