By Gary Zinn
Having the knowledge, equipment, time and interest to reload ammunition is a real advantage to anyone who is more than an occasional, casual shooter. I can define seven distinct benefits from reloading:
Although I have stated these benefits of (and reasons for) reloading separately, anyone who has much experience will realize that often two or more of them blend together in particular reloading projects. Nevertheless, I will discuss them separately for clarity. Many of the points I will make will be of a summary nature, as I have covered them in depth in other articles on this website. (References to those articles will be noted.)
Match or exceed standard factory ammo performance
I am following convention by putting this first on the list, because that is pretty much what everyone who discusses reloading does. I do not necessarily believe this is the most important reason to reload, but that is another issue.
There is nothing sacred or magical about the ballistic performance numbers of factory ammunition. Also, there is really no such thing as a standard factory load for a given cartridge. I use that term only for convenience, to denote cartridges that are usually loaded to identical or nearly identical ballistic performance values by most major ammunition manufacturers. To focus the discussion, here are nine highly popular rifle cartridges, with the bullet weights that are likely most used (and useful) in them, and the factory muzzle velocity and energy values to which they are usually loaded.
Matching or exceeding standard factory ammo performance is not difficult, given the wealth of cartridge load recipes that are available from reputable sources. For instance, the Lee Precision manual Modern Reloading (2nd ed., revised, 2011) lists eight loads for the .223 Remington with 55-grain jacketed bullet that exceed the standard factory MV of 3240 fps.
I will use one reloading data source, the online Nosler load data center, for perspective on how far so-called standard ballistics may be exceeded by handloading. Several load recipes with different powders are listed for each cartridge and bullet weight covered on this site. The Nosler data is organized and depicted so that it is easy to determine which specific powder and charge weight gives the highest MV among all those listed for a particular cartridge and bullet combination.
The following list shows the muzzle velocities and energies of these maximum loads and also shows (in parentheses) the percentages by which these MV and ME values exceed the standard factory ammo values listed above.
Understand that these are not necessarily the absolutely fastest published loads for these cartridge and bullet combinations. I use them for convenience (one source) and consistency (use of other data from the same source below). I believe these data are broadly representative of the potential performance gains that can come from handloading suitable powders to the maximum limits in a given cartridge.
For what it is worth, the average gain in performance across these nine cartridges was 4.1% in MV and 8.5% in ME. A pattern that became apparent is that the percentage change in ME is generally quite close to twice the percentage change in MV. Perhaps this suggests a rule of thumb.
Develop accurate loads for particular firearms
I do not give a flip about having the fastest rifle on the range at any given time. I would, however, like to have one of the most accurate ones in any particular caliber and bullet load. Getting the best accuracy out of a particular firearm is a legitimate goal of the handloader. I have discussed the how and why of doing this in Building Accurate Rifle Loads, so I will not repeat the details of the process here.
Rather, I will use information from the Nosler site to indicate how potentially highly accurate loads can be identified without having to try a large number of powders. This exercise will also indicate how these "accuracy loads" relate to factory loads in terms of ballistic performance.
A brief explanation of how Nosler organizes its load tables is in order. For each cartridge / bullet weight combination, a table will first list data on the bullets, case, primer, and C.O.L. of the cartridge as tested, plus key information about the barrel in which the loads were developed. Then, there will be a list of powders with bar graphs that both visually and numerically shows the velocity generated by each specific powder and charge weight. These results are presented for starting and maximum charge weights for each powder, plus an intermediate charge weight. Load densities of each powder charge are also noted.
Nosler goes one step further for accuracy seekers like me. For each powder listed, the particular charge weight that gave the best accuracy during testing in their rifle is starred. Further, the powder that gave the best overall accuracy is highlighted; Nosler calls this the "Most Accurate Powder Tested." This information, together, gives a reloader a good starting point for developing an accurate load for a given rifle, cartridge and bullet weight.
I will use the .223 Remington with 55 grain bullet to illustrate how this information may be used. The Nosler table lists ten powders, of which three caught my eye. A maximum charge of Benchmark gave the top velocity of all powders listed, while H335 was highlighted as being the most accurate powder tested. I have three rifles chambered in .223 Remington and H335 gives the most accurate loads I have developed in two of them. Also, Varget caught my attention, because it has proven to give the most accurate load in my third rifle. I have also tried Benchmark, but could not get top accuracy with it in any of my rifles.
My point is that the powders listed in the Nosler tables, along with indications of which charge weight of each was most accurate and which powder was most accurate overall, give one a leg up over a "try something and hope" approach to developing accurate loads.
The list below shows the muzzle velocity and energy of the most accurate powder and charge weight for each cartridge / bullet combination listed. Also shown (in parentheses) are the percentages by which these MV and ME values fall short of (-) or exceed (+) the standard factory ammo values listed above. Understand that these are indicative values only, as reflected in the Nosler load tables. Your results may vary.
There are some interesting results here. The .223, .270, 7mm-08, 7mm Rem. Mag. and .308 data suggest that the most accurate loads are likely to fall somewhat short of normal factory loads in muzzle velocity and energy. The most accurate load for the .300 Win. Mag. beats the factory load, but falls short of the maximum load performance. The maximum loads for the .243 and .30-06 are also indicated as potentially being the most accurate; only actual testing will tell. Finally, the indicated most accurate load for the .338 Win. Mag. gave MV and ME values that came within single digits of matching the factory load. That is a rare bird, indeed.
I have expended substantial effort building accuracy loads for rifles chambered in .223, .260 Remington, .308 Winchester, 8x57 Mauser, .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum. I have been able to develop handloads that were at least 25 percent more accurate than comparable factory loads for all of them, except for my .260 Remington with 140 grain bullets. For whatever reason, that particular rifle does not like 140 grain bullets, although it does well with 120 grain bullets.
To me, development of accurate loads is the most interesting and rewarding aspect of handloading. It is not a dark science, but it does take study, time, patience and thorough record keeping.
Save money compared to continually buying factory ammo
I have written two articles on this subject, The Basic Economies of Reloading and Building a Reloading Setup: The Essentials. The first should be reassuring to someone who already has the essential tools for reloading, while the second is intended to assist someone who is deliberating whether to get into reloading.
Take advantage of versatile or efficient powders
There are a number of powders that are quite versatile, in the sense that they will perform well in a number of cartridges. Moreover, some of these are quite efficient, for they will get good results in some applications with comparatively small powder charges. I discussed two such powders in Hodgdon Varget and H4895: Versatile Rifle Powders.
Versatility and efficiency are not confined to rifle powders. For instance, I have found Hodgdon Universal to be a go-to pistol powder. I use it extensively for light to moderate power jacketed bullet loads in 9mm, .38 Special, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. It is practically the only powder I use for cast bullet loads in these cartridges. Universal is also widely used in shotshell loads.
The three powders mentioned do not exhaust the possibilities. You may already have powders on which you rely to be versatile and efficient in the cartridges you reload, or you may find these as you gain experience.
Use components that may not be available in factory ammo
Here I am thinking mainly of bullets. The number of bullet brands, styles and weights available in the common calibers far exceed the variety of commercial cartridge loads available. For example, commercial .30-06 cartridges with 200 grain bullets are virtually nonexistent and there are very few factory loads with 220 grain bullets. Yet, there is a good variety of 200, 210, and 220 grain .30 caliber bullets available. Handloading is really the only way to fill this void if one perceives a need for .30-06 cartridges with bullets in these weights.
A similar situation applies to solid copper (e.g., Barnes) or gilding metal (Hornady GMX) bullets. The popularity of Barnes bullets has led to a reasonable selection of commercial ammo being offered with these bullets in the most popular calibers, but at premium prices and with sporadic availability. The market situation is even sketchier for factory ammo using Hornady GMX bullets.
A reloader, however, can avoid the whims of the commercial market for loads such as these. Stock up on whatever bullets are desired and have at it. Just be aware that so-called mono-metal bullets should not be loaded following recipes for conventional jacketed bullets of the same caliber and weight. When loading these bullets, use only load recipes that are specifically designed for them.
Build special purpose loads
The previous section focused on bullets, while this one is mainly concerned with powder charges. One thing I think of when "special purpose loads" is mentioned is reduced charge loads. Remington, Hornady and Federal/Fusion offer limited lines of reduced recoil cartridges, but otherwise having reduced charge loads to shoot pretty much requires handloading.
The key to building reduced loads for rifles is powder selection and finding or developing powder recipes that are safe and consistent with reduced charges. One magic ingredient for building reduced loads is Hodgdon H4895 powder. A direct quotation from the Hodgdon website explains:
"Hodgdon Powder Company has found that H4895 can be loaded to reduced levels. H4895 was chosen because it is the slowest burning propellant that ignites uniformly in reduced charges. To create reduced loads, the 60% formula is recommended. Find the H4895 load in the Reloading Data Center for your caliber and bullet. Take the maximum H4895 charge listed and multiply by 60% (.6). The load may be adjusted up from there to achieve the desired velocity and accuracy. This works only where H4985 is listed. DO NOT use in a cartridge where H4895 is not shown. Call Hodgdon Powder Company if additional information is needed."
Following this guidance, I have developed reduced charge loads for my .308 Winchester rifle, using 110 and 125 grain bullets with H4895 powder. I have used these loads as a pain and fear free way of introducing young shooters to big game rifles.
Here is a totally different example. Suppose you have a .300 Winchester Magnum rifle that you have prepped for a once-in-a-decade elk hunting trip. You have built a load for it featuring Nosler 180 grain partition bullets over 79 grains of H1000 powder, for a MV of 3080 fps. (This is the potentially most accurate .300 Win. Mag. load in the list above.) The recoil of this load would be 33.6 ft.lbs., assuming a rifle weight of 8.5 pounds.
Now, suppose that you not only draw an elk permit in a prime hunting area, but can also schedule a few days of deer hunting before elk season starts. The load I have just described would be overkill for deer, so consider what could be done to build a milder load that would both be more suitable for deer and easier on the shoulder.
The Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading tables for the .300 Win. Mag. indicate that a 165 grain bullet over 51.2 grains of IMR4064 powder would have a MV of 2700 fps and 2671 ft.lbs. of energy. This is equivalent to a commercial .308 Winchester load with the same bullet weight, which is adequate for deer, and it would generate only 18.4 ft.lbs. of recoil. Even using 57 grains of IMR4064 to generate 2900 fps of MV, the recoil would be no more than 21.8 ft.lbs. This is a powder weight range of nearly six grains, within which one should be able to find a load with good accuracy and mild recoil.
In summary, the idea of building special purpose loads is rich with possibilities and nuances.
Load for obsolete or obscure cartridges for which commercial ammo is not available
Here are three examples of obsolete or obscure cartridges that come readily to mind. There are many others.
Does anyone have a .250 Savage or .257 Roberts rifle they would like to shoot? If so, there is likely a problem finding factory loaded ammo. Commercial cartridges for the .250 Savage are virtually nonexistent in my area and are only sporadically available for .257 Roberts. As for any real choice of bullet weights in either caliber, forget it.
For the reloader, though, things are much brighter. Bullet selection in .257 caliber is quite good and load recipes are no problem. It should not be difficult to get hold of a supply of .257 Roberts brass, but one may have to be both persistent and patient to lay in a stock of .250 Savage cases. Assuming the brass problem is solved, there are no further impediments to loading and shooting these cartridges as much as one would like.
Next, consider the .256 Winchester Magnum. This misbegotten cartridge, introduced in 1960, had the approximate commercial life span of a fruit fly. Yet there are some firearms chambered for it out there, in particular the Marlin Levermatic rifle and Ruger Hawkeye single shot pistol. Good luck finding cartridges, though.
If one has a gun chambered for this cartridge and shooting it is at the top of their bucket list, the only way I know to proceed is as follows. Buy the two necessary case forming dies from Redding and form cases from .357 Magnum pistol brass. Then get a set of .256 Win. Mag. loading dies (e.g., Hornady) and you are good to go. Try to ignore the fact that the dies needed to indulge this whim are going to set you back about $250. It is what it is.
There they are, seven reasons to reload ammunition. If at least the first three have merit in your mind, then you are already a reloader or are a prime candidate to become one. After that, any of the remaining reasons to reload are bonus benefits from developing the requisite knowledge and skills, and acquiring the equipment needed, to be a competent reloader.
Copyright 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.