Reload at the Range
January 04, 2011
If you want to spend more time shooting for accuracy and less time reloading cartridges that you may end up not shooting, give reloading at the range a try.
Filling in a checklist of reloading components needed for each rifle eliminates the possibility of arriving at the range only to discover that you left something behind.
Developing a load for a rifle can be accomplished in either of two ways. The more time-consuming way is to load the ammo at home and transport it to a range where it is tested for accuracy. The routine goes something like this:
For each bullet/powder combination, we begin with the recommended starting load and work toward maximum--if top velocity is one of the goals. Let us say we want to develop a load for one of my favorite rifles, a Cooper Model 22 in 6.5-284. We start the program by loading three rounds with 51.0 grains of Reloder 22 behind a Nosler 125-grain Partition bullet and then raise the powder charge in 1-grain increments, load another three rounds, and so on until a maximum charge of 55.0 grains is reached. That gives us 15 rounds of ammo to test. We also want to try three other powders with the same bullet, and that increases our necessary round count to 60.
The load-development plan also includes trying the same four powders with five other bullets, bringing the round count to 360. If we have that much brass on hand, we load them up and head to the range. Once we get there, we discover that some of our starting loads are much too low, so we skip the first two or three trios in several batches. Or we discover that 2 grains up from the starting load is hot enough for a particular combination, so the remainder of the ammo in those batches is left unfired.
In other words, when we get back home, a lot of bullets have to be pulled from ammo we spent a lot of time reloading. And we aren't even done yet.
Having determined a maximum load with each of the 24 powder/bullet combinations, we next choose the top five for further accuracy evaluation. So we load 25 rounds each (for shooting five, five-shot groups) for a total of 125 rounds.
We also want to try each combination with three different bullet-seating depths, and that brings it to 375 rounds. We crank up the family jalopy, head back to the range, and after firing two or three groups with several of the bullets, we decide accuracy is not good enough to shoot additional groups with them, so we end up with more surplus test ammo.
At this point we have burned a lot of expensive gasoline. And we've spent a lot of time loading a whole lot of ammunition. And for various reasons we have ended up pulling bullets from quite a few cartridges. On top of that, there is probably still a bit more load-tweaking to be done before we are completely convinced that we have come up with the best load for the rifle, so it's back to the range another time or two. There is a method that works better and expends a lot less time and components.
A Better Way
Quite a few years ago, soon after I started shooting in registered benchrest competition, I started developing loads at the range rather than at home. In that game, competitors usually have no more than a couple dozen carefully prepared cases for each rifle, and those cases are loaded during the match, not at home. All loading components and the necessary loading equipment are commonly brought to the match in a multiple-drawer toolbox.
Developing a load for a rifle rather than simply loading a predetermined recipe for it requires bringing a few more items to the range, but the idea is the same.
Developing a load at the range requires the same equipment as reloading at home, but it virtually eliminates the need for a bullet puller.
Just about everything I have on my loading bench at home is duplicated in a range box, and it eliminates the possibility of me arriving at the range without something I need. Among those items are a powder scale and measure, a powder funnel, a larger funnel, dial calipers, a micrometer, screwdrivers, pliers, an Allen wrench set, two complete sets of shellholders for Small Rifle and Large Rifle hand priming tools, case lube, neck cleaning brushes of various sizes, primer pocket cleaners, a case trimmer with a complete set of collets and pilots, paper towels, C-clamps, and a bullet puller.
I can easily justify having duplicates of all those items because my work requires doing so, but you don't have to have two of everything in order to develop loads at the range. However, you likely will need a checklist to make sure you head to the range with everything required. Otherwise you will surely arrive at the range and get everything all set up only to discover that you left one indispensable item behind. I use such a list, but it is only for items that are specifically needed for a particular rifle and are not included in my range box inventory--for instance, caliber-specific loading dies, bullets, cases, primers, and powders.
In case you are wondering, I have a second range box containing everything else I need regardless of whether I am developing a load or simply accuracy-testing a rifle with factory ammo. It stays in my SUV, whereas the other box goes with me only when I need to develop loads. It contains items such as paper targets, a staple gun (and a big supply of staples), sandbags, an adjustable front rest, a chronograph with screens and screen stands, extra chronograph batteries, a screwdriver set, Gorilla Tape, an Allen wrench set, paper towels, spare shooting glasses, hearing protectors, a pen and a note pad, wind flags, and a few other things.
Upon arriving at the range, the first thing I do is cover the concrete top of the benchrest I will be using with an old throw rug to protect the finish of the rifle I will be shooting. Doing so also protects my elbows while shooting. On the next benchrest over, I use a pair of large C-clamps to secure my reloading press. The benchrest consists of a thick concrete top anchored to a concrete-filled cinder block base, which is in turn anchored solidly to a concrete floor, and that makes it ideal for the heavy-duty chore of full-length resizing cases.
Any press will do, but I use an RCBS Partner because it is large enough to handle most cartridges yet light and small
enough to stow in my range box.
About two steps back of where I have the press mounted, a wide wooden shelf runs along behind the entire 30 concrete benches at my gun club. That's where I set up my range box and perform all reloading steps except case resizing and bulletseating.
I use small C-clamps to secure a powder measure to the work shelf. Close by is a powder scale. I use the scale to set the measure to throw the desired powder charge, and once that's done, I throw all powder charges.
The author uses a C-clamp to secure his RCBS Partner press to the concrete top of a benchrest.
In other words, if I need 51.0 grains of Reloder 22, I use the scale to adjust the measure accordingly and then throw subsequent charges into their cases. I use a Redding measure some, and while it works great with most powders, it does not throw a really coarse-grain powder (such as H4831) with as little charge-to-charge variation as the Sinclair benchrest-grade measure I also use. If you need to develop loads with coarse powders and the measure you have does not handle them well, you will need to weigh each charge on a scale.
The biggest problem you are likely to encounter when loading outdoors is attempting to weigh powder charges during windy conditions. Even the lightest breeze will prevent the balance beam of a powder scale from settling down.
I solved that problem by constructing a protective housing of clear Plexiglass sheets held together by glue. It measures 10 inches deep, 16 inches wide, and 10 inches high. An opening in one side of the box is just large enough to allow a powder scale to be placed inside and to be operated by one hand. With the closed side of the box pointed into the wind, the powder scale remains undisturbed.
I would love to have included a photo of the box, but it somehow went astray during a fairly recent move, and I have not gotten around to building its replacement. In the meantime, I use a cardboard box, and while it does about as good a job of keeping wind and breeze at bay, the scale can be slower to read on a cloudy day because it does not allow as much light to enter through its top and sides as a box made of Plexiglass.
Each year a friend of mine drives west to prairie dog country where he shoots hundreds of rounds each day. A small travel trailer pulled behind his pickup is basically a reloading room on wheels, although it does have sleeping and eating quarters as well. When doing his part in controlling the pasture poodle population, he shoots all day and loads his .223 Remington cases on a progressive press at night. This goes on day after day for at least a week. Back home, when he needs to develop a load for a new varmint rifle, he pulls his little camper to the gun club and goes to work. I think he's onto something there, especially during winter when the cold wind blows fiercely.
One of the great things about developing a load at the range is it can usually be done in one trip rather than several. If you decide you want to experiment with small adjustments in bulletseating depth or slight changes in powder charge weight, it can be done right now rather than the next time you go to the range.
Or perhaps you're curious about the effect on accuracy a switch in primers might have. It can be done now rather than later.
A cardboard box can be used as a wind shield for the powder scale.
In other words, the flexibility factor is much higher at the range than at home.
Also important in this age of ever-escalating prices in reloading components, it allows you to get the job done with a minimum number of cases, not to mention the elimination of bullets damaged by pulling.
When possible, I do all of my load development on weekdays when very few other people are using the range. But there does occasionally come a time when I have no choice but to get the job done in a crowd. Most of the time, most of the people who are there know me and know I am working, so they are nice enough to go out of their way to prevent distracting me. I am always courteous to those who have questions or just want to say hello, but I stop whatever I am doing during our conversation. Like drinking alcohol while operating heavy equipment, distractions and handloading are not a healthy combination.
So, if you want to spend more time shooting for accuracy and less time reloading cartridges that you may end up not shooting, you should try reloading at the range.