September 19, 2022
This fact is inescapable: A factory cartridge is just one combination of four components—primer, case, propellant, and projectile. In handloads, you can vary all four. However, today’s factory ammo is so good, I’m no longer sure I can beat it—and definitely not all the time! This gives me a wonderful excuse to be a lazy handloader. But that’s nothing new.
As a teenager, I was taught handloading by a serious benchrest competitor, which included then-known techniques for maximum accuracy. In terms of raw accuracy, benchrest is probably the most demanding shooting sport.
I love tight groups, but I’m not a benchrester. Today, there are new tricks (and tools), but I don’t always use them. I want good, reliable ammo, but I rarely pursue the tedious search for maximum accuracy.
The current interest in long-range shooting places new emphasis on accuracy, and at distance you need all the accuracy you can get. As with tight groups, I love ringing steel at extreme range. However, I don’t follow 1,000-yard competition. At heart, I’m a hunter. I’m concerned about bullet performance, often more than raw accuracy or max velocity. I’ll take a long shot when conditions allow, but I am not an “extreme range” field shooter. This reality, too, makes me a lazy handloader. I know what shots I’m likely to take, and I know what I need.
There are more ammo companies making components today. Choices in primers have changed little, but we have more than 150 propellants to choose from. And in bullets, good Lord! When I was young, there were small bullet companies, but our primary choices were Hornady, Sierra, and Speer. Homogeneous-alloy bullets did not exist; neither did polymer tips! The only “premium” hunting bullet was Nosler’s Partition.
Today, we have many choices. It’s impossible to be certain which to choose because there is no predicting what load a given firearm might shoot best. Realistically, we may never know. Has anybody actually grouped all .30-06 factory loads in one rifle? Has anybody done sample loads and fired groups with all reasonably suitable propellants for the .30-06…with the hundreds of .30-caliber bullets? Not to mention all cases and primers?
I’ve loaded thousands of shotshells and pistol cartridges, but my primary handloading interest is rifle cartridges. I have written that in any given rifle, the search for optimal accuracy is ongoing. However, there are limits, and it would be almost impossible to try all combinations. I certainly haven’t, which further defines me as a lazy handloader!
I’ve tried numerous propellants, but there are many I’ve never used. Likewise, bullets. Maybe that’s a good thing. Reloading components are impacted by current ammo shortages, and I don’t know when the “supply chain” will get back to normal. Right now, we have what we have, and we get what we can…when we can get it.
In January 2020 I fulfilled a New Year’s Resolution and built a new shop and loading bench. Talk about good timing! I’d been surviving on old handloads and factory ammo. I was (and still am) short on some components, but I had a good stash of bullets. I’m amused to note that some of the bullets I’m loading now have been on my shelf since the ’80s. Primers are in short supply and expensive, so I’m trying to use them wisely. As to brass, sometimes I weigh and sort cases, but right now I use what I have. I was short on .257 Roberts brass, so I’m loading necked-down 7x57 cases.
Propellants are another story, with availability random. As a lazy handloader, my inclination is to go back to old recipes rather than experimenting. Historically, 4350 went with the .30-06 like peas and carrots. For my first African hunt (1977), I worked up a max load of IMR 4350 with a 180-grain Partition.
To load the 180-grain .30-06, I’d go first to the inside cover of my old dies and review my old pet loads. Except times change, and data are updated. Of the 16 propellants suggested for the .30-06 in the 10th edition of the Hornady load manual, IMR 4350 is far down the list in potential velocity, and the charge weight I had used is now off the chart. In that reference, better for velocity are Hodgdon Superformance, Alliant Reloder 17, and IMR 4007 SSC. I don’t have 4007 and haven’t tried that one, but I have the first two. When I next load .30-06, I’ll probably start with them.
Cookbooks and Recipes
So, with supplies uncertain, maybe this is a time for experimentation—even for lazy hand-loaders. Reloading manuals are cookbooks, loaded with recipes. However, none of these manuals include all the potential ingredients. Major bullet manufacturers publish most of the reloading manuals, which are now available both in print and online, and powder companies also produce loading guides. Naturally, the manufacturers focus on their products.
Right now, I have manuals from Barnes, Berger, Hornady, Norma, Nosler, and Swift on my bench. And even this is not a complete library. When I work up a new load, I cross-reference several sources. Most suggest slightly different propellants. Even with the same powders and like caliber and bullet weight, velocities and maximum charges won’t match up because all data is based on specific test platforms. Individual barrels and actions vary, so handloading guides are just that, guidelines. Velocity, pressure, and accuracy will vary in your firearms.
In this world petrified by product-liability concerns, current manuals tend to be more conservative than previous editions might have been. Pressure testing and criteria may not be the same, and some propellants have evolved over time.
I refer to older books, but it’s wise to use current data—and foolish to load any suggested maximum charge without working up to it! Several “suitable” propellants are listed for each cartridge, typically from fastest to slowest in burning rate.
I like manuals that reveal the “most accurate powder tested,” but remember that only applies to the test gun. If multiple manuals suggest a propellant that I don’t have, I’ll try what is on hand first and put that powder on my shopping list.
Like most veteran handloaders, I have one shelf stacked with dozens of die sets. Old boxes contain notes referencing loads that worked well. I haven’t loaded for the .338 Winchester Magnum in years, so I looked in that old green die box and found recipes I borrowed from Chub Eastman in the ’80s. He suggested IMR 4350, useful and versatile. Cross-referencing, 4350 is still recommended for the .338. Surprisingly, Chub’s 40-year-old loads are less than a grain over current maximums. Mark Bansner has an action he’s barreling to .338 for me. Lazy handloader that I am, I’ll start with Chub’s old loads.
My loading bench is a mix of old and new: an ancient green RCBS press next to a new red Hornady. I added a new red digital scale and powder measure. Discovering I had rifles chambered to cartridges I’d never loaded for, I added dies.
I don’t start loading willy-nilly—I need a purpose! Today’s ammo shortages drive us to handloading, but I usually load hoping to find better accuracy or with some potential hunting use in mind. Loading for the .257 Roberts was a new venture. Factory loads are good but few, so I hoped to do better.
Trust me, 4350 is not the only powder I use, but it’s consistently recommended for the Roberts, so I started there. Man, this one was too easy: 42.5 grains of IMR 4350 put five Hornady 117-grain SSTs inside a half-inch, better than any group I’d gotten from that rifle. Being lazy, when I find a great load, I’m done…at least for a while.
We have a nice left-hand 7mm-08 that shoots okay but could do better, so the goal here was improved accuracy. I went to an uncharacteristic amount of trouble: I sorted and carefully trimmed cases. Using Hornady’s curved overall length gauge to seat just off the lands, I worked up sample loads with several bullets and propellants. I hate to admit it, but you don’t always win. I saw incremental shrinkage of groups with more consistency. However, there hasn’t been a “Eureka, I found it!” moment…and there may not be. Any given rifle is capable of just so much accuracy.
I haven’t given up, but I may have to live with “okay.”
The .270 Winchester is a favorite with my wife, Donna, and me. Our rifles shoot well enough that I doubted I could beat factory loads, but the stash was running low. I went back to an old load: 55 grains of IMR 4831 with the Swift 130-grain Scirocco. My Joe Balickie .270 loves that load and puts five shots in 0.75 inch. The rifle is capable of better, but I wanted to use that bullet, and I’m lazily happy. Donna’s MGA .270 didn’t like that load much; accuracy in her rifle was about 1.25 inches, but that’s obviously a field-capable load.
Double Your Trouble
Loading for double rifles is different. Accuracy is limited, so the goal is to get both barrels to shoot (more or less) together at velocity that produces the energy you need. I started loading for doubles 40 years ago, when ammo, brass, and bullets were scarce, and there was no data. Today, I’ve circled back because of ammo shortages (and cost). At first daunting and mysterious, loading for doubles is often a straightforward matter of approximating the velocity of the regulation load. Caution is essential because doubles aren’t strong, and load density with modern powders is poor in extra-large cases; you often need an over-powder wad or filler.
Back when there was no new factory ammo, Jack Lott suggested Reloder 15 with a 1.19 conversion against the old Cordite load. The original .470 load was 75 grains of Cordite. So, 75 x 1.19 = 89.25 grains of Reloder 15. That charge weight is now over max for the .470 in the current Hornady manual. However, this formula worked well with several Nitro Express cartridges, the powder tamped down by Dacron pillow stuffing as the filler. Today, there’s data and other options. My current .470, made in 1906, regulates perfectly with 98 grains of IMR 4831. This is well below max, and my 26-inch barrels deliver 2,150 fps with Hornady 500-grain DGX bullets.
I have my departed buddy Joe Bishop’s .303 British double. Made in 1895, it puts both barrels together with old factory 215-grain loads at 2,200 fps. Problem: 215-grain 0.312-inch bullets are almost nonexistent! I wanted a pig-hunting load using current 174-grain bullets. After some trial and error, 38 grains of IMR 4064 brought the barrels together; velocity is 2,200 fps with 174-grain InterLock bullets. Okay, that’s similar to a .30-30…but it’s a cool pig gun!
Last year I spent a lot of time working up blackpowder-equivalent loads for a .50-90 Sharps (2.5-inch case). Since I’m lazy, too much cleaning is involved to just use blackpowder and be done. So I tried Tin Star and Trail Boss, okay up to a point, but as I approached target velocity, the shot-to-shot velocity differences increased. I went with 37.5 grains of IMR 4198 with a 505-grain cast bullet.
My son-in-law picked up a lovely old exposed-hammer underlever double in .500 Blackpowder Express (BPE). Armed with recent .50-90 experience, I volunteered to work up loads. The .500 BPE case is exactly the same as .500 Nitro Express, so .500 NE dies work—but not the data! I went to the best reference for such things: Australian Graeme Wright’s Shooting the British Double.
The barrels came together nicely with 51 grains of 4198, held down with 15.5 grains of Dacron pillow stuffing. Velocity is 1,550 fps with a Hawk 440-grain jacketed bullet. There were no pressure signs, so I increased the charge (and velocity), but regulation fell apart. So that’s where I am, with performance similar to a load from the 1880s. By the way, messing with over-powder wadding is not necessarily for lazy handloaders!
In California we are required to hunt with unleaded projectiles. I love our Central Coast pig hunting, and I especially love to use my old lever actions, including .250 Savage, .300 Savage, and .348 Winchester. Factory loads are available but none with unleaded bullets. So handloading is essential. Using standard .308 bullets, the .300 Savage is simple, with plenty of choices. Friend Tony Lombardo has pigs on his ranch, and he also has a .300 Savage, so I loaded up a supply of pig loads using the Barnes 165-grain TSX over 41.5 grains of Reloder 15 for 2,500 fps. That’s plenty powerful for any pig!
The .250 Savage and .348 Winchester were more difficult propositions. My .250 is a pre-1920 Model 1899, so it has a 1:14 twist rate for the original 87-grain load. There are plenty of .257 bullets, but all copper-alloy bullets down to 80 grains keyhole! Hammer Bullets makes a 67-grain Shock Hammer that shoots well at over 3,000 fps with 35 grains of LEVERevolution powder. I think it’s a bit light for big hogs, but it should be awesome for our small-bodied blacktails.
The .348 Winchester is a great cartridge, but 0.348-inch bullets are scarce. Hornady offers a 200-grain FTX (54 grains of IMR 4320 yields 2,500 fps, perfect). None of the large manufacturers offers a copper bullet, but Hammer has a 162-grainer. I settled on 54.7 grains of Reloder 15, which yielded 2,850 fps of velocity, good penetration, and devastating performance.
Like I said at the beginning, I’m a lazy handloader, but it’s all just a matter of incentive. If I have a firearm I want to hunt with, I will find a load that works!