Sunday, February 3, 2013

Handloading ammunition

is one of those things that a lot of people that are not familiar with often run their mouths about. They say it is dangerous and if you can't read directions it can be.

I suppose there have been people that have decided that they know more than the engineers and technicians that print up loading guides that have destroyed a few fine firearms by doing stupid things, but for the guy that has the ability to read the fine books printed by the people that make the stuff it's pretty safe.

I have had hunters that are interested in the hobby think that they can figure it out and I suppose to a certain extent they can because the basics are not all that difficult. The guides are there and in an evening a guy can go from never having done it to be sitting on a couple of boxes of roll-your-own hunting ammunition that will take game at about 100 yards or so.

It's not hard. The basic process is simple. You take the fired brass, resize it back to its original shape, pop out the expended primer and replace it. This can easily be done with a single stroke of the reloading press. You then add the proper amount of powder, press in the bullet and you have a loaded round.

If you can follow directions then you can reload your own ammunition. The basics are simple.

A basic handloaded round is probably good enough for the average hunter and can keep the hunter in ammo for a hefty savings, although these days the price of components are on the rise.

What gets interesting is when you get into custom reloading for a specific purpose, the most common one being accuracy.

Getting an accurate load often takes a lot of effort and experimentation, although no amount of hard work can ever replace dumb luck.

I have a rifle called a Martini Cadet that was made just before the turn of the 20th century for teaching young cadets in Australia to shoot. The last known batch of military ammo for it was made in 1942 when the then obsolete rifle was issued to Territorial Guards in Australia in preparation for an anticipated Japanese invasion.

I believe mine had never been fired when I got it a few years back. I found a place that makes custom dies and bullet molds, melted down a bunch of wheel weights and used the same powder used in M1 carbine loads. I made the brass out of .32-20 brass and I had the rifle shooting in no time at all.

My first test loads shot a nice, tight group that easily holds the X-ring so my accuracy testing ended there. With results like that why bother with tinkering?

I did a similar thing with an old British revolver they haven't made commercial or military ammunition for in decades. I got it shooting again.

Most of my load development was because I was shooting service rifle competition and I wanted to get an accurate load for my rifles.

Like a lot of people I started shooting service rifle competition with an M1 but mine was rebarreled for .308 (7.62 NATO) ammunition because at the time I was getting decent ammunition for $100/1000, delivered. The surplus ammo shot well enough and was cheaper than I could reload it for.

Although the rifle was originally chambered for the .30/06 round, the stocks of that ammo had dried up so I rebarreled it.

As the available surplus ammo dried up and the prices climbed it became time to start reloading and I did. I experimented and developed a pretty good load for the Garand.

Later I upgraded to an M14 which is a rifle that is also chambered for the 7.62 NATO cartridge and I took the M1 load and tinkered with that a while until I was getting sub-minute groups.

It should be noted that when you are looking for accuracy that every single rifle is different. You can take several different identical rifles while each of them may shoot a generic load fairly well, each of them will have a different load to bring out peak accuracy in them.It's rather odd, but that's the way it is.

When I later changed over to the AR platform for competition I changed calibers entirely and had to start from scratch and found out that the .223 (5.56 NATO) cartridge was an entirely different animal. You had to be more precise because the weights of just about everything were halved and that meant that the room for error also halved.

It also meant that Ihad to develop two entirely different loads, one for the 200 and 300 yard portion of the match and another entirely different one for the 600 yard portion.

These two loads required different powder charges (but thankfully not two different powders) and two different bullets.

One was the 68 grain match bullet made by Hornady, and the other was a Sierra 90 grain bullet. The 90 grain round had to be loaded to such a length that it would not fit in the magazine but that was OK because for the 600 yard portion of the match the rules are that the rounds have to be loaded one at a time.

During this period I was spending about 5 hours at the reloading bench for every hour at the range and this was when I learned something about stability because the 90 grain bullets would not group very well at 100 yards.

Finally curiosity took over and I tried the experimental rounds out at 200 yards and the group size actually shrank!

Later it was explained to me by an old timer that it was likely that the heavy bullet had not even stablized until past the 100 yard mark.


There are an awful lot of things that have to work together to make a rifle shoot its best.

First of all, of course, it has to be an inherently accurate rifle and then you are coupling in powder burning characteristics, velocity, rate of twist, harmonics and a myraid of other factors, all of which have to be in sync. It's pretty astonishing when you think about it and I have spent countless hours calculating things, speeding bullets up and slowing them down to find the magic recipe.

Most people and for that matter a large amount of shooters have no clue as to how much work goes into serious load development. The average deer hunter just goes to the store and buys a couple of boxes of tailor made and calls it good.

If the hunter does reload he more than likely just loads a generic hunting load and calls it good, figuring that 'a minute of pie plate' accuracy at fifty yards is good enough to take down an animal.

After I developed my service rifle loads I stuck with them for a number of years but it is now time to head back to the reloading bench because I have hung up my service rifles and am headed into anothe phase of shooting.

I am starting to get into long distance matches out to 1000 yards.

My eyesight is getting a little too fuzzy these days to be seriously shooting with iron sights. I can compensate for this by changing disciplines and using glass sights (scopes) to overcome this.

There are matches out there that start at 600 yards and go on out to 1000 and I think that I am going to go that route.

My plan is to take a bolt action rifle and work up a load that will remain stable and accurate all the way to a little past 1000 yards and remain supersonic to that range.

A bullet starts slowing down the minute it clears the muzzle and after a while it slows down to less than the speed of sound. While the bullet goes from supersonic to subsonic it passes through the trans sonic zone and strange things happen that effect accuracy.

The trick to having a good 1000 yard load is to push the bullet out of the muzzzle fast enough so that when it reached the 1000 yard mark it is still traveling well past the speed of sound which is about 1125 feet per second (fps) at sea level and sixty degrees F.

Keeping it out of the transonic zone means that the bullet should be traveling at about 1175-1200 fps at 1000 yards.

Right now there are two options for me on my latest project. It involves 2 different bullets of two very different weights.

One of the two options is to get a 155 grain bullet to leave the muzzle at about 2850 fps. The other is to get a 175 grain bullet to clear the muzzle at 2600 fps which is pushing the envelope a bit according to published data.

I have checked the windage characteristics of both bullets and they seem to be fairly close so I am going to tinker with the lighter bullet first and see what I can do with it.

This ought to prove interesting and because of the barrel twist of 1 turn in 12 inches I think I will have better luck with this lighter of the two.

The heavy bullet, by all reports will still stablize but it is at the upper end of weights (meaning lengths) that a 1/12" twist will stablize.

I wrote this piece because there are a lot of people that have no clue whatsoever about what takes place with shooters. Most people think they just get a bunch of ammo together and go out to a range somewhere and sling lead downrange and make a lot of noise.

For serious shooters that's not really true. There are a lot of hours put in at home before many leave to shoot.

Another thing that is interesting is when a non-shooter asks about it. People with a degree in the arts seem to not understand, yet when you talk to a non-shooting engineer they get quite interested.

I had an interesting chat once with an engineer from India that was a non-shooter and it was fun watching him get excited and pull put a pad, pen and calculator and start figuring things out.

We discussed one of my failures, the time I shot a thin-skinned varmint bullet out of a 1/7" twist at a tremendous velocity of about 3300 fps. The bullets literally shed their skin because of centrifugal force.

They stayed together when I tried them in a 1/8" twist rifle. We ran the numbers and figured that the bullets were coming apart at around 300,000 RPM.

A liberal arts major I briefly spoke with had no clue as they have no science background, and likely no interest.

What the reader should know is that I have only high school math to work with but I persevere.

It is also interesting to know that a lot of this information gets passed on to the military and NOT the other way around. At places like Camp Perry it is interesting to watch the interaction between civilian shooter and military ammo tech.

Both of them pick each other's brains. I know I have swapped notes with the ammo techs.We generaly both learn something from each other.

Anyway, I wish that people that have no clue what experienters do with firearms would just shut the hell up and go away and leave us to our devices. For those that want to accuse me of being violent, think about this for a second.

Ted Kennedy's damned CAR has killed more people than my guns.

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1 comment:

  1. I started reloading with a Lee loader and rubber mallet for my 38 special. It wasn't long before I moved up to a press and started reloading for all of my CF cartridges. After 30 years of reloading, I got my 06 manufacturers licence and started loading standard loads for sale at gun shows.

    I still do custom loads for my personal use. Seeing the results at the range is one of those ultimate rushes. Especially in the field when you can get a one shot kill on a deer.