Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Maybe It Was All A Bunch of Hooey...

In a spirited discussion with a friend the other day at the range, we discussed the long held belief that handloading for rifles allows the shooter to "tune" ammunition to his specific rifle and make gains in accuracy not allowable with factory ammunition. I don't know about you but I find factory ammunition these days to be ridiculously accurate, some of it unbelievably so. I personally have 2 rifles that will consistently shoot under 1 MOA with several factory loads, one of which is "guaranteed" to shoot 3/4 MOA with the manufacturer's factory loaded ammunition. That rifle and that ammunition is darned exceptional but let's be honest- it is in no way "tuned" for my rifle; it is simply a high quality mass produced product. "I don't know about you Hodgeman, but I'm beginning to think this whole 'tuning' business is a big bunch of hooey." remarked my friend as we sighted in rifles for the upcoming season.

I'll explain- for decades ammunition was made one way. As cheap as Remchester could crank it out. My good friend (significantly older than I) says that in the days past there was simply no such thing as "premium" ammunition. It was all made on bulk machinery and frankly quality control just wasn't that good. I'm fortunate to still have a supply (dwindling but still some) of late '40s vintage Winchester Silvertips and I'll admit they don't shoot worth "sour owl jowls" in my equally old Marlin 30-30 levergun. The same rifle is much more accurate with modern ammunition.

Only in recent years have we seen "premium" ammunition come on the scene and at least among my hunting friends; interest in handloading is on the decline. My elderly friend recently sold the entirety of his reloading equipment and just bought several cases of .30-06 Federal Premium ammunition loaded with 180gr. Nosler Partitions. "Why bother loading- this stuff is better than anything I can put together anyhow" he reports. I've got to take him seriously as he was a follower of P.O. Ackley's work before it was even cool to do so. If a guy's been loading longer than I've been alive and still has two eyes and ten fingers I figure he knows his business.

So what the devil is all this handloading business about anyway? How did the old school (not calling anyone old, relax) get these incredible gains in accuracy and performance by reloading and moving stuff around? "Consistency" replies my octogenarian friend. "In those days the big companies valued manufacturing speed over precision; everyone thinks old guns are why lots of American ammo is downloaded to weaker pressure levels- baloney! They simply couldn't build 'em (cartridges) fast enough and maintain quality control to keep from popping a few primers along the way." Indeed, if the reader will grab an older reloading manual (I have a Nosler one from the 70's) it often shows chronograph tests of lots of factory ammo and they frequently clock 150-200fps less than the published velocity from the factory. Handloaders had no problems getting those published velocities and often beyond. "Call it engineered liability insurance", quips my friend.

Case in point is Weatherby ammunition; loaded by Norma in Sweden. This ammunition is generally hot as a firecracker and few handloaders can even match Weatherby velocities and darn few ever exceed them. Also look at some of the newer, high performance cartridges; pressures in excess of 60,000 PSI are now pretty common and factory rounds are priced accordingly. The machinery those are made on is relatively new, relatively precise and allows for manufacturing to higher pressures levels and tolerances safely. It's what handloaders have been doing for years "tuning" their handloaded ammunition. Simply being more consistent and putting together a more uniform product.

I'll admit I've handloaded comparitively little rifle ammunition but I do value my friends point of view. I have reloaded a vast amount of pistol ammunition in days gone by but I was certainly more interested in quantity economy than quality for competitive practice (IPSC and IDPA burns a pile of ammo...). Is consistency really the missing element in most factory rifle ammunition? I've got to admit my friend has some compelling arguments and a body of experience to lend credence to what he's saying. I know that my rifle will shoot factory ammo as accurate and as fast as anything I could put together so I personally don't see the point anymore. As a hunter how much more accuracy do I even need or even be able to use? I'm talking about 1 MOA as a baseline. Not too many years ago that was the end all be all goal of the marksman.

Today its a starting point.

What are some of your thoughts on the subject? Keep in mind I wanted to keep variables other than performance out of the discussion. Ie. Logistics (loading for unusual or hard to obtain cartridges) or economy (shooting cheaper) are somewhat removed from the discussion of getting the best quality ammo you can buy or build. I also wanted to leave out recreation- some folks enjoy handloading as much or even more than shooting the ammo they produce- and that's a good enough reason to do it by itself. But is handloading going to give modern shooters ammunition that is more accurate and higher performace than available premium factory loads or is it all a bunch of hooey?


Albert A Rasch said...


You are undoubtedly correct. Even ten years ago though, projectiles weren't near as concentric as they are now, manufacturers specs weren't as tight, and the rifles themselves not nearly as accurate.

But having said that, the economy was better, and folks didn't seem to mind burning up $2 to $5 every time they pulled the trigger. Let's see which way the pendulum swings this time.

hodgeman said...

Al, I've thought about the economy issue as well. Surprisingly my .300 shoots the cheapest stuff I can find locally ($30.50 for 20) into less than 1 MOA- often better than some of the "premium stuff" but I think that's something of an anomaly, but it does so consistently so maybe not.

Regarding the economics of handloading, most of my friends who do it often cite other reasons for pursuing it besides cost. One even admits he spends more on handloading than he would shooting factory rounds. Not sure how he does that.

tom said...

Depends on the firearm you are loading for. There's no getting around that.

Let's take the common .223 Remington, which depending on what you bought and when the firearm was produced, it's possible that the rifling twist rate could be anywhere from 1:7 to 1:15. YES, really. It might have a military 5.56mm chamber or a "real" .223 chamber and everybody's chambering reamers are different as are their methods. The barrel could be properly throated or have no throat at all (we'll leave out entirely mischambered rifles like we're leaving out odd cartridges at your wish).

Noticeable accuracy differences are found going from 1:9 to 1:10. How's Remington, Federal, et do they know WHICH .223 firearm you are going to be shooting their ammo in?

Get the point?

If you buy a current rifle with the current ammo for it on the market, most especially rifle/ammo combos released by a manufacturer or a manufacturer in conjunction with a ammo manufactuerer, they'll probably be pretty well matched up, unless they're not. Tailoring ammunition to a firearm yields greater or lesser results on a case by case basis.

You want a "YES" "NO" answer on if handloading is worth it and it isn't a "YES" NO" question. Too many variables to say even limiting things to factory unmodified firearms and quality factory ammunition brands.

I've had "INSERT NAME OF COMPANY THAT SELLS BOXES OF BELTED MAGNUM BRASS AT THE TOP OF THE PRICE RANGE AND ALSO MAKES AMMO HERE" sell me ammo and brass where the belts were the wrong size or in the wrong place. Bit of a pickle being as belted magnums HEADSPACE ON THE BELT. IF I'd loaded those boxes I shot of their manufactured ammo (100 bucks for 20 even) I would have noted the belts were wrong and not used the brass. As was, I was at the bench shooting top dollar ammo (last year) and was wondering what the flyers were from. Measurement of the rest of the box's residents told me where they came from. COAL and belts varied a lot.

Might be worth it might not.

If you DO get into limited availability and wildcat cartridges or even just like to shoot older rifles, then it's ESSENTIAL. I've got two .500 rifles. One is 1:78 twist and the other is 1:48. Ammo commerically available for a non-obsolete .500 chambering from factories currently is tailored to fast twists and in the slow twist rifle you could barely hit a barn from the inside with factory loadings.

All depends on your circumstances.

One other thing: If you have a favorite .32 WCF deer gun that's always been your best friend, why should you go buy a .30-30 to buy factory ammo. .32 was quite common in the era when both came out so I wouldn't call it any form of boutique cartridge, just lost out in the long run to others. 7mm mauser is still as good as .30-06 in my esteem, if not better, but you find limited stocks on the shelves at walmart...

hodgeman said...

Good addition to the discussion. I hadn't considered some cartridges/rifles that had changed considerably over the years- like the .223 and all the twist rates.

I had an early AR with a 1 in 15 or 14 twist. I'm not sure it would stabilize a 55gr bullet looking back and a 62gr would keyhole at times.

I also had a box of Federal Premium that was so overpressure the case stuck in the chamber and pulled free from the Sako extractor- I still have nightmares about that! Factory ammo and a premium rifle with a good chamber and still a stuck case. Made the case for CRF with me right there.

tom said...

Thanks. I know, "no weird stuff" and all, but I'd have a lot lesser success with my Mag Rifle chambered pistols without handloading. Nobody at any of the ammo manufacturers likely ever thought of people shooting .45-70 out of 6" barrels and .375H&H out of 15" barrels instead of 24". .30-30 and .223 out of 10"? .458 Lott out of 18.5" the list goes on and on... Welcome to tom's house where pistol and small bore varmint powders often live in ele cartridge brass :-)

One last thing. If it wasn't for handloading, I doubt the factories ever would have gotten where they are now just like if it wasn't for tinkerers in the land of gunsmithing, the full potential of pretty much every firearm design but most especially the Stoner and Mauser platforms and their variants would never have been fully realized. Short Magnums are in many ways not much at all different from what Ackley was doing eons ago.

hodgeman said...

I'm particularly intrigued by the old Newton cartridges. Talk about a "short magnum"!

I sometimes wonder if his velocity numbers were even close to reality- chronograph technology was pretty elementary in those days and some of his figures are pretty amazing given their available powders.

tom said...

One other thing that came to mind as I was editing some Africa photos:

I have a favorite BRNO .375 H&H that has killed many things from small antelope to big beasties. Handloading makes being a "one rifle hunter" much more practical. Yes the .375 H&H will kill anything in the world with factory ammo, but the common factory ammo is overkill on many of the smaller things one might shoot with it. You could say the same thing about any of the good all-arounders.

One of my departed friends made many safaris. On his first trip he was a travelling gun shop. This evolved over his many trips into him settling on going with .458 WinMag with assorted loads for assorted purpose, a shotgun, and a sidearm of some sort. Can't think of a .458WinMag mainstream factory load I'd want to use on medium to lesser PG that you might want to eat some of as well as wanted a trophy too, the latter precluding decapitating it. :-)