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?