Sunday, July 3, 2011

Hornady Lock-N-Load AP Review or....Rollin' Yer Own.

A few months ago I was given the opportunity to review a new reloader from Hornady. While I've used many of Hornady's ammunition products over the years, reloading for rifle cartridges is something I'd never tried. With a couple of choice tags in my pocket for this fall's hunting season (including a coveted sheep tag!), I was delighted when my number came up to have the chance to review this reloader. Special thanks to the great folks at Outdoor Blogger Network for setting up these opportunities. As a note, while I don't normally do many gear reviews at all, this one is one of the rare ones where I've been provided the equipment by a manufacturer in exchange for a written review. Hornady provided the press and I purchased all of the ancillary equipment so it isn't like I don't have any "skin in the game" myself. As a note of apology, this review is pretty tardy by OBN's standards- all I can say is all those ancillary devices are a bit hard to come by here but some persistence and a couple of trips to Fairbanks and some back ordered mail order parts took care of it nicely (albeit slowly on my part). So with the introductories taken care of...on to the review.

In anticipation of doing the review, I did a bit of research and picked up a reloading manual so I could at least be familiar with the process ( I should have looked at the publishing date, more of that later). I had done a little reloading for pistol cartridges many years ago when I was an avid IDPA competitor so I was roughly familiar with the overall concept but I had my reservations about making ammunition that runs in the 65,000psi range rather than the much lower pressures of pistol ammunition. I needn't have been concerned, when I unboxed the press the first thing I noticed was a DVD lying right on top. So before burying into the packaging I actually did something rather rare for men in general and myself in particular- I watched the instructions....first.

While most of the attempts at video instruction manuals are usually little more than a spokesman referring a guy back to the manual for anything more complicated than opening the box; this one had a spokesman who showed me step by step how to set up the loader, for pistol cartridges. While the best video instruction I've seen to date I do wish they had included a segment on setting up for rifle dies, but that's more personal wish list than criticism. The instructions with the press and dies were more than adequate for the task. In my search for reloading accessories my wife came across a well loved but sturdy metal desk at a yard sale- $5 and it was in my van and destined to be my new loading bench. Setting up the bulk of the mechanicals was relatively simple requiring few tools other than a power drill, a couple of wrenches and some 5/16" hardware. All of the tooling required for working on the actual press itself (mainly hex keys) was thoughtfully included in the box.

With the press solidly in place I moved on to setting up to load my primary hunting rifle- a .300WSM. The reloading manual I had was apparently out of date since it had no .300WSM load data in it at all. While still relatively new I would have thought 10 years would have garnered it a spot in the load book but alas, in the Far North load books must move slowly from the shelves. Of to the Internet in search of data and I found it in abundance at most of the powder manufacturer's web sites. As a note of caution- I did find scads of data on Internet forums but I'll caution the reader that it's buyer beware. Some of those folks may be master reloaders with thousands of dollars in equipment and a lifetime of experience but I wouldn't count on it. They could just as easily be a "mall ninja" or "Internet B'wana" who just casually suggested that you overload your cartridge by 15% like they're a regular authority on the subject. So despite what you see, read or hear- I would avoid any load data not provided by a manufacturer of either bullets (Hornady, Speer, Barnes, Nosler, etc) or gunpowder (Alliant, Winchester, Hodgdon, etc) or some other entity providing professional services related to handloading- those companies have the labs and the expertise (and enough product liability) to ensure the data they publish is safe to use. I would approach published data with caution much less that provided by some anonymous person on the Internet.

So after you set up your press you'll need some other equipment. I chose Hornady's New Dimension rifle dies, a Hornady digital powder scale for measuring charges, and a digital caliper for measuring OAL. I also had to buy consumables- gunpowder, brass, primers and bullets- I chose Remington brass, Remington magnum rifle primers, Alliant's RL 17 gunpowder and Nosler's 150gr Ballistic Tip Hunting bullets. One thing I noticed is that the amount of variety available to the handloader is staggering- be very careful to choose components that are suitable to your cartridge and purpose. Other than my choice of bullet all the other components were chosen based on either cost or limited availability in my location. For my impending sheep hunt the 150gr Ballistic Tip is a very good choice. For general hunting of caribou, moose or bears I would have chosen something heavier and tougher than the relatively soft BT but sheep are neither comparatively large or tough. There are so many bullets on the market a person would have a hard time not finding a suitable projectile for any creature on earth.

With no trouble at all I degreased the dies, primer feed, and powder measure and assembled them on the press. While not the simplest task it is pretty straightforward, I had no difficulty setting the press to load specifically for my rifle- you just need to take your time and read (or watch) the instructions. My first loads were derived from the powder manufacturer's data and I took the maximum powder charge and reduced by 10%. and loaded to the minimum OAL to ensure functioning through my rifle. As a word of caution- be careful with OAL because cartridges that are too long can either contact the rifling in the barrel (raising pressure) or function poorly through the magazine. Guys that are really into loading play endlessly with seating depth in an attempt to influence accuracy- it works but should be approached with caution. After the first rounds worked fine, I incrementally increased the powder charge to something in the middle of min and max until I got the accuracy I was looking for.

American riflemen in general tend to be overly enamored with raw muzzle velocity but in my experience its not required. Most rifles shoot the "middling" load more accurately and its the rare rifle that shoots maximum loads really well. With my load I'm getting somewhere around 3250 fps and that's quite fast enough for my purposes considering the outstanding accuracy I got. A few more grains of powder would yield just north or 3350fps according to Alliant's data but it will be harder on my rifle, my shoulder, my wallet, less accurate and the sheep I hope to shoot will never know the difference.

For the economics of reloading I've often wondered how the costs would break down. When I was loading for competitive pistol shooting (long ago) the break even curve was something like 3000 rounds annually- I sometimes shot more than that in a single week so the cost savings were well worth it (given my budget back then, required!). But as a hunter and rifleman, could I really make reloading pay off? Here is the break down that I made- a pound of powder, 100 Nosler bullets, 100 primers, 20 cases (reloaded 5 times each) costs $81.75*- that's enough to make 100 rounds of ammunition. That same load (150gr Nosler BT) in Federal's excellent Premium line will cost $37.99* per box or $189.95 per 100 rounds. That's a considerable savings- given those prices an initial investment of $500 could be recovered in under 500 rounds and that's using premium hunting bullets. The average hunter might not shoot 500 rounds in the life of his rifle, but he should- lead down range is a huge benefit to field accuracy and I've written on it frequently. While not a strict apples to oranges comparison a person could load less expensive bullets or perhaps load lighter charges or use cases more before discarding and generate even greater savings but the real benefit of reloading in my opinion is not economic (although in these tough times it doesn't hurt). But the bottom line is, when you're rolling your own ammunition you will shoot more and that's a very good thing for your chances of success in the field.

*- Prices per Midway USA's website, not including shipping.


Doug Randolph said...

I don't know how your getting 5 loads out of a .300 wsm. I get 3-4 before the cases are shot. I think this would throw off your numbers a bit but either way welcome to the world if rifle reloading!

hodgeman said...

I've got some cases that have exceeded 5 but I'm not running max loads for the most part. Generally 5 is when I retire them to Trail Boss loads for a couple of turns before I pitch them.

Hornady Reloader said...

Great post Hodgeman, I had learned lots of important thing from this post. Thanks for share. :)