"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What Happened to Handloading?

I have a RCBS Neck Sizing die in .300 Win. Mag. If you didn’t know before, when you pull the trigger on any round the brass case expands due to the internal expanding pressure of the ignited propellant and fire-forms to the chamber of the firearm. Normally, one would use a full-length die to return the case to approximately the same dimensions of the original factory case. Using a neck sizing die, the length of the body and shoulder remain fire-formed to the chamber, but the neck is adjusted to within about 1/8” in order to securely hold the bullet. Benchrest shooters developed this method because it provides a better degree of configuration of the projectile to the bore, theoretically, at least, improving accuracy.

The problem with doing this is that these handloads can only be shot in the rifle from which they were fire-formed, lest they will not feed into the chamber of any other firearm properly. Despite bold-typed warnings in just about any reloading manual you’ll read that this process should not be used in big game hunting, I ignored this and happily developed my own special rounds for my Savage 110 Tactical.

Stoked with 180-grain Nosler Protected Point Partitions and published doses of IMR-4350, I had my very own proprietary cartridge. Extracting empty cases was tougher than normal – no question the reason they say not to use for hunting – but, man, they packed a wallop and reliably patterned 3 shots in under 1 MOA groups, more than adequate for deer or hogs, many of which tumbled to this round. Rolling my own and employing them in the field sure was satisfying.

I started reloading ammunition in my teens. In those days I shot a lot. Most non-hunting or fishing weekends, in fact. Pistols and rifles, Dad and I would empty the safe to blast away at targets and cans and bottles. The problem was, Dad worked and I did not, and scorching through hundreds of rounds each Saturday became financially restricting. For a fraction of the cost, he could buy components – especially cast lead and full metal jacket bullets – and I could reload them into the plethora of spent brass we’d acquired.

So, I spent a great deal of free time as a teen like Rosie the Riveter, assembling cartridges for the upcoming shoot. Mostly .357’s, .44 Mag’s, .45 ACP, and .40 S&W, working on an old RCBS C-Press, I had quite the production going in my bedroom many days after class – it was really a testament to why I didn’t have a girlfriend in high school. But those were generic loads constructed for the less-serious purpose of making noise and punching holes. Had any of this been caught on tape, it would have horrified CNN or Sarah Brady.

It wasn’t until I started with rifle rounds that things got more serious and specialized. The .223 was the jumping off point for higher goals. Dad had built an AR-15 with a thick stainless steel free-floating barrel. With the old military rounds, accuracy was OK. But then the Nosler Ballistic Tips became popular, and the bullets were marketed to reloaders who caught up to the potential of these projectiles faster than the factories did. Using 40-grain ballistic tips, the groups from that AR shrank to penny size. It wasn’t long before chats of western trips to plug groundhogs started springing up in otherwise sane hunting talk. As such, we had to make use of local armadillos.

Being more of a big game enthusiast than a paper-puncher or diller-killer, it wasn’t long before my attention switched to the .308 Win, .25-06, and my favorite, .300 Win Mag. We’d research a load, try out different brands of controlled-expansion rounds that I favored then and now, whip up a batch and head to the range. It was serious lab geek stuff, keeping logs with detailed notes of performance and whatnot. At its apex – which achieved the neck-sized .300 rounds detailed above – handloading had developed into quite the craft, and I don’t think I shot a head of game with a factory load between the ages of 16 and 21.

Reloading also became quite neurotic. 20 rounds of .300’s that I deemed suitable for the field would take over two hours – at least - never mind that I had accuracy on paper confused with practical accuracy on the shoulder of a deer. If you have any scrap of OCD in your veins and you’re working with increments down to the 1000th of an inch, it can touch you mentally. Eventually, I lost most of the enjoyment of handloading, though I still credit this time to any knowledge of ballistics and the dynamics of placing a bullet where you want it. This discipline is probably the reason I’ve not fully embraced bowhunting and still prefer a rifle or pistol when presented the option.

But that is not why I totally gave it up when I went to college. Aside from the fact the RA in Graham Hall would have frowned on a resident harboring cans of IMR-4350 and loose brass around the dorm – especially for a facility that treated the use of multi-plug adapters like a sin – there wasn’t much opportunity to sit down when I visited home to reload. There were people to see and hunts to go on and other college age shenanigans that interfered. Also, the ammunition world changed in a big way at the start of the 2000’s.

Factory loads prior to this time were considered pretty wimpy and bullet construction suspect, especially for magnums. Maybe they were threatened by lawsuits or tied to a lack of demand for better beef, but handloaders could easily top the stuff from the shelves by investing in materials readily available through catalogs and gun shows and putting the time in themselves. And they saved a few bucks after the initial purchase.

The beginning of the end, I believe, can be marked by the arrival of the Nosler Ballistic Tips. Once they hit Wal-Mart, average shooters suddenly realized a better world. Despite my personal loathing for use in the field, these loads were extraordinarily accurate when compared to the Remchester Core-Points available in most stores, and prices were within the same ballpark. With those pretty colored polymer points, they crashed hunting camps.

It didn’t take long, though, for common folks to realize that they weren’t ideal in the faster magnums, for quartering shots on game, or on most thick-skinned creatures, but the fire had already been lit. No, common folks realized they too wanted sexy and accurate in their hunting fodder. This primed the marketing departments in ammo manufacturers, and controlled-expansion bullets were the next projectiles to get a make-over.

Nosler Partitions and Trophy Bonded Bear Claws were loaded in premium rounds in those days but were right pricey. The hunting magazines loved them, though, and beat the drum that penetration was more purposeful than accuracy for big game hunting, for the most part. Winchester Fail-Safes and Barnes X-Bullets, among others, were soon developed that offered maximum penetration and looked dangerous sitting still. With their molybdenum coats or solid copper designs, these bullets had a pronounced effect on the terminal performance on game in even standard rounds. To complete the whole puzzle, within a couple years many were capped with those sexy polymer tips and became quite accurate, given a barrel of any quality from which to be launched. Heck, even the Ballistic Tips were given a bonded core and thicker jacket.

The velocity in factory rounds never really improved. Companies tried Extended Range loads before realizing they were stepping over the Golden Goose – just develop new rounds for new firearms. This, of course, led to the proliferation of the short mags, and ultra mags, and super short mags, some of which held on while others fizzled.

While I didn’t mean to get into the whole History of Ammunition, this last point really undermined the whole art of reloading. For hunters - not benchrest shooters with their own goals - it was all a means to improve the quality of hunting ammunition, rather it be from developing brand new rounds – wildcatting – or just delivering stronger, more accurate bullets downfield. The niches closed, and today the stores have a plethora of loads and rounds in about any caliber that the hunter should be satisfied with in the field.

The market has been fire-formed to meet the demand, if you will. Individuals will always be dazzled by different things – velocity, accuracy, bullet weight retention and penetration. Short of using explosive projectiles, bullets don’t appear to have any room for improvement. The gas pressure from ignited smokeless powder tops out around 6000fps, and when one considers friction and the weight of a bullet, most hunting rounds aren’t going to get much higher than 3800-4000fps, and even that would eat up most barrels today. And accuracy – as it applies to hunting – is a matter of practicality. If you’ve found a load that shoots well in your rifle and you shoot that rifle well...well, the cake has been made. There’s not much more you can glean from handloading, reloading or whatever you wish to call it. And that's why I've not primed brass in years, settling on Winchester XP3's in my pet Savage.

Like tying flies or making your own arrows, I’m sure there remain pockets of sportsmen out there who appreciate the esoteric pleasure of handloading. But it has been a long time since I’ve seen an article or column about it in the hunting literature, which is a shame. There is a great deal of satisfaction derived from whipping up your own loads and using them on a hunt.

4 comments:

Trey said...

I use to load all of my 20 ga shells for bird hunting and quite enjoyed doing it. The older I got and the cheaper the shells got, I just stopped. Now I am just lazy and do not want to take the time to load my own shells. Haven't touched my reloader in over 10 years.

Bill Giles said...

I've got gobs of components, bullets, brass & powder, but just don't have the time to develop loads. I loaded a bunch of .223 a couple of years ago for a Prairie Dog hunt. It is very easy to shoot one or two hundred rounds a day, even with a bolt action. Since then, I doubt that I have loaded much of anything.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

It'll be back soon, roestalker just did a post about saving by reloading

SBW

Ian Nance said...

Trey & Bill, the varmit & bird hunting where high volumes of shooting is the norm, there is still definitely a place for reloading....if you have the time. Big game hunting, harder to justify.

SBW - I'll have to check that out! Thanks