March 08, 2023
When I began hunting big game with centerfire rifles 30 years ago, it didn’t take me long to figure out factory ammunition wasn’t the best choice for every application. Though a far larger variety of off-the-shelf ammo is available these days, there are still real benefits to custom building one’s own hunting loads. These benefits of accuracy, versatility and consistency can pay dividends when it comes to precision or long-range hunting.
There isn’t room here for a comprehensive “How To” guide for precision handloading; the plan is to cover a few key considerations for someone looking to optimize their own high-quality loads for big game hunting. Nearly every topic will come down to a single factor: consistency.
When choosing a bullet for long-range shooting, the process is pretty simple—find the one that shoots best in your rifle. Bullet choice for hunting is a completely different proposition. Since it is the bullet that does the killing, simply getting the round on target is only part of the equation. The bullet also has to achieve the appropriate terminal performance to make a clean and fast kill. The ability to choose one’s own bullet may be the single most practical attribute of handloading.
There are as many considerations here as there are bullet choices so I will stick to a few key points. Impact velocity and bullet performance are inextricably linked. A bullet must be moving fast enough to expand in order to maximize performance. Traditionally, that minimum impact velocity for controlled expansion bullets such as the Barnes Triple-Shock and Nosler Partition hovered at 1,800 fps. That equates to around 500 yards with a 180-grain bullet in a .300 Win. Mag. With newer bullets designed for long-range hunting, that distance can be pushed quite a bit further.
Each manufacturer has their own bullet choices and recommended velocity windows. I’ve been hunting quite a bit with various Hornady bullets in recent years with great results. Their CX monolithic and ELD-X bullets have their own minimum impact velocities and make a good case for how this is not a one-bullet-fits-all proposition.
“First, the minimum impact velocity we recommend is the minimum required to get 1.5x caliber of expansion,” said Hornady’s Seth Swerczek. “For example, a .308 bullet, we recommend a minimum to achieve about .462" diameter of expansion. The CX bullet, being so rugged, is recommended at a minimum of 2,000 fps of impact speed [at 600 yards with the 165-grain CX in our .300 Win. Mag. comparator]. The ELD-X, with its unique design, will give reliable 1.5x caliber expansion down to 1,600 fps [roughly 900 yards with the 178-grain ELD-X from the same rifle].”
So why wouldn’t a handloader simply choose a bullet that expands at the lowest possible impact velocity? Well, what happens when your shot opportunity comes at a shorter range? If you’re hunting a mix of timber and open spaces, or in terrain where a close stalk is possible, a bullet must be used that will stay together at high-impact velocities. In my own experience, it is far more common to encounter shots on big game at less than 500 yards than beyond that distance. A bullet that expands reliably at 800 yards might fail to penetrate adequately when it hits a bull elk’s shoulder at spitting distance. There are no free lunches, but, as a handloader, you have the ability to match your bullet choice to the shot distances that you are most likely to encounter.
But what about match bullets? That’s what all of the guys on social media use, right? This will piss some people off but I’m not a fan of match bullets for hunting, particularly on larger game such as elk. These bullets put slick ballistic performance ahead of terminal performance and, for the most part, were never designed with hunting in mind. In my own experience, these bullets either fail to adequately penetrate to the vitals or fail to expand altogether. Last fall, I saw a bull elk eat seven well-placed match bullets before he finally gave up the ghost—not my idea of humane. If they work for you, fine, but there are far better choices on the market.
Runout is simply a measure of how crookedly your bullet sits in the cartridge case. Ballisticians have determined that one of the most critical factors in accuracy is how the bullet first engages with the rifling—runout is the key variable here. This assumes, of course, that your rifle’s chamber is cut concentric to the bore. Some bullet runout is inevitable but significant amounts can be a sure recipe for poor accuracy. Excessive runout is usually cured by upgrading one’s reloading dies: Redding’s Competition dies are great choices, as are arbor-style benchrest dies from L.E. Wilson.
The unscientific way of measuring runout is to roll a loaded cartridge across a flat surface such as a glass table; if you can see the bullet wobble, the runout is probably excessive. A more repeatable method is to use one of the tools on the market designed to measure this critical dimension. Sinclair and RCBS make good ones, as does Hornady. These instruments use a dial indicator to measure runout while the cartridge is rotated in a jig. The more the needle on the indicator moves, the greater the runout. My own goal for runout in hunting handloads is below .003 inch, ideally around .001 inch. The Hornady tool actually allows the user to straighten the bullet in the case neck and can be used on factory ammunition for the same purpose.
Entire books have been written on this topic but, suffice it to say, the more consistent the critical dimensions of your brass, the more accuracy potential your handloads will have. Operations such as flash hole deburring, primer pocket reaming, neck turning, and weight sorting can have real improvements on the consistency of your handloaded ammunition. The rarest commodity at this point in my life is time, and brass prep can burn a lot of that. These days, I invest in high quality cases such as those made by Lapua, Norma, Nosler, and Alpha Precision that require minimal, if any, prep work.
Powder Choice and Charge
This might be the most challenging and potentially time-consuming of any of the factors. Choosing the right powder for a given cartridge and bullet combination often comes down to experience, but there are some shortcuts. Loading manuals are a great resource here and can save lots of powder and range time. Nosler’s manual gives a “most accurate powder” tested for each cartridge, which I often use to narrow down my choice.
Once a powder is picked, I often use a “load ladder” to determine a given rifle’s and bullet’s sweet spot. Pioneered by Creighton Audette, the method involves firing a string of rounds, each with an incrementally increasing powder charge at a single target placed at 200-300 yards. By monitoring both the target and the chronograph, the handloader can determine a charge weight that shows little sensitivity. Find the cluster of impacts on the targets and you have narrowed down the powder charge to within a few grains. Your cluster might be, for example, 60.0, 60.5 and 61 grains of powder. I usually load three to six rounds using each of those and fire groups at individual targets to determine the winner. The tightest group with the lowest standard deviation becomes my chosen load.
A word on burn rate—though slower burning powders can be great for achieving impressive velocities in magnum cases, too slow a powder may not ignite consistently, creating wider-than-desired swings in velocity. I once developed a hunting load for a custom 7mm Rem. Mag. using Hodgdon H-1000 powder that looked promising until I began to notice fliers in my groups and outliers on my chronograph. I dropped down the burn rate chart to Alliant’s RL-22 and haven’t looked back since. Let your rifle tell you what it wants.
Neck tension is one of those factors that is often ignored by handloaders. Of course, the consistency of your neck tension is the most important factor, but there is an optimum range. In this excellent book, Modern Advancements in Long Range Shooting Vol. 2, author and ballistician Brian Litz uses the a highly detailed process of measuring the effects of neck tension on standard deviation. His testing indicated that .003 inch of tension was ideal.
To measure neck tension, I use a set of machinists’ pin gauges. These come in .001 inch increments and give you the precise internal diameter of your sized cartridge case’s neck. Like Litz, I aim for .003 inch of neck tension—subtract that number from your bullet’s diameter and you have it. For a .30 caliber cartridge, I want the internal diameter of my case neck to be .305 inch. Using Redding’s bushing dies, I can control that dimension to within .001 inch. Bear in mind that neck tension can change as brass cases are shot and resized so verify periodically and adjust your bushing size accordingly.
Cartridge Overall Length (COAL)
Controlling the overall length of loaded ammunition is a key element of handloading. This is important when determining the optimum distance between the bullet’s ogive and the leade (beginning) of the rifling. Though seating bullets very close to the lands of the rifling has long been considered the best practice when reloading, some recent research had convinced me that this is not always the case. As in anything, finding out what your rifle likes best is part of the load development process. Remember that these dimensions will change as the rifling shows wear over time and use.
There is no real substitute for range testing when it comes to evaluating loads. When it comes to accuracy, I don’t have a strong preference for either three or five-shot groups. To me, it is more important that these groups are consistent over time. A tiny group is always satisfying, but must be considered a lucky fluke if it’s not repeatable.
Accuracy is important but it is not the be all of precision handloading. In many cases, Standard Deviation (a measure of the consistency of muzzle velocity) can be the best barometer of excellence. For this and other reasons, a quality chronograph is a must-have for anyone who is serious about precision handloading.
Handloading is more than just a process, it can be a real education. Aside from actually building my own guns, nothing has made me better understand rifle performance than decades of handloading. At the end of the day, though, it is all about results. The ability to control critical dimensions, bullet choice, muzzle velocity, and other key factors can go a long way in bringing out your rifle’s potential.