There are two ways to do things in this world, the easy way and the hard way. The latter is how I went about load development for quite some time. I started reloading because a certain ammunition company, whose initials are Federal Cartridge, dropped my pet .375 H&H Magnum load (260 grain Nosler AccuBond) many years back. Did I mention they pulled “my” load right after mega-corporation, ATK, acquired them? Well, that’s when it happened. Coincidence? Perhaps.
Faced with the fact I couldn’t find a reasonable substitute from any other ammo maker, I decided to learn how to load my own. Squirreled away in a closet sat an old RCBS single stage press I had acquired in a moving sale. I also had a few dies and a powder dispenser from the deal. As usual, I jumped into the deep end head first.
Help me Obi Wan, you’re my only hope.
The dies I mentioned did not include .375 Holland & Holland, so I trooped down to a local sporting goods store to get a set. Sometimes (okay, for me seldom), the universe aligns and you meet just the right person at just the right time. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? In this case, I met Bill–and no, it wasn’t romantic.
Bill competes in long-range rifle matches and has reloaded since–well, forever. Bill took pity and filled me in on all the kit I needed in addition to the .375 dies. He showed me how to use a reloading manual, which persuaded me to purchase Nosler’s latest recipe book. He walked me through the process step by step, which led me to buy a powder scale, micrometer, loading tray, powder funnel, case trimmer, chronograph, etc. All the bits I would have received had I bought an RCBS starter kit in the first place. Who knew? You sure you’re not on commission, Bill?
Bill also put up with me for several months as I’d try something, get it wrong, and wander back into the shop to sit at the master’s feet for the next black belt lesson. Sometimes this led to gear purchases. You sure you’re not on commission, Bill?
When you can walk across the rice paper, Grasshopper…
Since those days, I’ve become comfortable reloading my own ammunition and have worked up loads for almost every rifle I own (haven’t tackled handgun ammo, yet). Seems every time I put some new rounds together, though, I find there are a few things I still don’t know about the game, but I have persevered. It’s time now to “give back a little,” as the nouveau riche say, and share with you my load development methodology. I hope it will save you the time and headaches I endured during my apprenticeship.
This isn’t “Reloading 101.” If you’re a complete novice, I’d suggest you find the useful videos out there from the companies which make reloading equipment and bullets, or go to their websites for tutorials. However, even if you don’t know the basics, this article will still give you a leg up once you get into the game, so read on.
I reload to feed hunting rifles. I don’t shoot precision matches, and at the present, I don’t have the time to start, either. I’m not concerned with shaving 0.0001 MOA from my shot groups at 1000 yards. I am concerned my loads will function 100 percent in any rifle I own, and will hit a game animal in the vitals at reasonable hunting ranges. My load development process is designed to get me where I want to go: producing ammunition, not tinkering with it.
My minimum accuracy standard for hunting ammunition is 1.0 – 2.0 MOE (Minute of Elk). This is sufficient for all the hunting I do and anticipate I’ll ever do. For more on why, read my article: Hunting Rifle Accuracy: How Much Do You Need? (The LocaCarnivore Expert). Here’s how I do things, now.
I give each case a quick wipe down with a clean, lint free cloth to remove any obvious dirt and excess carbon, and swab out the necks with a nylon bristle bore brush. I don’t use a cleaning machine. All the deer I’ve polled on this issue assure me they do not care how shiny my shell cases are. Remember, we’re just after reliability and function here.
I then clean the primer pockets enough to ensure the new primers will seat well. I don’t obsess over primer hole chamfers or alignment. As long as the sizing die’s de-capping pin runs through them smoothly, it follows the holes are lined up good enough.
I always resize fired cases full-length, I never just neck size them. I don’t subscribe to the “fit the case exactly to your firing chamber” school. Yes, it might give another 0.0001 MOA, but it reduces feed reliability. I want those finished rounds to slide into the chamber without any resistance, and with enough room for any inadvertent dust or moisture which may have gotten onto them in the field. If it doesn’t feed and go “bang,” all the accuracy in the world is useless. Factory ammo isn’t tailored to any one particular gun and it hits where its pointed, as a general rule, so what’s the big fuss? Besides, for me, rifles are tools. I like some better than others, but they come and go as my needs change. I want ammo which will work in any rifle chambered for it.
The cases are then measured for length, trimmed if necessary, and primed. Plus, I always crimp my loads. Look for an article on crimping coming soon. All simple stuff here.
What a fool believes
When I started reloading, I fixated on velocity. I’d start with the minimum powder charge as published in the loading manual (do not deviate from the manual!), toss the charge into the case, slap a bullet on it, run out to the range behind the house, and light the rascal. I’d note the chronograph result and dash back in for the next half-grain step up. Once I arrived at the velocity I wanted, the max published charge, or signs of high chamber pressure, which ever came first, I’d stop.
The first time I did this, I had a winner. Velocity spot on, so I assembled just enough rounds to zero the gun, then built twenty more for the next hunting season. Hey, how hard could it be?
Let’s just say I had an epiphany when I missed a deer who stood stone still thirty yards away and waited while I centered the scope on his chest. Really? I mean, how hard could this be? I tried to convince myself the bullet had, despite no evidence whatsoever, deflected off some barbed wire which had been between me and the buck. Did I mention how nice a buck? Just a fluke, I told myself for at least a week.
Later the same season, I missed an even nicer buck who stood patient less than fifty yards away. Now, where did I put those excuses? This called for some re-think. The next day I fired two three-shot groups with this load. Let’s just say the groups were erratic–quite erratic. How hard could this be?
Powder Charges, the reboot
Powder and bullets are expensive, and in H4350’s case these days, scarce (thanks for nuttin’, 6.5 Creedmoor shooters). I’d like to take credit for this next technique, but it comes from the boffins at Sierra bullets, who led me through group therapy for disillusioned reloaders.
What had I done wrong? I had neglected to test for accuracy as well as velocity. Speed is worthless if it is not applied to the intended target. The reloading manual does not talk about accuracy, it only shows you expected velocity for a give powder charge, so it’s understandable a newbie might not realize the accuracy doesn’t just happen. There, found those excuses!
The method I use now, is to make two rounds for each powder charge increment from the minimum to the maximum listed in the manual. Most manuals list a four grain spread between the minimum and maximum charges and go up in half-grain increments. This means you make eighteen rounds, total.
I shoot each pair at a separate aim point so I won’t confuse which charge made which holes. I use a three to five minute cool down between shots and a full cool down between pairs. Measure and record the distance between the bullet holes for each group, as well as the velocity for each shot. I don’t let the barrel heat up the way match shooters do. Almost all shots when hunting are cold-bore shots, and as I said earlier, we’re making hunting ammo here, not match ammo.
Once the data is collected, you’ll see a pattern. As charge and velocity go up, the group size should narrow, then widen, then narrow again. These two tighter groups are the velocity and charge combination which hit the best harmonic node for your particular barrel. They indicate which loads have the most accuracy potential.
If the velocity for the two smallest groups meet your needs, make six additional rounds with each groups’ powder charge. Fire these in three round groups at separate bullseyes to get an accuracy and velocity average for the two charge weights. Also, note the elevation and windage on the target for each group to determine if you need to re-zero the gun with the new loads. Whichever has the best accuracy is the winner. If only one charge weight meets your desired velocity specs, test six rounds with just it–either it’s accurate enough or it’s time for a different powder.
I don’t go all retentive after I’ve found the nodes, though. I don’t play with bullet seating depth or less than half grain powder charge steps. I build the rounds to the maximum SAAMI specified length, or perhaps a few thousands less, to ensure they feed in the magazine and call it good. Again, I want ammo which will run in any gun chambered for it.
Right about now, the match shooters are on the floor with convulsions. They would demand you shoot “ladders” with five round groups for each charge weight. As someone said before, we are shooting big, fuzzy beasts at reasonable ranges, not paper at 1000 yards. As long as you’ve got the velocity you want and the bullets group at 2.0 MOA, or less, call it good and get busy building ammo for next season.
This method uses up to thirty bullets. Most bullets are packed fifty to a box, so you now have twenty left. Here’s how to re-zero with the fewest rounds possible: 5 Secrets to Sight-in a Rifle with Ten Rounds or Less. If you use this method, you’ll still have at least ten rounds for the next season when you’re done; plenty for most folks if you can’t afford more bullets at the moment.
If you want to jump through the match ammunition development hoops, feel free. Those are sound techniques and there’s no such thing as too much accuracy, but it is unnecessary to use so much powder and bullets for hunting rounds. Remember, the goal is to fill the freezer as economically as possible.
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