Factory Ammo VS. Hand loads

No matter if it is a forum, a Facebook page, USPSA or long range,  hunting or tactical, the question always comes up; Is it better to shoot factory loaded ammunition or to hand load your own? The individual who asks the question will quickly be berated with biased answers from both sides of the spectrum,people swearing that their 6.5 shoots Hornady’s ammo just as good as anyone else’s hand loads, and someone else saying they don’t trust any cartridge they didn’t see loaded with their own eyes. After reading all the comments the original poster is usually left no better than a hitchhiker that’s overstayed their welcome. Alone, confused and barely further than where they started, still torn whether they need to invest the time and money in new equipment or take the easy road, hop online, and order another case of ammo.

Factory Ammo

First, let’s talk about factory ammo. Factory loaded ammo is exactly what the name describes. It is loaded in masse on a complicated conveyor system with varying levels of quality control depending on what the purpose of that cartridge is. They can produce the lowest quality cheap plinking .22lr ammo that has varying muzzle velocities spanning the subsonic to supersonic spectrum or high quality perfection sought after by Olympians and bench rest shooters alike.

Technology has come a very long way for factory ammo in the last decade. More and more “wildcat” cartridges are starting to become standard factory options, with ammo quality that makes the jump to hand loads look almost unnecessary, depending on the shooting discipline.

The 6.5 Creedmoor is a great example of this. What spawned this cartridge to the heights of popularity, only previously seen by the .308 Winchester and .45ACP, was the ready availability of match quality ball and hunting ammo. All of a sudden shooters could go to a big box sporting goods store and pick up a factory rifle and ammo and go straight to the 1000 yard line and be consistently hitting steel. To accomplish that 10 years ago you would have needed a custom built rifle and hand loaded ammunition.

As with every facet of life, you get what you pay for, but the options from manufacturers are getting better and better and becoming more available to the everyday shooter.

Hand Loading

Now let’s go down the rabbit hole of hand loading for a second. Hand loading ammo lets the individual have complete control over every single aspect of the loading process. Brass selection and preparation, primer selection, powder and charge selection, projectile selection, and seating depth determination are the main categories that are hit and all can be broken down even further into sub steps. All of this is already assuming that you own, or have access to, the equipment needed for each stage of the loading process. This includes, but is not limited to: tumblers, dies (per cartridge type), trimmers, scales, presses, gauges, calipers, trays, and powder dispensers.

For a first timer, this can be a very expensive endeavor to embark upon and it may not yield improved results right away. The more control you take over a process, the more experience you need to be proficient in that process. In fact, the most ammo related malfunctions you will see at any competition will be from people who hand load, but they will also have the best results. It takes time, a lot of practice and a good knowledge base to become skilled at hand loading quality ammo. But, with this new found control and experience, shooters are able to fine tune every aspect of their load to perfectly accomplish their goals for a particular purpose. This could be lighter recoil for a USPSA or self-defense pistol, a flatter shooting hunting or long range cartridge, a new wildcat that no one has come up with before, or simply just a way to facilitate shooting more plinking ammo with a reduced cost per round. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t like having more plinking ammo?

Picking the Best Option for You

How do you choose which is better for you? This is a question that has come across most shooters minds at some point in their shooting career. There are a few questions that can help you figure out that answer.

What is the goal you want to accomplish? Once you know that, then ask “Is this something that can be accomplished by available factory ammo”?  If the answer is “No” then you have your answer and need to start looking into hand loading your ammo. If the answer is “yes”, then we continue evaluating the situation.

“Will hand loading be more cost effective then the available factory options”? “Will hand loading give you a competitive advantage over factory ammo”? And “Is it worth your time to hand load”?

These are all questions that can sway you one way or the other. The answers will not be the same for all situations, shooters or cartridges and they may change as you become more proficient and experienced.

Starting out, especially in long range shooting, hand loading offers minimal advantages to an inexperienced shooter. Most of their missed shots will be caused by poor fundamentals or a missed wind call. No amount of brass prep or precise powder loads can prevent that. There is only one thing that can solve all of your shooting woes.

Education, education, education.

Being successful in this community takes a lot of practice, work, and knowledge. No matter the shooting discipline or the category of ammo that you shoot, your biggest limiting factor will be your knowledge base.

I have actually had a conversation with a student before, who could not figure out why a hunting rifle he had was always off zero and missed more animals than it hit. Turns out he was purchasing whatever ammo was on sale and had no idea what the weight of the projectile was or how fast it was going. What he thought was a problem with his rifle was in fact just a lack of education and proper experience.

Tools to Assist you in Deciding

There are a lot of helpful tools to assist the shooter in troubleshooting and solving these types of issues. The biggest one is a ballistic calculator. This can be used for both Factory ammo and hand loads. You can use it to organize your firearms and their associated ammo types and develop drop charts for all of them. So, if you do purchase some ammo just because it was on sale, the application will do all the work to assist you in getting a clean hit every time. They are not bulletproof and still require the shooter to have a basic understanding of the firearm and the ammo, but they are relatively user friendly and will pay for themselves quickly.

Another great recourse is a bullet stability calculator. Again, this can be helpful for both factory and hand loaded ammo. You will input the specs for the rifle and the load and it will tell you the projectiles stability factor. The higher the number, the more efficient that projectile will be at longer ranges. A low stability factor could cause a projectile to begin tumbling at long distances even shortly after exiting the muzzle. This can be useful prior to developing a load or purchasing a case of ammo that may not be right for your rifle.

Lastly, and perhaps the greatest recourse of all, books. There are quite literally hundreds of books on shooting, competition, rifle building, ballistics, ammunition and hand loading. They offer a wide variety of knowledge and experience that greatly surpass that of any online forum. My favorite, which is actually sitting above my desk as I type this, is the Applied Ballistics set by Bryan Litz. It is geared towards long range shooting, but offers a very scientific approach to how projectiles, rifles and the mechanics of it all fit together and work.

If you plan on getting into hand loading, books are a requirement, they will teach you each step of the process and different ways to do it, and they will have charts for suggested loads to start with and develop to suit your needs. They can give you precise characteristics of different projectiles so that you can make the best choice and input those characteristics into your ballistic calculator for more accurate results. The education rabbit hole for shooting is more akin to a black hole than anything else. It is large, humbling, and never ending. There is always something new to learn or an old technique to be rediscovered.

In short, if you’re asking the question “Factory ammo or hand loading” don’t expect an easy answer. You are already peering over the precipice, staring into that black hole, hearing faint yells from your wife asking about charges on your credit card.  Just jump in and enjoy the ride.

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