With recent times plaguing the factory ammunition supply and a surge in new gun owners, many have turned to handloading to fill their ammunition needs. While some might feel that as long as the round goes off without the gun blowing up is a successful handload, hopefully the majority are wanting to produce the highest quality handloads they are capable of.
Many factors go into a quality handload and minor tweaks here and there can make all the difference down range. Specifically, rifles can benefit the most from a handload that is tuned to that rifle. Not that handguns don’t see a benefit from quality ammo, but oftentimes the engagement distances are so short that one can’t quantify the effect on paper.
With all that said, you can find yourself down a deep financial rabbit hole in the pursuit of the absolute best handloads one can make – trust me, I’m there. Many don’t have the disposable income to be spending thousands of dollars on the latest and greatest loading equipment and sometimes those purchases might not give as big of gains as one might hope. As with most things, you can’t buy skill. In order to shoot quarter minute groups you also need to have the skill to shoot quarter minute groups.
If you are reading this, I assume you already have the basics of handloading down and are looking for ways to improve without spending a small fortune. My ultimate goal while at the reloading bench is to produce the absolute most consistent and precise ammunition I can possibly afford to make. This is often much slower than other people’s methods and might be too obsessive for some, but when shooting competitively for score, I try to have the only variable in my shooting system as myself, the shooter. While nothing will improve your shooting quite like practice time at the range, these five tips will help improve your handloads and are all able to be accomplished with tools you already likely own.
Sort Your Projectiles
Even the most premium of bullet manufacturers have a tolerance that each projectile produced will fall into. This is of course a range, and some brands are better than others. One of the easiest ways to sort is using your bullet comparator tool with your calipers. While these tools are commonly used to measure length from the case base to the ogive (CBTO) of a loaded round, using them to measure the projectile from the base to the ogive before seated into the case is a good way to find more consistency in seating depths. Once measured, sort your projectiles into groups of similar lengths. While there are some differing opinions on how large the range in measurement these groups can encompass, I personally sort into 0.001” increments. At the same time, you get to inspect all of the bullets for any jacket deformation and to see if all of the bullets in the box are in fact the same caliber and type. The odd time you might find a bullet in the box that measures drastically different than the others. Put this one to the side as a fouling round, as you don’t want to be shooting it with the rest of your rounds in your sting, as it could result in a flyer.
Full Length Size
While neck sizing was cool in the ‘80s, it has been proven time and time again to not be the way to size your brass. Those who do neck size argue that it is more consistent, but the fact that you need to full length size every three to four firings when normally only neck sizing, proves that the brass is growing every time you fire it. This alone proves that this is not a consistent method, and consistency is the name of the game. Do yourself a favor, full length size your brass with controlled shoulder bump after each firing. This is the best way to control brass consistency and prevent undue wear and tear on your rifle’s action.
Brush Case Necks
Brushing your case necks before you seat bullets is another great way to find consistency in places often overlooked. Dedicating one cleaning brush for your necks is a common practice found in the reloading rooms of F-Class and Benchrest shooters alike. This helps remove large deposits of leftover cleaning product residue, and at the same time it helps get consistent friction inside the case neck, ultimately providing more consistent seating of bullets.
Weigh Powder As Consistently As Possible
This is an area that can get away from you in a hurry. There are so many different ways to measure your powder that it is often overwhelming. The two major categories that powder measuring tools fall into are measured by weight or displacement. Displacement is great if you are trying to load as many rounds as you can in as short of time as possible, but your consistency will suffer. Even those who use high-end powder measures will confirm and adjust the charge dropped with a scale. Weight is the best way to measure powder consistently and people spend good money trying to speed up the weighing of it. While very tempting, cheap digital scales are not the route to go. Beam scales, while slower, are an inexpensive way to measure your powder consistently and accurately and can often have resolution sensitive enough to show one kernel difference.
This may seem very obvious to some, but I have run into many shooters over the years who think that whatever their reloading book says that the max case overall length is, is where they seat their bullet to and hope that it shoots well. While reloading manuals are great guides, they are just that: a guide. Adjusting seating depth is one of the ways to tune your handload to your rifle. It is also the only way to potentially tune factory ammunition to your rifle if so desired. Don’t be nervous to adjust your seating depth and watch your groups open and close at the range. I find adjusting in increments of 0.003” has given me the best results and clearly shows me where my seating depth nodes are. Most nodes seem to be around 0.006” wide, so too course of an adjustment and you might be missing a node entirely.
Good handloads are a complex sum of many steps. This is not an exhaustive list, but these five tips will undoubtedly help those who try them. Handloading for precision can at times be overwhelming and frustrating, but break it down into methodical steps and remember all great handloaders started somewhere. No one started out a pro, but fortunately there are many pros that are more than willing to help out the new handloader. Finding yourself a good mentor might be the best tip yet.