Colonel Townsend Whelen: Handload Your Own
September 07, 2018
There are probably three reasons why you are thinking of taking up handloading your ammo. Economy, better accuracy, or a certain purpose for which factory ammo is not well suited.
Take the present popular .243 Winchester cartridge. Factory ammo now costs $20.50 a hundred rounds. You can reload the fired cases with an 85-grain bullet, 39 grains of 4895 powder and the primer for about $5.30 not including your labor and the initial price of the tools. Some difference! If you are blossoming out with a brand new rifle, particularly if you are not already a very experienced rifleman, its going to take you about 500 rounds of careful range shooting to develop good marksmanship. You should become so familiar with that rifle that both you and it will perform at the maximum, either on the target range or in the hunting field.
Take the .243 rifle above cited, well bedded and with a good scope. I must have fired more than 200 groups at 100 yards from bench rest with two such rifles, and I have seen many other shooters firing this caliber. Factory ammo has averaged groups of about 1.75 inches; the above handload in about .90 inches.
Perhaps you have a .30-06 rifle, and you want to hunt turkeys with it. All factory cartridges will blow turkeys or grouse, or rabbits into sausage meat; but you can develop a handload which will kill them neatly without spoiling any meat.
But perhaps you think that you want flatter trajectory, greater velocity, or more killing power than you can get with an equal weight of bullet in factory ammo. This is a "will-o'-the-wisp." You can't do it and still have accuracy, safety, and dependability.
A few years ago the editor of one of our largest magazines said to me: "I have read all the books and handbooks on hand loading, and not one of them tells how to load a cartridge." So here goes for some basic dope that is not usually in the books.
I started my handloading in 1899 using the old Ideal No. 3 tong tool. I do think you need one of the heavier bench tools using the standard Y, x 14" dies for the best work. They are much superior in accurately and uniformly resizing fired cases than tong tools or tools using the smaller dies. Resizing of cases is a very important detail if you want better-than-average results.
The Cartridge Case
Handloading, including its economy, is based on reloading the fired cases resulting from firing factory ammo. These preferably should be cases that have been fired in the rifle in which you plan to use your reloads. You can frequently use cases that have been fired in other rifles by first full-length resizing them. But in some cases you will have trouble. All fired cases should be kept clean until you are ready to resize them. You can also use new primed or unprimed cases. All of these cases, fired or new, must have the sharp edge of the inside of the mouth slightly chamfered to permit seating the bullet smoothly without deforming the case. Likewise, this should be done when it becomes necessary to trim cases for length. All tool makers have a convenient little chamfering reamer for this purpose. Just a couple of twirls of the reamer in the mouth of the case is all that is necessary to give a bevel that can just be seen with the eye.
When the case is fired, it expands at the neck so that the neck is possibly two or three thousandths of an inch too large in inside diameter to hold the new bullet friction tight. Thus the case must first of all have the neck resized so that its inside diameter is approximately .001" to .002" smaller than the diameter of the bullet. In addition, after the case has been fired a few times, its body expands so much that it will no longer enter the chamber of the rifle, or extract after firing without an undesirable effort. Then the body must also be resized. We call this "full length resizing." Resizing is an important and critical operation if the resulting ammo is to be good, so here is where we get down to brass tacks.
Each case must be properly lubricated before it is resized or it won't resize properly. One may eventually even stick in the die and then you will have to send the die to its maker to have the case removed. For years I have used anhydrous lanolin for lubricating. You can get a 2-ounce jar at any drug store for a few cents; enough to last you for hundreds of reloads. In cold weather it is perhaps a little stiff for easy use, and for winter reloading I have lately been using the liquid lubricant supplied by the "C-H" reloading tool makers. The easiest and, I think, the best way to use these is to anoint the tips of the thumb and first two fingers of your left hand slightly with the grease. Grasp the head of the case with the fingers of the right hand and twirl the case through your greased fingertips spreading a thin coating of grease over the outside of the case from within a half inch of the head to its mouth. Just a slight even coating, enough to make the case glisten is sufficient. For every fifth case, slightly moisten the fingertips again, and then draw a fingertip straight across the mouth of that case so that a very slight amount of grease will scrape off on the inside of the neck. This is to keep the expander of the die lubricated. Lubricate all your cases at one time and lay them in a row on the loading bench ready for resizing.
Your 7/8 x 14" resizing die can be adjusted for either neck resizing or full length resizing, and either of these operations also expels the fired primer. First, adjust the expander in your die so that the tip of the primer ejecting pin protrudes about 3/16 inch from the mouth of the die. For full-length resizing the die must be screwed into the tool until it just touches the shell holder when the latter is in the raised position. For neck resizing only the die should be screwed in so that it lacks touching the shell holder by about 1/10-inch. In this latter position, the body of the case will be scarcely resized at all, and the neck will be resized only to within 1/16-inch of the shoulder. This is entirely satisfactory for holding the bullet aligned and secure in the neck. My practice has been to neck-resize cases only until they begin to enter the chamber of the rifle with a little difficulty, or extract with difficulty. (I am not talking here about hard extraction from overloads, but from sensible, safe loads.) You will probably neck-resize and fire your cases four or five times before it becomes desirable to full-length resize them. Thus , you can go on continuing to use the same lot of cases for a great many reloads until finally they beg in to split at the neck, or the outside of the neck becomes unduely blackened with powder gas when it is fired.
The number of times any case can be reloaded depends on the pressure of the charge you load into it, the dimensions of the chamber of your rifle, and how often you have to full-length resize it. But very generally speaking, I have found that after I have neck-resized a case about 15 times and full length resized it about three times, I begin to notice little differences in the pressure necessary to run individual cases through the die. I then ditch that lot of cases.
In some rifles the fired cases never seem to require full-length resizing at all. This is often true of rifles chambered by our best custom rifle makers. It is a rather common thing for many of our leading bench-rest competitors using rifles for the .219 Donaldson\Wasp cartridge. With a new barrel they get 60 formed cases and fire each some 30 or more times, simply resizing the neck only down as far as the bullet seats. They never have the least trouble with case fit or sticking cases, and obtain the very finest accuracy.
I have three rifles; one for the .22-250 cartridge with a barrel made and chambered by Douglas, one with a Dillar barrel chambered by the late Al Marciante with a chambering reamer made by Red Elliot, and the, third with a .243 barrel made by Walker of Remington and chambered by Joel Hodge for the .250 Savage case necked clown to .243-inch. With none of these have I ever had to full length resize the cases. I simply neck-resize them only as far as the bullet is seated in the case. All of these cases must have been fired and neck-resized only with no extraction troubles for at least 20 firings. But as I have stated, if you are using factory rifles with factory chambers for cartridges all the way up from .243 to .30-06 caliber you will probably find it desirable to full-length resize the cases after about every five firings, generally speaking.
It does not pay to try to reload cases as many times as possible. When you begin to have any case troubles, chuck that lot and get some new primed or unprimed cases. I keep track of my cases by keeping them in the pasteboard boxes of 20 rounds that they come in. Each time I neck-resize those cases, I place a lead pencil line on the paste board box, and every time I full length resize them I place a cross on the box. Any similar system can be used to keep track.
Having resized all of your cases, wipe each off with a clean flannel rag. Doubling the rag over the point of a screwdriver, go over them again and wipe any grease from the inside of the neck of each case. Your cases are now ready for repriming.
Before we leave this subject of resizing, however, we must touch on reloading for tubular magazine rifles, and for lever, pump, and semi-auto rifles. With all such rifles, except possibly the Winchester Model 88, there is a certain spring to the breech block when fired, and cases tend to expand and lengthen. Except when fired with very reduced loads, cases fired in such rifles must be full-length resized each time they are fired.
Trimming The Brass
Cases also tend to lengthen after they have been reloaded and fired a number of times. You should have a vernier caliper handy and measure a couple of cases each time they are resized. When a batch of cases begin to exceed the standard overall length by about .02-inch they should be trimmed back to standard length and then their mouths should be chamfered again. Usually I find that cases can be fired ten or more times before they need trimming. The .300 H & H Magnum case is perhaps the greatest offender in lengthening. When a case is excessively long, too long for its chamber, the end of the chamber crimps the mouth of the case on the bullet when you force it into the rifle, and accuracy and pressures go sky high. Some reloading-tool makers provide convenient case trimmers.
The Repriming Phase
Be sure you use the right size and kind of primer. A pistol primer will not ignite the powder in a rifle case properly, and a rifle primer in a pistol case will over-ignite. Tests of all of our standard makes of primers with the same rifle, case, and powder charge do show slight variations in velocity and pressure between the different makes, but so slight as to be insignificant. Personally, I have never found any difference that can be discerned in the shooting. It is desirable that the primer seat in its pocket with a uniform pressure, just a slight firm pressure, and that the primer also seat even with or just slightly below the face of the case head. Several times I have found that with a certain make of case, a certain make of primer seated too hard or did not seat deeply enough. In each of these instances changing the make of primer cured the trouble. Federal primers have slightly rounded heads, all others being flat. For Federal primers it is best to use a priming arm that has a slightly rounded plunger. I much prefer to make repriming a separate operation after the cases have been resized and wiped clean. .30-06 Government ammo has the primers crimped in, and you have to use an extra strong decapping pin to remove them. The primer pocket should then be reamed out with a special tool supplied by the tool makers before you can seat primers in these cases. Many handloaders stress cleaning the primer pocket before seating a new primer. I have hardly ever found this necessary. If fouling accumulates in a primer pocket so primers will not seat deeply enough, scratching the bottom corner of the pocket with a sharp awl will remove it.
Powder Charge And Bullet
It is a grave mistake to select or try to work up to a load that will give the highest possible velocity. Even long experience in target shooting or hunting will not demonstrate that 100 feet-per-second in muzzle velocity makes any appreciable difference either in trajectory or killing power. Safety is, of course, the first consideration. When working up a new load, or a load for a new rifle that you have not shot before, always start with a charge two to three grains below the recommended maximum charge. Load two cartridges with this charge, two with a grain or two more and two with the maximum recommended charge. Try them in turn. If any of them give any indications of high pressure, stop right there and reduce your load at least a grain below that. High pressure will be indicated by the case sticking in the chamber so it is difficult to extract, or by slight powder smudge or leak around the primer, and particularly by the primer blowing out. The firing pin indentation in the primer is not a reliable indication of pressure. Remember also that a charge which apparently gives normal pressure when you first test it on the range in normal or cool weather may give excessive pressure in the field in very hot weather, or when your rifle or the ammo have become heated by exposure to direct sunlight.
I think that the two Speer Manuals, one for standard cartridges, and one for wildcat cartridges, along with the Lyman Handbook, are the best guides to proper powder charges. Generally speaking, with cartridges starting with the .243 Winchester and going up, I have obtained my best results when using the heavier weights of bullets from the slow burning powders like 4350 and 4831. Lighter bullets have performed best with 3031 and 4895 powders.
The Speer manuals tend to rate cartridges of like calibers and weights of bullets according to the velocity that can be attained with the maximum charge. Take this with a grain of salt because velocities cannot be reliably measured that close. That is, take two similar cartridges with slightly different capacity cases, one showing about 50 or 100 fps greater velocity than the other. The Speer manual rates the first as being more efficient than the latter. But this is based on chronograph results for only one rifle for each cartridge. The same identical load in two rifles of the same make and caliber may show as much as 100 fps difference in muzzle velocity. Thus, with two different cartridges (cases) of the same caliber, differing just slightly in shape or powder capacity, it would take tests in about five barrels for each to determine whether one or the other would average the highest velocity. It does not pay to quibble over 50 or 100 fps difference in velocity. Nor can you possibly tell the difference in loads differing as little as 100 fps in velocity when it comes to the trajectory or its killing power. Therefore, adopt the load that gives the best accuracy, and gives no indication of excess pressure or recoil, rather than one which the tables say gives the highest velocity. However, in entirely normal rifles of standard makes that are well bedded in their stocks, I have as a rule, obtained the best results, including accuracy, in loads that approach but never exceed the maximum charges in tables such as those found in the Speer manual.
Provided you use a sensible load as above, accuracy and reliability in your hand loaded cartridge depends far more on the bullet you use than on the powder charge. Some rifles of the same make and caliber seem to prefer one make of bullet and some another. It is best to test all makes of bullets of the same weight and select the one that gives the best accuracy, based on firing at least four groups with each.
The tendency today is to select a light-weight bullet because it gives the highest velocity. This is not always wise, even for varmint loads. Very often, a heavier bullet with a greater sectional density and a higher ballistic coefficient will give greater velocity, flatter trajectory, buck the wind better, and give better killing power beyond about 200 yards than a light bullet, even if the light bullet has 200 or 300 fps greater muzzle velocity. One of the advantages of the Speer manuals is that they give the sectional densities and ballistic coefficients of almost all bullets of various weights and calibers. These tables will also suffice for all other makes of bullets.
You will certainly need a powder scale for measuring your powder charges by accurate weight. I use the Redding scale which is very satisfactory. The Pacific scale is less expensive and also satisfactory, but much slower. Either makes measuring each powder charge very slow. A good powder measure greatly speeds up throwing of powder charges. You must have both because you must set the powder measure by throwing charges on the scale. The best powder measures will throw an occasional charge plus or minus as much as two-tenths of a grain from the actual weight as measured on a good scale. Our experience in extremely accurate bench-rest shooting has shown that this small variation in charges makes no appreciable difference in accuracy. That is, a difference of two-tenths of a grain will not show up on the target because, despite all you can do, there will be other variations in your loads that will blot out the slight difference in velocity.
When you have your powder measure set to throw the charge desired, place all your empty primed cases heads up in your cartridge block. Throw your first charge from your measure on your powder scale to see that it is of correct weight. Pour that charge in your first case with a funnel and put the case back in the cartridge block mouth up. Then start throwing charges from the measure directly into the cases, placing each in the block mouth up. Check every tenth charge on the scale again to show that the powder measure is still throwing the correct charge. When you have finished charging all your cases, hold the block in a good light and run your eye along the rows of cases to see that the powder charges stand at a uniform height in each case. This is a very necessary safety precaution to see that no case has an excessive or a short charge of powder. Keep your measure at least one quarter full of powder all the time.
Screw your 7/8 x 14" bullet-seat ing die into your tool. Place an empty case in your shell holder, run it all the way up, and screw the bullet seating die into your tool until it meets the case. Fasten the lock nut. Have the bullet seating stem in your die screwed way up, and insert a factory loaded cartridge into the shell holder. Run it up into the die. Then screw the bullet-seating stem down until it meets the bullet. Your tool is now set to seat your bullets to the same depth and to the same overall cartridge length as the factory cartridge. Bullets with different shape points will seat to slightly different depths, but you can easily adjust for this.
With each cartridge there is a standard overall length, measured from the base of the case to the tip of the loaded bullet. Usually, this is a length that will fit and work smoothly through the magazine of standard rifles of that caliber. For example, the standard overall length of the .30-06 cartridge is 3.35 inches. You can measure this best with a vernier caliper, not from a factory cartridge. The factories seat their bullets of varying weights and shape of point to varying depths, but never more than 3.35 inches, so they will always work through the magazine. On the other extreme, bullets for hunting ammo should always be seated down to at least one-diameter depth in the neck of the case for security and waterproof qualities. That is, the base of a .30 caliber bullet should be seated down at least .30 inch in the neck of your case. Thus, with a light bullet, your cartridge will have a shorter overall length than standard.
For the very finest accuracy, it is sometimes desirable that the bullets be seated far out enough in the case so that their ogive almost touches the lands of the rifling when the cartridge is inserted in the chamber and the bolt closed. They should never, however, actually impinge into the rifling because that condition may give you excessive pressure. Too, if you insert such a long-seated bullet into the chamber and then extract the cartridge without firing, the bullet may remain in the barrel. Of course, such a long.seated bullet may not operate through the magazine, and you will have. to load each cartridge singly. To find out if a long-seated bullet touches the lands, rub some ordinary lipstick on it and insert the cartridge in the chamber and close the bolt. Then when you extract that cartridge, if it impinges on the lands, it will show on the bullet.
With your bullet-seating die set correctly, you are now ready to seat the bullets. Take each powder-filled case in turn from your loading block, place it in the shell holder of your loading tool. Take a bullet with your left fingers, balance it on the top of the mouth of the case, feeling with your fingers to check that the base is aligned centrally with the mouth of the case, Allowing your fingers to remain there to guide the case with its bullet balanced on top, close the lever of the tool with your right hand, thus seating the bullet.
The bullet should seat evenly and with a uniform slight pressure. If it does not seat correctly and with a uniform fairly light pressure, thus indicating a uniform tension in the neck of the case, something is wrong. Either you have neglected some of the above technique, or else you have a defective case, possibly with too hard or too soft a neck anneal. If so, better ditch that particular cartridge because your bullets must be held in the case necks with a uniform tension for good results and good accuracy.
All of the above intimate technique pertains to loading ammo for well-made modern bolt action rifles shooting modern standard or wildcat cartridges all the way from .22 Hornet to .375 H & H Magnum. If you are loading for a rifle with a tubular magazine under the barrel, your bullets must be crimped in the case so that the magazine spring pressure plus the recoil will not force and seat the bullets deeper into the cases than they should be. In this case, select a bullet having a crimping cannelure, and order your bullet seating die with a shoulder to crimp the case. Adjust this die so that it lightly crimps the case in the cannelure of the bullet.
If you are loading for a lever, pump, or semi-automatic rifle you probably will have to full-length resize your cases every time because there is a slight spring on the breech blocks of these rifles that cause a slight lengthening of the fired case. It usually will not go back into the chamber of the rifle without undue pressure if not full-length resized. And with such rifles never approach the maximum powder charge. Speer, in his manuals, gives three charges for each weight of bullet and each kind of powder. Use the lightest charge.
I usually load my cartridges in lots of 20-one pasteboard box full.
On the outside of the box I write the following information: the bullet weight and make, the number of grains of powder, the kind of powder, the primer used, and the overall length of the cartridge. The cartridges themselves will tell the caliber and the make of the case from the stamping on the head of the case. Then I'll probably shoot those 20 cartridges at bench rest at 100 yards in groups of five shots, and record the results in my dope book. Then if the average accuracy and other results are satisfactory, I am all ready to repeat that particular load at any time in any quantity I wish for target shooting or hunting, and know that the results are assured.