Should You Handload?

If you want to shoot good, yes.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I got into the shooting racket in 1961 as a varmint hunter, and one of the first things you learned back then was that if you wanted to shoot varmints you had to load your own ammunition-factory ammo simply wasn't accurate enough. I announced this to my parents (I lived at home at the time), and my old mom began wringing her hands in anguish, envisioning Hideous Accidents and chunks of young David plastered to the basement ceiling.

Eventually I assembled all the equipment I needed and retired to the lower depths of the Petzal home to roll my own. At that precise moment, an Air Force jet flew low over our house, producing a thunderclap of biblical proportions. (The Air Force is not a military organization in the strict sense of the word, but it is very loud.)

Down the stairs flew my old mom, expecting to see smoke, fire, and the remains of her elder son dripping from the walls.

"YOU BLEW YOURSELF UP, DIDN'T YOU?" she screamed.

"Yes ma," I explained calmly, "what is sitting here talking to you is actually my disembodied spirit." She retreated up the stairs, croaking and muttering to herself.

And so, 40-odd years later, I still haven't blown myself up, which answers the first of our considerations: Is handloading safe? Yes, provided you use common sense, inform yourself about what you're doing, and are careful. If you don't do these things, you will blow yourself up.

Shoot Lots, Shoot Good
I know a number of very good rifle shots, and without exception, they load their own ammo. The reason for this is that if you want to shoot well, you have to shoot a lot. The only way you can afford to shoot a lot is to make a lot of money or load your own ammo. I've found that it's a lot easier to load your own ammo.

The most expensive component in a round of centerfire ammunition is the brass case-just under 50 percent of the total cost, in fact-and if you can save that case and substitute your labor for the factory's in loading it, you can suddenly afford to shoot in volume. Once you buy your basic tools-press, scale, dies, primer seater, etc.-you're pretty much done, because nothing wears out.

Your only expense over the long term is components-powder, bullets, primers, and cases. (Yes, the cases do wear out eventually, but unless your pressures are high you can get 10 to 15 loadings out of a brass case without much trouble.) Look for bargains. Someone is always having a sale or going out of business, and that is where you jump in.

However, it's not a good idea to stockpile powder. Although smokeless powder is no more dangerous than cleaning fluid or propane or gasoline, you don't want a ton of it in your house because if you do have a fire and it catches, you will have a really dandy blaze to contend with. On top of that, there may be legal restrictions on how much you can store in a residential dwelling, so check, and then keep only what you need on hand, and no more.

Super Ammo
Factory ammo is infinitely better than it was 30 years ago; in fact, it's so good that often I can't equal it with handloads, much less surpass it. But once in a while a rifle simply will not shoot factory ammo well, and if you load your own, you can fix things. Some years ago I got a .270 from Ultra Light Arms (now New Ultra Light Arms) that shot only so-so. This was a shock because NULAs are tack drivers. It didn't like anything I fed it at first, but I started experimenting and found that the rifle loved the 140-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw bullet.

Lo and behold, it would hammer them into an inch or less, and there is no deadlier slug made than the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw. I've had that rifle since 1987, have killed I don't know how much game with it, and have never had to pull the trigger twice. (In South Carolina, I killed two deer with one shot, but that's another story.)

Only the handloadeer knows the joy of switching to a different powder, or using a half grain more or less, or changing primer brands, or seating the bullet a little farther in or a little farther out, and seeing mediocre groups turn into bragging groups. It's magic, is what it is.

Is It Difficult?
Trust me, if I can handload, then you can, too. It requires absolutely no skill with your hands, which is fortunate, because I am severely challenged in that area. What you need to do is get a couple of loading manuals and read them before you even start. You will then have a grasp of the basics. What the manuals can't supply is judgment-how to gauge pressures, how to look at a group that's not so tight and be able to tighten it. This is something you get from experience, and from consulting with other handloaders who know what they're talking about.

But always keep this in mind: The penalties for carelessness are very severe. About 15 years ago a shooter I knew got hold of a surplus Model 1917 Enfield, a .30/06 U.S. military bolt action that's about as strong as rifles come. A friend gave him some handloads to shoot in it. With the first pull of the trigger the action disintegrated, and the shattered extractor gouged out one of the shooter's eyes. In order to save the other eye, he was given huge doses of steroids, which destroyed the lining of his hip sockets, and required that artificial hip joints be implanted. He suffered the torments of the damned and ended up crippled for life.

What destroyed the rifle? It may have been caked grease in the bore, or a bad handload, or a combination of the two. I think about that accident often. In fact, I think about it every time I step into my loading room.