First comes safety. If the load is too hot or too light, the signs will be readily apparent. If the rounds are overloaded, it will show most of the time. One mild sign might be a shiny ejector mark on the case head. As a rule they are not dangerous, but it will wear out the brass quicker.
Hot loads wear out a gun more quickly, and except in narrow circumstances, are not necessary. A good example is the 220 Swift. I load mine to about 100 feet per second below the absolute max. The accuracy is great and the groundhogs never notice the difference, but the rifle and brass does. Hot loads will enlarge the primer pocket, which will render it useless; this is not always a reliable indication of excessive pressure, though it should be considered.
Other causes may be a soft primer, sharp firing pin or sticky extraction. If you have a sticky extraction and your chamber is clean and not bulged in any way, you have excessive pressure that is approaching the danger zone, especially in older guns. This is a good time to stop, pull the bullets, check and probably reduce the load.
When you get to the point of blowing primers and excessively hard extractions, then you are courting disaster if you continue to shoot them. The cause could be too much or the wrong type of powder, or even the wrong type of bullets. If you think you put in too much powder, check to make sure you didn’t set your scales wrong when you measured back at the shop. It’s a simple mistake but it happens, which is why it is so important to focus totally on the job at hand. Some of the powder labels look very similar; this is why you should only keep one powder on hand at a time during reloading.
Loads that are too light are inconsistent and probably won’t shoot accurately. A really light load may leave a bullet in the barrel. If you are not sure if the bullet left the barrel, safely check it out before shooting again. If there is a bullet lodged in the barrel, do not try to shoot it out by pulling the trigger again. This is very dangerous, and at the very least will ruin the barrel.
If the ammo has a different sound every time you shoot, you might have a hangfire, which can also be caused by a load that is too light. What happens is the powder isn’t evenly distributed within the case and does not burn at an instantaneous rate. It will burn slowly or irregularly, hence the hangfire. Old ammo can also cause a hangfire and should be discarded, but you can save the bullet. If you think you have a hangfire, keep the action closed for at least 30 seconds. The powder could also be unstable due to poor storage conditions.
Naturally, you want to see how accurate your ammo is. Since there are a lot of things that affect accuracy, don’t panic if your ammo is all over the target. Causes may range from loose scope mounts to poor bedding. If you have an accuracy issue, check out everything else first, including the shooter. If the ammo was loaded correctly, then it should be at least fairly accurate. Keep in mind different guns like different loads, so you may have to try a few different combinations to get the accuracy you want.
Using a bullet that isn’t designed for a gun’s rifling is a common mistake. An example would be using a heavy 80- to 100-grain bullet in a .223 rifle with a slow-rifling twist. The bullet won’t stabilize no matter what you do.
If you are able to achieve a 1- to 2-inch minute of angle at 100 yards with a bolt-action rifle, you are right where you need to be. Handguns will vary, but a decent gun and ammo combination should be able to achieve a 3- to 5-inch group at 25 yards, provided the shooter does their part.
So, if you have the desired accuracy and velocity without loads that are too hot, you have arrived. You should keep records of all of your loads, both good and bad. Keeping notes on bad loads should prevent you from repeating them somewhere down the road.
Another good way to test your ammo is to chronograph it. That way you can see and not guess at the velocity, plus you can test it against manufactured ammo of the same bullet weight to see how your ammo stacks up against the factory fodder. Caution! You might get your feelings hurt. Modern factory loads have improved a lot over the last 20 years or so. They are very accurate and consistent and will be as good as custom-loaded ammo; this is especially true with some custom hunting loads.
During the course of my work, I shoot a decent amount of factory ammo and very seldom does it not perform as advertised. The downside to factory-made ammo is the cost, and there may be a problem getting it on a timely basis.
You will get a really great feeling when you have crafted your own product that performs well, rather than having to buy it from a store. Another one of the many advantages to rolling your own is the ability to make ammo for obsolete guns. Shotguns, as well, can benefit from reloaded ammo. I took down a bear with a Lightfield slug that I handloaded. If you take an animal with your loads, this is a special type of satisfaction and there are very few things that will match it. ASJ
Story and photographs by Bob Shell
In this segment on loading your own ammunition, we will focus on cartridge cases since this is what holds the other three main components (powder, primer
All cases should be visually inspected and that includes new ones. I have bought a lot of cases from various brands and there are occasionally defective ones. While not common, they do exist and should be discarded. When in doubt, throw it out.
New cases can be out of round and/or oversized. Part of that comes from shipping when they are banged around. After sizing, I take an RCBS very low drag (VLD) tool and ream the inside of the casing’s necks. This helps seat the bullet and keeps it from catching on the sides of the case. This is especially important with some flat-base slugs. I feel that this also adds accuracy and consistency. Sometimes, I’ll even create a cannelure, which is a groove that I crimp a little to aid in feeding the bullet. All revolver ammo should be crimped, especially with the heavier loads. Failure to follow this rule will usually result in the bullet coming out and tying up the cylinder.
Fired cases should be inspected prior to any other procedure. This is really important if you pick up range brass. There may be a reason someone discarded their brass rather than take it home.
Before inspecting, you should clean your cases. There are several ways to do this. I use a Dillon case cleaner with crushed walnut hulls and some cleaning liquid. A couple of hours in there and they come out looking great not to mention defects are easier to spot.
You may encounter cases with Berdan primers, and we will talk about this in a minute, or some that were shot with a load that was too hot. This will produce swelling and should be discarded. If you see a shiny ring about a quarter of an inch above the rim, that may indicate excess headspace in the gun that fired it.
One of the most common problems is a split neck. Cases that are heated and cooled over and over cause them to be brittle and the only way to combat that is to anneal them. This means softening the case by heating it. This isn’t practical with common cases, unless you have more time than I do. The Berdan primer is generally used in foreign military, as well as some commercial ammo. It can be reloaded, but you also need special tools, and as a rule it’s more trouble than it’s worth. In a later installment I will go into more detail on this. The standard American primer is the Boxer, which has a flash hole in the center of the case and is much easier to work with.
When a round is fired the case expands, so when you are reloading, the cases have to be resized. All die sets, which we talked about in Part I of this series, have what is known as a sizing die and which accomplishes this task. If you buy new brass, it normally doesn’t need to be fully resized, though the neck may need to be squared.
After you size the case, you will need to check for proper case length. Cases stretch during firing and sizing, so you should lubricate the inside of the neck, especially with bottleneck cases. If the case is too long, it might be hard to chamber or even cause a dangerous buildup of pressure in some instances. It could also have an affect on accuracy. If you are just doing some informal shooting, mixing brands of cases won’t cause any harm. Some people may disagree with that, but mixed cases work well, as long as they are in good condition. For more serious purposes, such as a big-game hunt, I will segregate the cases by brand and the times that they were fired. The other stuff is used for sighting-in or practice. I’ll run all of my hunting ammo through the chamber and magazine because it’s easier to fix the problem at the shop than in the field. Serious target shooters sort their brass out by lot number, weight, size of the flash hole and other factors that might effect accuracy. They measure groups in the thousandths of an inch, so they have to be more particular than the rest of us.
After you have checked out everything, then you are ready to prime. The primer should have some feel going in, and if it’s too loose, you might want to discard the case. Loose primer pockets are generally a result of hot loads, which will stretch them beyond usefulness. Sometimes soft brass will also cause this problem. The primer should be seated about .002 inch below the head and be flush with the case or you will have another set of problems. If the primer is too tight, you either have a dirty primer pocket or perhaps a military crimp around the primer pocket. Either problem will have to be resolved prior to seating it. There are plenty of tools out there to resolve these problems, but I ream out military-primer pockets as opposed to swaging (a process of bending or shaping cold metal), as this works better for me. If a pocket is dirty you’ll need to clean first. While this may seem like a small detail, improperly seated primers can ruin good ammo.
After priming, it is time to seat your bullets. There should be some resistance when seating so the bullet stays in the case. A bullet that is too loose will either come out or cause an inconsistent ignition. This problem can be caused by a bullet that is too small, a case neck that is too thin or an oversized expander plug. If the bullet is excessively tight, it may not seat at all and will cause other problems. In a later installment in this series we will get into expanding and various types of crimping.
Like everything else in life, you get what you give. If you follow these suggestions, it will go a long way toward helping you produce quality ammo. The thing is paying attention to small details. ASJ
Story and photographs by Bob Shell
If you’ve decided to start handloading or reloading your own ammunition, there are some basic things you’ll need to start your new hobby. Space is one. Find a place you can dedicate to just loading. It can be a spare room or the corner of a garage, so long as you have space with good lighting. Your loading station should have a sturdy table to mount your press and other equipment, which can be quite heavy, and lots of shelving for easy access to all of your loading dies, bullets and powder. I suggest a table that is at least 6 feet long.
Once you have your work area set up, it’s time to buy your equipment. There are many different types and price ranges for each respective need, so it will behoove you to take some time and shop around. Most people get into loading to save money on their ammunition, and you will, but you will still have to make an initial investment on the equipment and supplies.
The purpose of the press is to hold the dies, which are needed to process the ammunition. It uses leverage to push the shell cases into the dies that perform the loading operations. The press needs to be securely mounted to the table so the cases can be resized. This takes some effort, especially with rifle ammunition. There are a variety of options made by various companies such as Lyman, Hornady and RCBS, Lee and Redding, and they all make great presses.
If you are a new loader, I would recommend a simple, single-stage press. There are progressive presses that are for multi-stage cases, but if you are not familiar with loading, they can get you into trouble. Progressives have several different tasks going on at the same time and you may miss an important step, potentially causing a batch of bad and dangerous ammunition. If you are serious about loading, I would recommend a heavy-duty model because you can load both rifle and handgun ammunition.
A die is a specialized tool used to cut or shape material using a press. Any caliber that you load is die-specific. For instance, if you want to load .40 S&W ammunition, you need that specific set of dies. Loading is a precise operation and trying to use the wrong dies will not work. If you are loading a modern straight-case, then I recommend carbide dies. Not only do they make sizing easier, you won’t have to lubricate your cases, and they last forever.
A powder measure and a set of scales are necessary to put the proper amount of powder into your cases and are vital in creating ammunition that is safe and reliable. This is where the manuals come in handy. You can look up the caliber you are loading and get the proper type and amount of powder necessary. This data was developed by professionals and should be followed closely. Other tools you may need are screwdrivers, Allen wrenches, possibly a lube pad, vernier caliper and a bullet puller. Overall, you are looking at a $400 investment, plus the cost of supplies. This will get you started.
If you load rifle cases, there are other tools you will need such as a case trimmer to trim the stretched cases and a vernier caliper to measure the length. It is very important that your case be the proper length, so don’t overlook these items.
You will be able to consult a loading manual for the proper length. Also, when loading rifle cases, a lube pad is necessary because if you do not lube the cases, one will get stuck in the die and this is a real headache to remove. You will also need a brush to lube the inside of the case neck. In the next installment, I will discuss the importance of all of these steps.
When contemplating whether you want to load, here are a couple of things to think about. First, loading is a very safe hobby if you follow the precautions and use common sense. Do not allow distractions to creep in. That means no texting, watching television or anything else that will draw your attention away from the task at hand. If you are not the type of person who pays attention to detail, then loading isn’t for you. I have been doing it for over 40 years and never had a serious mishap. It is a great hobby and well worth exploring. ASJ