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 Mike Nesbitt
During my initial try at black-powder, cartridge-rifle silhouettes, the first person I met was Beth Morris. She was the match manager who greeted us, accepted our entry fees and also presented the awards after the shoot. Those tasks would keep any person well occupied; however, during the match was when she really got busy.
Beth is a real shooter: She uses Model 1874 Sharps rifles in “buffalo” calibers, and her stocks are decorated with entry stickers from her many competitions. Those stickers are the real marks of experience, but don’t let me suggest that Beth is the only woman to shoot in those matches, because there are several ladies who compete (and hunt) with black powder rifles. You can find ladies shooting in silhouette and long-range matches, as well as the famous Matthew Quigley buffalo rifle match in Montana this month. As a lady Sharps shooter Beth isn’t alone, but she is outstanding.
The real start for Beth was when she pitched in to help her husband Steve with his bullet casting and reloading. Steve started competing in black powder cartridge rifle (BPCR) silhouette matches 15 years ago and had little time to prepare the ammo the way he wanted it. That’s when Beth learned how to cast bullets and, as she says, one thing led to another.
Her next step was spotting for Steve while he was shooting. A spotter watches for bullet impacts to let the shooter know if any sight adjustments need to be made. Spotting, of course, is done with powerful scopes that can see the bullet’s impact from well over a quarter of a mile away.
Their first BPCR match was at the Powder River Sportsmen’s Club in Baker City, Ore., and both of them quickly got hooked on the sport. Beth’s boss at the time was also competing and they would have lengthy discussions at work about reloading, ballistics, reading and calling wind conditions, plus everything else related to long-range, black-powder-rifle shooting. Beth would then share this knowledge and expertise with Steve.
Beth then got involved in the testing and load development for Steve’s Sharps .45-70. Even though she had only shot a rifle once in her life previously, she started thinking about doing some of the shooting herself. So, after one of the matches she fired her first shot with a black-powder, single-shot Model 1874 Shiloh Sharps in .40-65. On her second shot she knocked down a pig silhouette at 300 meters and was hooked.
Steve was certainly excited about Beth’s shooting, although he might have been a little worried about the extra work it involved. She told him she would start shooting under two conditions: She wanted to do all her own bullet casting, reloading and load development so whatever she achieved would be her own accomplishments from start to finish. She depended on Steve’s support and advice, but she wanted to do the work. The second condition was that if she felt at any time her shooting adversely affected her husband’s enjoyment or ability to compete in the matches, she would quickly quit. Luckily, it turned out to be a great experience for both of them and something that they share a great passion for.
Beth began looking for her first black-powder-cartridge rifle and decided on a .40-65 caliber Pedersoli Rolling Block from Dixie Gun Works. She shot in her first silhouette match with that rifle in September of 2002 and reached a score of seven hits out of the 40 targets. Frankly, that isn’t a bad start, and by December of the next year she was shooting in the NRA AAA Class, which generally means she was hitting 26 to 30 targets out of 40, almost a master-class shooter.
Now, Beth shoots three different .45-70 rifles, all Shiloh Sharps Model 1874s. Beth gives her rifles names, and that to me is revealing because it means she recognizes how each rifle can have a character of its own. We might say that people who name their guns know their guns the best.
Her first rifle is named “Freebie” because Steve won her (all of Beth’s rifles are ladies too) in a drawing at the Idaho State Match. She is a Hartford Model .45-70 with a 30-inch heavy barrel, Montana Vintage Arms front sight and long-range Soule rear sight on the tang. This rifle is also fitted with an MVA 23-inch 6-power scope with a 4 minute-of-angle aperture reticle. Freebie is Beth’s all-around gun for iron sights and scope classes, and she has helped her win several NRA national titles while setting several women’s records. Beth uses Freebie mainly for shooting with a scope, and has fired over 16,000 rounds through her.
Beth’s second rifle is called “The Ninety.” It started out as a .45-90 lightweight hunting rifle, but they sent the gun back to have it fitted with a heavy 30-inch barrel chambered in .45-70, half-round, half-octagon. With this gun, she also uses a Crossno .22-caliber barrel liner for practice, and with the liner she also competes in BPCR .22 long-range silhouette competitions. Those Crossno liners are accurate, and with that combination Beth won the “High Woman” award at the national matches in Raton, N.M., in both 2009 and 2010 as well as the Oregon State .22 Iron Sight Open Championship in 2013. Beth achieved her Master Class in .22 Long Range Silhouette competition with The Ninety in 2013.
“Surely” is the name of Beth’s third Sharps rifle, and it’s very special for several reasons. The only time the NRA Nationals, held at Whittington Center in Raton, ever awarded the Shiloh Sharps rifle trophy to a High Woman Champion was in 2008 when this rifle was presented to Beth Morris who used Surely for the competition.
Surely is a .45-70 Model 1874 No. 3 Sporting Rifle with a heavy 30-inch barrel. It is equipped with an MVA front sight and midrange Soule sight on the tang. Beth named this rifle Surely in honor of her mother, Shirley Merrin who passed away after a brave battle with cancer.
“My mom,” Beth says, “was the rock of our family and could always be counted on to support and encourage us. So my beautiful mother’s spirit now is part of that rifle.”
In 2009 Surely helped Beth achieve her highest finish at the Nationals in Raton. That year Beth finished 5th overall out of 182 shooters, and she won the AAA Class and was the high-scoring woman in both the scope and iron-sight classes.
BETH MORRIS’S SHOOTING ACHIEVEMENTS
2006 NRA National Woman Champion Scope
2008 NRA National Woman Champion Scope and Irons
2009 NRA National Woman Champion Scope and Irons, 1st AAA Class, 5th overall
2010 NRA National Woman Champion Scope and Irons, 6th AAA
2012 NRA National Woman Champion Scope and Irons
2014 NRA National Woman Champion Iron Sights
2013 Oregon State Long Range .22 Silhouette Iron Sight Champion (open)
2014 Oregon State Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette Scope Champion (open)
NRA National Record for Women in BPCR Iron Sights (coholder)
2 NRA Women’s Team Records in BPCR Iron Sights – 3 Woman Team
Numerous State awards in AAA class (Oregon, Idaho and Montana)
Numerous State High Woman awards (Oregon, Idaho and Montana)
All three of Beth’s rifles have added custom pistol grips that Steve makes out of black walnut. Those grips allow for more control, especially in offhand shooting. Steve also adjusts the trigger pulls on the set triggers of Beth’s Sharps rifles so that all three have a very similar light pull. That allows Beth to switch from one gun to another without any real difference in the feel of those rifles. She says she is very lucky to be married to her gunsmith.
Beth Morris is a Sharps shootin’ gal, for sure. She knows what she’s doin’ and more than a few guys ask her advice on loads and bullet styles, especially for black-powder-cartridge silhouette shooting and those shots out to 500 meters. We might say if you want to see how it is done, just watch Beth while she shoots her Sharps. ASJ
Beth is seen here with “Freebie,” one of her three Sharps .45/70 rifles.
Posted in Black Powder Tagged with: .40-65, .45-70, Ballistics, Beth Morris, Black Powder, BPCR, Bullet Casting, Hartford model .45-70, Mike Nesbitt, Montana Vintage Arms, NRA, Pedersoli Rolling Block, Powder River Sportsmen's Club, Reloading, Sharps Rifle, Steve Morris
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