Best rifle hand load development

A lot of guys write in to Ask The Gun Editor and a good  many  of them are handloaders wanting to know the “best” load for their  favourite cartridge. The vast majority of these requests are for  rifle calibres, then handgun loading data, but very few ask for  for shotgun loads. This is hardly surprising because there is  hardly any need for load development with shotshells. All the  shotshell reloader has to do is follow the  recommended loads  listed in various guides, and take care to match the components  listed therein to duplicate the performance of factory loads.

Reloaders   of  handgun  ammunition  in  this  country   are  primarily concerned with finding a load that delivers good  accuracy and functions reliably. These pistoleros shoot off many  thousands of reloads every year at targets. Data for handgun  cartridges is easy to come by and competition shooters seldom stray far from a combination of components that has been  successful for them over a period of time.

Riflemen  are  entirely  different. Most who write  in  are  hunters  and economy is not their major concern. They are more  interested in gaining pin-point accuracy, the highest velocity  with the flattest trajectory, and the highest retained   energy  downrange. If they’re trophy hunters they’ll want a load with  enough punch to stop a charging lion or buffalo  in their tracks.  All of this sounds like a big ask, but it really isn’t. A well  developed handload can be a spectacular performer for just about  every purpose from vapourising varmints and dropping big-game at  long range, to stopping dangerous game at close quarters.

Back in 1950 when I started handloading, it was universally  recognized that in virtually all respects a carefully assembled  handload was superior to a factory-loaded round. Not only was  accuracy significantly better with handloads, but quite often it  was possible to increase velocity by 100 fps without exceeding  safe pressures.
An experienced handloader, for example, could  load the 7mm Mauser so that it came close to equalling the  performance of the popular .270 Winchester. High-quality bullets  also  assured the handloader of increased performance on game,  and the experimenter had a wide range of bullets to experiment  with in  his search for the ultimate load.

Today the handloader finds it difficult to equal,  let  alone  surpass  the performance of factory-loaded ammunition,  particularly stuff like Winchester Supreme and other top end  loads for the simple reason that factory cartridges have to a  greater degree surpassed the average handload! Now many calibres  are now being loaded with premium controlled-expansion bullets or  sleek spitzer boattails that were once the exclusive domain of  the handloader, and ammo makers have refined their powder  charges. But although ammomakers have lifted their game, one  advantage they can’t match is  being able to develop the one load  that performs best in your rifle.

The burning question of course is, how do you go about finding  your best load?

Actually, it is not quite as difficult as you might  think. Let’s say you have a .270 Winchester rifle and that you want to  work up a big-game load using 150-grain bullets. You refer to  your reloading manual, but find that it  lists  thirty loads,  using  ten different powders, for the .270 with three different  150gn bullets. Don’t panic thinking you have to buy all ten types  of powders and try all those different loads in order to find the  combination that works best in your individual rifle.

Fortunately, you don’t have to try every possible combination  because the solution to finding the best load is right there in  your manual. Before you get started, however, there are a few  things you should know about reloading manuals. Firstly, it is  important to use a current manual. If your manual is many years  old, you may miss out on some of the best loads using some  excellent powders that  have been introduced in recent years.  Another reason for updating your manual is that loading data is  often revised in the interest of safety and better performance,  so that an efficient load you worked up a decade ago may no  longer perform as well as it used to. Nor would it be unusual for  what was some handloader’s effective long-range load years ago to  start showing signs of excessive pressure.

If you are reloading for a number of different  calibres,  it’s probably a good idea to invest in a few different reloading  manuals as well as any data put out by bullet and propellant manufacturers. This is because you will find considerable  differences in maximum charges and/or their velocities.  These  conflicting numbers may be confusing, but are all valid  because  differences in guns, components, test equipment, testing  procedures and operators will cause variations in results and thus in the published data. 

Some of the loading data furnished by propellent and bullet makers is developed in special test guns having a universal  reeciver fitted with special pressure barrels of minimum bore and  groove dimensions – that are usually 650mm long and used to  measure pressures as well as velocities.

Loading  data in some manuals,  Nosler’s in  particular,  is  mostly developed using such ballistic laboratory  equipment, but  some others develop their data using standard hunting rifles. The  Hornady manual lists .270 loads worked up in a Model 70 with  600mm barrel, and Speer used a Ruger Model 77 MK II. The 6th  Edition Nosler manual shows .270 loads taken in a 600mm Shilen  test barrel, while the  Sierra data was developed in
a Savage  Model 116 with 650mm barrel. Depending upon the manual, loads for  other calibres have been developed using a variety of rifles and barrel lengths. The advantage of having several manuals on hand  means you can select loads developed in a rifle similar to yours or at least one with the same barrel length. There’s no  guarantee, however, muzzle velocities  will be then same in your gun.

Most handloaders  will choose the manual loads that  give  the highest velocities. This doesn’t mean that you should start  with the listed maximum loads, but the high velocity loads do  indicate which propellant or propellants are most efficient in a  given cartridge and bullet weight. This matching of the powder to  the capacity of the case and the weight of the bullet is critical  to obtaining the optimum  ballistic performance and accuracy.

When  you check powder charges for the .270 Winchester in the  manuals, you will notice that the heaviest charges of powder are  the ones that give the highest velocity. This is because the .270  case has a large capacity for its bore size and thus is best  suited by slow burning powders. But there’s a limit to how slow!

It is possible to use  an ultra-slow powder that burns too slowly  for this particular cartridge and bullet weight; which results in  a heavier charge that fills the case to the mouth, but which  generates lower velocity. On the other end of the equation, a  faster-burning powder that only half fills the case may generate  pressure at too fast a rate without giving as much velocity. The  reality is, there are at least four powders available with  burning charactistics that are well suited in the .270  Winchester with 150gn bullets – Re-19, Re-22, AR2213sc and  AR2217.

Be  aware  that  changing bullet weights for  a  particular  cartridge can make it necessary to use propellants with different  burning rates. An example of this is the propellants used for the  highest velocities with light 90, 100 and 110gn bullets in the .270 – AR2209 and WIN-760 – which are rated as being slow –  burning, but which are not all that slow.

Your  manuals  may show identical or similar  velocities  for  widely different charges of two or more different powders. This  may tempt you into choosing the load that requires less powder,  thinking you’ll get more bang for your buck. 

You may indeed save  a little money, but pay a penalty by sacrificing accuracy. It is  generally accepted that a rifle cartridge is most efficient and  most accurate when the case is charged with a powder that nearly  fills the case, leaving little or no air space. This is why you  should always choose the powder in your manual that yields the  highest velocity (efficiency) and has the highest loading density (accuracy).

The  term “loading density) describes the percentage volume  of a cartridge case that is filled by the propellant. There are  methods of calculating loading density, but if a powder charge  fills a case up to the base of the bullet, that load is rated as  being 100-percent. Obviously, if the case is less than full, the  loading density is listed in smaller percentages. As far as I am  aware, the only loading manual that lists “Load Density Volume is  Nosler’s, now in the 6th edition. This immediately gives you an  indication of how fully a particular charge will fill the  cartridge case.

Some handloaders are shocked to find that some loads  listed  in various manuals will overflow the case. Their first thought is  that they’ve adjusted their powder measure wrong, but when they  weigh the charge and find that it matches the load in the manual,  they are puzzled. It is quite logical for them to assume that the  guy who wrote the manual made a blunder.

In fact, there are a good many listed loads  – including  some of the best and most accurate – that more than fill the  case. The trick is in knowing  how to get the powder into the case.  If  the charge fills the case nearly
 to the top,  you  can   settle the powder by holding a finger over the case’s mouth and  gently tapping it on the bench. But an easier way to get a lot of  powder into the case is to use a funnel with long drop tube.  You’ll be amazed at how densely the powder granules will pack  down into the case when you use a 10cm drop tube accompanied by a little tapping. High density loads tend to ignite and burn  uniformly which makes them more accurate than reloads which have  the charge loose in the case.

Despite  being  dropped through a  long  tube,  some  powder charges may still fill the case to its mouth, resulting in what  is known as a compressed charge. These most commonly occur  with  magnum  cartridges using heavy charges of slow-burning coarse-  grained stick powders. Today, we have modern powders like  AR2213sc (short cut) which have finer granules and require less compression.

Some handloaders are scared of compressed loads,  but within  limits their concern is misplaced. A charge that fills the case  up into the neck and is compressed by the bullet is as safe as  any other. If your manual lists such a load, and you are using  the same bullet weight, powder charge and brand of case,
you can  be sure that the load is safe.

But bear in mind that cartridge cases of  different  makes  can vary considerably in capacity, even if the calibre is the  same.

A charge that might fit easily in, say a Winchester case  might overflow in a Remington or Federal case, or vice versa.  This is a compelling reason why you should never start off with  a maximum charge. Always begin with the starting load listed in  your manual and work up in small increments. If bolt lift is easy  and fired cases give easy extraction, gradually increase the load  to the full recommended charge, that is if you  want top  velocity. And don’t be surprised if the fastest load is the most  accurate. This isn’t a coincidence but rather the result  of a  well-balanced load that is just right for your rifle. When a  rifle doesn’t shoot well with top loads, but is significantly  more accurate with slightly reduced loads, it is often an  indication that there is something wrong with the rifle, the  ammunition or the shooter’s technique.

When  testing your rifle and reloads for accuracy,  it is a  mistake to try too many different combinations of propellants and  charge weights – unless you’ve got a lot of time on your hands. I’ve known handloaders who load five rounds each of a dozen or two dozen different load combinations and then shoot groups with  them all. They single out the smallest group and declare it the  “best” load on the basis of just one group. This is, of course, a worthless estimate.

It is a lot more meaningful to test fewer load  combinations and take larger samplings. Fire at least four five-shot groups  with each load. The more groups you fire,the more reliable your  results will be. To make a  genuine appraisal of your rifle’s  accuracy potential, throw out the best group and the worst one, and average the rest. That will give a more realistic idea of the  true accuracy of your rifle.

The methods described here are a simple but reliable way to  discover the best loads for your rifle just as long as you’ve taken care to prepare your brass properly, match components, choose the best powder and use the optimum bullet-seating depth  for your rifle. Failure to do this will invalidate the results of your testing.

This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, March 2012




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Nick Harvey

The late Nick Harvey (1931-2024) was one of the world's most experienced and knowledgeable gun writers, a true legend of the business. He wrote about firearms and hunting for about 70 years, published many books and uncounted articles, and travelled the world to hunt and shoot. His reloading manuals are highly sought after, and his knowledge of the subject was unmatched. He was Sporting Shooter's Technical Editor for almost 50 years. His work lives on here as part of his legacy to us all.