Shoot big game with your best handload

Handloads for big-game hunting are often thrown together with no way near the same amount of care being taken as with loads intended for varmint shooting or target work.This is a sad reflection on those hunters who feel that any old load is good enough for big game. To some extent this may be true because it doesn’t really take something special to drop that deer. You can do just as well with a factory load.

Over the last forty or fifty years, factory  ammo has undergone continuous improvement, making it more difficult to beat, even with the most carefully assembled handloads. Today, factory stuff shoots better, hits harder and functions more reliably than ever before. It equals or outperforms the best handloads of  a couple of decades ago, and, on the whole, it  is as good as the majority of handloads being assembled today. 

In terms of factory load development Hornady is leading the charge, having just brought out a new line of ammo that increases velocities by up to 200 foot-seconds. There’s no question about it, commercial ammunition in the 21st century is, capable of taking any game in the world, under any hunting conditions. 

If the store-bought stuff is that good, why does anyone bother to reload? What can we gain over factory rounds that makes it worth going to all the trouble? It isn’t just about economy, no matter how many hundred rounds we shoot in a year.

While the average reload may cost about half what a comparable factory cartridge costs, some of them cost a good deal more. A top-performing premium bullet will cost the handloader more than a complete factory round. And when you take into account the cost of reloading equipment, it will take many years to amortize the savings on big-game hunting ammo alone. So, obviously, any saving that may accrue is a minor consideration these days. 

It’s not just that your handload is capable of dropping a stag in his tracks that counts. Rather it’s the thrill of using a load that you’ve spent many long, painstaking hours developing for your rifle; in other words you accomplished the feat with your own “pet load.” 

Most handloaders have come to realize that reloads can no longer boost the power of their rifles, except with a few oldtime cartridges used in modern arms. These include the .257 Roberts and 7x57mm Mauser, but with modern rounds introduced since 1950, handloads don’t offer any worthwhile increase in velocities over factory ammo. This is because velocities in post- World War II cartridges were originally standardized with modern progressive-burning propellants in strong modern rifle actions. Factory loads develop the same high pressures at which handloads are safe, Today, more than a few cartridges are being loaded to an average pressure of 60,000 psi, which means that the handloader working with a .243 Win., 7mm Rem. Mag or .300 Win. Mag., for example, cannot raise pressures without serious risk. 

The Winchester Short Magnums are loaded  to an average 63,000 psi with an upper limit of 65,000 psi. It would be dangerous to attempt to exceed this level since brass begins to flow at 70,000 psi. 

Then there’s the question of accuracy. Many handloaders take it for granted that they can beat a factory load’s grouping without half trying. Sometimes they succeed, but there’s no question that it’s a lot more difficult than what  it once was. A handloader can, though experimentation, determine which bullet, powder, primer, charge weight, and seating depth works best in an individual rifle, something the factories obviously cannot do. In addition, he can work with cases already fireformed to be a close fit in his rifle’s chamber and sized in a way that produces the best accuracy. Finally, because it’s his hobby, he can take as much time as he needs to assemble a batch of reloads to minimum tolerances. 

The handloader has a big advantage in that  he doesn’t have to show a profit on his time and investment, whereas the big ammo factories must keep churning out millions of rounds every week, all of which must function safely in all the millions of different rifles made all over the world, and make a profit on every one.

There is a select group of high-priced hunting rifles that are guaranteed to shoot of 1/2-minute-of-angle for 3 shots with selected ammo or precision reloads, but they are in the minority. A run-of-the-mill commercial sporter is more likely to average from 1-1/2 to 2 MoA. Happily, most of them show improvement after being rebedded and developing specific handloads for them. 

How do you go about tailoring a load for your big-game rifle? It’s easy enough once you sit down and work out exactly what you want.

Consider my most recent load development job. The 2010 hunting season was coming up and I wanted a load for my 7mm Harvey Magnum that I could use for different sized deer from fallow to red deer as well as sambar. My first step was to decide what bullet weight would be best. A 140 grainer would work all right on the smaller species, but it’s a bit light for angling shots especially on sambar where a lot of heavy muscle and bones have to be got through to reach the vitals. 

Years of experience has proved to me that  a good 175gn bullet in a fast 7 em-em is an excellent choice for game the size of wapiti and sambar, giving both good penetration through heavy bone and enough expansion to inflict maximum tissue damage, while penetrating deeply enough to reach and destroy vital organs. However, a 175gn bullet can be a little on the heavy side for most deer, sometimes failing to give adequate expansion. 

What I wanted was something in between, a bullet I could rely upon to perform on both red deer and sambar under most of the conditions governed by range and terrain. The 160gn bullet – a weight many shooters consider ideal for the 7mm magnums – was the obvious choice.

The next choice was bullet shape. Most of  the areas where I hunt are mountainous, but feature large clearings with thin stands of timber scattered about the higher ground. The average shot is taken at between 100 and 200 metres and a 300 metres shot is rare, since there’s plenty of cover to hide the hunter’s approach. For this kind of shooting considering the size of game, there’s no need for a sleek plastic-tipped bullet with high ballistic coefficient that retains its velocity better than less streamlined designs. After considering three different bullets, I settled on the Woodleigh 160gn PP SN , a semi-pointed bullet with an S.D of .283 and the respectable B.C of .486. It lies between the Nosler Partition, B.C .475 and the AccuBond with .531 and is a good long range performer and an excellent game bullet. In early tests it had proved very accurate in my custom Mauser.

Which powder to use? I’d obtained good results in my 7mm HM with a variety of powders – including AR2209, H4831 and Reloder 22. But I have a preference for a powder that would nearly fill the case creating a condition of high load density which often contributes to optimum accuracy. In my pet wildcat, both AR2209 and AR2213sc are very versatile producing speeds of 3130fps with 140gn bullets, 3080 fps with 150gns and 2995fps with 160gn. However, charges of stick powders are sometimes heavily compressed, so I decided to try Winchester’s new Ball powder – Supreme 780 which would have a high loading density without compressing the powder. 

For primers I chose the CCI 250 magnum because ballpowders are difficult to ignite, particularly in cold weather. The extra heat  and extended burning duration would effect complete, consistent combustion. 

At this stage the handloader should realize that pre- selecting a certain bullet weight and shape, together with the powder, doesn’t always guarantee that this combination will produce the best accuracy your rifle is capable of. Still I think it’s essential to use a bullet that will handle the particular game animals you intend using it on, and if this means you may have to be satisfied with slightly less than the best possible accuracy, then so be it.

When you’ve made your choice, it’s time to go to work. The first step is to select cases that will function flawlessly through your rifle. This calls either for new brass or once or twice fired cases of the same make. After inspecting them and discarding any with defects, run them all through a full length die as opposed to neck sizing. On a serious big-game hunt, especially overseas, each round must chamber smoothly and this can be guaranteed only when you full length resize. Only absolute mechanical efficiency is acceptable in such rounds. Perfect functioning, feeding from the magazine, chambering, firing, extraction and ejection are the prime considerations in hunting handloads. You sure as hell don’t want to get a neck-sized case stuck in the chamber when getting ready to shoot at a trophy stag.
Next, it’s a good idea to trim all cases to be of uniform length. I trimmed my 7mm HM cases to 55mm. 

Next you assemble a series of test loads, make certain that the loads you are using aren’t too hot, and pay attention to seating the bullets to the correct depth. Bullet seating has an effect upon mechanical reliability whuch must be determined for each individual rifle. A powder charge that develops excessive pressure can cause difficult extraction or even stick a case solidly in the chamber. 

If you are working with a factory cartridge, your first load should be the starting load shown in your manual, not the maximum load listed. With my wildcat, I referred to previous data. Many shooters get the idea that they can start at the top and work up. They think the maximum loads listed in manuals are conservative because of public liability risks. They couldn’t be more wrong!

Variations in chamber and bore dimensions, temperature, humidity, case capacity, powder burning rate and other things combine to change chamber pressure and velocities from rifle to rifle.

This is why there are differences in loading data between manuals and the reason why you should always work up carefully from the starting load.

It’s been my practice to pick one powder for my chosen bullet and try different charges with it before going to another powder. I load three rounds and fire them for accuracy at 100 metres, then increase the charge in a big-game cartridge by no more than one grain and load three more each time checking for indications of excessive pressure. When pressure signs appear, I back off one full grain and consider that charge to be maximum. But to ensure a safe working load,  I back off another grain. Four 5-shot groups are fired to check the accuracy. Finally, that load is chronographed, the maximum pointblank range calculated, and the rifle zeroed to give the flattest trajectory. 

As a rule with magnum cartridges the best accuracy usually comes with near maximum loads.In my 7mm HM, which I’d be using on game in open country at relatively long range, I ruled out a real hot load since an extra 100 foot-seconds offers no real advantage trajectorywise.The Woodleigh 160gn PP SN driven at 2966 fps,  is fast enough to deliver that bullet in the vital heart-lung area at 300-plus metres with enough remaining velocity to give good penetration and expansion. Accuracy is sub-MoA for 3 shots and only seldom does a hunter fire that many shots  at a head of big game. 

Throughout accuracy testing I pay careful attention to where the first shot from a cold barrel lands, because this is the one that counts most on game. In a properly set up rifle, the first shot should group right along with the next couple of shots.If it prints lower then you’d better find out why.

Working up a load for big-game hunting  isn’t difficult, but it is time consuming.Is it necessary to try a variety of bullet makes and styles when developing a hunting handload? Nope! if you know how a specific bullet performs, you need only work with it.  The same is true of powder. It is not always necessary to try a lot of different recipes to find an acceptable big-game load; often you’ll strike it right off.

Most hunters are aware that a big-game hunt is mostly 99.9 percent walking, glassing, spotting and stalking and 0.1 percent shooting. So why should you spend many hours and expend a hundred rounds to develop a big-game load? It’s simple – because unless you do, you run the risk of all that stalking being fruitless. The best hunting technique in the world is wasted if you can’t place that bullet where it will do the most good when you finally get to aim Old Betsy and press the trigger.

This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, August 2010.




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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.