Handload or factory ammunition for hunting?

Don Caswell

Most shooters consider handloading their own ammunition at some stage. Many go ahead and do so. Competitive benchrest and long-range shooters pretty much have to roll their own, as the saying goes. For hunters, what incentive is there to take up handloading? Folks handload for one or more of the following reasons – better accuracy, preferred projectile, reduced cost, or simply fun.

Modern handloading with smokeless powders, for the calibres we still use, began in the 1920s. Developers created their own wildcat cartridges, seeking to gain better velocity and accuracy than could be achieved with the limited choices then available to recreational shooters. Most of the drive behind handloading has been, and remains, in the US. Many calibres that are standard chamberings today began as wildcats back in the day. It was after WWII, in the late 1940s, that handloading really took off. Major technical advances from companies still prominent today and the enthusiasm of famous gun writers helped to greatly increase the numbers of shooters taking up handloading.

The driving force behind handloading in that era was the desire to obtain better accuracy and terminal ballistic performance. Projectile makers developed explosive varmint shells and controlled expansion bullets for big game, to replace the simple lead soft-points loaded into factory ammo. Military conversions, and the few sporting rifles available, invariably required bedding and other gunsmithing to improve on their out-of-the-box inherent precision. Serious hunters and shooters looked to custom-built rifles and handloading to give them the accuracy, range and terminal ballistics that could not be found in off-the-shelf sporting rifles and factory ammo.

I have to say things have improved a lot in that regard. Subtle, on-going advancements in rifles and ammunition have reached a point where most shooters can expect to buy a rifle and achieve MOA accuracy, or better, with factory ammo. In fact, a number of manufacturers now offer a guarantee that their rifle will shoot MOA with good factory ammo.

MOA refers to Minutes of Angle, the common unit measure of accuracy. One MOA is a circle that covers one minute (that is one 60th) of one degree. The MOA size covered by a circle of fixed diameter will vary depending on how far away the circle is. At 100m the diameter of a 1 MOA circle is 29.09mm. At 100 yards (91.4m) a 1 MOA circle is 26.60mm. I find that the Aussie 20 cent piece is a good ad hoc proxy for 1 MOA group size. The 20 cent piece has a diameter of 28.65mm which means it is 1.08 MOA at 100 yards, 0.98 MOA at 100m.

What sort of accuracy do you need for hunting? That depends, but it is not as much as many shooters think. For hunters chasing medium-sized game like deer, pigs and goats, taking their shots from field positions at ranges out to 200m, an accuracy of 1.5 to 2 MOA is fine. Not many shooters, under field conditions of varying terrain, awkward position and unknown distances can shoot much better than that. Even if using a rifle that delivers 0.1 MOA off the bench at the range, it is shooter technique and the variables of the field that determine actual hunting accuracy. For varmint shooters, most likely using a bipod and a good field position, then sub-MOA would be good enough for head-shooting bunnies at 200m or taking body shots out past there.

Cases in point are my .223 Remington rifles. I have a Savage Model 11 light Sporter that happily delivers 1 MOA with Federal 55-grain soft-points. I can handload 60-grain Nosler Partitions and expect the same precision. I can also buy factory ammo loaded with the 60-grain Nosler Partition and gain comparable accuracy. Other premium projectiles are available in factory loadings as well. My Weatherby HSP in .223 Rem will deliver well under 0.5 MOA with handloads. It also delivers 0.4 to 0.8 MOA with a variety of factory ammo as well. The Federal loading of the Nosler 55-grain Ballistic Tip shoots nicely in the HSP as do the Fiocchi 50-grain EPN and 55-grain soft-points and the budget-priced American Eagle 50-grain hollow-points. Additionally, I am happy with the terminal ballistics of these factory-loaded projectiles.

With a variety of .223 Rem factory ammo shooting nicely, with good terminal performance and costing from around $0.60 to $1.80 a round for premium projectile loadings, is it worth handloading? After 35 years of handloading, I am asking myself the same question. I enjoy handloading, for sure. However, I enjoy going out hunting even more and given a choice of an afternoon in the gunroom preparing and loading ammo, or an afternoon of hunting, I know what I will choose. If you plan on doing a lot of shooting, then the cost of buying reloading gear and components may well be justified. I bought the majority of my reloading gear over 35 years ago. I acquired it secondhand from an old fella who was giving up shooting. It is all still functioning perfectly and it was a long way from brand new when I purchased it.

In some calibres, reloading only small quantities of ammo can be economically worthwhile. This is more so for the less common calibres. Factory ammo for my .257 Weatherby Magnum starts at around $5 per round. My preferred loading of the 110-grain Nosler AccuBond is both difficult to find and expensive in factory ammo, coming in at closer to $7 per round. I can handload the 110-grain Nosler AccuBond to duplicate factory ballistics, accuracy and point of impact, for much less than that. Likewise, when I lived in the NT and hunted buffaloes, I could duplicate premium factory loadings of calibres like the .458 Winchester Magnum, .375 H&H and 9.3x74R much more economically. A standard 20-round packet of .458 Win Mag starts at about $5 per round, while those loaded with premium projectiles have a price more like $13 per round.

Handloading can be fun and, depending on your circumstances, it may offer good economy. However, I feel that a lot of the incentive that drove handloading from the 1940s onwards has dissipated. Well-engineered rifles, with synthetic stocks, solid bedding systems and excellent triggers are modestly priced and can largely be expected to slide out of their packing box and deliver the magical 1 MOA without further ado. Factory ammo is now more inherently accurate than it was decades ago and can be bought loaded with premium projectiles that a hunter may feel is best for their purposes. Adequate accuracy and desired terminal ballistics for hunting no longer demand handloading.

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