By Sam Fadala
Measuring the heads of once-fired cases is one way to tell if you’ve got a too-hot load.
I learned about handload problems on big game hunts the hard way. Cartridges that worked okay at the range failed in the field. Although the rifle I was using was prettier than an ocean sunset and accurate with certain loads, it was extremely sensitive to pressure.
I lost opportunities on two fine animals - neither touched by a bullet; both clean misses at medium range. The first was a record-class antelope, a true 16-inch trophy. The shot had no chance. The primer blew, and when the smoke cleared, the buck was beating a path toward the Nebraska border.
I should have learned, but didn’t. I was on a moose hunt the next time a round blew in the chamber. Once again, I had a handload that worked fine at the range. The bull was nothing to praise, but it represented a lot of prime winter meat. By that time, I had reduced the powder charge, but apparently not enough.
At the shot, the bull simply turned and walked into the forest. Where the bullet ended up, I have no idea. My partner and I checked the ground for an hour. There was not one cut hair. When I sold that finicky 6.5-06 Improved rifle, I told the buyer that he had a 6.5 Swedish and nothing more. He didn’t care. The beauty of the little beast put stars in his eyes, and he was elated to reduce charges to 6.5 Swedish potency.
Here are eight tips to help you avoid hand-load disappointment in the field.
1) Don’t load too hot. Precise pressure figures can be obtained with devices that attach to a firearm. But there are other ways to tell if a hunting handload is on the verge of popping a primer or firing reliably.
An eyeball inspection of the cartridge head is a good start. A hot load shows distinct markings on the headstamp impressed from the face of the bolt. Study the fired primer. Flat is okay. Mild craters are okay. But extremely flat primers, along with craters showing raised sharp edges, indicate high pressure.
Another trick is measuring the head of the factory case with a micrometer after one firing. For example, my micrometer shows the head of a once-fired .30-06 factory load at .469 inch. If, after reloading and firing that case again, the head has expanded, that’s an indication of a pretty hot load.
Difficult case extraction is another sign of high pressure. And if the action locks up, that’s a big red flag. So is a blown primer. Case separation is another screamer. If your big game handloads won’t function properly on a very hot summer day at the shooting range, they are overloaded.
2) Never take a handloaded cartridge into the field without first seeing that it chambers properly. This is accomplished safely with the muzzle of the rifle pointing toward a secure backstop. Each round is worked through the rifle’s action. Feeding and extraction must be totally smooth. A little pressure in closing the action is all right. But having to crank hard to feed the cartridge home is asking for big trouble in the field.
Proper overall cartridge length is important. A bullet might be seated out too far, thereby engaging the rifling in the throat of the chamber.
3) Clean fired brass for at least four good reasons: cosmetics, chambering, precise ejection and to detect flaws. While cosmetics play no role in function, a shiny case indicates care.
It’s easy to tumble brass clean. I have an RCBS unit at our high mountain residence and a Lyman tumbler in my regular home loading room. Toss the cases into the tumbler. Turn it on. Come back later. A clean case chambers and ejects easier than a dirty one. Finally, flaws such as minor cracks are easier to detect with a clean case.
4) Full-length resize cases. The only time sizing just the neck of a case pays off is in precise target shooting or benchrest competition. It has no place in ammo loaded for big game. The idea that neck sizing will elevate accuracy to new heights is flawed. My custom .30-06 hunting rifle produces half-inch groups at 100 meters consistently - with full-length-resized brass. I’ll not chance a stuck case to gain almost imaginary accuracy advantage by neck-sizing hunting brass.
5) Seat primers by hand. This one is not chiseled in granite, but I’ll stand by it, anyway. While there is nothing wrong with seating primers with any of the more mechanical methods, I like to go by hand for the “feel” of it. I can tell when that primer is fully seated, but not squashed into the primer pocket.
6) Peek into the loaded case before seating a bullet. I load my .30-06 safe, but hot, with a heavy dose of IMR-4831 behind the universally efficient 180-grain bullet. Bullets exit the 26-inch barrel with a muzzle velocity nudging 3,000 fps with my personal load. This could be too hot for another rifle, but shows no adverse pressure signs in my .30-06. After dropping the powder charge into the case with judicious tapping of the head to encourage powder settling, I take a quick peek to make certain that powder level is consistent in each case.
One way to avoid a variation in powder charges is to let the scale, even the electronic models, settle down, rather than hurrying to drop the charge into the case.
7) Choose the right powder. This begins with loading manuals. I am not a collector, but if I were, it would be loading manuals. I have a few old ones, and they are fascinating. I never research a possible load by going to only one manual. The bookshelf over my loading bench has manuals by Speer, Sierra, Hornady, Swift, Barnes, Ackley, Pacific, Nosler, Lyman, Accurate, Hodgdon, Vhtavuori and Norma, with data sheets collected from many other sources.
I work up all of my big game loads with great care, always with proven data. Choosing the right powder does not necessarily mean the one that gives the highest velocity. Usually, I find 100 percent load density most conducive to accuracy. This simply means that the capacity of the case is taken up with powder, and there are no air gaps between the charge and the bullet.
8) Learn your load’s trajectory. If you have a chronograph or access to one, check your handloads to see what they’re really doing in your hunting rifle. Then refer to the charts. Consider the 180-grain boattail leaving my .30-06 rifle just a bit short of 3,000 fps. Sighting-in for 300 yards means the bullet strikes almost 4 inches high at 100 yards and about 5 inches high at 200 yards, according to data in the “Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading, Volume 2.” That’s a little too much departure from the line of sight for me.
Still, the information was worthwhile. I sighted the rifle 3 inches high at 100. This put the bullet about 4 inches high at 200 and only 3 inches low at 300 yards, and about 10 to 11 inches low at 400.
This past season, I used a range-finder for all 10 rounds I fired from that gun. On three antelope, one doe was taken at 125 yards and a buck at 157. The only really long shot of the season was another doe at 366 yards. Shooting conditions were perfect, but without knowing the parabola (curve) of the bullet’s flight, I would not have attempted that long poke.
Reprinted from the November 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine