Like most kids, my first shooting was with a single-shot .22, but, absent a modern Kansas deer season, we were shotgunners, no need for centerfire rifles. Couple hundred miles southeast, Warsaw, Missouri, had a sign proclaiming it “Gunstock Capitol of the World,” home to both the E.C. Bishop and Reinhart Fajen gunstock companies. There, my Dad’s friend Jack Pohl, owner of Bishop’s, was an avid benchrest shooter, big-game hunter, and handloader.
Mr. Pohl was enlisted to introduce us to the centerfire rifle world. I was probably 12. The deal: He’d take us to the range, and woodchuck shooting. As a graduation exercise, we’d join him on a pronghorn and deer hunt in Wyoming. Big stuff! First, I had to learn how to handload. We started on his bench, then got a basic setup in our basement. Dad knew how to supervise his young son, but I did all the loading. I loved it, spent countless hours with that green RCBS press. Sixty years later, it’s not my only press, but I still use it.
Back then, there were two primary rationales for handloading. First, save money. Second, more important: It was an article of faith that you could load better ammo than you could buy.
Today, both arguments hold less water. Ammo was cheaper back then, so were the basic tools and components. Even then, you had to do a lot of shooting to amortize the equipment. Of course, handloading drives you to shoot more, not a bad thing. You must try this load and that and keep searching for a better combination.
Today, I’m shocked at the cost of factory ammo. However, reloading components and equipment have also gone up (like everything else). Buying in bulk, especially powder and primers, reduces the per-cartridge cost. Still, it takes a lot more shooting to break even.
I started handloading in the Sixties. By the Nineties, factory ammo was so good, and so varied, that it was no longer a given it could be beat…depending on your purpose, and how serious you are. For ultimate accuracy, such as benchrest, long-range, and precision shooting, carefully concocted handloads usually win.
No matter how good, any factory load is just one assemblage of the four components: Case, primer, propellent, projectile. Changing any of them can make a difference in any rifle. In handloading, you can vary all of them, almost endlessly. Different brands and strengths of primers. Even cases vary among the brands. When I was young, our primary choices in bullets were Hornady, Nosler, Sierra, and Speer. More brands today, more weights and shapes. Back then, we might have had two dozen propellants to choose from, including pistol, rifle, and shotgun powders. Today, into the hundreds, new ones all the time.
I’ve always been a lazy handloader. My searches for perfect loads have rarely been exhaustive. I tend to use the cases I have (and, today, the primers I can get), and there are plenty of bullets and powders I’ve never tried. Still, I work up loads for my rifles. I experiment with different powders and bullets, varying charge weight and seating depth. As good as factory ammo is today, I can usually build a more accurate load than I can buy…if I care to try.
I don’t always try. Maximum accuracy isn’t always essential. I’m not a competitor, mostly a hunter, and some of my rifles, older lever-actions and double rifles, are specialized in purpose and limited in range. I can beat factory loads, but not by enough to increase performance.
By the Nineties, factory ammo had gotten so good, and the choices so varied, that I wasn’t loading much anymore. A few years later, not at all. For some years my loading gear was boxed up. Thank God, I kept it!
I restarted mostly because I missed my time at the bench. Cost and performance aside, my single greatest reason for handloading: It’s fun! It is a mindless exercise, except you must stay focused. Do that, inspect constantly, use common sense (and loading manuals), and you can’t get into too much trouble. The results are wonderfully satisfying. I get a huge kick out of shooting a nice, tight group. Even better when it’s a load I cooked up. As a hunter, I still get the same old thrill from taking an animal. Rifles matter to me, so it’s better with a special rifle. Better still with a load I’ve worked up for that rifle and hunt.
As we know, things have changed. I didn’t foresee the late-teens ammo shortages, and for sure I didn’t anticipate that nasty little virus. My loading bench kept me sane through the pandemic…and still keeps me in business. Supplies are getting better, but still aren’t right. I’ve been out of standard large rifle primers for months, using magnum primers and dropping the load a wee bit. For sure I can’t always find the exact bullet or propellent I want.
Fortunately, there are lots of choices, usually something out there will work. Just the other day, I shopped this site, found two of three propellant I needed (not bad), and bullets I’d been looking for. Things are getting better…depending on what you shoot. On the shortages: I am not a conspiracy theorist. I put it down to increased demand. Millions of new shooters buying ammo, and that’s a good thing. Also, panic buying and hoarding. I believe the ammo makers are doing their best to catch up. However, it costs gazillions and takes time to gear up for unprecedented demand. This must be done with caution…because peak demand has already subsided.
The biggest problem for many of us: The catchup process has focused on cartridges with the highest demand and deepest backorders. Outlets are awash in .223, 6.5 Creedmoor, and .308 ammo. I shoot them, but I also shoot older cartridges. Plenty rifles still out there, but factory ammo is scarce because the majors haven’t done runs in years: .250 and .300 Savage, .257 Roberts, .303 British, .348 Winchester.
Handloading has been my salvation. I also use several large-caliber cartridges: .405 Winchester, .450/.400-3”, .450 and .470 Nitro Express. Now we’re down to limited suppliers…and few or no recent runs. PHs all over Africa are dying for ammo (almost literally). So am I. I have great faith in my handloads, no qualms about hunting with them. Except, on dangerous game I prefer to use fresh factory ammo. If something bad happens, just as soon the post-mortem does not suggest it was my handload’s fault. In ’21 I wanted to use a new-to-me but very old .470 on a buffalo hunt in Uganda. Couldn’t find any fresh .470 factory ammo to save my soul. No problem, I’ve had dies since 1980. Getting a double rifle’s barrels to shoot together can be tricky. Got lucky, this rifle responded to a standard recipe. Took two nice bulls with my handloads, great performance and extra fun.
As a lazy handloader, I’ve generally resisted complex projects. This is my primary reason for avoiding wildcat or non-standard cartridges. Slothfulness aside, I think we have enough standard factory cartridges to choose from. However, with shortages and interrupted supplies, sometimes handloading is the only solution. Gotta have dies, but even with non-standard cartridges, custom dies can be made (extra-simple if you have fired cases from the chamber)
Again, I try to stay out of this game, but recently I’ve had some unusual handloading projects. I bought a .50-115 Sharps from a dying friend. No factory ammo for that one, but the rifle came with cases, dies, and a bullet mold. That one has been fun. I’m not a blackpowder guy, nor a cast bullet guy, but it shoots well with a 515-grain cast bullet and Tin Star, a blackpowder-equivalent propellent that I’d never even heard of before.
Although scarce today, the .303 British isn’t rare. My rifle is a very old double, regulated for the old 215-grain bullets. Woodleigh in Australia still made them, but their factory had a major fire. I found a supply, am hoarding them. Took some work, but I have loads that regulate well with 150 and 174-grain Hornady as well as the 215-grain Woodleigh. In May, I shot a nice Alberta black bear with the old double and 215-grain handloads. Awesome penetration, sort of double the fun!
The biggest recent project: My son-in-law bought an 1885 exposed hammer double in .500 Black Powder Express (BPE). Of course, no ammo, but there are bullets, and case dimensions are the same as for .500 Nitro Express. This one has been a nightmare, but we’ve got both barrels shooting together with a mild charge of smokeless IMR 4198 and about 15 grains of Dacron pillow stuffing on top of the powder. Between poor light and my fading eyes, it took several outings, but I finally pounded a wild hog with it. If there’s an ammo problem, handloading can almost always solve it…and it’s fun!