Craig Boddington

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.

As a youngster, Boddington did almost all of his hunting with handloads, secure in the belief he could build a better cartridge than he could buy. His first “good” mule deer was taken in 1978 with a Ruger .30-06 using 180-grain Nosler Partition and a near-max charge of IMR 4350. The shot was about 450 yards, a very long poke back then.

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.

Going back 60 years, Boddington has spent countless enjoyable hours at the loading bench. This is his new bench with new Hornady tools, but he still has—and uses—a lot of the reloading equipment he’s had since he was a teenager.

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.

This is Boddington’s lifetime-best group, .052-inch with an 8mm Remington Magnum and a carefully-worked up handload. Groups like this are uncommon with anything, but most attainable through careful, precise handloading.

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.

The .348 Winchester is one of Boddington’s favorites. Into the 1980s, components were relatively available with multiple choices. Today both ammo and .348-inch bullets are scarce; handloading is the only sensible option for uncommon cartridges.

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.

This Uganda buffalo was taken with a .470 made in 1906, firing a handloaded 500-grain Hornady DGX-Bonded. Since volume is low, factory ammo is currently scarce for most big-bore cartridges.

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.

Son-in-law Brad Jannenga used Boddington’s Savage 99 in .300 Savage with handloaded Swift Scirocco to take this big Axis buck. Tens of thousands of .300 Savage rifles are still in use…but the majors haven’t done runs of ammo in several years. Handloading is the best answer for many older cartridges.

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.

Boddington isn’t a blackpowder guy but needed to work up loads for his son-in-law’s .500 Black Powder Express, made in 1885. This hog was taken with a 440-grain Hawk bullet with smokeless equivalent load…and lots of Dacron pillow stuffing to keep the powder down on the primer.

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.

With double rifles, the challenge is getting the barrels to group together. This 1895 double in .303 British has been a treat. Regulated with 215-grain bullets, it also prints well with lighter bullets at the same velocity. These pairs represent changes in sight elevation.

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.

The .348 Winchester is one of Boddington’s favorites. Into the 1980s, components were relatively available with multiple choices. Today both ammo and .348-inch bullets are scarce; handloading is the only sensible option for uncommon cartridges.

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!

A nice Alberta bear, taken with double in .303 British, firing a handloaded 215-grain Woodleigh. This was the original .303 bullet weight, so this hundred-year-old rifle was regulated with that bullet weight.

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!

Smart Summer Shooting

Learn how to make the most of your summer practice sessions on the range or in the field.

The summer doldrums are passing by quickly! We can start to look forward to fall hunting seasons, but there’s still plenty of time for some good shooting practice. If you’re a serious accuracy freak, improving your bench shooting may be a good goal in itself. That’s probably not a productive goal for hunters, however—there aren’t many benchrests in any game country I’ve seen! For hunters, then, it’s important to spend at least some of that range time shooting the way you’re likely to shoot in the field, including trying some new positions and techniques to steady yourself.

Summer varminting is really the best practice for field shooting. The real secret, however, is to consciously seek field shooting positions. You won’t hit as many…but you’ll learn a lot more.

Varmint Hunting is Great Practice for Larger Game

Honestly, if you have any access at all, I think summer varmint hunting is the very best training for field shooting. My friend, Gordon Marsh (the proprietor of this website, Wholesale Hunter,) just got back from his annual prairie dog shoot in Wyoming. I’m a bit jealous—I haven’t made time to go prairie dog hunting in quite a while! This type of hunt offers training (and a lot of shooting!) that’s hard to replicate on any range.

It really doesn’t matter if you’re an eastern woodchuck hunter or a western prairie dog, ground squirrel, or rockchuck shooter. Few situations are better for teaching you how to read wind, and when you become confident that you can hit small rodents, big-game animals don’t seem quite so daunting. If you can go varmint hunting, take advantage of it, but don’t spend all your time shooting over sandbags. Spend some time trying new positions and techniques, such as lying down over a pack or shooting off bipods and tripods. You probably won’t hit as many targets, but you’ll improve your versatility in the field, and that’s an invaluable skill to have when you’re hunting larger game.

At the range it’s a good idea to practice the way you intend to shoot. An attached bipod is a great tool, but some rifles will change zero when a bipod is attached. Better check it out!

Mimicking Field Shooting on the Range

If you don’t have an opportunity to go varmint hunting, don’t worry—you can replicate field shooting on the range. First and foremost, get away from the bench and practice from real field shooting positions. Do at least some shooting from all four of the classic “NRA” positions of prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing. Standing in particular is important, because it’s by far the most difficult position. Given any choice of a steadier position, only an idiot would take a standing, unsupported shot at a game animal, but sometimes, as in a fast-breaking close encounter, standing and shooting may be your only option. It’s better to practice your technique and never need to use it in the field than to be unprepared in a tough situation.

In the field the last and worst option is to take a standing unsupported shot…but in fast close-range encounters sometimes that’s all there is. You hope you never have to use it, but standing unsupported is a position that should be practiced a lot!

Donna and I use shooting sticks a lot, so we always take them to the range and spend at least some time shooting over sticks in both standing and kneeling positions. One of my favorite field positions is to rest over a pack, an extremely common situation in mountain hunting. Donna isn’t familiar with that scenario, though, so in preparation for a goat hunt, she practiced on the range by lying down over packs and rolled-up jackets at various heights.

In preparation for a mountain hunt Donna Boddington spent a lot of time on the range building various rests with packs and jackets. Note that she’s doing this with an old Kimber bolt-action .22…practice doesn’t have to hurt to be effective.

Range rules can vary widely, and you obviously have to work within the constraints of them, but you should be as creative as your imagination and your range allow. There aren’t any bullseyes, squares, or diamonds on game animals, so animal-shaped targets are more useful for field practice. Printed targets can be expensive, though, so I recommend interspersing your animal target-shooting with “paper plate drills.” A standard paper plate is a pretty good replica of a deer’s vital zone. I vary my paper plate drills and practice them standing, off sticks, and in a variety of field positions. Tiny little groups off the bench are confidence-builders, but from less steady field positions, “paper plate accuracy” is what you really need to achieve.

Paper plate drills are great: A paper plate is about the same size as the vital zone of deer-sized game, there is no precise aiming point, and they’re cheap alternatives to printed targets. They’re awesome for practice from field positions, and if you can consistently center the plate you’re ready for hunting season.


Build Good Habits: Practice with a .22 Rimfire

Earlier I said “practice smart,” and I meant it. As hunting seasons draw near, it’s essential to spend at least some range time with your hunting rifle. Avoid excessive practice with your favorite rifle—centerfire ammo is expensive and centerfire barrel life is limited. Most of the practice I’m talking about can be done with equal effectiveness with the good old .22 rimfire: little noise, no recoil, lower cost, and a whole lot less time wasted waiting for barrels to cool. In a perfect world, your .22 will be of the same action type and have similar scope or sights, but any and all rimfire shooting is good.

There’s no such thing as too much practice, but there is definitely such a thing as too much recoil. This is also where the .22 comes in. Range time is precious, and it’s tempting to try to cram in as much shooting as possible when you’re on the range. However, it’s a bad idea to overdo it; it’s all too easy to acquire a flinch or other bad habits that are all but impossible to shake off. The solution? Ration your recoil. Take it in sensible doses and mix in some plinking with your .22.

Donna Boddington practicing sitting behind a shortened tripod, a wonderfully steady option. In summer we don’t wear heavy jackets, so when shooting centerfires it’s a good idea to pad up. A folded towel helps, but the PAST Recoil Shield she’s wearing is better.

I can’t tell you how much recoil is too much because we all have different thresholds, but once you reach “too much,” it’s too late to turn back. With hard-kicking rifles, even ten shots in one range session can be over the limit. So, for instance, you’re very comfortable with a .270 or .30-06, but you’ve got a brand-new .375 or perhaps a real big-bore you’re itching to play with. Once again, the bench is a necessary evil for zeroing and testing accuracy. Pad yourself well, but shoot off the bench as little as possible. Shoot from sticks and offhand, so the body can give, and be patient. It’s impossible to get used to a new level of recoil in one range session, so plan your time. After a few shots with a big boomer, it’s a good idea to run a few magazines through a .22. This will reinforce good shooting habits and subconsciously remind you that shooting doesn’t hurt.

Donna is “working out” with a 9.3x74R double on paper plates. This light Sabatti shoots well but it has a bite…after a very few shots it’s time to run a couple of magazines through a .22!

If you do overdo it, don’t try to fight your way through it; you might create bad habits or hurt yourself. Instead, go back to the good old .22; concentrate on breathing and trigger control, and stick with it until your muscle memory is cleansed. Centerfire rifles, from varmint rifles to deer rifles, are by far my favorite tools, but the .22 rimfire remains the great teacher, and none of us are too old to keep learning. There’s always a .22 handy during my summer practice sessions!

Shooting sticks are marvelous but they take a lot of practice to get used to. It isn’t necessary to burn expensive ammo or absorb a lot of recoil: practicing with a .22 is just as effective!

Take-Away Tips for Practicing Smart Shooting

So as you continue your summer prep for hunting season, remember:

1) Varmint hunting is great practice for larger game, but you can replicate field shooting on the range with paper plate drills.

2) Practice different shooting positions to increase your versatility.

3) You should get some practice time in with your hunting rifle, but don’t overdo it. A .22 rimfire is just effective for practice drills as your favorite centerfire rifle.

4) If you worry you’re developing a flinch, take a break. Pick up your .22 and focus on breath control, trigger control, and other fundamentals. Don’t try to fight through a bad set—you can create bad habits that are hard to break.

Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world. 

For autographed copies of Craig’s books please visit www.craigboddington.com.