How To Go About Handloads For Big-game Hunting?

Handloads to be used for big-game hunting deserve as much attention as loads intended for varmint shooting or target work. Ironically, a large segment of the shooting public seems to feel that just any old load will suffice for the big game. To some extent, this is true because it doesn’t take anything extra-special to put down that buck. However, it’s not just that your hand load is capable of downing a buck that counts. There’s a special thrill in filling your tag using a load that you spend long hours tailoring just for your rifle. There are side benefits as well. You get a lot of practice shooting while you’re searching for that “best” load and you’d be surprised knowing exactly what your load will do at various ranges does for your confidence when that once-in-a-season chance at a trophy comes along.


Many Hunters Fail to Tailor Loads

I suspect that many hunters fail to tailor loads for their big-game rifle for one of two reasons–either they don’t know how to go about it, or they think the job takes too much time. As for the latter, you bet it takes time. But can you think of a better way to fill idle hours in the summer months preceding the fall hunting season? As far as knowing how to go about tailoring a load for your big-game rifle, it’s simple once you sit down and give the matter some thought.

Consider my most recent load development job. I wanted a load for my Thompson/Center T/CR ’83’ .30-06 that I could use for both mule deer and elk here in Wyoming. My first step was to decide on what bullet weight I wanted to use. A 150-grainer would work fine on mule deer, but it’s a bit light for elk if a lot of bone has to be broken to reach the vitals. Years of experience have proved to me that a good 180-grain bullet in the .30-06 is an excellent choice for elk, giving both good penetrations through heavy bone and plenty of expansion to inflict quick-killing damage to tissue and the vital organs. However, an 180-grain.30 caliber bullet can be a little on the heavy side for mule deer, sometimes failing to give adequate expansion.

What I wanted was something in between, a bullet I could count on to perform on both mule deer and elk under most of the conditions I anticipated. A 165-grain .308-inch bullet–a weight many shooters consider ideal for the .30-06–was the obvious answer.

Now as to bullet form

I’d be hunting both mule deer and elk in the same area where the terrain is dominated by deep, rocky canyons, huge sage-covered basins and draws with skimpy patches of timber found only on the highest ground. In other words, my shooting would most likely come at any distance from 100 to 300 yards or more. For such shooting a streamlined, pointed bullet that retains its velocity well is essential. After checking my bullet shelf, I settled on five bullets to test–Hornady’s 165-grain spire point and their 165-grain boattail spire point, the Nosler 165-grain solid base Spitzer, the Speer 165-grain Spitzer and the Sierra 165-grain boattail hollow point. The latter has a poorer ballistic coefficient than the others but is still a good long-range performer. It mattered not one bit to me which of the five bullets I used–they’re all excellent game bullets. The one that proved to be the most accurate in my rifle would be the one I’d use on deer and elk.

Powder next

The list of those that give excellent results in the .30-06 is almost endless. But I had a prerequisite that reduced the selection considerably. This rules out the use of all but the slow-burners. Hodgdon’s 4831 and 4350, DuPont 4350, Norma MRP, Hodgdon’s H414 and H450 and Winchester 760 were the ones I finally settled on trying. The three ball powders–H414, H450 and Winchester 760–would yield the poorest loading density, but all three have shown me good performance in other .30-06 rifles, so I wanted to check them in the T/CR.


For primers, I chose to use standard large rifle–of various brands–whenever possible. Because ball powders are difficult to get started, particularly in cold weather, I’d use magnum primers with them. With the other powders, though, the .30-06 doesn’t hold enough of any of them to require magnum primer heat and extended burning duration to effect complete consistent combustion.

At this point, I should point out that preselection of the bullet weight and style, as well as the powders to be tested, has a drawback. It’s possible that none of the combinations will produce the optimum accuracy a rifle is capable of. Still, I think that it’s important to use a bullet that will do the particular jobs I have for it and if this means settling for a little less than the best possible accuracy, so be it.

When the planning is completed, it’s time to go to work. The first step is a selection of cases. Here it’s important to use cases of the same make. There’s enough dimensional variation among cases of the same make without adding the problems of mixing brands where the capacities can vary greatly. Such variations will have an adverse effect on both pressure and accuracy, ruining otherwise well-conducted tests.

After inspecting the cases and discarding any with defects, run them all through full-length sizing dies. I want to stress full-length resizing as opposed to neck sizing. On a hunting trip, each round must chamber easily, and this can be guaranteed only when you full-length resize. A neck-sized case may come much closer to fitting your chamber perfectly, but it will also be more difficult to chamber and extract. On occasion, a neck-sized case won’t chamber. Or, if you manage to fully chamber a tight round, it may not extract. You don’t have to have much of imagination to see what failure to chamber or extract can do to a hunting trip. Play it safe–always full-length resize!

After resizing and decapping, both accomplished in a single operation in today’s dies; it’s a good idea to trim all of the cases to the same length. I trimmed my .30-06 cases to 2.484 inches, .010-inch under the maximum. When you seat your bullets with a friction fit rather than crimping them in place, uniform case length is of little importance as long as no case exceeds the maximum length. Nevertheless, having them, all the same, length is just one of those little trivials that I feel good about.

Next, you must clean the cases to remove all of the resizing lubricants. This is important! Besides collecting grit which is damaging to your rifle’s chamber, lubricant left on the cases prevents the case, which expands at the moment of ignition, from momentarily grabbing the chamber walls as it should. The result is increased back thrust on the breech face which gives indications of high pressure with powder charges normally developing safe pressure. You can wipe the cases clean with a solvent-soaked rag or tumble them until they’re clean. Whatever the method, clean the resized cases thoroughly.


Now it’s decision time

You can load the rounds in your reloading room, then go to the range to test them, but this takes a lot of time. Remember, with each bullet and each powder you have, to begin with; the starting load is shown in the reloading manual and work up in increments of no more than one-half grain until you reach the maximum for your rifle. Sticky extraction, flat primers or best of all, case head expansion, are pressure indicators you must monitor carefully. Each load requires three rounds so that you can check accuracy. The problems in logistics when you try to do all of the loadings at home, then shoot at the range, are obvious.

By far the best system is to do your reloading right at the range. This isn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds. You’ll need a press for bullet seating, a powder scale for weighing charges and some means of seating primers. A powder measure is a handy extra, but not a must. A nifty tool for this work is the Huntington Compact Press, a strong, powerful and very portable hand press on which you can set both primers and bullets. Then, should you run out of prepared cases, you can see easily full-length resize with the Huntington tool. However, lacking this handy-dandy piece of equipment, it’s no big chore to use your press at the range. Simply secure it to the shooting bench using a couple of hefty C-clamps. Of course, no matter what press you use, you’ll have to set up your scale on the bench to weight charges. A word of warning: you can work on the scale at the range only on calm days; any breeze whatsoever will work on the scale pan, and you’ll never get the beam to settle down and give you a correct reading.

I prefer to prime my cases separate of the press, so I use the Lee Auto-Prime tool at the range. This is a hand-operated tool that allows me to seat each primer with thumb pressure. I can feel the primer in, and I know exactly when it bottoms, thus avoiding crushed primers or a high primer condition, both of which can occur when you use the priming fixture on your press.

Your first load should be the starting load shown in your reloading manual, not the middle or maximum load shown. Many shooters think they can start at the top and work up, their reasoning being that all of the manuals are conservative because of liability. Bull! Those loads are developed by expert ballisticians with equipment designed to monitor pressure. They know their business, and you’ll do well to pay attention. Sure, you may be able to safely exceed the published maximum in your particular rifle. But then, too, you may encounter high pressure long before you near the published maximum. Variations in chamber and bore dimensions, temperature, humidity, case capacity, powder burning rate and other variables combine to change chamber pressure and load performance from rifle to rifle or load to load. It’s these variables that account for the differences in loading data between one manual and another and they’re the reason that you should always start low and work up carefully.

I prefer to pick one powder and try all bullet and charge combinations with it before moving to another powder. I load three rounds, fire them for accuracy at 100 yards, then advance the charge no more than one-half grain and load three more, each time monitoring for indicators of excessive pressure. When pressure is encountered me back off one full grain and consider that charge to be maximum. When I’ve completed this, I move on to another bullet and repeat the whole process, continuing until I’ve tested all combinations with one powder. Then I switch to another powder and repeat the whole process.


At the conclusion of all this, which takes a lot of time and considerable shooting, I’m usually confronted with several bullet/powder combinations that produce similar accuracy. Three-shot groups with each of these are fired again to check my initial results, then I sit down and analyze the results. In some instances, my best accuracy may come with low or medium powder charges while other combinations are most accurate with near maximum charges.

In the case of my .30-06, which I’d be using on the game in the open country at relatively long range, I ruled out all but the hottest loads.

At this point, your choice of loads is whittled down. In my .30-06 I had just two that I felt deserved more testing. You’ll notice that I’ve not mentioned the use of a chronograph to measure the velocity of my loads. There’s a simple explanation for this. While it’s very nice to know what the muzzle velocity of a load is, it’s neither essential nor pertinent to load performance. You can get some idea of what your loads are doing for velocity by comparing them with similar loads in the reloading manuals. If you have access to a chronograph, by all means, use it, but if such facilities are unavailable, don’t worry about it.

Now that I’ve settled on two loads for further testing, I head back for the reloading room where I can work in comfort and guaranteed precision. I load up 15 rounds of each load, then go back to the range and sight in with each load, so the bullets hit approximately where I want them to at 100 yards. Next, I shoot three-shot groups with each at 100, 200 and 300 yards, allowing the barrel to cool completely between the firing of each group. The reason for testing the loads at these distances is because the load that groups best at 100 yards isn’t always best at longer ranges.

As I shoot these groups, I pay careful attention to where the first shot hits because this is the shot from a cold barrel and tells me what to expect on a shot at the game. After all of the groups are fired, I study the targets carefully and finally choose the load I’ll hunt with. In the case of the .30-06 load for hunting mule deer and elk with the T/CR rifle, my choice was a charge of 59.0 grains of H4831 powder behind the 165-grain Nosler solid base spitzer bullet.

One more step is required before load development is complete. Sight the rifle in at the distance you choose, then shoot groups at other distances to see where your shots will hit. With my chosen load in the T/CR .30-06, I found that if I sighted it to hit 1 inch high at 200 yards my shots would hit 2-1/2 inches above point of aim at 100 yards and 5 inches low at 300 yards. Sure, you can use ballistic tables to gather this data, but the results won’t be as accurate as those obtained through actual shooting.

As you can see, working up a load for big-game hunting isn’t difficult, but it does take a lot of time. There are a few points that still need discussion, though. The first involves cleaning the bore during firing tests. If you don’t clean the bore, fouling from both powder and jacket metal will soon have an adverse effect on accuracy, casting doubts on the accuracy of your work. I clean my bore after each three-shot group, first scrubbing it with a brush dipped in Marksman Choice, then following with a couple of patches soaked in the same solvent. I follow these with dry patches; then one soaked in Outer’s Crud-Cutter, a fast-evaporating solvent that leaves the bore dry and free of grease and oil. Finally, before firing for the group, I put a fouling shot through the barrel.

Second, what do you strive for in the way of accuracy in a hunting load? The best you can get, of course, but don’t throw up your hands in disgust if your three-shot groups don’t measure an inch or less at 100 yards. Too many big-game hunters have been led to believe that nothing over an inch group is acceptable. I don’t buy that. To begin with, few light sporters will shoot this well. Then, too, no hunter can take advantage of such accuracy from field shooting positions. However, I do feel that you should insist your rifle produce groups under 2 inches and if it doesn’t, have a gunsmith do some tuning work on it.

Then there’s the matter of which load to choose; the most accurate or the one giving the best velocity? Here a lot depends on shooting conditions. If your shots at the game will come at close range where maximum velocity and a flat trajectory aren’t of much concern, then, by all means, choose the most accurate load. But, for long-range shooting you want all of the velocity you can get, so I’m usually willing to trade 1/2-inch of accuracy for more velocity. More often than not, I’m not confronted with this decision; I usually find at least one top-velocity load that delivers accuracy on a par with the best lower velocity loads.

Finally, is it essential that you try a variety of bullet makes and styles when developing a hunting landlord? Of course not! If you have a favorite bullet, you need to work only with it. The same is true of powder. But remember, the fewer combinations you try, the less your chances of finding the most accurate hunting load.

As any hunter knows, a big-game hunt is comprised of about 99.9 percent walking, waiting, spotting and stalking and 0.1 percent shooting. Why, then, should you devote hours and hours and hundreds of rounds to the development of a big-game hunting load? It’s simple–because unless you do, you greatly increase the chance of all of that walking, waiting, spotting and stalking being for naught. The best job of hunting in the world is wasted if you can’t hit your buck when the chance finally comes!

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