Reloading 101: How to Develop a Handload

Nearly 20 years ago, I stood in a gun show with $500 burning a hole in my pocket. I was a young college student on holiday break and wanted to get into reloading to save money. That fateful afternoon, I walked out of the gun show with RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme, powder scale, and all the amenities and components to start reloading. Since then, reloading has become a cathartic escape that is as much a cost-saving measure as it’s a reprieve from the world’s stresses.

Reloading bench on press
This RCBS Rock Chucker Supreme was purchased in 2005 and has reliably loaded thousands of rounds of ammunition. Everything from .223 Remington to .300 Winchester Magnum.

Why Reload?

Reloading expands the loads available for your caliber. With ammunition shortages increasingly frequent in recent years, reloading your own hunting, precision, or recreational ammunition keeps you on the range or in the field. When I started reloading, my options to keep shooting expanded greatly.  The worries of “Is my ammo in stock?” rapidly disappeared.

Reloading allows you to adjust bullet weight and type along with powder charge type for custom loads. Furthermore, you control the tolerances and can be as meticulous as you want to be. From my experience, reloading has immense advantages for developing a load that performs consistently while exceeding expectations normally reserved for premium ammunition — and at a fraction of the cost.

Over the years, I developed a process for loading my rifles and handguns that produced exceptional results. Reloading has many considerations to work through before purchasing any of your caliber’s components. Once you settle on some options, you’re ready to begin developing a (hopefully) accurate and consistent load for your firearm.

Bullet Weight

When shopping for bullet weight, it’s easy to see a particular weight and assume it works in your rifle. This is an unfortunately common error amongst beginners. Many bullet manufacturers mark their boxes with a minimum twist rate, or twist rate range, for that bullet – especially with heavier bullet weights.

Unloaded bullets in box
Many manufacturers label their boxes with a twist rate recommendation for that bullet weight. Not all boxes are labeled though. Research your twist rate with the bullet weight you want to use.

The options are endless in the realm of reloading. Lighter-weight bullets tend to perform well with slower twist rates while heavier bullets perform better with faster twist rates. The .223 Remington is an extremely popular rifle caliber due to the proliferation of AR-15 variant rifles. A 55-grain full metal jacket is a common range load. The .223 runs bullet weights as light as 30 grains to lunkers in the 80-plus grain range.

The twist rate in an AR-15 chambered for 5.56 NATO or .223 Remington is normally 1:7 to 1:9. This translates to one rotation every 7 inches or 9 inches. A 77-grain bullet will probably not stabilize in a 1:9 twist while a 1:7 twist will do just fine.

This example illustrates the importance of knowing your barrel’s twist rate and the importance of doing some internet sleuthing on bullet weight and twist rate compatibility. You save a lot of headaches by doing this research first — and avoid a shotgun pattern group.

Case overall length (COAL) is another consideration involving bullet weight. In magazine-fed firearms, a heavier bullet requires a greater overall length due to the increased area of the bullet. Longer COAL can generate issues with cartridges being too long to reliably fit and feed in a magazine. Some of these heavier bullet combinations are only meant for bolt action or single-shot firearms.

Powder Charge

Follow factory guidelines for load development. Hodgdon offers an excellent online resource for their powders while various other powder and bullet manufacturers also offer online and print reloading data. DO NOT deviate from the specifications outlined by the data.

Reloading data
This load recipe from a Sierra reloading manual illustrates the various powder types available for the Sierra 168-grain MatchKing in .308 Winchester.

Once you’ve selected your bullet weight and type, the next choice is powder. Many reloading manuals offer a variety of different powders for that particular caliber and bullet weight recipe. I recommend purchasing a few different types of powder for that bullet/caliber combination when getting started. Some powders perform better than others. It’s the nature of the beast. Some will provide greater velocities or, due to your firearm’s design and configuration, improved accuracy. For example, I developed several different loads for my .308 Winchester precision rifle. I’ve used several powders and determined this rifle performed best with 42.0 grains of Reloder 15. It’s no slouch with IMR-4895 powder but the groups are slightly tighter with Reloder-15. This nuanced detail doesn’t seem like much but it makes or breaks that sub-1/2″ 5-shot group.

Follow the Rules of Reloading

Reloading data contains a range of powder charges for a given powder. Returning to the .308 example, IMR-4895 has a recommended minimum charge of 38.2 grains up to a maximum charge of 41.3 grains when topped with a 168-grain Sierra MatchKing bullet. The consequences of not following these guidelines are catastrophic. An overcharged cartridge will exceed the firearm’s pressure limits and cause, at best, early wear and tear or, at worst, a catastrophic failure. Going below the minimum recommended charge has similar results. The additional empty space in the cartridge case causes the powder to burn faster than it should and can overpressure the firearm.

Different powder charges organized in box.
When developing a load for your firearm, organize and label it according to powder type and weight. Note if you’re using different bullets. This photo illustrates an example of how I track load development.

I select my powders and obtain the minimum and maximum recommended powder charges from either the bullet or powder manufacturer. I establish increments between the minimum and maximum to load a series of cartridges. For instance, a cartridge with a 35-grain minimum and 38-grain maximum is split into 35, 36, 37, and 38-grain loadings. I load three to five cartridges for each of those powder weights and do the same for each of the other powders. It takes time and money to load these bullets at different powder weights with different powders. However, this extra effort provides you with the best-performing loading combination for your firearm. Once you have these cartridges loaded, you’re ready to head to the range and test your handloads.

Measuring Reloading Performance

Patience is a virtue in load development and testing. This isn’t a speed shoot and you want to minimize any error caused by the shooter. Furthermore, the barrel’s temperature has a profound effect on accuracy. You may fire upwards of 50 rounds when testing three different powders. Sustained rapid firing of large caliber rifle rounds, such as .308 Winchester, .30-06, etc, will heat the barrel to a point that it affects the firearm’s accuracy. Point-of-aim and point-of-impact will shift and groups open up. Be patient and shoot at a slow pace. Expect to spend at least an hour for reliable results. If it’s a hot summer day, the sun and heat of the day can cause issues with barrel temperature as well.

Chronographs cost as little as $100 but are a valuable tool for measuring handload performance. The chronograph measures muzzle velocity for the cartridge as it’s fired. This data is invaluable for measuring performance and provides feedback on reload consistency. If the velocities for a cartridge vary by 100 fps for a particular powder charge, there may be an issue with the performance of, or your precision in measuring the powder. Muzzle velocity should be as consistent as possible.

ProChrono Chronograph for testing reloading
This ProChrono chronograph is approaching twenty years of use and continues to provide reliable data. A tripod setup is extremely convenient.

Check the casing for signs of overpressure after firing each shot. Case cracking (extreme example) or primer flattening could indicate overpressure. In my experience, primers are the first indicator of overpressure. Most primers are rounded on the edges before being fired. Those edges distort some but overpressure completely flattens the primer against the chamber face. The edges are no longer round and the primer may split where the firing pin strikes it. If this distortion occurs, STOP. The cartridge is exceeding recommended pressures.

The final step is why you came to the range. It’s now time to measure accuracy. I recommend using a high-contrast target with a small, but clear, aiming point. A clean cardboard backer with a sheet of 8.5” x 11” printer paper on it can suffice. In a pinch, I’ve put a small dot in the center and used that as my aiming point. I fire a three or five-shot string and replace the target or move to a new one. After shooting strings, I measured the maximum spread for each group. When measuring a group, subtract the bullet diameter from your measurement to obtain the group size. For example, a .758″ group from a .308 diameter bullet is a .450” group.

Enjoying the Results

As you shoot these groups, you will notice patterns with each powder and different bullet types and weights. Some groups will tighten up as the powder charge increases, decreases, or somewhere in between. Some loads won’t perform as well as you would think because your gun, for a multitude of reasons, doesn’t like that particular bullet or powder. Ultimately though, you’ll find a group that stands out as the exception. Occasionally, you will get lucky and have more than one group that meets or exceeds your expectations. When this occurs, you’ve perfected that recipe for your firearm.

You govern the precision of your reloading. The tools, options, and attention to detail are endless for squeezing that last bit of accuracy from each round. If reloading as a cost-saving measure, some calibers have greater savings than others. However, the satisfaction of producing your own ammunition is why many of us started reloading. The benefits aren’t always in the cost. Sometimes it’s in the results.

Tom Stilson began his firearms career in 2012 working a gun store counter. He progressed to conducting appraisals for fine and collectible firearms before working as the firearms compliance merchant for a major outdoor retailer. In 2015, he entered public service and began his law enforcement career. Tom has a range of experience working for big and small as well as urban and rural agencies. Among his qualifications, Tom is certified as a firearms instructor, field trainer, and in special weapons and tactics. If not on his backyard range, he spends his time with family or spreading his passion for firearms and law enforcement.

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