April 18, 2011
Simple steps to ensure that your rifle will go bang when you need it to.
On a cold April day in Alaska in 2010, I did not have all the time in the world to chamber a shell in my rifle and get off a killing shot at what turned out to be a record-book mountain grizzly. I managed to pull it off, but I might not have had I neglected to try each of the cartridges in my rifle back home before the hunt.
I was using a custom rifle in 7mm STW, and my initial plan was to use Federal factory ammunition loaded with the recently developed 160-grain Trophy Bonded Tip bullet, but it wouldn't be ready in time so they sent me a batch of the new bullets for handloading.
After loading up a batch of cartridges, I tried each round in the magazine and chamber of my rifle. Thirty-nine rounds zipped through like they were greased, but one refused to enter the chamber far enough to allow the bolt to lock up behind it.
Close examination revealed a tiny deformation at the mouth of the case. The defect was so small I had overlooked it during my visual inspection, but it was big enough to keep the bolt of my rifle from closing, even when I put a lot of muscle behind it. Had I not eliminated that cartridge, it just might have been the top round in the magazine of my rifle when the grizzly of a lifetime came along.
Putting together trouble-free ammo actually begins before those shiny loaded rounds are in hand. When starting with virgin brass, each case should be visually inspected for defect before being loaded. Years ago I bought a batch of .270 Winchester cases, three of which managed to escape the factory before a flash hole had been punched in their primer pockets. That's the only time it has happened to me in decades of reloading ammunition, but one time would have been more than enough had I carelessly loaded those cases and taken them on a hunt.
The only other problem I have experienced with virgin cases through the years is excessive primer pocket depth. They were in 7x57mm Mauser, and their pockets were so deep the firing pin strike from my Ruger No. 1 was insufficient to light the fire.
When considering powders, look for load recipes that will fill the case as near to 100 percent capacity as possible for better ignition.
I caught the problem at home rather than in the field by taking a close look at each case after I had seated primers. Rather than the surface of the primer resting flush with the head of the case as should have been, it was well below it.
Cartridge cases are tumbled in a polishing media at the factory to give them a shine, a process that often leaves their mouths dented and misshapen. So step two is to lightly lube each case and run it through a full-length resizing die before it is primed.
Case mouths will need to be inside-chamfered and outside-deburred, and this is the time to take care of those chores. For serious hunting loads I prefer to use either virgin brass or cases that have been fired no more than one time. Once a case has been fired twice it goes into the practice bin.
Neck-sizing fired cases is okay for target shooting, but for hunting, full-length resizing is the only way to go. A tight-fitting case may work fine in a clean chamber, but it may not work after the chamber has accumulated several days of dust during a hunt.
I prefer to set the resizing die to bump the shoulder of a case back just to the point where I feel no resistance when closing the bolt on a chambered round. This is especially important when loading for lever actions, pumps and autoloaders because the bolts of those firearms lack the camming power of a bolt action.
Before his hunt, the author discovered that one of his rounds wouldn't chamber, which could've cost him a shot on this griz.
Lubricant must be thoroughly removed from cases after they are resized. An old friend of mine who was in charge of customer service at the original Kimber of Oregon would often ask a customer to send several of the handloaded cartridges being used along with a supposedly ailing rifle. A lot of the ammunition he received was still coated with lube from the sizing process. Some cartridges were so gooey and sticky and coated with dust and dirt they would not enter the chamber of the rifle.
The thick liquid resizing lubes available when I started reloading years ago were a pain to remove, but the wax-based lubes from Hornady, Redding and Brownells are less messy to apply and easy to remove from cases with a paper towel.
Before seating bullets on those super-duper elk loads, take a peek inside each case to make sure a powder charge actually is there. Some bottleneck cases of small caliber are difficult to peer into--that is unless you have a trusty Surefire flashlight sitting on your loading bench as I do.
Neck sizing is okay if you're shooting at targets, but hunting loads need to be full-length resized for reliable chambering.
It's best to use a powder that leaves little or no empty space in the case after a bullet is seated. Some handloading manuals list the charge density of each recommended load. For example, for the .270 Winchester and a 130-grain bullet, the Nosler manual shows the load density of a maximum charge of AA-2520 powder as 67 percent. In other words, 33 percent of the space inside the case is filled with air rather than powder.
In comparison, that manual also shows a maximum charge of H4831SC at 91 percent density. The latter is the obvious choice simply because flame from the primer does not have to chase down those little powder granules through a lot of space while attempting to ignite them.
Ball powders can be more difficult to ignite than stick powders, so load density with them should never drop below 90 percent. Staying with the .270 Winchester and a 130-grain bullet, th
e Nosler manual shows a maximum charge of W760 (a ball powder) at 74 percent density. That load would likely be okay at normal temperatures, but since powder becomes more difficult to ignite in cold temperatures, I would not use it for wintertime hunting. If I just had to stick with ball powder I would choose a slower burner such as Winchester Supreme, which can be safely loaded to 90 percent or higher load with that cartridge/bullet weight combination.
Then we have the matter of primers. Rule No. 1 is to pick up a primer by grasping only its rim as skin oil can contaminate the priming mix. Even better is to dump the little buggers from their factory box directly into the reservoir of a priming tool without handling them.
As a rule, the flame produced by a magnum primer is larger in volume and sometimes of longer duration than the flame from a standard primer. Examples of magnum primers of large rifle size are the Federal 215, Remington 91„2M, Winchester WLRM and CCI 250. Federal also makes a match-grade magnum primer called 215M.
Under certain conditions--extremely cold temperatures being one--magnum primers do a better job of igniting large powder charges as are commonly loaded in cartridges such as the 7mm STW, .300 Remington Ultra Mag and .378 Weatherby Magnum.
We could probably get by with loading standard primers in most the magnum cartridges during warm weather, but since big game hunting in North America often takes place when the weather ranges from cool to cold, I prefer to keep life simple by using the hotter caps in all magnums at all times.
Magnum primers are also often the best choice for slow-burning powders in standard cartridges as well; the .270 Winchester with a maximum charge of H4831 behind a 130-grain bullet is a good example. Regardless of whether the cartridge is of standard or magnum capacity, I prefer to use a magnum primer when the temperature is expected to drop below 32 degrees. I also switch to the hotter primer when loading ball powder in any cartridge that requires a charge heavier than 40 grains.
It's vital to run all your handloads through the rifle before the hunt. Better to find problem cases now than at the moment of truth.
Case length is also an important component to building trouble-free loads. First, the cartridge must be of the correct length for the magazine. I prefer to keep its length at least .050 inch shorter than the magazine, and .100 inch is not too much.
Second and equally important, the bullet must not make contact with the rifling when a round is chambered. Seating the bullet out to touch the rifling is common practice in some paper-punching circles, which is okay, but it's a terrible idea for a hunting load.
If a loaded round is extracted from the chamber, the bullet can remain stuck in the throat, and you will find absolutely nothing in Mother Nature's outdoors suitable for use in removing it. This is why I make it a practice to seat bullets at least .010 inch shy of contact with the rifling.
When a lever-action rifle of heavy recoil is fired, cartridges resting in its tubular magazine are free to move forward against the magazine spring, and if the force is applied several times, the bullets could become seated more deeply into the case.
It is more likely to happen with a full magazine as force applied against the magazine spring by the cartridges causes it to momentarily go solid and in doing so offers greater resistance against cartridge forward travel. Keep bumping the bullet a bit deeper in the case with each firing and at some point cartridge overall length may become short enough to jam up the works when the lever is operated.
Using a crimp die to squeeze the mouth of a case into the cannelure of a bullet will usually prevent this from happening. Most dies allow bullet seating and crimping simultaneously, but I prefer to do it in two steps. I back the die out just short of crimping, and after all bullets are seated to the proper depth I back out the seating stem, screw the die back in and apply a firm crimp.
Follow these steps and you can rest assured that when your trophy of a lifetime appears, your ammo will be as ready as you are.