Developing Hunting Handloads
August 31, 2016
Good terminal performance on game — particularly heavy muscled, densely boned big game — is achieved by bullet design characteristics far different from those incorporated into the match-type rifle bullets. Match bullets have thin jackets surrounding soft lead cores, a construction that takes easily to rifling.
By contrast, hunting bullets designed for large big game can have tapered jackets, multiple-hardness cores, cores that are bonded (in essence soldered) to the jackets, mechanical core-locking devices swaged into the jacket and often have easily deformed exposed lead tips. All these elements introduce additional variables, and, as we all know, variables are the enemy of consistency and accuracy.
Additionally, many hunting-specific cartridges push projectiles significantly faster than common match cartridges, and burning out your barrel while developing a load is a real possibility, so it doesn't make good sense to try several different projectiles each with several different propellants.
It's more practical to decide on one specific projectile offering the on-game performance you anticipate needing and limit your load development to a few carefully researched propellants and seating depths. In the real world, though, sometimes a specific rifle just doesn't shoot a particular bullet well, so it's worth keeping a Plan B bullet in mind.
Projectile selection should be derived from the game you intend to hunt. Whitetails allow you to go with a "soft" bullet that will expand instantly and dramatically on impact and impart tremendous shock. Excellent choices are Sierra GameKing and Pro-Hunter, Nosler Ballistic Tip, Hornady SST, Remington Core-Lokt, Winchester Power-Point and so on. Such projectiles are relatively inexpensive, and because they're soft like match bullets, it's typically easy to get good accuracy out of them.
If, on the other hand, you commonly hunt bigger, tougher animals with heavy bones such as elk and moose — or the bigger African antelope species — a premium "hard" bullet such as the Nosler Partition or AccuBond, Hornady InterBond or GMX, Barnes TSX or TTSX or Speer Grand Slam is called for. While more expensive, all of those bullets offer the toughness necessary to smash through big bones and still penetrate up to a couple of feet of heavy muscle and vitals.
Tough, deep-penetrating bullets are — because of their complex design characteristics — often more difficult to achieve outstanding accuracy with. Thicker jackets and harder cores don't conform easily to rifling, and multiple-piece designs introduce additional variables that can challenge consistency.
The argument that whatever shoots most accurately out of your rifle is the best because shot placement trumps all — terminal performance characteristics be damned — doesn't hold water. That's pure laziness. No rifleman is perfect, and no hunting scenario guarantees perfect bullet placement, so don't compromise the success of your hunt by choosing to shoot an elk with a whitetail bullet. Excellent accuracy is definitely obtainable with hard bullets; it may just take more load development.
Here are some of the things I've learned for achieving hunting handload accuracy.
When loading soft, fast-expanding bullets for light, thin-skinned big game, try seating them to kiss the rifling leade. Doing so can tighten groups and reduce velocity variation. But don't go overboard. I saw a friend put out of a hunt because he seated his bullets to engrave on the rifling — and sure enough when he went to remove a cartridge from his chamber one day in the field the bullet stuck in the throat. Powder spilled all through the locking lug recesses and the bolt raceways. And then, of course, a beautiful 5x6 bull elk walked out. Really.
Of the hard bullets listed, the Nosler AccuBond and Barnes TSX/TTSX bullets have enviable reputations for being easy to develop accurate handloads with. However, even they demand special treatment. Like many hard bullets, their denser cores and thicker jackets can cause a pressure spike if seated against the rifling leade.
Thankfully, most hard bullets offer best accuracy when allowed to jump a bit — let's say .020 to .070 inch — to the rifling. The techs at Barnes Bullets, for instance, recommend starting .050 off the rifling, as determined by a seating depth measuring device, and working up or down from there. Use a micrometer-type seating stem in your die to enable precise control of depth adjustments.
I generally start by working up a powder charge at the factory-recommended bullet seating depth. When I've achieved satisfactory velocity, I then vary seating depth up and down .010 per step, loading and shooting three three-shot groups per setting until I'm happy with the group size average.
Finding the seating-depth sweet spot can gain you consistent velocities and low standard deviation numbers. Of course, as you get close to the rifling it can also mess with velocities and pressures, suggesting a retrial with powder charge weights.
It's worth noting that although low standard deviation and extreme spread figures are commonly believed to equal accuracy, it's not necessarily true. I've developed accurate handloads that displayed disconcertingly large standard deviations and more than one with obscenely tight standard deviations that didn't group well. In my experience, it's harder to achieve tight standard deviation numbers with "hard" bullets than with soft-jacketed projectiles, but unless you shoot game past a quarter-mile, standard deviation just doesn't matter much.
On the other hand, if you like pushing the limits and sniping at game way out there, tight SDs are indeed critical. You'll get vertical stringing in your groups otherwise. A mere 50 fps variation from shot to shot can mean the difference between a solid hit and a miss low at 800 yards. Compare a typical BC hard bullet such as Speer's .30 caliber, 180-grain Grand Slam fired at 2,980 fps versus 2,930 fps. At standardized pressure at my home elevation of 5,050 feet, the point of impact difference is six inches. Of course, most long-range hunters choose high-BC soft bullets that open easily at long range, so it's a bit off the point of the discussion.
I find traditional powders such as Alliant's Reloder 19 and Reloder 22 are the easiest with which to achieve great accuracy at a minimum of effort, but current sentiment among serious hunting handloaders is skewed heavily toward propellants designed to shrug off the effects of temperature — such as Hodgdon's Extreme line or IMR's brand-new Enduron line — and understandably so. If you develop a load that groups well and gives small standard deviation figures with Extreme or Enduron powder, you can rest easy knowing you've got all the consistency modern propellants can provide.
Although slow-burning powders generally give the speediest velocities, the faster burning of the propellants suitable for a given cartridge are often the easiest to achieve excellent accuracy with. For example, if you're close but not quite there with Reloder 22, H1000 or IMR 7828 in your preferred magnum cartridge, try Reloder 19, H4831 or IMR 4350. You'll give up a few fps, but you might find a load that prints tight clusters.