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Handloading in a Pandemic

Handloading in a Pandemic

(Photo courtesy of RifleShooter Magazine)

I started handloading back in the 1960s, in a time when, it seemed to me, most serious rifle shooters rolled their own. We can argue that factory ammo is a whole lot better today. We can also argue that components and equipment have dramatically escalated in cost. This leads to a valid point that, today, you have to do a lot of shooting to save money through handloading.

However, I loved those hours at the loading bench and always made time to load, even when I was working three jobs. So, my friends, here is a horrible confession: My reloading equipment was boxed up for quite some time. A handy portable bench I used for years broke beyond repair. We didn’t have space for a proper setup, so I got out of the game. And, no, I won’t admit to how long.

I hope all of you had a good pandemic project, something you’ve been meaning to do for some time. Mine started as a New Year’s resolution: Build a weather-tight shed that I could use for handloading and photography. I stay pretty busy, so Lord knows how long completing this project might have taken. Then came the spring lockdown, and I had unprecedented time on my hands and an almost-completed shed to play in.

Understand, nothing about the still-ongoing pandemic is good, but it gave me time set up my new bench properly and time to refamiliarize myself with procedures and sequences. I needed it.

I found myself losing my place, double-charging cases and so forth. With rifle powders and most cartridge cases that’s not a big deal. When the powder starts to spill out of the case mouth, it’s a clue you’ve messed up. But with pistol powders and extra-large cases, it’s a good way to blow yourself up. So it’s important to have a consistent sequence and process—and double-check along the way. It didn’t take long to get back in the rhythm.

Basically, I’ve always been a lazy handloader. I work up and try this and that, but I’ve never attempted to exhaust all the possibilities—and certainly won’t now with so many new bullets and propellants. When I find a load that delivers performance I’m looking for, I’ve always been pretty much done. I write it down carefully and go back to it when I need to. I doubt that will change.

On my restart, I went back to tried-and-true recipes with familiar cartridges. However, I also started with cartridges I’d never loaded for before. And even if the cartridge was familiar, the rifle might not have been. Together, it was pretty much a startup from ground zero, but I found it was much like riding a bicycle (which I also took up again during the pandemic). It came back fast.

Some of my equipment is stuff I’ve had since I was a kid, but since I had the space, I added and upgraded here and there. My ancient green RCBS press is now mounted next to a new Hornady Lock-N-Load. My scale was shot, so I added a wonderful digital scale and a badly needed and much-improved powder measure, both from Hornady.

I also added some of that company’s Precision Measurement tools, including a digital concentricity tool for eliminating bullet runout and an overall-length gauge for simple adjustment of seating depth. Lazy handloader that I’ve always been, I’m still getting the hang of these tools. However, using the O.A.L. gauge enabled me to quickly improve accuracy with a .257 Roberts rifle.

I’m not a major quarter-bore fan. Editor Scott Rupp is, so this will gladden his heart. Two of the first projects I tackled in my reloading restart were the .250 Savage and .257 Roberts, cartridges I’d never handloaded. For the former, and as mentioned in my feature article elsewhere in this issue, I wanted a California-legal non-lead load for my 1899 Savage, but no such factory load exists. For the latter, my .257 Roberts is a nice Dakota, and it’s been finicky with factory loads.

My Savage, pre-1920, has a slow 1:14 twist, so I had to go to a very light 67-grain Hammer copper-alloy bullet. Selection of factory loads is limited in .257 Roberts. My rifle shoots okay, but its best groups have been with old-fashioned roundnose bullets. I messed with seating depth and quickly hit the jackpot with 117-grain Hornady SST bullets seated just off the lands.

Cartridge proliferation is a long-standing problem for me. I bought several sets of dies for cartridges I didn’t used to have, including .250 Savage and .257 Roberts. Among the 30-odd sets of rifle dies on my shelf, some are for rifles I no longer have. Realistically, I doubt I’ll get around to handloading for every single rifle I have. But I quickly put to use several sets of dies I’ve had for at least 40 years.


As a restart, I had an open book. So far, some of my loading has been to solve specific issues, like those two .25s. Other loading has been done based on ammo shortages or because I wanted to load for some favorite rifles and cartridges. Early on, I whipped up some loads for .270 Win. and 7x57 Mauser, both longtime favorites. Moving up the scale, I worked up loads for the .450/400 3-inch and .470, and I spent a lot of time working up smokeless loads for a .50-90 Sharps.

In general, if saving money is a primary excuse for handloading, then serious volume is required. But this does not apply to the big bores. I first loaded for the .470 Nitro Express back in the ’70s, but until recently, I hadn’t owned a .470 for decades. Those big bullets come dear today, and extra-large cases burn a lot of expensive powder. I figure I paid for the dies long before I finished loading the first box of ammo.

At the beginning of our fall hunting seasons, the lockdown eased a bit. As I write this in the fall of 2020, I’m still not getting on airplanes, but I had some hunts I could drive to, so I’ve put some miles on the truck and haven’t had as much time to spend at the loading bench. I’m looking forward to getting back to it, and I’m trying to decide what to tackle next.

Perhaps oddly, I haven’t yet worked up any loads for some favorite magnums, including 7mm Rem., .300 Win., .300 Wby. and .375 H&H. Come to think of it, I haven’t yet loaded a single .30-06 cartridge. I’ll get around to them soon enough, but to some extent, this comes down to being a lazy handloader.

I have enough factory ammo and old handloads on hand, so there has been no urgency. And I didn’t have immediate plans to use any of these cartridges, so maybe I’ll tackle some of them next. Or maybe I’ll play with other cartridges I’ve never loaded for, including the 6.5 Creedmoor and 6.5-300 Wby. Or maybe I’ll work up some new loads with new bullets for my old .264. Whichever, I’m looking forward to spending more time at the loading bench. I’m enjoying it immensely—and I’ve realized how much I’ve missed it.

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