NAHC Executive Director Bill Miller's response to a query, "Bill's Bullets of Choice," in the October 2004, "Shooting Q&A," says a lot about the state of handloading today: "I've given up handloading rifle cartridges because the cartridges the factories are turning out in their top-end lines are so good and feature bullets that used to be only available to handloaders. My life is so busy these days I can't devote the time necessary to beat the factory product even if I could!"
Like Bill, many hunters just don't have the time necessary to craft their own ammo. Bill also makes the point that current premium ammo is more than satisfactory for his hunting requirements.
Past And Present
Why reload rifle ammo? Let me examine that question in two tenses—past and present. In the past, rifle shooters reloaded to save money, to tailor ammunition to their rifles for better accuracy and for access to better bullets than those available in factory ammo. There also were more wildcat cartridges in use that absolutely necessitated reloading. Of course, personal satisfaction also motivated many reloaders.
Reloaders today have slightly different reasons for making their own ammo. There are far fewer wildcats being used since popular cartridges such as the .22-250 Rem. are now factory loaded. Saving money is also less significant since many people have more disposable income than in the past. As a matter of fact, many reloaders I talk to say reloading costs more money because they shoot more ammo than they did before taking up the hobby.
No one will argue today's factory ammo shoots very well, is reasonably priced and offers some of the best bullets on the market. In fact, in recent years newly developed bullets have found their way into factory ammo within months of their introduction.
So why do today's shooters reload? I discussed this with my friend Chris Hodgdon of Hodgdon IMR Powders in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. "Pride of ownership has become one of the primary reasons shooters reload," he said. "Many shooters have the disposable income to afford factory ammo, but they prefer to ‘roll their own.' These individuals want the satisfaction of having direct input into the performance of their ammo. They gain control over everything involved in their ammo."
Chris says even though factory ammo is steadily improving, handloads provide a definite accuracy edge. "Benchrest competitors routinely shoot groups measuring well under 1/10-inch with reloaded ammo," he said. "There's no factory ammo competing in benchrest matches."
So what exactly does the future hold for handloading?
Hodgdon says there will always be hobbyists who will maintain the sport. "Casual shooters will go to their local gun store or order their ammo from a catalog," he said. "But enthusiasts who shoot a lot and demand the most from their ammo will continue to reload. I've noticed even during periods of recession, people spend a lot of money on reloading components and equipment."
I also talked with Steve Hornady of Hornady Manufacturing in Grand Island, Nebraska, about the current state of reloading. In my opinion, few people know the shooting industry as well as Steve. "Interest in handloading goes in cycles," he said. "One factor is how factory ammo is priced at a given point in time. There's no doubt low-cost imported rifle ammo makes reloading less appealing."
Steve says factory-loaded ammo has to stay within the pressure limits of every rifle on the market. "One of the biggest advantages today's shooter has with reloaded ammunition is the ability to create cartridges that operate at the particular pressure limits of an individual rifle," he said. "In addition, manufacturers are developing reloading equipment that makes handloading faster, easier and more accurate."
I asked Steve what ammo he takes into the field. "Good question, as you know I have access to an ammunition factory," he said. "Fact is, I load my ammo for my favorite .280 Rem. rifle on a single-stage reloading press, one round at a time."
I also talked to Bruce Merkur of Redding Reloading Equipment in Cortland, New York. "Demand for Redding reloading products has steadily increased during the past couple decades," he said. "The more a person gets into reloading, the more he or she gets into accuracy. One feeds the other."
John Nosler of Nosler Inc. in Bend, Oregon, also offered insight into the status of reloading. "The new bullet introductions are definitely increasing reloading activity—witness the incredible demand for the latest plastic-tipped, boat-tailed bonded bullets," he said. "There's a lot of satisfaction in shooting a one-hole group with ammo you loaded yourself. The same is true when you make a good shot on a big game animal or far-off varmint."
John says he frequently finds almost-empty shelves in the reloading sections of many sporting goods stores. The sales clerks tell him time and time again that sales are great. John's very optimistic about the future of reloading, and he assured me there are new innovations to look forward to.
Every shooter has personal limitations on how much ammo he burns in a year. Time and financial constraints are the primary factors. Probably the biggest factor is how important shooting is to each individual. I know people on very tight budgets who manage to shoot thousands of rounds every year. Casting your own bullets and bulk-buying components can result in amazingly cheap shooting.
I must admit I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to shoot a lot of factory ammo every year. Shooting Black Hills Match or Federal Gold Medal ammo in super-accurate rifles has to be experienced to be understood. Fact is, I'm in awe that Jeff Hoffman's crew at Black Hills Ammunition in Rapid City, South Dakota, can turn out such consistently accurate ammo. They do it day after day in huge quantities. The same can be said for the folks at Federal. I honestly doubt the average handloader can equal factory match ammo for accuracy.
I occasionally do all the tricks to make the most accurate ammo possible: prepping cases, weighing each powder charge and paying special attention to the many fussy factors that enhance accuracy. This demands time, patience and specialized equipment.
Having said that, by far most of the ammo I consume in a year comes off my Dillon, RCBS and Hornady progressive reloading presses. Why? Because my partner and I can turn out 100 rounds of good-shooting ammo in about 20 minutes. This ammo clangs my 1,000-yard metal targets with satisfying consistency, and that's what I need.
I practice as much as possible at ranges of 700-1,000 yards so I can confidently make 250- to 300-yard shots during a hunt. This requires a lot of practice, and a lot of ammo.
Reloading is here to stay. I'm confident there will always be shooters who prefer to create their own ammo. Bottom line is we've never had it so good. We have faster, more accurate reloading equipment and a wider choice of top-quality components than ever before. Plus if we run out of time and ammo, we can always buy factory ammo that's nearly as good as our own.