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 by John Barsness

Even for experienced handloaders, considerable improvements in factory ammunition in recent years is a boon.
Even for experienced handloaders, considerable improvements in factory ammunition in recent years is a boon.

DURING A RECENT conversation about a hunt, somebody asked what handload was used.  When I told him it was a factory load, he frowned and said, “Why would you ever hunt with anything but handloads?”

Why indeed? Isn’t one of the major points of being a rifle loony using handloads carefully worked up over several hours at the bench and range for your specific rifle? Plus, all rifle loonies know factory ammo is inferior to handloads.

Actually a lot of the time it’s not, for several reasons, but when I started handloading back in the Cenozoic Era (the 1960’s) most handloaders firmly believed our ammo was superior to factory stuff.  We could work up loads specifically for our rifles, resulting in finer accuracy and more velocity, and use superior custom bullets.

This was probably true for the factory ammo of the period.  Only Weatherby loaded anything except a basic cup-and-core bullet in their ammunition, offering Nosler Partitions in some loads.  The bullets and ammo loaded by other companies were often not very precisely dimensioned, because the factories didn’t have to make great ammo: Relatively few hunters handloaded, so factory ammo was their only choice.

However, even many of our handloads weren’t all that great back then.  I read a lot of books and magazine articles, and can’t remember reading anything concerning how bullet alignment in the case affected accuracy, or how playing with seating depth might tighten groups.  Instead you were supposed to try different bullets to see which one your rifle “liked” (which might have been due to how well your seating die’s stem matched that particular bullet, resulting in straighter rounds, as I discovered a couple decades later).  In reality better accuracy was probably mostly due to using bullets that were better-balanced than most factory bullets, loaded in cases fired in our rifles’ chambers.

None of us had chronographs, so we had no idea whether our ammo was actually faster than factory stuff.  One of my buddies bought a 7mm Remington Magnum, then the Hot In-Cartridge, because like a lot of hunters he was convinced it was vastly superior to old-fashioned rounds like the .270 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield.  He handloaded 160-grain bullets with a powder charge his manual said would get 3000 fps, then killed a pile of deer, black bears and elk.  He was convinced his Big Seven (as many Montanans called the round back then) was indeed super.

But when affordable chronographs appeared a decade or so later, he discovered his magic handload was actually getting around 2700 fps, about like a warmly loaded 7×57 Mauser.  You might think he’d have noticed the trajectory wasn’t as flat as it should have been, but he lived in the steep, timbered mountains of western Montana, where shots over 250 yards are rare.  (Or at least they were before long-range hunters started backing up their pickups to extend ranges).  Instead, his Big Seven killed well because he shot it well, something many owners of 7×57’s and its modern equivalent, the 7mm-08, have been doing for over a century.

I had a similar experience with my first chronograph, purchased in 1979, and the first rifle I seriously handloaded for, a Remington 700 .243 Winchester.  According to the Speer manual, my handload with the 105 Hot-Cor would get very close to 3000 fps, but instead the velocity turned out to be a little under 2800.  The load had killed a bunch of animals neatly, but the chronograph ruined it.  I switched to a 100-grain bullet and leaned on the powder charge, because I had to get 3000.  It worked too, but no better than the “slow” 105-grain load.

Since those days factory ammunition has improved considerably, partly because so many hunters handload and own chronographs.  This competition forced factories to start loading better bullets, both in construction and accuracy.  Velocity is still sometimes a little lower than specifications in our rifles, for a couple of reasons.  First, many factory rifles have larger bores and chambers than test barrels, and second, even SAAMI velocity specifications are allowed to vary plus or minus 90 fps.  However, as my .243 and my friend’s Big Seven demonstrated, so what?

For several reasons I kill quite a few big game animals with factory ammunition, though exactly how many varies from year to year.  The most important reason is I’m a professional gun and hunting writer, so should know how factory ammo works, and because of my job get invited on some hunts where shooting factory ammo is part of the deal.  But I also use factory ammo for some of my own hunting.

Out of curiosity I looked over my hunting notes for the past decade to see how many animals were taken with factory ammo.  During that period I took fewer animals than in the previous decade, because of a conscious decision to spend more time hunting with family and friends, but still killed 97 big game animals.  (It probably would have been over 100, but one fall’s hunting was mostly wiped out by my Labrador dislocating my knee while upland hunting in September, resulting in only one big game animal taken that year.)

Of the 97 animals, 38 were taken with factory ammo and 59 with handloads, though four of the handloads were loaded by other people for the borrowed rifles I used on two hunts, so only 55 of my own handloads were used, slightly more than half the total.  The factory ammo ranged from the .243 Winchester to the .338 Winchester Magnum, and no problems were encountered with any of it, whether in accuracy or bullet performance, despite some of the bullets being “cup-and-cores.”

I also handloaded for some of the same rifles, before or after the hunts, and had a hard time beating the accuracy of some factory ammo.  One memorable example was the Federal Premium .308 Winchesters loaded with 150-grain Ballistic Tips used in a Sako rifle on an “industry” pronghorn and mule deer hunt in Wyoming.  Three-shot groups averaged ½’ to ¾” at 100 yards, and I took the mule deer buck at almost 450 yards.  The pronghorn was only 250 yards away but facing me directly, and the bullet landed at the “dimple” at the base of the throat.  (It also exited the buck’s right ham.)

In several other rifles carious factory loads shot into an inch or less, and along with the hunting I shot a pile of factory ammo at targets out to 1000 yards, and various varmints out to 800.  There were no fail-to-fires, and accuracy was always up to the task.  Some of the rifles were customs or limited production rifles, but most were factory.

In fact, I’ve  talked to several handloaders during this past decade who couldn’t match some factory-ammo accuracy with their handloads.  Without exception, they were still trying to work up loads the old-fashioned way, by trying different bullets to see what their rifle liked, and weren’t checking bullet run-out.  This can be a big factor, because a lot of factory ammo is very concentric.

The reason is simple: Factory brass isn’t run through a typical expander-ball sizing die, which often pulls the neck out of alignment with the case body.  Instead, factory cases are formed by running them into a forming die without an expander ball, so the necks of new factory cases are normally very straight.  (The exception occurs when factory forming dies wear enough to produce crooked cases, but they’re normally replaced often enough to prevent this.)

The mouths of new cases can be dinged slightly, but the overall neck is still straight.  Yet some handloaders still full-length size every new case they buy, usually in a typical loading die with an expander ball—which means a lot of their new brass ends up less straight than when it left the factory.  If the mouths of new cases need cleaning up, I run them over an expander ball, usually with the decapping stem loosened to allow the ball to center itself in the neck, but there’s no reason to size the rest of the case.

These very straight cases are what factories use to load factory ammo, so bullets in factory ammo are often seated straighter than in typical handloads.  As an example, I recently bought 100 rounds of Hornady American Whitetail factory 7mm-08 ammunition, loaded with the 139-grain Interlock Spire Point.  The reason for the purchase will be explained a little further on, but one of the first things I did was test a box for bullet run-out.

Eighteen of the rounds had run-out of .003” or less, and the other two measured .004” and .005”.   That’s the level I try for when handloading most big game ammo, because in most big game rifles (especially factory rifles) .005” of bullet run-out provides all the accuracy possible.

Now, in some (not all) custom big game rifles, straighter bullet alignment can make a difference.  I once owned a custom 7×57 that shot extremely well, and once took it on an industry hunt where factory ammo had to be used.  I sorted through three boxes of ammo with the Casemaster, dividing the rounds into a straightest box (no more than .003” runout), a crooked box (more than .005” runout), and an in-between box (.004-.005”).   The straightest box shot groups averaging ½” to ¾” at 100 yards, the in-between box about an inch, and the crooked box around and inch and a half.

The only real difficulty I’ve occasionally run into with factory ammo in quite a while is occasional erratic performance in cold weather.  I test ammo that might be used in real cold in real cold, at least down around zero Fahrenheit, and not just by putting the ammo in a chest freezer overnight, but by shooting it in cold weather, with my rifle also cold, just like it would be shot in the field.  Some factory ammo loses considerable velocity and changes point of impact noticeably at 100 yards in real cold, and some even hangfires.

However, so do some handloads, the reason I also check them in real cold if they might be used in sub-zero temperatures.  But for most of the big game hunting most of us do, in temperatures from maybe 20 degrees to 90, factory ammo works fine, especially if we don’t shoot at big game beyond 500 yards.

But isn’t factory ammo far more expensive than handloads? Not always.  The reason I bought the 100 rounds of Hornady 7mm-08’s was a rebarreled tang-safety Ruger 77 purchased off the Campfire Classifieds.  I hadn’t owned a 7mm-08 in a while, so there wasn’t any brass in my stash.  Sure, 7-08’s are easily formed by necking-down .308’s, but I wanted properly headstamped brass, partly because I have three .308’s.

I looked in local stores on the off-chance somebody had overlooked a bag of 7-08 cases, but no such luck.  An Internet search turned up four brands in stock, but prices were pretty high.  All but Prvi Partizan were around $100 per 100 cases, and with shipping even the Prvi would cost about $65.

However, during the search I came across the Hornady ammo, and including shipping the price was $22 a box.  After subtracting the cost of primers, powder and bullets, the cases ended up costing about the same as the new Prvi brass.  Plus, I’d gotten excellent accuracy out of American Whitetail ammo in several cartridges already, and the 139 Hornady Interlock was the bullet I’d planned on loading anyway, since it’s killed a bunch of game from pronghorn to caribou for me over the years.  In the Ruger the ammo shot around an inch at a muzzle velocity just under 2800 fps, which considering the 22” barrel was right at the listed factory velocity of 2820 fps.  After the 100 rounds gets shot up I’ll have 100 factory cases, fire-formed in my rifle’s chamber.

So yes, I shoot a lot of factory ammo, for a bunch of reasons—but mainly because it works!

John’s new book MODERN HUNTING OPTICS and other great stuff can be ordered online at www.riflesandrecipes.com.