Back To Basics: 10 Handloading No-Nos

posted on June 12, 2018

Somewhere along the line, many shooters hear the siren song of handloading. I heard it in 1974. “If you’ll take the time, you can buy your components in bulk and lower your cost of shooting!” It is as seductive now as it was then, particularly if you are shooting some 500 rounds each week as I was 44 years ago. But like all enchanting temptresses, there is an opposing edge.

Handloading is an exacting and demanding endeavor. It does not fit everyone’s persona. If getting it just right and endless repeatability bores you, handloading probably isn’t your bag. This temptress has little regard for creativity; go freeform and you will likely be suddenly freed of your fingers or worse.

So after more than four decades of rolling my own and being associated with other handloaders, I have seen a number of mistakes repeated. I’ve made some of them myself and have been fortunate that the mistakes were not so bad as to cause injury to me or my guns. While it is said that experience is the best teacher, it would seem pointless—and dangerous—to repeatedly relearn the same caveats. In other words, learn from the dumb mistakes of others. In that vein, here are 10 common handloading no-nos. If you avoid these bad practices, your handloads more accurate, more reliable and a whole lot safer.

1. Failure to start with the starting load recommendations in the loading manual
Bullet and powder manufacturers spend a lot of money and time researching and producing loading manuals. Every modern manual has complete instructions on how to safely load your own ammunition. Most of the time they also are pretty close in finding the most accurate load with a particular powder and/or bullet. Each of these manuals list a starting and maximum load for each powder listed. Starting loads are usually about 10 percent less than the maximum loads. 

There is a very good reason for that. Chambers, throats, brass, barrels and bullets all are made within certain tolerances. Some combinations of these variables can cause chamber pressures to rise substantially. And very few handloaders have the wherewithal to measure these variances and come to an intelligent and comprehensive conclusion regarding safety. Throwing caution to the wind and pursuing speed is just plain stupid. Case in point:

Recently, I embarked on a handloading project for my .22-250 Rem. My loading dies are marked with the year of manufacture—in this case, 1976—so I have been loading this cartridge for 42 years, and the number of rounds I have produced is in the tens of thousands. I was cocky—too cocky—figuring there wasn’t much about loading the .22-250 Rem. that I didn’t know. So even though I was using a new powder for this loading project, I reckoned that I could load the maximum load and still be safe enough. Happily, I cranked out some 350 rounds. When I went to sight in my rifle—a very accurate rifle—I had an epiphany.

I was quite impressed with the velocities I was getting. On the fourth round, however, I was taken aback. The bolt handle was almost frozen; it required some persuasion from a brass hammer to open it. The case was firmly stuck in the chamber. After I got back to my shop, it required a little soaking in Kroil and a brass rod inserted from the muzzle with the aforementioned brass hammer to free the case. As you can see from the image, the headstamp is wiped clean; the primer is gone; and there is clearly a lot of hot combustion gasses that went places they should not go. Luckily—very luckily—there was no damage to the rifle or even more importantly to me. I did a stupid thing and got a stern warning. My penance was to pull the remaining 346 bullets and start over. I now have a safe and accurate load using that powder. 

2. Loading data from unreliable sources (Internet)
If you troll some Internet chat rooms and forums you will see a variety of posts with handloading recommendations. Some may be OK, but if you choose to emulate these recommendations you are putting your safety and your firearm at significant risk. Old “Handloading Sage” on the Shootin’ & Blastin’ forum may have quite a following and be very popular, but does he have the instrumentation to measure and the real background to evaluate his recommendation? Too, how do you know whether he proofread his post? As an editor in recovery, I see typographical errors on a daily basis. A typo regarding a political rant on social media just makes the originator look like a dope, but if it is part of a handloading recipe some very bad things can occur.

One of the most idiotic examples of this occurred on a forum where the posting party said that a certain smokeless powder could be loaded volume for volume to black powder in a muzzleloader. He claimed he got better velocity and he didn’t have to clean his rifle as much. The manufacturer of the powder—a good friend of mine—had to send out an emergency e-mail warning people to not use this powder or any smokeless powder as a black powder substitute.

3. Failure to adequately resize the case
This no-no usually occurs a little later in a handloader’s life. By this time he is an accuracy nut. Full-length resizing robs him—or so he believes; he probably never has tested it—of a few thousandths of an inch in group size. He is too cheap to buy a dedicated neck-sizing die, so he backs off his full-length resizer a bit.

Ordinarily this isn’t the worst handloading faux pas. If the case is fired in the same rifle and all he ever does is shoot groups from the bench, a slightly oversize case won’t harm him—unless he really has to put a lot of effort to close the bolt. When that happens and he is running near-maximum loads, it could result into an overpressure situation.

The cure is if you want to neck size, buy a neck-sizing die. Yes, you can neck size with a full-length resizing die, but you had better know what you are doing. A secondary caveat: Do not neck size hunting ammunition. The slight increase in accuracy is impossible to take advantage of in the field, and you run a very real risk of discovering that you cannot chamber a round when you really need it. You may have neck sized the cartridge correctly, but if it got a little dirty during handling, closing the bolt may be impossible. Always full-length resize hunting ammo.

4. Failure to check brass for cracks
You would be surprised to learn how much brass moves during and just after the firing process. By the way, it is supposed to move. It is that movement that allows the case to seal the chamber and prevents combustion gases from hitting you as you fire the gun. Brass is soft. Movement—especially repeated movement—work-hardens the brass, eventually causing it to crack at stress points. Cracked brass will not seal the chamber or hold a bullet firmly. In some cases, cracked brass can separate in the chamber, leaving a portion of the case stuck in the chamber and preventing a fresh round from entering it. 

I am a fanatic about brass inspection and preparation. Often the first clue that brass is cracked is how easy it goes through the resizing die. If it takes little or no effort, stop and inspect the case. Almost always it will be because the case is cracked.

During the aforementioned handloading project, I was separating my stash of .22-250 Rem. cases by manufacturer. I had quite a few from a particular manufacturer from a varmint shoot a couple of years ago. These were once-fired cases of budget—read cheap—ammo. As I separated the cases, it turned out that about 80 percent of these cases were already cracked. Whether the brass was substandard in its metallurgy or not properly annealed after forming I do not know. But I scrapped every case from that manufacturer. I am sure this was a one-time event because I have a lot of cases from the parent company that are fine. Still, it illustrates why it is necessary to inspect each case during the reloading process. 

5. Failure to keep a record of how many times a case has been reloaded or trimmed
This is relevant primarily to bottleneck rifle cartridges. Some folks—and I am not one of them—keep meticulous records of each and every round they load and shoot. What I am referring to here is that every time a round is fired the case stretches a bit. Running that case through a resizing die lengthens the case a few thousandths, eventually requiring the reloader to trim the case back to its original length. The growth comes at the case’s base, and it doesn’t take more than two or three trimmings for the case to become dangerously thin at the base of the combustion chamber. Loading such a case “just one more time” often results in a case separating. The first clue is the head of the case is ejected while the remainder is stuck in the chamber. 

A long time ago I was playing gunsmith in a little shop in Afton, Wyo. A guy and I were discussing this very subject, and he adamantly put forth the notion that it was OK to have such a separation. “That way I know I got the most use from that case,” he opined. Not too long after that he brought in a treasured Garand with the front of the case firmly stuck in the chamber. If I recall correctly, we charged him 20 bucks to remove said case. Oh boy, did he save a lot of money with that practice.

An easy way to check for incipient head separation is to use a simple paperclip or piece of wire. On one end turn the last eighth of an inch 90 degrees. Run that end in the mouth of the case and keep it in contact with the case wall all the way to the bottom. If you feel a noticeable dip just before you run into the base of the combustion chamber, the case is best discarded.

6. Improper primer selection
Some reloaders believe that primers are primers. There are “big uns and little uns, and as long as they fit into the primer pocket, you are good to go.” That kind of thinking will at best provide you with inaccurate ammo—the guys practicing this idea probably cannot tell the difference anyway—and at worst cause a sudden and unplanned disassembly of his firearm, possibly including body parts.

Primers do come in two sizes, large and small. Small primers for rifle and pistol are identical in terms of their external dimensions. Each is about .175" in diameter, and .120" high. The cups on rifle primers are thicker, meaning that if you use a rifle primer in most handguns, the striking force of the firing pin may or may not be enough to light it off. Some of the super-heavy handgun hunting cartridges use small rifle primers because the smaller surface area allows less back pressure and some of these cartridges develop pressures high enough to back out a large primer, thus tying up the gun. Usually these cartridges are used in single-action revolvers or single-shots with heavy hammers powered by relatively powerful springs that can reliably crack small rifle primers.

Large primers for rifle and pistol are slightly different dimensionally. Large pistol primers are .211" wide and .120" high; large rifle primers are typically .212" across and .128" high. These differences may seem insignificant, but consider that the primer is a point of weakness separating you from as much as 70,000 psi of burning powder gases. I want as much of a margin of safety there as I can find.

Standard and magnum primers differ in their brisance—essentially how much fire they produce. Do not assume that because a magnum primer is hotter it must be better. Fact is, if you are not using a large payload of very slow-burning powder, you will most likely get better accuracy from a standard primer.

Loading manuals specify which primer to use in any given load. There is some room to play. For example Federal and Winchester primers are often the hottest primers. Remington seems to be a bit cooler, and CCI appears to be somewhere in between. What does this mean? If the loading manual specifies a Remington 9 1/2 primer and you are looking for the hottest hunting load while using a Federal or Winchester primer, you would be wise to back off any maximum charge by .5 to 1 grain. 

7. Improper bullet seating depth
It may surprise you to learn that variances in bullet seating depth have a larger influence on accuracy than the consistency of powder charges. Tests have shown that powder charges can vary plus or minus 2 grains, and it will show a negligible difference on the target, all other things being equal. Varying the bullet seating depth by .050" can mean the difference of a decent group and one that resembles an Improved Cylinder choke on a shotgun.

Some target shooters—benchrest and Schützen mostly—will actually pre-load a bullet to engage the rifling lede separately from the charged case. However, these are far less than maximum loads so pressure considerations are not an issue. Some varmint shooters prefer to load the bullet so that it has about .006" of freebore before it engages the rifling. But if accuracy is what you are looking for, the amount of jump the bullet has before engaging the rifling must be consistent.

Hunters—by that I mean big game hunters—will not get any measureable benefit from such short freebores. Say you load up some elk ammo with just .006" of freebore. You are back in the backcountry some 20 or more miles and load your rifle. You return to camp and in the interest of safety remove the chambered unfired round, but all you get is a case and a bunch of unburned gunpowder in your receiver. The bullet remains jammed in the barrel, and unless there is a cleaning rod in camp, for the rest of the hunt you’ll be hunting with your camera.

8. Failure to keep reloading dies clean
I am constantly amazed at guys who keep their guns clean enough to perform surgery, yet haven’t touched the reloading dies in years. Sizing dies collect sizing lube, which collects grit and can congeal into a solid morass that invites problems as wide as dimensional variances to corrosion. It doesn’t take but a minute or two to pull the innards, shoot some solvent into the die and run a patch or two through it. If you load cast bullets, check the seating die regularly for bits of lubricant that may be left behind, particularly on the seating plug. Your dies are a tooling investment. Treat them appropriately. 

9. Using powder not stored in its original container 
Oh boy! You scored 5 lbs. of your favorite powder at a yard sale for just a couple of bucks! However, it isn’t in the original factory container. Yard-sale guy said it’s your favorite and it looks like it, but how can you be sure? Even if it is that favorite powder, storing it in anything other than the original container invites opportunities for the powder to decay over time. It’s your life and your guns. If either is worth a real danger of catastrophic loss in order to save a couple of bucks, then they are less important to you than my guns and my life are to me.

10. Storing powder for long periods of time in the powder measure 
Most modern powder measures are made with plastic hoppers. Double-based powders contain a percentage of nitroglycerin. Depending on the plastic used, the nitro can react with the plastic and decay somewhat. You probably do not want to load such powder. If the hopper is cloudy, a reaction has occurred. It takes less than a minute to decant the unused powder back into its original container.

None of these 10 caveats are all that earthshattering. Most are just common sense. The new reloader would be wise to heed these points. And old reloaders—like me—should remember that we do not know more than the loading manuals.


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