Straight Shooters

A step-by-step reloading guide for ultra-accuracy.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Varmint hunters have long been the very soul of the rifle cartridge reloading world. Back in the 1950s, when big-name ammo manufacturers were pooh-poohing the fledgling reloading industry, it was varmint hunters who most convincingly demonstrated the often vastly superior accuracy of handloads as compared to factory-made ammo. Nowadays, reloading is a fact of life in nearly every shooting game, with shotgunners, pistoleers, target shooters and hunters cranking out handloads by the millions.

However, varmint hunters still consider themselves the elite when it comes to reloading rifle ammo. (Benchrest shooters dwell in another firmament and speak in strange tongues.) And whenever two or more varmint hunters get together, their conversations center around their favorite reloads.

Even so, most dedicated varmint-shooting handloaders are unaware that loading tools and techniques that were state of the art as recently as a decade ago are now as obsolete as a flintlock. For the accuracy-minded, there are newer and much better ways of putting together brass cases, primers, propellants and bullets. Even many of the tricks used by benchrest champions in loading ultra-accurate ammo can now be applied to handloading ammo for varmint hunting.

Until recently, virtually all rifle ammo was loaded the same way, using the same tools and traditional methods, but savvy reloaders are now discovering that different types of ammo are at their best when put together using different techniques. For example, ammo loaded for big-game hunting must feed from the magazine reliably and must chamber smoothly, and the fired case must extract and eject in a slick and easy fashion. If the reload happens to be accurate, so much the better, but the first emphasis always has to be on functional reliability. This criterion also goes for reloads used by predator hunters, who often need follow-up shots at running coyotes, foxes, bobcats and the like.

The classic varmint hunter, on the other hand, who dotes on making long shots at woodchucks, prairie dogs and similar hard-to-hit critters, is primarily concerned with the accuracy of his rifle and ammo. Thus, he can wisely trade off some of the essentials of hunting ammo in return for better accuracy. After all, chucks and prairie rats almost never attack, and the essence of varmint hunting is "one target, one shot."

So follow along and discover some new tricks for squeezing the best accuracy from your varmint loads. You might even pick up a few ways to improve your big-game ammo.

The Pet-Load Farce
Many reloaders get tangled up in the notion that "accurate" reloading is a matter of discovering, literally by hit or miss, which combination of propellant and bullet yields the best accuracy. This is the "pet-load" farce, and every time someone starts haranguing me about his pet loads, I get the itch.

Makers of loading components adore seekers of pet loads because they burn up powder, bullets and primers-not to mention rifle barrels-like a drunken sailor with two months' pay. But as a means of loading reliably accurate ammo, searching for your one-and-only pet load is like eating soup with a fork-the gambit is fundamentally flawed. In fact, the pet-load search is often doomed from the beginning, because of the brass cartridge case being rendered inaccurate at the very first stage of the loading process. Metaphorically speaking, your vehicle has a flat tire at the beginning of the race. So how does this happen?

A set of traditional reloading dies includes a full-length sizing die and a bullet-seating die. Many reloaders, especially varmint hunters, also use a neck-sizing die, which reforms only the case neck, leaving the rest of the case body to "fire form" so that it more closely fits the rifle in which it was fired. Either way, the old-style sizing dies can do mischief to a case that often spoils accuracysometimes seriously.

With the old-style sizing operation, particularly the neck portion, the die squeezes the neck down smaller than it needs to be. Then, when the case is withdrawn from the sizing die, the neck is dragged over a plug-like button that expands the neck to a rather unspecified diameter. We've been resizing cases this way for so long we hardly give it a thought. But when you do stop to think about it, squeezing a case neck down and stretching it back out again doesn't make much sense. To begin with, this leads to excessive wear and "work-hardening" of the brass, which leads to neck splitting, a major cause of case loss. Furthermore, dragging a case over the expanding plug is extra work and requires the case neck to be lubricated inside-a messy job that no one likes anyway.

So why not simply size the neck down to the diameter you want it to be to begin with and skip all that squeezing and stretching? Benchrest shooters have been doing this for years, using special dies that hold tiny, interchangeable bushings that size the case neck to the exact diameter they want. This method not only greatly prolongs case life (50 or more reloadings is not uncommon), but allows precise control of neck tension on the bullet, a little known but important factor in the accuracy chain. A few years back, Redding started making standard-size, screw-in loading dies that utilize changeable neck-sizing bushings like those that benchrest shooters use. Since then, other makers of reloading tools have joined in.

I consider the changeable-bushing sizing die one of the biggest improvements in loading for accuracy in several generations. But before I get into why and how these and other recent loading-tool improvements boost accuracy, let's start at the beginning of a varmint cartridge's life history.

Dealing With New Brass
Depending on the rifle, I usually buy new brass in bulk lots of 100 or 1,000 cases. A batch of 100 cases is plenty for a new woodchuck rifle, which doesn't get all that much use, but for prairie dogs I want buckets of ammo. (Buying in bulk quantities from component suppliers like Midway and Widener's saves money, too.)

Shiny new brass is not ready to load, and how you prepare it at the beginning will play a major role in accuracy. Some persnickety handloaders like to weigh all the cases and divide them into separate lots depending on weight variations, the notion being that there will be less case variation from lot to lot and therefore, in theory, better accuracy. In the real world this is a waste of time, and even some top benchrest shooters-the most persnickety of all-don't bother. With a good batch of brass the weights seldom vary more than two grains from the lightest to the heaviest, and most are within a half grain of each other-a minuscule percentage in the case weight.

Any variations in new case weight can usually be reduced even further by slightly trimming the length. But as I have said, weighing generally isn't worth the bother, and if there happens to be a large variation in case weight it's indicative of a problem that can't be solved by segregating cases into lots anyway. This is why I weigh only 10 or so cases from a new batch of brass. If the random samples are pretty close in weight, I figure the rest of the batch is equally uniform.

If you're determined to tinker with your new brass, you might do some good by deburring the flash holes. When fresh holes are punched in cases there is often a rough, uneven burr left around the inside edges of the flash hole. Such burrs just might cause some variance in powder ignition, resulting in loss of accuracy. Hand-operated deburring tools are simple, fast and inexpensive, with the price of the RCBS version about equal to Happy Meals for three.

Now we get to the serious stuff, with your first important step to expand the necks of new cases. Actually, you don't expand the necks so much as simply remove the dents that occur during mass packing and shipping, rounding out the insides to a uniform dimension. Neck expanders come in almost all calibers and are inexpensive and should be on your must-have tool list. They fit in ordinary loading presses and work simply by raising the neck over the expanding mandrel. You can do several a minute. (Get them from Sinclair.)

Peeling Versus Turning
It's no secret that benchrest shooters and accuracy fanatics perform a surgery on their cases known as "neck turning." Using small, relatively inexpensive, lathe-like tools, they cut the neck walls down to a specific thickness. There are two major reasons for doing this: First, turning the necks to a uniform thickness ensures that tension on the bullet is uniform (thus helping to ensure uniform pressure buildup, which we'll discuss another day). Second, reducing neck diameter allows case necks to fit snugly in the typically undersize chambers of target rifles.

It is this second reason for neck turning that tends to get nonbelievers confused. Most mistakenly insist that since the chambers of nearly all factory rifles are large anyway (especially the neck portion), reducing the diameter of the cartridge neck makes a sloppy fit worse, creating even more misalignment of the bullet as it enters the bore. But this objection misses the point, as we shall see next month in Part II.

I do agree, however, that the radical removal of brass, as sometimes done by benchresters (who may reduce neck-wall thickness by nearly half), does no good for ordinary varmint rifles. That's why I use a simple neck-turning process I call "peeling." To peel a cartridge, I adjust the turning tool so that it merely slices away the thicker side(s) of the case. In case you're wondering, I don't remember ever finding a case with perfectly uniform wall thickness. They all need peeling.

Using a test case, I gradually adjust the cutting depth of the turning tool until the thicker portions of the neck are cut away. (The thinnest parts are barely touched.) Thus there is only an unimportant gnat's whisker of difference, and you can see that you're removing only the barest minimum of brass. After this initial setting, turn a few more cases to be sure you're on the right track, and make additional adjustments if necessary. Neck thickness and unevenness of cases, even within the same manufacturing lot, will vary somewhat. The idea of peeling is to make them all uniform.

Neck turning is the most time-consuming reloading step, but it is also the most fascinating step because as you watch the uneven brass peel away you're actually watching the cases become more accurate. And it's only a one-time process, after which the cases are always good to go. There are several makes and styles of neck turners availab, you don't expand the necks so much as simply remove the dents that occur during mass packing and shipping, rounding out the insides to a uniform dimension. Neck expanders come in almost all calibers and are inexpensive and should be on your must-have tool list. They fit in ordinary loading presses and work simply by raising the neck over the expanding mandrel. You can do several a minute. (Get them from Sinclair.)

Peeling Versus Turning
It's no secret that benchrest shooters and accuracy fanatics perform a surgery on their cases known as "neck turning." Using small, relatively inexpensive, lathe-like tools, they cut the neck walls down to a specific thickness. There are two major reasons for doing this: First, turning the necks to a uniform thickness ensures that tension on the bullet is uniform (thus helping to ensure uniform pressure buildup, which we'll discuss another day). Second, reducing neck diameter allows case necks to fit snugly in the typically undersize chambers of target rifles.

It is this second reason for neck turning that tends to get nonbelievers confused. Most mistakenly insist that since the chambers of nearly all factory rifles are large anyway (especially the neck portion), reducing the diameter of the cartridge neck makes a sloppy fit worse, creating even more misalignment of the bullet as it enters the bore. But this objection misses the point, as we shall see next month in Part II.

I do agree, however, that the radical removal of brass, as sometimes done by benchresters (who may reduce neck-wall thickness by nearly half), does no good for ordinary varmint rifles. That's why I use a simple neck-turning process I call "peeling." To peel a cartridge, I adjust the turning tool so that it merely slices away the thicker side(s) of the case. In case you're wondering, I don't remember ever finding a case with perfectly uniform wall thickness. They all need peeling.

Using a test case, I gradually adjust the cutting depth of the turning tool until the thicker portions of the neck are cut away. (The thinnest parts are barely touched.) Thus there is only an unimportant gnat's whisker of difference, and you can see that you're removing only the barest minimum of brass. After this initial setting, turn a few more cases to be sure you're on the right track, and make additional adjustments if necessary. Neck thickness and unevenness of cases, even within the same manufacturing lot, will vary somewhat. The idea of peeling is to make them all uniform.

Neck turning is the most time-consuming reloading step, but it is also the most fascinating step because as you watch the uneven brass peel away you're actually watching the cases become more accurate. And it's only a one-time process, after which the cases are always good to go. There are several makes and styles of neck turners availab