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Handloading 101: Accurate Load Development

Hardy Old Lever Action Rifle Improved by Handloading

We have studied the basics of handloading on this blog before. Now let’s go a step further and study load development. It works!

Recently, I fired a number of handloads in my bolt-action .308 and, frankly, the results were so good it even surprised me. I had on the bench a rifle and load combination more accurate than I could hold.

That is a good place to be. The rewards of load development are many and tangible.

While load development pays off big dividends for rifles, the same principles apply to handguns, particularly Magnum hunting revolvers.

handloading 308 rifleHandloading can pay big dividends for rifles.

Where to Begin

We begin to experiment with the usual variables—powder, projectile and overall cartridge length. The best program is to work with only one variable at a time.

Change the powder charge weight, not the bullet or overall length. If good results follow, consider changing the bullet to a premium model. You must begin with reliable data from the loading manuals.

While the accuracy load from the Hornady load manual may not be the most accurate in your rifle, it will not be a dog either!

First, decide what you wish to accomplish. Is it top-flight accuracy, energy or range? The bullet may be the first choice. The Hornady A-Max, V-Max, Match and InterBond bullets do different things.

Use a bullet that accomplishes the goal, whether the goal is practice, competition or large or small game.

handloading bullet choiceBullet choice may be the first place to start. Hornady’s A-Max is a great option.

Power Testing

Next, choose a powder that has performed well for the maker. You may choose the highest velocity or the greatest accuracy.

By choosing a load that worked well for the writers of the loading manual—and they are trained ballisticians—you are on the road to success.

I begin by loading three or four cartridges with a given powder charge near the beginning load. As may be expected, a quality chronograph is a prerequisite of this type of experimentation.

One rifle may produce good velocity with the starting load; others demand more powder for a given target goal. I work in half-grain powder increments.

You may be surprised what a half-grain of powder will do as you approach maximum load density. (With pistol calibers, 0.1- to 0.3-tenth of a grain is a good spread.)

Change only one part of the equation at a time or you will not know which change resulted and caused the improved performance. Groups may be more or less accurate as you test loads.

If you have a problem with the cartridge case sticking, or excess pressure signs such as a flattened primer, stop and reduce the powder charge. A load that is safe in one rifle may be too much for another rifle.

handloading chronographA quality chronograph is a prerequisite of this type of experimentation

Other Experimentation

Bullet length and total bearing surface effect accuracy and pressure. As an example, simply substituting one bullet for the other may drive pressure up, although the bullets are the same weight.

The depth at which they seat in the cartridge case (or how they fit the bore) may affect the pressure. Remember, a lighter bullet produces less pressure with the same powder charge.

A heavier bullet creates more pressure in the cartridge case, but even changing bullets for the same weight may increase pressure. Handloading data isn’t general; it is specific.

The loading manuals list the overall cartridge length for a cartridge. Remember, the deeper you seat the bullet, the greater the internal pressure of the cartridge-powder-bullet combination.

When you are experimenting with an overall length (OAL), you are controlling the amount the bullet jumps before meeting the lands (rifling).

I often set my loading dies with a factory cartridge of the same bullet weight I am working with. If the bullet actually jams into the lands, pressure may go up as well.

So, “long seat” the bullet in very small increments, testing three to four cartridges for the best results.

handloading manualA handloading manual, like Hornady’s Handbook of Cartridge Reloading, may come in handy.

If you are loading for a self-loading rifle, such as the PTR 91, you cannot deviate from the factory OAL, as neither the chamber nor the magazine accepts a longer cartridge.

As I mentioned, I finally found a combination that seemed to put all shots in one hole at 100 yards—and produced a three-shot hole in my .308 bolt-action rifle.

However, if the distance were to extend to 200 and 300 yards, the task becomes more challenging. Likewise, the rules differ for a self-loading rifle.

You must predict the powder selection upon the ability of the power to properly burn in the action.

Slow-burning powder suitable for the .30-06 to .300 Magnum isn’t suitable for the .223 or .308 self-loader, and the principles of powder selection and bullet selection apply.

Handloading Handguns

With the common handgun calibers, .38 Special, 9mm Luger and .45 ACP, the recipes are well-known. Stick with a standard weight bullet for the caliber and follow careful load practice and you will have a winner.

Sometimes, the use of a premium bullet, such as Hornady’s XTP, results in a considerable improvement in accuracy over standard RNL (round nose lead) or RNJ (round nose jacketed) bullets.

With the Magnum revolvers, you cannot vary OAL, but you can experiment more with different powders with medium to slow burn rates.

handloading 38 specialStick with a standard weight bullet for calibers like .38 Special.


Handloading is a fascinating pursuit that pays big dividends in accuracy. Follow these rules, study often and always use safe load practice.

How proficient are you at handloading? Let us know any tips you may have in the comments below.


Note: This post was originally published in January 2015. It has been updated for clarity and accuracy.

Source: Cheaper Than Dirt

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