Handloading for Hunting

Handloading for Hunting | Shooting Sportsman Magazine
For handloading hunting loads, a single-stage press, such as the MEC 600 Jr Mark V (shown here) or the MEC Sizemaster, is best. Photograph courtesy of MEC

Loading your own for the field

Shotshell reloading is nearly synonymous with clay target shooting. But the fact is that 95-plus percent of the questions and comments I receive from Shooting Sportsman readers relative to reloading concern reloading for hunting. And they’re not basic questions either. That’s because while most SSM readers hunt, a much smaller percentage participate in competitive target shooting. So in this piece on reloading, the focus will be on loading for the field for those who have at least some experience.


In the US, reloading as we know it has been ongoing for at least 150 years. But it really began to flourish in the mid-1950s. That coincided with Mayville Engineering Company (MEC), in Wisconsin, beginning to manufacture affordably priced but well-engineered, hand-operated “home” reloading presses for paper and plastic hulls. This had immediate appeal to high-volume clay target shooters whose principal motive for reloading was—and for decades has been—to save money. Reloading got another big boost when MEC began to make progressive reloading presses. This design allowed one shell to be fully loaded with each pull of the handle rather than the multiple pulls needed with single-stage presses.

Much has changed since then. The biggest change for target-load reloaders has been the massive importation and proliferation of European-made factory lead shot target loads, especially in 12 and 20 gauge. The price points of these loads have been substantially lower than US-made lead target loads, especially current high-end US loads. The result has been that many target shooters have abandoned reloading 12-gauge—and to a lesser extent 20-gauge—lead target loads. But 28-gauge and .410-bore target-load reloading is still going strong because there remains a substantial price savings (about 50 to 60 percent) compared to US- and Euro-made factory loads. Another big change is that steel shot is increasingly being reloaded for target shooting.

Competent and safe handloading requires a good reloading scale and an accurate caliper. Author's photo.

More change: Components are much more expensive now than they were just 20 years ago (as are factory loads). For example, 40 years ago a 25-pound bag of true, 6-percent high-antimony, virgin lead shot sold for $12 to $15 a bag. Today shooters are going to pay around $50 a bag, not counting shipping. And the antimony levels have been lowered and no longer are marked on the bags. The same goes for lead-shot quality in many of today’s factory lead loads, especially hunting loads. All of the other components have likewise at least doubled in price, with primers and powder having tripled.

Lastly, one can now purchase hulls in new, primed condition. This was unheard of just 20 years ago, as all reloaders either relied on saving their own once-fired hulls from shooting factory loads or could readily buy the most popular once-fired hulls at the local gun club. Club sources of once-fired hulls and purchasing them via mail-order has now pretty much dried up or become intermittent at best. The principal construction of today’s hulls in new condition is of two-piece, straight-walled plastic. Currently they are almost all European-made, such as Fiocchi, Cheddite and Rio. And they’re not cheap. Today 15 to 21 cents per new hull is the going price. And whereas in the “old days” once-fired hulls sold for 3 cents each, today they go for 6 to 12 cents each.

Long ago the darling of target-load reloaders became the progressive press design, despite the fact that it always has been substantially more expensive than the single-stage press. Today the most popular progressive presses sell for about $600 to $800 (MEC 8567 and 9000 series) to as much as about $2,800 (Spolar Gold Premier), with Ponsness/Warren progressive presses coming in at about $1,000. Hydraulic add-ons are available for progressive presses that eliminate handle pulling but up the price for less-expensive models to $1,000 or more. And because speed of reloading is paramount to clay target shooters, they also prefer one-piece plastic wads and the long reloading life offered by one-piece plastic, tapered-walled hulls such as the Remington STS and Gun Club, the old Winchester AA and the current Federal Gold Medal.


Which brings us to handloading for hunting. I differentiate between “reloading” and “handloading.” To me, reloading is the domain of clay target and handgun shooters where typically cost savings and speed of assembly are paramount. Handloading, in contrast, is principally the domain of hunters seeking the highest quality and performance from self-made ammunition, with cost and speed secondary considerations. The ultimate in handloading is practiced by benchrest and long-range rifle shooters where the goal is to get every bullet to fly into the hole of the previous shot at many-hundreds-of-yards distances. They carefully and methodically weigh and mic every component, double check everything with scales and magnifying glasses, and reject any components and finished rounds that are the slightest bit off. As a result, they always produce ammunition superior to factory loads.

It is my bias here to strongly encourage all those who are currently assembling or contemplating assembling their own hunting shotshells to abandon reloading mindsets and approaches and to adopt instead a disciplined approach to assembling the best-quality hunting loads they can, regardless of cost. In other words: Become a handloader rather than a mere reloader of hunting loads. These days you likely will struggle to save any money at it. But almost no one shoots a high volume of hunting loads in a season anyway; so to me cost becomes secondary to two considerations: high performance and having just the load one needs.

A charge bar and bushing for dropping powder and shot. Photograph by Terry Allen

The Road to Success

Scales & Calipers: First and foremost, every handloader needs a good reloading scale. A shotshell handloader uses one constantly to check charge-bar-and-bushing powder and shot drops to set up a press for the desired load, to hand-weigh powder and shot charges for some hunting loads, and to periodically safety-check samples of the finished product. One cannot competently and safely handload shotshell loads without a good reloading scale. Buy a scale of at least 1,010-grain capacity in either balance-beam or electronic-digital design. Both are equally accurate. Another measuring tool frequently used in handloading is a dial or digital caliper. Be sure to own one.

Presses: It is essential that handloaders use the right kind of shotshell press. I’ve been at this game some 55 years and likely used almost every shotshell press that has come down the pike. In that time it has become clear that a single-stage press for hunting loads is best, because hunting loads demand multiple wad columns or long one-piece wads, which are a bear to try to feed through progressive-press wad guides. The same can be said for buffer, which is commonly used in top-drawer, long-range hunting loads. And you simply do not have as much control of the individual loading steps with a progressive press as you do with a single-stage press.

Long ago I figured out that two single-stage presses, for me, were the easiest to use, were the easiest to adjust, were almost failsafe in operation, provided the best crimps and produced the most professional finished hunting ammunition. They are the MEC Sizemaster (about $360) and Ponsness/Warren Du-O-Matic (about $550). Both models come in all gauges and lengths and operate on the charge-bar-and-bushing principal to meter powder and shot drops. Both presses have their fans. I use both, depending on gauge.

In some cases you may find yourself having to hand-weigh your shot charges.

Data Sources: It’s a fact that finished handloads are only as good as the loading recipe followed. I cannot overemphasize that you should use only published data from a reliable source that has been worked up according to SAAMI procedures and methodologies and empirically pressure/velocity test-fired in a SAAMI-compliant ballistic lab. That means data from the powder companies Alliant and Hodgdon and publishing entities like Lyman, Precision Reloading and me. Do not use data that has been created by modeling or other computer formulae and hasn’t been test-fired in strict adherence to SAAMI procedures and methodologies.

For best performance select recipes that feature wad columns—one piece or multiple—offering full shot-charge protection and modest velocities (1,200 to 1,300 fps for lead, bismuth and tungsten-composite pellet types; 1,300 to 1,400 fps for steel shot). Only buffered-load recipes will deliver true long-range performance with lead and bismuth shot. Beware recipes that require a card or plastic, pattern-disrupting, overshot wad. If you need to adjust crimps, always place wads under the shot. Also, for best hunting-load patterning performance and lower recoil, avoid high-velocity recipes. In shotshells, with their ball-shaped projectiles, high velocity is a ballistic minus not a plus. The most lethal hunting loads from my lifetime of scientific field testing on wild birds have proven to be light- to medium-shot-charge-weight loads (no heavier than 85 percent of the standard magnum-shot-charge weight for a given gauge, shell length and shot type) driven at modest velocities.

Purchase a copy of the latest Lyman Shotshell Reloading Handbook for its excellent color cross-sectional drawings of hulls and other valuable information that will illustrate and update you on current components and basic ballistics. Remember that, except for my handloading manuals, published shotshell recipes have not been selected for desired low-velocity variations or cold-weather performance, nor have they been pattern-tested. You’re on your own when selecting data from them to find out how your chosen recipe(s) will perform. So be sure to at least pattern-test, or you’ll be shooting blind.

Examples of the excellent crimping done by today’s shotshell reloading presses. Author's photo.

Components: Today there is a wealth of components for handloading lead and nontoxic hunting loads. This has been especially true of plastic wads since the importation of European-made wads began about 15 years ago. Previous to this there were principally just US-made target wads. There is a variety of US and foreign-made primers that, depending upon the recipe, I have found to be quite equal in reliability but definitely vary in ignition force. For hunting-load assembly in the US, you primarily will be loading slow-burning Alliant or Hodgdon powders. The only caveat is that in the larger gauges when working with recipes using the slowest-burning powders, for the most reliable combustion during cold weather try to select loads ignited by the hot Federal 209A, CCI 209M or Rio 209 primers or the somewhat-cooler Cheddite or Winchester 209 primers. As far as hulls go for hunting loads, I’ve found the imported Euro hulls to be excellent insofar as their abilities to keep internal volume and pressure down. But US-made hulls are also very good ballistically in most recipes. As to shot, please see my Shot Talk column (p. 44) regarding choices. In general, for long-range loads, buffered magnum lead shot and Reloading Specialties’ HW-13 tungsten composite deliver the best patterns. Precision Reloading’s nickel-plated lead shot has replaced copper-plated as today’s finest.

Reloading components and accessories long ago were dropped by most gun dealers and sporting-goods stores. Currently the main sources for shotshell handloading components are the mail-order firms Ballistic Products, in Minnesota, and Precision Reloading, in South Dakota. To a lesser extent, components can be mail-ordered or purchased directly from Midway USA, in Missouri; Natchez Shooters Supplies, in Tennessee; and the Sportsman’s Warehouse stores spread across the US.

Storage & Loading Environment: Handloaders must be careful how they store powder, primers and shot so the materials don’t deteriorate. Keeping them in an unheated garage or basement with frequent temperature and humidity changes is the surest way to end up with oxidized shot and reduced-force primers and powder. The same can be said for ammo assembled and stored in unheated garages and basements. And with today’s all-too-common steel-headed hulls and the steel in primers, you’re inviting rust that will inhibit chambering. Try to store all of your components and do all of your handloading indoors in a climate-controlled room. Also try to select a room that offers privacy, as handloading is not a social event and demands concentration. Always remember that when you load ammunition, the resulting product is designed to kill. Get casual and sloppy with the process, and it can end up maiming or killing you.

Bags of magnum lead shot and Reloading Specialties’ HW-13 tungsten-composite shot. Author's photo.

Improvise: Because most reloading-tool design is still dominated by clay-target-load thinking, the world hasn’t fully caught up yet with loading such things as hard nontoxic-shot types and bismuth. While MEC and Ponsness/Warren have bars and bushings calibrated for lead and steel shot, if you’re loading HEVI-Shot, HW-13, TSS or bismuth shot, you’re pioneering something the press manufacturers haven’t tackled. So be prepared to fabricate your own charge bars and bushings to throw these shot types. Do so by using a scale to determine what current lead or steel bars and bushings throw versus these shot types, and then modify the existing bars and bushings with drill bits and round files to get what you need. Alternately, if you load with a MEC press, you can purchase an adjustable charge bar from Ballistic Products. In some cases you may find yourself simply having to hand-weigh your shot charges.

Last Tips: You can improve the crimp formation and appearance on your handloads, particularly with new hulls, by installing the Ballistic Products brass Super Crown crimp starter. The sharp crimp-start teeth on this starter do a better job than the duller edges of the standard MEC and Ponsness/Warren starters. Another thing: Forget loading so-called copper-plated shot. Real electrolysis copper-plated shot dried up 15 years ago. Today there is only copper-washed shot—basically just expensive cosmetics.

And that’s it. Take your time, keep quality paramount, forget about saving money in component selection, choose wisely your recipes and be sure to pattern-test the results. This regimen will put you well on the way to assembling and shooting professional-quality, highly lethal, pleasant-recoiling, hunting handloads.

To consult with Tom Roster or to order his new Advanced Lead & Bismuth Shot Handloading Manual, his HEVI-Shot and HW-13 reloading manual, or his instructional shooting DVD, contact Tom Roster, 1190 Lynnewood Blvd., Klamath Falls, OR 97601; 541-884-2974, tomroster@charter.net.

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