With the price of ammunition skyrocketing, reloading makes more sense than ever to help stretch your ammo budget.
When combined with the opportunity to practice form and technique with consistent, low to medium power loads, reloading becomes an asset to your practice regimen. But when it comes to making ammunition for your daily carry weapon, maybe there are better alternatives.
A Little History
Several years ago on my birthday, my wife surprised me with a trip to the local sporting goods store to pick up a Smith & Wesson Model 629 .44 Magnum that I’d been eyeing. I had them throw in a box of cheap, plinking ammo with the purchase, and proceeded out to the range. On the firing line, I was shocked first by the price on the ammo box, next by the heavy recoil of these supposed plinkers, and finally by how good I looked with, as one movie hero called it, “the world’s most powerful handgun.”
After a half a box, my hand hurt enough to make me think about shooting .44 Special rounds instead. A quick price check on these showed that they were more expensive than their harder-kicking counterparts. I suppose that is why the ones I bought were sold as cheap plinkers.
I reload as a hobby and I do it primarily for the cost effectiveness of shooting true training ammo.
I started reloading because of the relative speed with which I could recover the initial investment given the cost of commercial .44 Magnum/Special ammunition. I fell in love with reloading when I found that I could manufacture cartridges that were cheap and truly soft shooting, yet still made me look good with the former heavyweight champion of handguns. I became a reloading advocate when I found how easy it is to make extremely accurate, top-grade hunting and match ammunition for the .44 Magnum and my various rifles.
Practice Makes Perfect
I work with my carry weapon a lot. I attend monthly shooting clinics and I try to get to the pistol range for 90 minutes or so at least once a month. One of the drills that my instructors invariably include is also one that I always do at the range: misfires. Practicing the automatic response of gross muscle movements to complete the TAP-RACK is one thing, but watching for a flinch is probably the most valuable take away. I never flinch when I am doing dry fires because I know that there will be no recoil.
I decided that if I could develop a soft shooting .40 S&W load that grouped well, I could effectively work on shooting technique and form without the inevitable flinch that comes with a 400-round workout. After a bit of trial and error, I found my load of choice.
According to some load manuals, it’s barely on the charts as acceptable. At an IDPA match, it would be ridiculed. Against heavy steel spinners, it’s almost comical. But my handloads cycle every time and thanks to the soft recoiling rounds, I am curing my extended shoot flinch.
For me, there is very little brand loyalty for training ammunition. I used to buy whatever was on sale regardless of brand, bullet, or weight. Although it all went bang, there were subtle differences in the recoil from one brand to another, and major differences in recoil when moving among bullet weights.
By purchasing my bullets, powder, and primers in bulk, I know that the next 5000 training rounds will be almost identical and cost significantly less than if I bought five cases of factory loads.
Practice makes perfect. “Practice until you can’t get it wrong” is what my instructors drill into our heads at the monthly clinics. The method behind the madness is to instill so much muscle memory that you cannot help but do things a certain way. What’s wrong with using ammunition that helps you reinforce the basics? In a gunfight, I’m going to have one shot to get it right and I want my brain to be thinking about soft shooting putt putt rounds when my carry ammo is commercial, tactical grade, bonded core hollowpoints.
Loading for Carry?
You read right. When I belt up my Sig P226, it’s always loaded with commercial ammo. When I carry the .44 Mag into the woods, it carries some extra special homeloads that will have no problem dropping a deer in its tracks at one hundred yards. Why the difference?
While my loading techniques are good and have proven to be one hundred percent effective (knock on wood) there are a couple of factors that make handloads a less than perfect alternative for carry weapons. There is an old adage that critical activities are no place for on the job training. Gunfights have no margin for error, and the click of the firing pin slapping an improperly seated primer is probably the last thing I would get to hear in this lifetime.
I reload as a hobby and I do it primarily for the cost effectiveness of shooting true training ammo. I could easily work up some high-powered hollowpoints that more than exceed commercial manufacturing performance and are well within the bounds of SAAMI specs, but for those critical moments I would rather rely on professionals.
On the pistol range, a malfunction presents an opportunity to practice TAP-RACK and review the bullet for improvements to my reloading processes. A malfunction in a gunfight means I shoot second in a contest where the first bullet can often be the last.
Probably more important is public perception. My concealed carry instructor told us the best firearm for a bedroom is a shotgun loaded with magnum goose shells. It is commonplace; it is for hunting; it happened to be available when the bad guy broke into the house. Compare this to the guy who keeps his trusty AR-15 loaded with 30 rounds of M855/SS109 Steel Penetrators–he’ll be hung out to dry by the anti-gun media as a crazy man waiting for the opportunity to legally kill.
Lord willing, I will never be in the news for a defensive shooting. But why give the media the opportunity to paint you with the stigma of being a weapons freak who believed that commercial ammunition simply wasn’t deadly enough? [Ed. Not to mention what a prosecuting attorney would make of your reloads if your case goes to court. It is wise to use only good quality commercial ammunition for self defense.]
Developing Factory Knockoffs
With a wide variety of components available, it is very easy to develop homeloads for use on the range that duplicate the ballistics of commercial ammunition. If you want to shoot the hard-hitting jacketed stuff, it still cheaper to reload: about 65 cents on the dollar when using purchased once-fired brass, and much less if you can use your brass a few times.
I have a few loads that my Sig loves and that do very well for competitive shooting. They sport great velocities with reduced pressures to minimize recovery times and still pack the necessary punch to authoritatively flop a steel target to the other side of the dueling tree.
For me, factory ammo has two things going for it. First, it does not nullify my handgun’s warranty. But given the amount that I shoot, and the amount that I have saved, reloading my practice ammo allows me to buy a replacement pistol any time. Second, it uses new brass. There are some structural considerations in play here, but since I don’t reload .40 S&W past three firings, these considerations mean very little to me. For me, it comes down to the fact that factory ammo comes in shinier brass.
Reloading is a pretty easy thing to start up with nominal costs. Used equipment is readily available in internet auctions. Here are a few considerations to mull over if you haven’t already started down this addictive road:
Match your loads to your handgun. Some pistol barrels do not fully support the case head and present the potential for explosions for improperly loaded ammunition. Some pistol barrels use polygonal rifling that does not work well with lead slugs. Both of these can be overcome with an aftermarket barrel.
Find a buddy. This might be a friend, fellow shooter, or the local reloading supplies shop owner. It’s important to have someone with reloading experience to serve as a sounding board for ideas that you want to work up. If nothing else, get online and use the many reloading sections in firearms related internet bulletin boards. Check out the new handloading and reloading area in the USCCA discussion forums at www.USConcealedCarry.com. Lots of people are willing to help a newcomer get started.
Don’t be macho. Almost every long time reloader has pet loads that are probably a little hotter than they should be. It’s easy to think that more is better, but one bad load can really ruin your day. I have a personal rule to stay within the specs provided by at least one book, hopefully two, and I never load to full power. Every reloader should know their boundaries; these are my self-imposed restrictions designed to make sure that I avoid a kaBoom.
Read the Manual. But don’t stop there, get another and read it too. Then read them both again. Understanding what goes on when the gun goes bang is essential to staying safe.
Start off slow. The idea of cranking out 600 rounds per hour sounds great, but the dirty little secret is that load development is a process of small batches and small changes. Start with a single stage press and learn to walk before you run. If you load for precision, individual operations at each stage are critical. You can write to thank me later when you pull out that old single-stage press that you learned to reload on, and realize that all things have a definite purpose.
Reloading offers a safe, easy way both to extend shooting dollars and to develop consistent, purposeful training ammo. These two factors provide an individual with two of the most important factors in firearms practice: more time on the range and a stable ammunition platform upon which one can focus on shooting fundamentals, or whatever your instructor may be teaching that day.
[ Christopher Pilon is a senior manager for a large international software company. He is an avid hunter and shooting sports enthusiast who has taken to writing as an opportunity to share his knowledge and experience with others. ]