Handloading Ammo In Troubled Times
by Mom-At-Arms Contributor: JJ Wittenborn
2020. Quite a year.
For quite some time, we’ve heard people wistfully wishing for “the good old days” when it comes to firearms and ammunition. Despite the warnings of “These ARE the good ol’ days” many refused to heed, and were caught off guard with their dwindling ammo supplies, or simply shot more than their reserves could maintain. For most of us who are not sponsored professional shooters, or no longer members of specialized military and law enforcement units: ammo is scarce. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find quality practice, duty, defensive, and competition ammunition. What can be done in the interim?
One thing most long-term shooters have is brass. Specifically, fired cartridge casings of past range, training sessions, &/or competitions that have piled up in boxes, bags, and kits that are sadly just taking up space. “Brass” is becoming scarce and sought after, so the option exists: trade what you have for cash / barter, or load your own. Scrap brass prices at recycling centers are a pittance. Why not get busy building your own ammo while components are still (barely) available?
Like Mel Gibson’s character in the movie The Patriot ((1) The Patriot (2000) - Making bullets with your dead son's toys - YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWrq7ElPoXY) ...
where he’s hand casting lead ammunition in a swamp, desperate times call for desperate measures. Pick up your range brass out of politeness or necessity, and get started.
Pistol shooters are often high volume consumers of ammunition. Range sessions and competitions can stretch into dozens, or even hundreds of rounds. Training classes can consume thousands. The challenging Rogers Shooting School Intermediate/ Advanced Pistol Course I attended a few years ago budgeted 2,500 rounds over five days. Unless one sets that back well in advance, it would be all too easy to get cut short. Most rifle classes don’t involve that volume of fire, but a week’s worth of intensive riflery can eat up half that. Those aren’t small numbers when we consider ammo prices have doubled or tripled in the past few months, and many entire calibers are virtually “unobtanium” even at large wholesalers. While I would not recommend diving solo into the hobby and current life skill that is modern handloading, ignoring the reality that exists in today’s climate is delusional.
Remember saying to yourself you’ll deal with it “some rainy day?” Well, look outside, buddy, it’s pouring!
If you shoot enough to have collections of brass in the garage, odds are you know a home reloader. You know…that introverted geezer at the end of the range, invariably tinkering over the years with different handloads, obsessing at times over tiny, mundane intricacies of the process. Gaining that knowledge, experience, and equipment (expensive start-up costs) has likely taken years – or even decades - to acquire. Articles, books, and even volumes have literally been written on the subject(s). A few YouTube videos are not enough to keep oneself out of trouble, let alone the emergency room. The old “Fudd” at the range might be your new best-est “Boomer” buddy.
He isn’t likely to show up and compete in your 3-Gun or Precision Rifle Series (PRS) match, let alone run a sub 20 minute 100/7 drill at CSAT with the legendary Paul Howe. Absent a new Fudd Finder app on your smartphone, how do you approach the topic? Well, polite, old fashioned conversation over a mutual interest. General inquiries about his latest project are good. Asking advice on how to squeeze more accuracy out of your own firearm is great. Enlisting his help with promises of beer and deer jerky is best! Yes, your grumpy neighborhood Fudd can be bought…or at least borrowed, and the popular term (with millennials) of “OK, Boomer!” suddenly has new meaning. But, find a knowledgeable advisor…young or old.
If you have the personal means and ability to arrange reloads, what to do? For starters, focus on the calibers you use most, and need most. Specifically, one or two each for pistol and rifle that get used. Any more than that and components are very difficult to source. For pistol calibers, a progressive press and supplies can churn out a month’s supply of ammo in short order. Many handguns work well with cast lead bullets. Some do NOT. The main challenge will be sourcing small and large pistol primers.
A similar scenario faces those looking for less expensive practice ammo in an AR-15 chambered for 223 Remington / 5.56 NATO, the most common sporting and defensive rifle in the United States. Simply polish brass, resize, prime, fill, seat, and crimp the plinking bullet of choice. However, what if one is running low on quality 5.56 ammo, and needs to replenish or build up a supply of good stuff? What separates the reloading terms of PGA (Pretty Good Ammo) vs DGA (Damn Good Ammo)? Many AR-15s are now sporting a variety of Low Powered Variable Optics (LPVOs) and are capable of what was once thought of as the domain of match accuracy. A high quality AR-15 barrel will also typically shoot a variety of ammo very well, from 55 grain full metal jacket up to the Mk262 77 grain OTM load, likely under 2” at 100 yards, some much tighter. Others prefer a couple of loads in certain bullet configurations. These rifles benefit from well made cartridges. How can that be achieved without a ready supply of factory match ammo? Like a great French recipe: it’s all about the quality of the ingredients, and attention to details!
We will focus on components.
First, brass cases.
Accurate ammo begins with consistency, and properly prepared cases are key. First, sort by manufacturer and inspect for damage. If the once fired rifle brass you’ve been sitting on has been laying around an unheated garage for an extended period, chances are it’s been hardened by repeated heating and cooling cycles, which leads to poor or wildly varied case neck tension and bullet release. If that’s the case (pun intended) or if you are going for a DGA vs PGA product, then case necks will need to be annealed after initial polishing by careful, quick heating, followed by rapid cooling. Luckily, this is Metallurgy 101 and can be accomplished cheaply with a minimal monetary investment, however, study up on this prior to attempting. Failure to do so can result in ruined cases: all of them. Once the cases dry - after cold water rapid cooling - it’s time for the next step. Full length resizing in a quality die is important, and proper lubrication eases this tremendously. Consistent neck tension is vital for DGA ammo, so trimming to the same length may be required, then chamfering the inside and outside of case mouths, swaging out crimped military primer pockets, and deburring flash holes. This can be done with simple built-to-task hand tools from a variety of manufacturers, or expensive powered versions that are great time savers. Once the physical prep work is done, another step can yield big results in some rifles: segregate cases by weight. Variances in case wall thickness yield different weights of the brass pieces. That translates to inconsistent internal volume, hence: inconsistent pressures, velocities, and downrange bullets impacts. For everyday plinking ammunition, it isn’t necessary. Please don’t let this put you off. All the steps in this paragraph can be accomplished in around two minutes per case once the process is down pat.
Uniformed primer pockets help, and removing military crimps on some brass is a necessity. For AR-15s, a hard primer is also crucial. Federal primers are typically very high quality, but soft and easy to detonate. Most handloaders avoid them with semi autos that have free floating firing pins, but Federal primers are great with bolt action and single shot rifles. Primers from Winchester, CCI, and Wolf, among others, are usually preferred. Seat them well, but don’t crush them in forcefully. In times like these though, use whatever good small rifle primers you can find.
Powders and bullets.
Wow. Where to begin? There are hundreds to choose from. Luckily, there are some powders which are/were commonly available during “normal” times that work superbly in 5.56 NATO. IMR 4895, BLC-2, Vihtavouri N540, Varget, Accurate Arms 2320 and 2520, Ramshot TAC, CFE223, Reloder 15, H322, and IMR 8208XBR come to mind. There are many others. In fact, if one wants to duplicate the highly regarded military Mk262 load, find either of the last three powders mentioned, work up safely from a minimum listed powder charge to a little under max (checking safe pressures as you go), and seat a Sierra 77 grain OTM (Open Tip Match) to 2.250”, then crimp well. Odds are, this load will shoot “sub MOA”: or under one Minute Of Angle (roughly 1” at 100 yards) in a quality AR-15. That translates into 300 yard head shots on targets. This load has been proven highly effective in combat by United States military units in recent years, has optimum performance per FBI Wound Ballistics standards, and is equally outstanding as a home defense, varmint, and target load. The 77 grain TMK (Tipped Match King) shows promise in those roles as well, but is not as well documented. Both are designed for 1:7” and 1:8” twist barrels, but often stabilize well with a 1:9”. Neither are good through barriers, glass, or large tough animals, however, where a bonded or homogenous alloy bullet would perform better and hold together.
Again, there are dozens of bullets from which to choose. Due diligence in one’s personal circumstances and equipment should drive this decision. Please end with a firm crimp on the bullet to avoid the projectile being driven into the case when the cartridge is chambered, thus causing a radical spike in pressure. Lee Factory Crimp Dies and Redding Taper Crimp dies are two excellent products for that, but others are available.
In conclusion, home reloaded ammunition is likely to continue to be either useful or even required in the coming years. It is certainly not ideal for some people, but commercial ammunition shortages are very likely to continue. If nothing else, one pound of good powder, a few hundred primers, and whatever cases you have on hand will do in a pinch. Give it some consideration in light of the circumstances we are living in, if it can be arranged safely and economically.
Caveats: reloaded ammunition could potentially incur liability if used in a defensive role, or if done improperly. As always, proper techniques learned through careful study of reloading manuals, apprenticing with an experienced reloader, and taking a formal class in handloading are critical tasks prior to safely stepping out on your own.
Aim Small, Hit Small
About the author: JJ Wittenborn is a retired Illinois State Police Sergeant, with service divided between patrol in large rural areas & high crime urban zones, Investigations, and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT). His SWAT duties included roles as an instructor in pistol, submachine gun, shotgun, sniper operations, patrol rifles, Close Quarters Battle (CQB), and counter ambush, plus as sniper team leader and overall team commander. Relevant off duty activities include competition in Service Rifle (Master Class), Long Range (U.S. Wimbledon Cup Top 20), and 30 years of precision ammunition handloading experience. He has utilized factory and handloaded ammunition in competition &/or large and small game hunts in Namibia, South Africa, Canada, and throughout the USA.