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Outdoors/Adventure

Decades after I learned how to build a rifle cartridge, the process still satisfies

  • Author: Steve Meyer
    | Alaska guns & hunting
  • Updated: October 2, 2018
  • Published October 2, 2018

Why let the manufacturers have all the fun? Columnist Steve Meyer develops nontoxic loads for his .375. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

Winters on the North Dakota prairie didn't match Alaska's length of service under a blanket of snow, but for sheer bad behavior, nothing in Southcentral Alaska beats them.

Days would pass when we weren't allowed to leave the house, lest we got lost in the yard. One morning, after a couple of days of blizzard conditions, the storm broke and I was anxious to get outside. I charged the front door and opened it to a solid wall of white. We had to crawl out a window and shovel our way back in, just to get out.

Those days of confinement weren't for naught. I watched my dad do myriad things related to hunting and guns, not the least of which was handloading.

I couldn't have been older than 6 or 7 when I became fascinated with the process. I don't remember how long it took, the learning of it all was one step at a time, but it was a remarkable accomplishment for me to build a usable rifle cartridge from start to finish.

By the time we moved to Alaska, I was 11 and old enough to legally hunt big game (the minimum age in North Dakota was 14). I was also an accomplished handloader. In the 47 years of big game hunting since then, I've never taken a factory-loaded rifle cartridge to the field.

The question "Is it worth the trouble?" comes from folks curious about reloading. Depends. The economics of it can be a bit deceiving. Turning all of those spent casings accumulated over the years into loaded cartridges can save a fair amount of money. Sort of.

The cost of handloading equipment — including the gunpowder, primers and bullets to get started with — can run anywhere from $150 to $500, depending on the level of sophistication of the equipment selected.

You can still obtain handloading equipment that isn't much different from that used in the 1800s. These simple and inexpensive tools are portable and usable most anywhere.

Equipment is assembled on Steve Meyer’s loading bench. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

Assuming you have empty brass for the cartridge you want to handload, you'll realize a savings of 50 percent or more on a box of cartridges. If you are a hunter and check the zero of your hunting rifle and shoot a few practice rounds every fall, you won't shoot more than a couple of boxes of shells in a season. At that rate, it'll be some years before you realize a return on investment.

But, as in hunting, the "cheap" meat that many envision when they buy their first hunting rifle turns into a garage full of equipment that is never quite complete. That free moose you get every few years, if you work hard and have a little luck, depending on how far you have to go, is anything but cheap, but it's
healthy and infinitely more satisfying than meat from the store.

I'll speculate that the value of handloading for most hunters is more intrinsic than economic, and it seems to appeal to those who aren't content with one hunting rifle. The hunters who want specific calibers for the game they pursue and the country they pursue it in often aren't satisfied with off-the-shelf ammunition.

They may shoot calibers that are not commercially available. "Wildcats," we call them, created by modifying existing cartridges to fit a special need, be it caliber, velocity, accuracy or, as is often the case, a combination thereof.

Or the commercial cartridges they do shoot may not be mass-produced, so the factory loads available may not suit their needs. This is a common malady for
folks who enjoy firearms from the late 1800s. There isn't a lot of commercially available ammunition. It also applies to nontoxic ammunition. Choices remain minimal, and the cost is typical of most ammunition loaded with premium hunting bullets.

Handloading allows us to immerse ourselves in a process that results in the clean kill of the animals we pursue with what we created. It is not unlike shaping, inletting and finishing a stock for your rifle.

Ask most fishermen what they caught their fish with and they might look at you as if you are stupid and reply, "My fishing rod." Ask fly fishermen who tie their own flies the same question and the response will be, as the they swell with pride, the description of the fly they personally tied.

Ask a hunter what he or she shot a moose with and you might get that same look, with the reply "My ought-six." The handloader will describe the load he or she developed, in more detail than you want.

You'll know the caliber, bullet type and weight, the velocity, the distance, how the bullet performed and, if it was recent and the bullet was recovered from the animal, it might be produced from a pocket to show you.

And therein lies the subterfuge of saving money. What the handloader won't tell you is that perhaps hundreds of loads were experimented with before arriving at perfection. It becomes less about saving money than about getting to shoot more with the money you have and creating your own masterpiece. There isn't much more value for the hunter than time on the trigger.

The quality and variety of today's off-the-shelf ammunition is remarkable, and for all but some old cartridges, wildcats and modern calibers that have a marginal following, it is readily available.

The real value in handloading is the connection to the entire process that it provides — the satisfaction of doing everything you can to be self-sufficient in the hunting pursuit, a modicum of additional freedom to the individual.

I can't recall a time in the past 47 years that I opened the door to a wall of snow, but handloading on cold winter nights brings back fond memories from an era some of us miss. You learn a lot about guns and ballistics and enjoy a real sense of accomplishment when it all comes together.

Steve Meyer of Soldotna is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. Contact him at oldduckhunter@outlook.com.

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