RELOADING COLUMN (5)
By JIM MATTHEWS
We’ve all heard the old expression “beware of the one-gun hunter.”
While the expression is primarily about the competence of the hunter by focusing on hunting skills and shooting a single firearm well and being ultimately familiar with that gun, that one-gun hunter is also likely to be a reloader who understands that a single centerfire rifle can function for all of his or her hunting needs.
In today’s economic times, it can also reflect on our dwindling budgets and simply become a practical matter.
I spend a lot of time outdoors scouting for my bird hunting newsletter from spring through the fall hunting seasons, and I always have a rifle in the truck. The shotgun is there, too, when bird seasons are open, but the rifle is always there. And rather than carry two or three guns, I usually just have a single rifle with a variety of handloads for any situation I might run across. Those loads usually fall into three categories:
LOW VELOCITY LOADS: The first category is a special low velocity load designed to duplicate .22 rimfire performance with a big game rifle. These loads are used for potting a cottontail, popping a ground squirrel, shooting a rattlesnake, or just plinking. I shoot more of these types of loads than any other load in my centerfire rifles these days.
In the old days, we used very light charges of fast burning powder like Unique or light loads of H4198 to push lead cast bullets or lightweight jacketed bullets at 1,200 to 1,500 fps – and those loads still work and I still use them. But with the advent of Trail Boss, you never have to worry about an accidental double charge tearing up your gun, and I’m in the process of switching all of my light loads to Trail Boss. This powder is bulky and very light for the volume it fills. A double charge of even the starting load will overflow the case, tipping you off that you made a mistake.
The maximum load of Trail Boss for each cartridge is based on case volume. You determine where in the case the base of the bullet will sit once seated (even it is below the neck of the case), and then fill the case with Trail Boss to that point. It’s that simple: The maximum charge is the case filled to the base of the bullet. You do this with an empty, fired case, figure out about where on the case the seated bullet will sit, and then weigh the amount of Trail Boss used to reach that point. Hodgdon recommends your starting load be about 75 percent of that maximum charge. This obviously doesn’t have to be an ultra-precise measurement. Even with the “maximum” charge of Trail Boss, the pressures are very modest. But know that Trail Boss doesn’t like to be compressed, so you don’t want to try to stuff a bunch of it in the case and then ram a bullet down into the case, mashing the powder. It is designed to create light loads with a case holding a good volume of powder so ignition is uniform (which can be a problem with light charges of traditional fast-burning powers rattling around in a big case). If you want high velocity, use a different powder.
I like to use cast bullets with gas checks for my low powder loads, but – depending on the caliber of your rifle – there are also a lot of lightweight jacketed bullets that suit this need just fine. Even varmint bullets at low velocity don’t expand very well and usually punch nice, neat holes through rabbits without tearing up a lot of meat.
HIGH VELOCITY VARMINT LOADS: Every big game rifle can also be a varmint gun. In every caliber from 30 on down, you can buy hollow point bullets designed just for varmints. I don’t recommend that you use the same bullet for your reduced-power loads as your high velocity load because they are too easy to confuse in the field (another good reason to use cast bullets for those light loads).
I tinker with these loads more than the other two types of loads for two reasons: first, because I want accuracy in case I get that long-range poke at a coyote and, second, because I want this load to shoot in the same vertical plane as my big game load, if not in the same spot.
I recommend that you select a varmint bullet that is closest to your big game bullet weight. For example, if your shoot a 165-grain bullet in your .30-06, you should choose a 130 or 125-grain varmint bullet instead of a 110-grainer for your varmint load. While there are so many variables and this statement is not always true, it has been my experience that the heavier varmint slugs are more likely to impact close to the same spot as your big game load.
BIG GAME LOADS: This basic load you probably already have for your .270 or .30-06 or whatever rifle you use is a load for deer or hog hunting. This is the starting point for the three-load, one-gun hunter system. Big game hunting is the situation where you don’t want any mistakes or misses, so this is the load that is used for sighting in your gun. It is the load you will shoot the least, but the one that is the most important.
Increasingly, I’m going to modern powders that are temperature stabilized for all of my loads, but it is especially important for the big game loads. These powders are designed to not change velocity or point of impact much if the temperature is nine or ninty degrees or if you are shooting along the coast at 800 feet elevation or in the Sierra at 9,000 feet up. You might be in love with IMR 4350 or 4831, but you might want to try one the new Ramshot and Reloder powders in the same burn rate category as your old favorites. You won’t notice any differences in where you guns shoots regardless of conditions, and that’s a good thing. It only takes one bad experience when you sight in your gun here in 90 degree weather and then are hunting mule deer in Montana at five degrees and completely miss a buck because there’s a 200 fps change in velocity.
Make sure you know where your rifle shoots each of the three different loads. Your primary sight-in is always with the big game load. With low power loads, you shooting will mostly be at 15 to 50 yards, not at 100 yards or more. So practice with them up close. You probably won’t want to change the scope setting from your big game loads for either the varmint or low velocity load, so it may require intimate knowledge of where these other loads shoot and use of Kentucky windage, hold-over, or hold-under.
The best news about the rimfire-duplication loads is that they kick about like a .22 rimfire and make practice with harder-recoiling big game rifles a real joy. But this is also true, but to a lesser extent, with the varmint loads.
It is still much easier to work up three loads for one rifle than to carry three guns in the field (or even in the vehicle) when you are in the field. And by using the same gun for all your hunting tasks, you become a true one-gun hunter who is intimately familiar with his gun and how it shoots and operates.
One of the key things veteran guides and long-time hunters will tell you is there is one reason most game isn’t brought to bag: The hunter isn’t familiar with his gun and how it shoots. He is either too slow to react, fumbling with his gun or sights, when the opportunity presents itself, or he misses the critical shot. There is only one solution to that problem, and that is to shoot that one-gun as much as possible, through as much of the year as possible. The use of three types of loads allow you to do that both at the range and in the field.
EXAMPLES OF THE THREE-LOAD SYSTEM
Sitting on a desert ridge at dawn glassing for desert mule deer, I saw something move below me in a wash and quickly dropped my binoculars down to see a cottontail sitting under a palo verde just 30 yards away. It was getting late in the morning, and I reached into my pocket, took out a low-power load, and quietly opened the bolt on my rifle. I replaced the deer load with the low power one and took aim at the rabbit. There was a quiet snap that sounded more like a .22 going off than my .25-06. The rabbit kicked twice and lay still.
While most of us have more than a single firearm for our hunting, it is still a good idea to develop at least two or three types of loads to carry with us while in the field with any of our rifles. Here are my two- and three-load combinations for some of my rifles and the situations where I carry them.
If you made me pick just one rifle and hunt everything with it, it would probably be my 7mm Winchester Short Magnum. It’s not that I’m so in love with the caliber or cartridge, but I happen to have a really accurate Howa Model 1500. When this gun goes off, game is dead. My three loads consist of a 120-grain Barnes Tipped Triple Shock for my big game load (and my varmint load if I’m in non-lead country), a 120-grain Hornady hollow-point for my varmint load, and a 120-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip for my reduced-power load with Trail Boss. The first two shoot to within an inch of the same point of impact.
I also have an inherited .30-06 Model 54 Winchester that would be hard not to pick as that “one” gun. The first time I created a three-load battery, it was for this gun. The three loads consist of a 180-grain Winchester-Nosler Fail Safe for big game (a bullet no longer made, sadly, but I still have a good supply), a 130-grain Speer hollow point for varmints, and a 170-grain Laser Cast lead bullet for my low-velocity rimfire-duplication load. This is my backup gun that goes along on just about all my big game hunts – and I frequently end up carrying this gun because of its sentimental value.
If I’m deer hunting in D12 or D17, I usually carry one of my 25 caliber rifles. In all three (a .25-06 and a .250 Savage Improved in bolt guns, and a .250-3000 Model 99 lever gun), I use Speer 75-grain flat points designed for the .25-20 as my low power cottontail load and 75-grain Hornady bullets for the varmint load – V-Max bullets for the two bolt guns and the older 75-grain hollow point for the Model 99 because its 1-in-14 barrel twist doesn’t stabilize the V-Max very well. For big game I use the 115 grain Barnes TSX in the .25-06, the 100-grain TTSX in the .250 Savage Improved, and Hornady’s 100-grain spire point in the Model 99. These guns are also used on my less frequent junkets to Wyoming for pronghorn or Montana for whitetails.
If I’m in wild hog country, I usually have my .358 Winchester or the 9.3x62 with me. In the past, I’d carry two different loads: a very light lead bullet load for potting a cottontail rabbit or for whanging away at ground squirrels, and a heavy, full-power hunting load just in case I ran across a boar. Since most pigs are now in the non-lead ammunition zone, I’ve been forced to work up light loads with Barnes Triple Shocks at low velocities for these two guns, and I use Tipped TSXs for my big game hunting and older TSXs for my reduced loads so they are easy to tell apart in the field.
You get the point here: Even a multi-gun hunter can find utility and value in a load array for different tasks when in the field. I probably shoot as many cottontails with my big game rifles as I do with my rimfires. Maybe more. But the key is that I shoot my big game rifles a lot.
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