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The seasons of a hunter’s year are not limited to the open ones. Even during the hunting seasons there are variations: The season before the licenses are filled and the season after, and the season when you wonder if you filled your license too soon, or the one when you wonder if you are ever going to fill it — leading to the postseason of speculating if you’ll get one next season.
Hunters have other seasons, though, outside the actual hunting one; and among those, I like handloading season as well as any.
Think of handloading as the canning season of hunting. Instead of peaches or chokecherries, it’s the time for putting up 165-grain 30-06s, 130-grain 270s, or 220s with 55-grain varmint bullets by the bushel basket.
From the beginning, handloads went into all firearms as a hunter essentially built a cartridge, with powder, patch and ball, in the gun’s chamber, and used an exterior system of ignition. Even with the introduction of primed metallic cartridges for breechloaders, hunters were still “rolling their own,” often because they were too far out to run into town for a box of store bought every time their supply ran short.
In the 1950s, spurred on by the abundance of surplus military gunpowder, handloading was seen as an economical way of getting ammunition, and later of building cartridges over which a hunter had control of the powder, bullet and load, and could tweak those to achieve the utmost accuracy and performance from his rifle. Although commercial ammunition these days is a far cry in quality from the factory loads being shot, and griped about, 50 years ago, many hunters still prefer crafting their own cartridges.
Some handloaders approach the making of ammunition with a monastic aestheticism, working like a lone friar illuminating a manuscript by the flicker of a tallow candle. They can spend hours sizing, trimming, weighing and even polishing cases; dropping powder loads into the scale pan, then trickling in individual grains until the pointer on the balance beam settles on zero; adjusting the seating die in quarter turns so the cannelure on the bullet sits at the precise depth for perfect overall length: the cartridge as bijou.
If I handload by myself, I can descend in just that sort of obsessiveness, or worse. So I prefer loading with my friend, Leroy.
Even a sheet of paper is lighter when two people lift it, goes the proverb, which is one reason for handloading with Leroy. The other is that I can shoot out the window of his reloading room at a 100-yard target, so no need of loading some cartridges, driving out to a shooting range, seeing how they perform, then driving back home to modify the load and driving back out to the range, ad infinitum like reflections of reflections in facing mirrors.
I spent a recent winter’s day at Leroy’s, putting together my ammunition for the trip to Africa I am soon leaving on. I can take no more than 50 rounds, so I wanted to make each one as ideal as possible, without sliding into OCD territory.
For bullets I used Barnes TSX solid-copper 270-grain 375s. Heading to Africa, to Cameroon in the central part of the continent, where daytime temperatures hit 100 in the shade in January, I kept my loads well below maximum to avoid excess pressures. I also used nickel-plated cases for smoother feeding. And in case buffalo or elephant might enter into the picture, I also loaded 10 Speer 300-grain African Grand Slam solids with the carbide-tungsten core.
Handloading at Leroy’s is as much ritual as handicraft: reading the “recipe” out of the reloading manual; decapping and full-length sizing all the brass (I don’t want tight-fitting, hard-to-chamber rounds in the heat of Africa); priming with the hand tool; adjusting the powder measure and filling the cases, then visually examining each load to make sure the powder level looks right; seating the bullets; firing the first few through the rifle to see how they group; completing all the loading; running each cartridge through the chamber to check the feeding; then packing them into the airline-approved plastic box.
There are other traditional parts of the handloading day that never get old. It is inevitable that there will be the tiny tinkling sound of primers being spilled; loads hung up in the powder measure until the cartridge case is pulled away from the feeder tube, and then showering onto the floor; hex-head screws on locking rings that turn out to be stripped; and Leroy and I generally looking like the principal players in a long-running comedy entitled, “Two Old Guys in a Reloading Room, Looking for Missing Stuff.”#
By the time that last winter light fails, though, we will have two-score-and-ten hand-fashioned cartridges, in which we know exactly how many grains of powder are held, the type of primer pressed into them, the weight of the bullet we seated to just the right depth, each bright cartridge representing a potential tale, waiting to be told in the seasons to come.
TOM MCINTYRE is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.