TTAG doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about handloading. That’s probably because it’s not really that much fun. Unless you’re some kind of Zen master, handloading isn’t something you do because you love to do it. It’s something you do because you love to do what handloading lets you do: shoot your guns exceptionally accurately or exceptionally cheaply. I tend to go in for the latter of these reasons, and these are not exactly (in the immortal lyrics of Dennis DeYoung) The Best Of Times for handloaders like me. Just a few years ago I sometimes had to drive 45 miles to hunt down the rumour of bulk primers or gunpowder in stock. Handloading components are now universally available again, but the economics of ammunition have changed and it’s not always cheaper to DIY . . .
Let’s look at three common rifle cartridges: 5.56x45mm NATO, .270 Winchester and 7.62x51mm NATO, and consider when or if it’s worth making your own ammunition. Five years ago the answer was a no-brainer, but times have changed.
Let’s make the generous assumption that you already have a reloading press, dies, and several hundred empty cases. We’ll assume that primers cost $.04 each for rifles or handguns which is what I just paid for them. We’ll also assume that rifle powders cost $30 per pound. You can sometimes find slightly better deals, but you can almost always find any powder you want for $30 a pound.
Note: if your goal is the very best accuracy you can get from your rifle and optic, you’ll probably end up handloading whatever it costs. I’ve had remarkable success (sub-1″ groups at 300 yards) with Black Hills 168-gr .308 Match, but most handloads are noticeably more accurate than Wal-Mart grade rifle ammo.
Commercial 5.56 ammo currently (November 2013) runs at least $.35 a round for steel-cased plinking ammo, $.40 to $.80 for surplus or commercial reload brass-cased FMJ, and $1 or more for exotic target or hunting loads. (One year ago the same steel-cased plinking rounds cost only $.21 per round, and brass FMJ was rarely more than $.50 per round. Many of us are waiting for those happy days to return.)
Bulk 55-grain FMJ bullets can be had for as little as $.16 each. (Link here.) 25 grains of Varget is a popular powder charge, which costs about $.11 per round. Add $.04 for the primer, and your component cost is $.31 per round. If you want to go lead-free, Barnes Bullets will set you back a staggering $.50 each.
55-gr FMJ handloads will produce essentially the same performance as Remington Green Box or other standard commercial ammunition, and you’ll save at least $2.70 for every full 30-round magazine you burn through. Handloads with exotic bullets are cheaper than their commercial Barnes cousins ($.65 instead of $1.50) but they’re as expensive as standard factory loads. I’m not sure a groundhog can tell if it’s been vaporized by a Remington Green Box 55-grain FMJ or a Barnes Bullet.
The more you shoot the more you can save by handloading, but the more time you’ll have to spend at the reloading bench. No centerfire burns through rounds faster than a 5.56mm modern sporting rifle, and if I can shoot 300 rounds in a day at the quarry I’ve always preferred to spend a few more cents a round to let somebody else do all that work.
Unlike the 5.56 and 7.62 rounds, there is no military market for the .270 and thus no steel-cased or milsurp imports. You can always make .270 brass by necking down surplus .30-06 brass (boxer-primed only) but this article assumes you’ve already got the brass.
The cheapest .270 you’ll find is $.90 per round. This really isn’t too bad, because the price of .270 has increased by only about $5 a box over the last twenty years. If you want high-performance hunting ammo, you’ll spend $1.50 to $2.00 per round.
130-grain spitzer bullets run about $.30 each for the .270 if you look carefully. They’re not fancy, but these flat-shooting bullets will put mid-sized deer and antelope down for the count and they’re dynamite on varmints and predators. Most .270 loads use 50 to 60 grains of powder, for an average propellant cost of $.24 per round. With a $.04 primer, the cost of these 130-grain loads will be about $.58 per round.
Fancier hunting bullets can run $.70 each, so even handloaded hunting rounds are too expensive for a day blasting tin cans at the quarry.
Even the lowest-cost .270 handloads, if carefully assembled from your once-shot brass, will usually be more accurate than Wal-Mart ammo costing almost twice the price. These handloads will give excellent exterior ballistics and acceptable terminal performance for varmints, antelope, predators and medium-sized deer, but they’re not the right medicine for big mulies or elk. The .270 is one of the most versatile hunting caliber on the planet, but it’s only appropriate for the biggest North American ungulates when it’s loaded with high-performance hunting bullets.
Handloading makes a lot of sense and saves you a lot of money for hunting calibers like the .270, whose rifles are typically very accurate bolt-actions. Whether you’re loading simple soft-tip boattails for coyotes or Barnes Bullets for elk, your handloads will be 30% to 50% cheaper than comparable commercial ammo and you’ll save a minimum of $.30 per shot.
If you can spare $.60 per round, the world’s your FMJ .308 oyster. Because of the global military market for 7.62x51mm, the heavier projectiles and powder charges only cost you $.20 more per round than comparable plinking-grade 5.56mm cartridges. Hunting-grade .308s with excellent terminal ballistics cost $1.10 to $2.00 per round, and match .308 runs about $1.50 a round.
The cheapest imported .308 is about the same price as the cheapest handloaded .270 Winchester.
The cheapest .308 FMJ bullets cost $.30 each, and we’ll assume a hypothetical 50 grain powder charge. That powder costs $.21 per round and the primer another $.04, so a really cheap handload will cost $.55 to assemble. Premium-grade Barnes or Nosler hunting bullets are at least $.60 each if you really need them, and that price hurts you almost as much as it hurts that elk you’ll shoot them into.
If you’ve got an accurate rifle and your targets are paper or elk, you can save a good bit of money and really increase your accuracy by rolling your own 7.62/.308 ammo. Accurized handloads can save you 50% of the cost of commercial match ammo, if you invest the time to develop the right load. Fancy hunting handloads with premium bullets will cost about $1 a round to assemble, but they’ll still be $.50 to $1 cheaper per shot than premium commercial hunting ammo.
For hardcore hunters and actual target shooters, handloading is the way to save money shooting the 7.62/.308. If you don’t already have a press and dies, you can recoup the cost of a simple single-stage reloading setup by the time you’ve assembled 500-600 rounds or less.
If you’re shooting a 7.62mm semi-auto sporting rifle, however, my advice is completely different because your needs are completely different. Your AR-10 doesn’t care if it’s eating 175-grain OTMs, Barnes TSX or bimetallic Brown Bear, so shoot the cheap stuff.
Handloads will only save you a few cents a round over imported or mil-surp ammo, and pricier domestic ammo won’t give you a noticeable boost in accuracy.
These may not have been the conclusions you expected. I was surprised by the cost benefits of handloaded .270, and shocked to see that handloaded .308 FMJ isn’t appreciably cheaper than Privi Partisan.
Next time we’ll look at some popular handgun calibers: 9mm, .357, .45 Colt and .45 ACP. Just as with rifles, the critical price factor is the cost of the projectile. Unlike rifles, however, bullet construction is often crucial to good handgun stopping power.