RELOADERS CORNER: 3 Helps For Easy Load Work-Ups

Read this before you start the process of working up a load for your new rifle! It could save you huge amounts of time and money… Find out more!

Glen Zediker

Spring is around the corner. Well, if you walk way out into the street and squint really hard you can at least think you see it… Well it’s coming soon enough, at least, now’s a good time to get ready.

I never have been big on the personal value of published load data. The data I’m referring to is that from propellant and other component manufacturers, and also from articles done by independents. I think all such information, at most, provides a place to start, and it also gives some ideas on tendencies and cautions, and provides means for comparisons. But. I don’t think it can be taken straight to the loading bench with any guarantee of success, or of attaining “advertised” performance. And I say that not because I don’t think these folks don’t know what they’re doing. They do! It’s because, after way more than enough experience in proving myself right, I can tell you absolutely that their rifle is not your rifle! Neither, necessarily, are their propellant, primer, case, or bullet. Always take careful note of the barrel and components used for any published test data, and compare them to yours. In later comparisons of my notes with published data, sometimes I’m higher, often times I’m lower, and enough times I’m way lower… That’s the main concern there.

It’s not at all difficult to learn to develop your own loads, to essentially write your own loading manual.

To do this efficiently, you need to learn to load at the range. Right, right there near to where you’re testing. An unremarkable investment in a few tools and a little creativity can provide a way to take your show on the road.

Lee press mounted outdoors
You don’t have to invest a fortune to take your show on the road. A C-clamp and one of these little Lee Reloader presses is all you need! And a good powder meter. One with a clamp is handiest, or just mount it to a piece of wood and clamp that down (even a pickup tailgate works just fine). One clamp is adequate on the press since bullet seating is all in the “down” direction and not much force is needed.

The reason to do this is because it provides a way to precisely chart results. It’s a more reliable and accurate way to proceed. Otherwise, the option is to load varying charges at home and then see what happens at the range. That’s okay, but not nearly as good as on-the-spot experiements. Plus, you won’t have left over partial boxes of poor-performing rounds. It’s more economical and way on more efficient.

The preparation part, and this is what you might spend the remaining cold month or two working on, is, first, to get the tooling ready and, second, and most important, to start making notes on your powder meter.

Important: To be able to work up at the range, it’s mandatory that you’re using a meter that has incremental adjustment. Either a “click”-type “Culver”-style insert or, at minimum, a micrometer-style metering arm. You’ll be relying on the meter, not scales, to progress upward in propellant charges, and you absolutely have to know what the values are for each increment using the different propellants you plan to test. That is where you’ll be spending time prior to doing your homework. It’s well worth it! It can be a nightmare trying to get scales to read accurately outdoors, including the digital type.

Harrells meter mounted outdoors
I map out the incremental values of each click on my Harrell’s meter adjustment drum with the propellant I’ll be testing, and it’s really easy to step up each trial with confidence. I carry the whole kit in a large tool box.
Harrells meter close up
This is a Culver insert. It’s a huge help in following this process. It’s precise and repeatable.

Equipment List and Set-Up
When I need to do load work, I size, prep, and prime new cases and put them in a cartridge carrier (usually a 100-round box). I then pack up my little press, seating die, my meter, some cleaning gear, C-clamps, and my propellants. The press and meter and cleaning gear go in a tool box. I usually carry the propellants in a picnic-type cooler. And, very importantly, my chronograph. A notebook, some masking tape, and a sack lunch… I might be there a while.

Always (always) use new cases for load work-up.

When I get to the range, I’ll clamp-mount my press and meter to a bench, get out all the rest, and set up the chronograph. Take a target downrange and tack it up. I test at 300 yards, unless the load is intended for shorter-range use. I initially test longer-range loads at 300. Maybe I’m lazy, but longer-range testing is a tad amount more tedious. I’ll come back for that after I have a contender or two.

Working Up The Load:
The reason it’s a “work-up” is clear enough: we’re almost always looking to get the highest velocity we can, safely. High velocity, or higher velocity, is usually all-good. Shorter flight time means less bullet drift and drop, and a harder hit.

So working up means increasing propellant charge until we’re happy: happy with the speed and also that the cases will still hold water. (And more about that next time…)

blown primer
Keep track of the cases in the order they were fired. This helps later on when the effects can be measured. This little outing here, though, didn’t require a gage to cipher: a tad amount hot on that last little go around (last case bottom row on the right). Thing is, I didn’t load a whole boxfull of those chamber bombs to take with me, and that’s the beauty of loading right at the range.

Very important: it is vitally necessary to have established a goal, a stopping point, prior to testing. That is one of the functions of published data. That goal is bound to be velocity, not charge weight. And that, right there, is why you’re working up at the range: you want to get “advertised” velocity and need to find the charge weight that produces it.

I work up 0.20 grains at a time. Sometimes it’s more if I’m reading an unuseably low velocity on the initial trial. Since my meter has a “Culver”-style insert, which I trust completely, I reference its number of clicks in my notes rather than the grain-weights (a Culver works like a sight knob, and reads in the number of clicks, not the weight itself). I check the weights when I get back, and I do that by clicking to the settings I found delivered, and then weighing the resultant charges. Otherwise, just throw a charge into a case and cap it with masking tape (clearly labeled).

It’s not necessary to fire many rounds per increment. “Mathematically” 3-5 rounds is a stable enough base to reckon the performance of one step. Of course, I’ll be shooting more successive proofs-per-trial once I get it close. Some folks, and especially competitive shooters, wear out a barrel testing loads. That’s not necessary.

Here are 3 things I’ve found over the years to better ensure reliable results. Learned, of course, the hard way.

1. Limit testing to no more than one variable. I test one propellant at a time, per trip. If you want to test more than one on one day, bring the bore cleaning kit and use it between propellant changes. Results are corrupt if you’re “mixing” residues. Same goes for bullets. Otherwise, though, don’t clean the barrel during the test. I fire my most important rounds after 60+ rounds have gone through it, so I want a realistic evaluation of accuracy and velocity.

2. Replace the cases back into the container in the order they were fired. This allows for accurate post-test measurements. Use masking tape and staggered rows to label and identify the steps. I use 100-round ammo boxes because they leave enough space for the tape strips.

3. Go up 0.20 grains but come off 0.50 grains! If a load EVER shows a pressure sign, even just one round, come off 0.50 grains, not 0.10 or 0.20. Believe me on this one…

Check out chronographs HERE
Take a look at suitable meters HERE

The information in this article is from Glen’s newest book, Top-Grade Ammo, available HERE at Midsouth. Also check HERE for more information about this and other publications from Zediker Publishing.

20 thoughts on “RELOADERS CORNER: 3 Helps For Easy Load Work-Ups”

  1. I’ve always loaded my charges by weight instead of volume as I have found the results are more repeatable. Have you thought about the changes in humidity between your home bench and loading at the range?

    1. I agree with you Zupglick. I’ll pass on reloading at the range. Just the possibility of wind screwing up a dropped powder when weighing the charge is enough to steer me away from that practice.
      I use an old Ohaus Duo-Measure I can consistently drop within 1/10 grain 80-90% of the time using the proper powder. That just means to me, 10-20% of the time, it’s not accurate. Even the air-conditioning can make it less than optimum when weighing charges.

  2. Using volume to get close is fine, but weight is the only safe way to meter loads. If one does not have an automatic powder dispenser, throw a charge using volume to get close but then trickle using a scale.

    As for pressure be very careful. Many times the “classic” signs are not correct. I only use the method Ken Waters espoused in his pet loads.

  3. Sorry! I can’t even begin to imagine working up loads in an uncontrolled environment! Also, while it’s nice to know the maximum load for your gun, your goal should be to find the most ACCURATE load for any particular gun. And why always,ALWAYS ! new brass? New brass still has to be brought back into spec. As long as you know the history of the brass being only used once or twice and they are in good shape, they will be fine for working up a load. Do you really want to buy new brass every time you load for a gun? This is a loaded subject with too many people loading to their particular ways. Good luck! Be safe!

    1. Thanks Tommygun! I mentioned humidity because it not only affects the burn rate of the powder but if too low, will invite an old gremlin called static electricity to the party.

      1. The “Gremlin” of static electricity is an easy one!! Wipe everything you handle powder with using one of those little static-cling napkins you throw in the dryer with your clothes!

        At each session, I lightly wipe down my entire apparatus and presto, no static!

    2. New brass as it has not been work hardened yet. Each firing work hardens it a bit more. This is only necessary for the initial workup, so as to establish pressure levels. Once you have your loads, use your normal procedures.

    3. New brass: one is that it’s going to have the smallest dimensions so likewise a little smaller capacity, so the same load might be a little higher pressure (that’s a small help as a safety valve). And the other, main reason, is that it provides good feedback for gage checks later on, measuring case head expansion, for instance. That’s not to say you won’t later do more experimentation with the cases fired first go around.

  4. I would rather have an accurate load at a reasonable velocity and at reasonable pressure that the maximum velocity.

    The goal is NOT to reach published velocity. That may an over pressure load in your gun.

    I find little of merit in this article.

    1. Depends on the venue. Most people I know are usually looking for as much speed as they can SAFELY get. Reality of something like High Power Rifle competition is that bullet velocity matters, although, always, accuracy comes first. Finding both is the goal.

  5. I wouldn’t overlook the simple Lee Hand Press, If I’m reloading at the range. SO portable — may as well remove the need for a bench at all! Bring primed shells, bullets, and a pound of powder; press, die set, and shell lube (e.g., de-salted beef grease); scale and a scoop, and you are good to go. Add primers and priming hand press if preferred.

    While smokeless powders are primarily a plastic (nitrocellulose) and quite non-absorbent, moisture can sit on the surface and add weight, so humidity is a slight issue, especially if the powder is cooler than room temperature and the environment is humid. My region is quite dry, but I’d like to hear how people in humid areas ensure load consistency , if they bother with this detail. Of course, humid powder weighs a little more, yielding a slightly lighter final load, if measured by scale. I wouldn’t just add a little more, though, to compensate for humidity!

    1. No such thing as “humid powder” Humidity only refers to water vapor in the atmosphere or another gas. It doesn’t pertain to anything else.
      If condensation was on the powder it would then be an accurate statement. But that could happen only if the powder was cooler than the atmosphere, which you already knew.

  6. I’m a big fan of the author and his books, but this isn’t workable for me. There’s no way my range is going to allow anyone to load at their facility, not with hot brass and smokers nearby. They get upset if you even field strip a pistol on the bench, let alone work up loads.

    I’m also limited by a 100 yard range. Nice in theory, but I’ll have to save it for the private range I’ll have in another life.

    1. Dang. That’s sad. There’s nothing really dangerous about it, but there are a lot what amount to power-trips encountered in range operators sometimes.

  7. Glenn,
    I always welcome your articles about reloading and appreciate the depth of your experience.
    May I inject a question related to the primers? Your picture shows one primer that has a hole in it and it reminded me of something I have not seen in 40 plus years of reloading until recently. Granted most of my loading has been for handguns but some of that has been for IHMSA where it needed to be fast and accurate. Besides there has been a good share of rifle loads on my benches.
    A couple of years ago I experienced a couple of blown primers in a .308 load than I had been using for awhile. The load consisted of Winchester primers, Varget powder, Remington cases and Hornady bullets. I will not list the load here but assure you it did not exceed the published data and showed no signs of excessive pressure out of my Kimber Mountain Ascent.
    The primers did NOT blow out at the firing pin strike but rather at the corner of the primer. I contacted Winchester and when I gave them my information including Lot Number they bought them back from me. I provided them a fired case with the primer intact, hole and all. They, after seeing my fired case and without argument, agreed to send my rifle back to Kimber and pay to replace the bolt that had erosion on the bolt face from the flame cutting.
    Now it gets interesting. When the rifle came back I checked my load data, calibrated my scale and loaded some more ammunition but with Federal Match primers which I prime on a RCBS bench mounted priming tool. I also checked OAL and am NOT below published numbers or out onto the rifling. Once again I have experienced another blown (in the corner) primer. This second occurrence was also with full length sized (twice fired) Remington brass so I checked primer flash hole diameters of a couple of brands of brass and while the Remington cases ran a little bigger is was less than .002 than other makers. That does not seem statistically significant due to variations in flash hole sizes inside the individual brands.
    My chronograph gives expected results, the cases do not indicate excessive pressure (new primers seat with what feels like normal force) but I am still really puzzled about this.
    Years ago I mistakenly loaded some .445 SuperMag to pressures high enough that I rejected once fired brass for reloading because the new primers pressed in too easy. That was a hot load but this blown prime experiences are nothing like that. I do not compete in rifle and have developed the philosophy that I need more from a rifle it is time to get a bigger rifle.
    All that to ask this.
    Have you seen anything like this before and do you have any ideas as to what could be causing it?

    1. Usually the cause of pierces is that the firing pin hole is too big. The primer I showed in that photo was just flat too much propellant.

  8. The 2nd paragraph in Mr. Zediker’s report is excellent. The problem I see is that he goes on to lead the Beginners to believe you should rely on a Chronograph to determine if a Load is Safe.

    Mr. Zedicker, “That goal is bound to be velocity, not charge weight. And that, right there, is why you’re working up at the range: you want to get “advertised” velocity and need to find the charge weight that produces it.”

    Using the above thoughts has the potential to be WAY over Pressure. Not always, but often enough for a seasoned Reloader/Handloader to know better.

    A Chronograph does not relate what the Pressure in the firearm happens to be. Only the Case gives reliable Pressure Indicators. And Mr. Zediker seems to be aware of this, “2. Replace the cases back into the container in the order they were fired. This allows for accurate post-test measurements.”

    The problem here is the Case Head Measurements should be taken Before and After firing for Expansion while rotating the Case for the widest measurement.

    And Pressure Ring Expansion should be done in comparison to using a box of factory ammo to establish a Standard with half the Cartridges, then pull the remaining half down, putting what you believe to be Safe Loads from the Case Head Expansion Testing into these Cases, firing them and then do a comparison of the Pressure Ring Expansion.

    Ken Waters, Bob Hagel and many of the old time writers knew the best way possible to determine Safe Loads – Pressure effects on the Cases. Strain Gauges don’t tell you anything reliable UNLESS you can Calibrate the System. So, to those of us outside the Ammo and Firearm Factories, they are as worthless as clinton.

    After all Testing is completed and an Accurate Load found, then if a person wants to know the Velocity, a Chronograph can give you a good idea of it, BUT it can’t tell a person spit about Pressure.

    Best of luck to all of you!

    1. You’re right. Speed is only an indicator of pressure, but it’s the leading indicator when you’re working up. Certainly, looking at spent cases can point out excessive pressure also. But it’s the tooling back home that tells the most. I’m doing another piece soon about pressure signs. I’m not a believer in running max loads, so the idea is to reach a speed goal, which needs to be reasonable, and then work from there. My leading indicator in post-firing pressure checks is primer seating: how easily a primer seats back in the case, and it’s one reason to use new cases for load work up.

  9. I know there are many folks who work up loads on the bench, but the only advantages I see is that the shooter can find their maximum load during 1 session, and they won’t have to pull any bullets from pre-loaded rounds. Not enough advantages for me to deal with setup & takedown of all that reloading equipment and to deal with the wind blowing everything,etc. Currently, I use QuickLoad to estimate the charges (I sanity-check with several load books) and I note the expected velocities at that max pressure. I start about 10% under anticipated maximum and work up in 0.4gr increments. I usually stop at 2 rounds (0.4 and 0.8gr) over the anticipated maximum. I chronograph & closely examine the primers after every shot, stopping if primers flatten a lot, or if there is cratering (raised doughnut) around the firing pin dimple. Also, I watch my chronograph and stop if velocities are going much over anticipated velocities at maximum pressure (according to QuickLoad or loading manuals). If using QL, make sure it is set up properly. QL is tricky and you need to know what you are doing before you start changing variables (especially powder statistics) – this can take some time before you are confident with it. If using load manuals, be sure to check the barrel length in their test gun & compare to yours. Once I find rounds that are showing signs of pressure, I return home, then carefully & gently pull bullets from overcharged rounds (usually 3 or so rounds). You are not supposed to, but I will usually reserve those bullets for rounds in my AR for plinking steel at short range (using a reduced powder load for those). Anyway, for my 2nd trip to the range, I prep rounds starting about 5% below the maximum I found in my 1st trip. I load up in 0.2gr increments – 2 rounds for each increment and strive for handloading perfection (I use an AND FX-120i to weigh charges accurate to 0.02 grains, sort bullets by weight and base to ogive length, etc, etc). When I go back to the range, I fire several rounds to warm the barrel up. I use a Magnetospeed chronograph & record velocities while I am shooting the 2-shot “groups”. I realize that 2 shots is not an ideal sample size, but I just want to get an idea of what is going on. I want to see If I get a cluster of charge weight loads that are stacking hits, or if 2 rounds of the same charge weight are more than 1″ apart. Also, if planning to shoot long range, I want to see low velocity differences for a given charge weight (ideally with 2 consecutive charge weights). Hopefully, I will find 2 consecutive charge weights that are both accurate AND have similar consistent velocities. I may come back to the range a 3rd time to play with seating depth, etc., or to try to find the exact center of that ideal charge weight range. Usually, I will go through about 80-100 rounds total for load testing (enough to break in a new barrel or to form brass, etc).

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