Handloading ammunition: A sorcerer’s tale

By JIM MATTHEWS www.OutdoorNewsService.com

I don’t know about you, but I still marvel when I’m at an airport and watch a huge jet thunder down the runway, lift off into the air, and climb toward the heavens. Intellectually, I understand the science that allows massive machines to soar overhead, but it doesn’t change the disbelief and wonder I still feel every time I see it happen. It defies my senses; it’s magic.

So much of our everyday lives rely on intellectual comprehension because little we see and do can be explained simply with our senses. Yet, we don’t even think about it. We all have a box in our kitchens where half freezes anything we put in it and the other half simply keeps things cold. We have another box were we can ignite four open fires on top and another fire inside. My grandparents began their lives where neither of those things existed. They lived life essentially camping, only a step or two above how all humans lived for thousands and thousands of years. Look at those electrical wires strung across the landscape and really think about what’s happening there.

I have been a handloader of my own ammunition since I was a young teenager. I have stacks of reloading books and follow the recipes they dictate for dozens of guns. Yet, when I squeeze the trigger and the gun rocks in recoil and a hole magically appears in a distant target, I feel smug, like a sorcerer in ancient times who has pulled off an amazing feat. Yes, I know exactly what happens: How the firing pin striking the primer creates a powerful spark that ignites the powder contained within the cartridge case. How the burning of the powder in a confined space creates pressure that has only one place to escape — by pushing the bullet down the barrel. How that pressure continues to build as the powder burns until the bullet finally exits the end of the barrel at high velocity allowing the pressure to finally escape and drop.

I know all that, but it doesn’t change the magic of it all. Because you can’t see any of that happen, you are only left with what your senses tell you has happened. There is a loud explosion and recoil jolts you, an invisible bullet streaks downrange toward the target with unbelievable punch. All you have to do is to shoot a few rotten cantaloupes or water-filled jugs with hollowpoints from a high power rifle and the kid in everyone erupts in giggles and awe. I want to do it again and again.

One of the things first-time adult shooters can’t hide is the feeling of amazement. They can’t hide the fact they like it (unless they were given a hard-recoiling gun by a wise-ass who wanted to rock their world). A firearm packs a magic punch. American Indians described firearm-carrying white men as ìlong knivesî for obvious reason. (Some liberals never get over that fear of guns and want to ban them, but a lot of them want us to go back to living in dirt huts and sharing all ìwealthî — which would soon be poverty for all — so everyone is ìequal.î My ancestors worked too hard to get us here, and I’m not turning evolution back for anyone. We have guns for a reason: They truly are the great equalizers.)

Every time I go about working up a series of loads for a new gun (or just retinker with an old one and some new bullet or powder), my reloading bench and my collection of tools of this trade puts me into a different world. There are canisters of different types of powder, tiny spark-makers, different sizes of brass containers, and projectiles of lead and copper. There are scales to precisely weigh to within 1/5,000 of an ounce, dies and presses to squeeze, expand, and crimp, and micrometers to measure down to 1/10,000 of an inch. It is a sorcerer’s brew I’m creating and it has to be done with care and accuracy or the dream concoction could become a gun-shattering nightmare.

Each recipe is created with a goal in mind. The final round is assembled for a task: The most accurate load I can make for the most accurate rifle I own, trying to punch all the bullets through the same hole in a paper target. The most aerodynamic bullet is loaded into another gun for long-range gong ringing. A heavy, sturdy copper slug (to be legal in California) is loaded for shooting wild boars that have the bone structure of a moose compressed into a 250-pound animal and require bone-crushing energy to humanely and securely (my security) kill them. I have a revolver whose sole role in life is to house light shot loads for rattlesnakes on my desert hikes. For other vermin, I have home security loads that will stop an intruder but not shoot through my walls and hurt a neighbor.

One of my prize reloading possessions is a device that can measure the speed of an invisible bullet passing above its sensors. The chronograph has a tiny computer and printer and whirrs like an old teletype machine after each shot, the speed displayed on a screen and typed on paper (so I have a permanent record). They are numbers that can make me giddy. I’m not alone.

Years ago, I remember when a gun writer friend, Steve Comus, now with Safari Club in Arizona but with Gun World magazine back then, was working on a project to see how fast he could drive a bullet from a shoulder-fired rifle without blowing up things. The highest, high velocity cartridges top out at about 4,300 feet per second today. I was invited along when he set up the chronograph and torched off the first round. The screen read over 5,000 feet per second, and he shot a few more just to get an average. No sporting gun had ever fired a bullet faster back then. Maybe even since. Comus figured out what could be contained in the envelope and filled it to the top. He took the limitations of his ingredients and become the master sorcerer among handloaders. I am still in awe.

We are all sorcerers today, and no one living in the modern world is really amazed at our feats any more. We crave the next permutations of technology and science, knowing that a Jetson’s world is not far off, believing that Star Trek is almost within our grasp. We believe that anything we can imagine is possible. Every time I reload a batch of new handloads, I think about that. There is still undiscovered magic.

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