Handloading can add Accuracy and Versatility to Hunting Rifles
By Gary Lewis
We followed the old logging road into timber company land behind a locked gate. It was mid-morning after an early hunt in which I saw a coyote and my wife had a bear feed to within 20 yards of her in the brush. I traced its tracks with my fingertip and wished I had seen it. We stopped to pick blackberries in the warm September sun and then headed for the ridge top.
This was Merrilee's first hunt for anything bigger than a jackrabbit and I was glad to have her along. There were no distractions out here in the woods beyond flushing mountain quail or a chattering squirrel. From high atop a ridge we could look down through the valley and see smoke rising from the chimney of a distant farmhouse or clasp our hands behind our heads and watch the wisps of cloud drift across the sky.
That season slipped away along with Merrilee's chance to take her first deer. I've begun to think about this coming season. She'll carry my rifle this year, a 243 Remington and shoot the bullets her dad loaded for it.
A few years ago, I bought the gun from a target shooter. The blued barrel was matte finished and the hardwood stock was plain, but when I brought the rifle to my shoulder, worked the bolt, eased the slack out of the trigger and dropped the firing pin on a dummy round, I knew that this was a gun that would serve us well.
I ordered a scope, set it in Leupold rings, bought two boxes of cartridges and drove out to the range.
At 100 yards the factory loaded ammunition printed a ragged five-shot, five-inch group. Opening the second box, I fired five rounds of another company's ammunition. The second group was just as ragged, printing left, right, low and high on the paper with little indication of a pattern emerging.
Shooting the remaining cartridges empty I headed for the telephone. It was time to call a handloader. My father-in-law was only too happy to finally prove what he had been telling me for years.
I seated primers and Paul measured out powder, tipping the measure into a funnel, filling the cases with propellant. I watched as he made the measurements and adjustments, determining how the bullet would be seated in the case for best accuracy.
Though I had watched these proceedings before, this time it was for my own rifle.
In 1955 Winchester announced their introduction of a new cartridge they called the 243 Winchester. Necked down from the 308, the 243 was an immediate success as a multi-purpose target, varmint, medium-size game load.
Target shooters and varminters were the first to really utilize this cartridge but big-game hunters were quick to follow, seeing the potential in a flat-trajectory, light-recoil cartridge for deer and antelope.
The first handloads through my rifle punched three little holes in the paper that I could cover with a quarter. Zeroing the scope took a few more shots and by that time I was a believer in what loads tailored to my rifle could do for accuracy.
I changed loads again last year, dropping from a 105 grain spitzer to a lighter, higher quality Nosler bullet. Now, shooting from a rest, three shot groups with all the holes touching are not uncommon.
The lightweight 243 Winchester is certainly not the rifle for all seasons but a shooter can find a lot to like in the little cartridge. 55 grain polycarbonate tipped projectiles can reach muzzle velocities of close to 4000 feet per second. And the heavier varmint bullets will buck the wind better than lighter 22 centerfires while recoil is only slightly increased. Big game hunters enjoy more versatility in that they can use a 95 or 100 grain round on deer in the fall and the same bullet on varmints during the rest of the year.
Handloaders now have more options than ever in their quest for accuracy. Many companies are offering a black Molybdenum Disulfide coating on their bullets. Moly coatings reduce friction in the barrel and in flight as well as allowing less build-up in the barrel. I haven't tried them yet but the shooters I know who have been using it on their bullets say that they are getting more speed and better accuracy.
In target, varmint, or big game shooting, bullet placement is the key. The easy recoil of the 243 makes it a great place to start for the beginner and a good place to stay for somebody who appreciates tack driving accuracy and versatility.
Merrilee will be hunting mule deer bucks this year below a ridge in the high Cascades. We'll find a draw and watch the trails. I'll carry the binoculars and she'll probably have a book along to read. If we see antlers and she has the opportunity to lift that old 243 to her shoulder, that will be a bonus.