The History of Handloading: Not Just a Fad Anymore
Date: Apr 07 2016
As Handloader magazine gets ready for its 50th anniversary issue, we asked Brian Pearce to do a piece on the history of handloading. Please be sure to check out our 50th anniversary issue of Handloader available on newsstands in May. Handloader will include a copy of the first issue ever published. It is still the only magazine in the world dedicated to handloading. - Publisher
Prior to the development of the cartridge case, shooters usually kept a possibles bag that contained black powder (often in a powder horn), flash powder or caps, a bullet mould, patches, lubricant and other necessary items to reload and maintain their guns. These items were usually readily available at any general store or remote frontier trading posts. Some shooters made all these items themselves, saved money and enjoyed being self-sufficient. The cost of keeping Ol’ Betsy shooting was minimal.
That all changed with the development of the metallic cartridge case in the mid-1800s. Early cases were mostly rimfire, were not reloadable, and the cost per shot increased substantially as they had to be factory loaded. By the 1870s, the reloadable (Boxer-primed) centerfire case began appearing in the U.S. in quantity. Examples include the .45-70 Government, .44 Winchester and .45 Colt.
Self-contained cartridges and corresponding guns offered significant advantages over muzzleloaders and percussion guns, and they soon became widely popular; however, the cost of ammunition was still comparatively high, which created demand for handloading tools. While the primary purpose of handloading was to save money, handloading remained the best way to tailor loads for specific jobs. Examples included “target” shooters trying to maximize accuracy and hunters desiring to improve terminal performance. Frontiersmen and cowboys needed to handload ammunition for efficiency. When traveling by horse, wagon or walking, weight was always a concern, but components (lead, powder and primers) could be obtained along the way and cases reloaded as needed, all of which helped to keep weight down.
The demand to handload became high, and companies such as The Ideal Manufacturing Company (now Lyman) began offering tools during the 1880s, and Winchester, Marlin, Sharps and others also sold accessory tools specifically for their guns and cartridges. These were unusually well made. The most popular was the hand-held tong tool, with many variants containing a bullet mould in one end or the other. Cases could be decapped, primed, (neck) sized, neck expanded, filled with black powder and the bullet seated and crimped. These tools were practical, lightweight, compact and could be carried in saddle bags.
In exploring old barns, cabins and such, I have found many of these tools, which indicates their widespread use. They were less than perfect for high-volume reloading, but served to assemble small quantities of ammunition, typically around the campfire (with heat to melt lead and cast bullets) in the evening. In spite of their simplicity, they work well and can produce accurate and reliable ammunition. Today Lyman still offers its 310 Tool, a descendent of the Ideal nineteenth-century tools utilizing its own 310 dies. I have used these in remote wilderness country, and their light weight makes them as practical as they were more than 100 years ago.
Although smokeless powders had been in development for many years, they were not widely used in the U.S. until 1892 with the introduction of the military-adopted .30-40 Krag (aka, .30 U.S.) and in 1895 with the appearance of the .30-30 Winchester in the Model 1894 rifle. Over the next few years, many additional rifle and handgun cartridges were introduced as smokeless powder rounds, and many black-powder era cartridges began to be transitioned to fire smokeless powder loads but were still produced with black-powder loads to accommodate older firearms.
These modern cartridges brought a huge change to handloading. During the black-powder cartridge era, it was common to fill the case with 100 percent volume of the correct burn rate of powder then seat the bullet. There was no need for an accurate scale or even a powder measure, except perhaps a dipper. On the other hand, smokeless powders generally did not fill the case and had to be accurately weighed. Soon there were many smokeless powders offered, but there was very little data available, and the necessary tools were limited and even primitive. To make matters more difficult, most smokeless cartridges featured jacketed bullets, which were not as easily “constructed” as cast bullets had been, and neither were they readily available. In time custom bullet makers started to produce them, and factories occasionally sold them as a component, but generally their availability was not widespread. For the next couple of decades, if someone chose to handload smokeless powder cartridges, they were frequently viewed as reckless.
Nonetheless, companies began offering improved tools to accommodate the smokeless-era handloader. As useful as the hand-held tools were, times were changing; the frontier was becoming settled, the automobile had arrived and portable tools became less important. Most hand tools, only having similar leverage action as pliers, were intended primarily for neck sizing cases, and cartridges reloaded with them were best if used in the same gun they were originally fired in. The trend quickly changed to bench-mounted presses that offered much greater leverage to accommodate full-length case sizing. Quality powder measures, case trimmers, priming tools, etc., began appearing. Soon the 7/8x14 threaded die was developed.
From the 1920s through the 1970s, wildcatting was extremely popular. Surplus military rifles were sold to civilians and provided the action to build a custom gun at a reasonable price. While factories scrambled to offer cartridges designed for varmint to big-game hunting, there were still some rather large cartridge or caliber voids, so wildcatters began designing their own. Many of these were eventually adopted by factories and have become industry standard cartridges, usually with small design changes. Examples include the .22 Hornet, .22-250 Remington, .257 Roberts, 7x30 Waters, 7mm Remington Magnum, .338 Winchester Magnum and others. (Although wildcatting began to slow down during the 1960s and 1970s, in recent years it has again become popular due to the many new case designs being offered.)
In the years following World War II, a golden era for handloaders was just beginning, as there were significant advancements in bullets and equipment, and components would soon become widely available. During the 1940s, Vernon Speer began making bullets using .22 rimfire cases for the jacket, as gilding metal was still in short supply. Demand was high, and he sold everything he could make, and “Speer” grew into a major bullet company. Today it is a huge operation with innovative production processes and electrochemically bonded bullets.
In partnership, Frank Snow, Jim Spivy and Loren Harbor first began producing Sierra bullets in 1947. The shooting sports were rapidly growing, and Sierra set out to offer super-accurate bullets that gained widespread popularity among match shooters and hunters. Today, in Sedalia, Missouri, every Sierra bullet made is already sold.
After using a .300 H&H Magnum on moose and finding that then-available bullets did not perform as desired, John Nosler developed the Partition hunting bullet in 1948. The demand was strong and the company quickly grew, and many major ammunition companies began loading the Partition hunting ammunition. Today, Nosler is known for a number of high-quality bullets, fully prepared cases for handloaders, and it even offers rifles and ammunition.
In 1949 Joyce Hornady sold his sporting goods store and began making hunting bullets. Although the first few years were lean, as profits were used to purchase new equipment and expand, sales soon soared and the staff grew steadily. By 1971 Hornady acquired Pacific Tool Company and expanded the business to include reloading presses, dies, etc. Today, Hornady offers many innovative bullets that appeal to big-game and varmint hunters, match competitors, etc.
Fred Barnes began making bullets as early as 1932, but Barnes Bullets was brought to new levels when Randy and Coni Brooks purchased it in 1974. By the late 1980s, the solid-copper, expanding X-Bullet was offered and became an overnight sensation among big-game hunters, but it has been continually improved with the Triple-Shock X-Bullet and Tipped versions. Barnes still makes Original lead-core, jacketed bullets for traditional calibers and lever-action rifles.
There are several additional noteworthy U.S. bullet companies. For example, Swift Bullets introduced a partition-style A-Frame bullet that was of heavy construction and bonded. Swift has also developed the popular plastic-tipped Scirocco and has added handgun bullets. The late Jack Carter developed the Trophy Bonded bullet, which was bonded with a heavily constructed copper base. It quickly earned a top reputation for use on heavy, thin-skinned game. Berger Bullets was founded by Walt Berger in 1955 and has become one of the fastest-growing companies, especially noted for designs that result in unusually high ballistic coefficients and precision accuracy. The product line includes match and hunting bullets.
In 1952 Bruce Hodgdon started Hodgdon Powder by purchasing a large quantity of surplus powders then selling it in canisters to handloaders. Today, Hodgdon only offers newly manufactured powders. Its product line is extensive, allowing handloaders to assemble ammunition for practically any caliber. The company has also acquired IMR (formerly DuPont) and Winchester powders.
Western Powders became known to handloaders and ammunition manufacturers for importing high-quality Ramshot powders but also acquired Accurate Arms powders, which have been especially popular with handloaders. Western also imports Swedish-produced Norma powders.
Alliant Powders (formerly Hercules) offers many rifle, shotgun and handgun powders, and although many of these have been in use for many decades, they are still top-notch products. Alliant has continually introduced new powders to meet the needs of today’s shooters.
Another powder company that has become popular with U.S. handloaders is Finland-based Vihtavuori, which includes an extensive line of rifle and pistol powders known for their high quality and accuracy.
Dick Speer (Vernon’s brother) started manufacturing primers as early as 1952 as Speer Cartridge Works in Lewiston, Idaho, but that name was soon changed to Cascade Cartridge, Inc., commonly known as CCI. This was significant, as ammunition companies were often unwilling to sell primers, as handloading was viewed as a threat to ammunition sales. Dick’s business literally exploded (pun intended), and today ammunition companies willingly sell primers in order to compete.
The post-World War II era also brought significant advances in presses and reloading tools, a trend that has continued to date. As early as 1943, Fred Huntington began making a press and dies to swage bullets. Since these bullets were used to hunt rockchucks in his spare time, he referred to them as “rock chuck bullet swage” dies, thus the name RCBS. Huntington soon realized that others also wanted these tools and developed the compound leverage system employed on his first production press, the RCBS A tool, which also featured the strong O-Frame and removable shellholder. This press eventually evolved into the famous Rock Chucker press.
The C-press design, originally developed by Pacific around 1928, ushered in modern reloading as we know it today. In spite of it being open and easily accessible, in the postwar era, it began to give way to the strong and sturdy O-frame design that has become a standard from top press manufacturers, including Lyman, Hornady, RCBS, Redding and others. The single stage is generally recommended for beginners but is still the choice for advanced handloaders who need precision and reliability.
Turret presses have historically been popular, even in the prewar era. Modern versions from RCBS, Lyman and Redding offer 6- and 7-station heads that are interchangeable and are especially convenient.
Progressive presses have been around for many decades, but Dillon Precision became a leader in this field with the introduction of patented presses that ultimately led to the development of the RL 550B which quickly became popular in the early 1980s. Additional presses include the Square Deal B, XL 650 and Super 1050 (with auto indexing, and bullet and case feed options). These were the right product at the right time, as the autoloading pistol and the AR-15 rifle (and other autoloaders) were on their way to widespread popularity, along with high-volume match competitions. Shooters wanted progressive loading machines, and the Dillon presses were of high quality and generally worked well. Over time Hornady developed its popular Lock-N-Load AP, and RCBS has offered several variants, but its latest is the 5- and 7-station Pro Chucker Progressive.
The 7/8x14 reloading dies became standard in the postwar era, offering universal interchangeability with most modern presses. A significant development included the insertion of a carbide ring to allow straight-walled pistol cases to be sized without lubrication and has become more or less a standard offering with all major companies.
Dies have become more and more specialized. For example, Handloader’s Editor Emeritus Dave Scovill, working with RCBS, developed “cowboy” dies designed specifically for loading cast bullets. AR Series dies are for handloaders who shoot AR-15 and automatic rifles. The X Die helps prevent case growth, while Gold Medal Match dies are for the accuracy minded, and there are special-order dies for wildcatters and special applications. Redding, Hornady and other companies likewise offer special-order dies and options that were not previously as widely available.
Other handloading trends in the past 20 or 30 years have included power case trimmers for increased speed; prep centers to clean primer pockets, deburr cases, etc.; competition dies; precision tools for checking bullet runout; case tumblers and sonic cleaners; hand-held priming tools; more precise (weight range specific) powder measures; electronic powder dispensers; and more accurate, faster scales that include electronic and balance-beam versions. Handloading manuals have also become more technical and accurate, and manufacturers have finally started to change pressure measurement methods from CUP to the much more accurate psi.
Bullet casting has remained popular, with an extensive mould selection available from Lyman, Redding, RCBS and others. A growing trend includes precision custom mould makers who can tailor bullet size, design and weight to best achieve accuracy and performance.
A handloading tool that seldom gets mentioned is the chronograph. For those of us who grew up using Oehler Model 10s and 12s, which were by default slow, we especially appreciate the advanced Oehler Model 35P, RCBS Ammomaster and the new Lyman Ammo Tracker that are fast, accurate and inexpensive.
Perhaps one of the most significant handloading tools is Handloader magazine that first appeared 50 years ago and has employed some of the finest writers in the business. Skeptics said it would never sell, but its circulation has grown steadily and has greatly exceeded founding publisher Dave Wolfe’s wildest expectations. Each issue covers handloading tools, procedures, components and offers considerable data for vintage and modern cartridges. Frankly, no other magazine in the world has been able to compete. Readers often cherish back issues and almost always file and organize them for continued reference (now available on disk from Wolfe Publishing).
With considerable advancements in tools, components and scientifically developed data, modern handloaders have never had it so good.