Reloading: Range Reloading

This article is intended for those of you who do not currently do any reloading at the range.  If you already do this, there is nothing new in here, it is a basic introduction to the subject. - GAS -

Reloading at the Range: Equipment and Techniques for Load Development
by: Germán A. Salazar

Load development is an important part of Highpower shooting.  While there certainly are those who overstate it, it really can't be overlooked.  Every time you change a lot of powder or type of bullet and certainly when you work with a new cartridge, some degree of load development or redevelopment is necessary.  Preparing a set of loads at home and then going to the range to chronograph them and shoot them for accuracy is the slow way to do the job because if the loads didn't work out or if you just didn't bring enough of a variety, you've lost the day.  Loading at the range takes care of that problem and lets you make useful changes as you see in which direction things are headed.  Anything from a small change in seating depth to a different primer is much simpler when done at the range.  And don't ignore the convenience of not having to go home and pull down those loads that just didn't work out, either!  When you load at the range, you'll catch those before you load too many of them.  Let's look at the equipment for range reloading as well as some tips; remember that all the pictures can be clicked to enlarge.

The classic Kennedy machinist's toolbox is a range reloading favorite, but any sturdy toolbox will do. Everything I use at the range is in the box (and more).  This box normally sits on my workbench at home and holds a lot of my home reloading tools, many of which aren't used on the range.

As we open the lid we can see the powder measure, a jar of powder, a mini electronic scale (in the pouch on the left) and a funnel.  The measure is a Neal Jones unit, but any measure that you can attach with a C-clamp will work just as well.  Note the swing-out aluminum bracket on the right front corner of the box; this, or something like it, is a very useful piece of equipment.  You can make something like this from aluminum or even wood.  This one was bought through an ad on Benchrest Central, but I've unfortunately lost track of the fellow who made it.  The arbor press is under the visible items, broken down into its various component parts.

I keep primers and priming tools in one of the drawers.  When I do load development I often try different primers; sometimes the object of the day's testing is primer selection, so I make sure to take a good variety of primers in the appropriate size.  I use the Sinclair priming tools because they are reliable and give excellent feel when seating the primer.  Note the loading block, arbor press, Wilson seating die and dial caliper already set up on the metal front cover of the toolbox.  Although its not quite in the picture, the powder measure is already clamped to the swing arm. 

Depending on the type of work surface available at your range, you could take a conventional press like a Rockchucker and C-Clamp it to the table; the same can be done with a powder measure on a stand.  While the type of equipment shown here is convenient to pack and carry, it isn't the only way to load at the range.

The bottom drawer of the tool box carries the heavier items, like dies and bullets.  In this photo, you can see Wilson dies for .308 (in the green RCBS box) and for the .30-06 (in the yellow Wilson boxes) as I was loading for both of those calibers on this day.  There's also a box of bullets, a powder trickler and a few other items.  Normally I don't resize brass at the range.  Apart from being time-consuming, it's not possible to full-length size with my arbor press setup and I prefer not to neck size.  However, I always have neck dies and bushings with me, because if the project becomes more involved than anticipated and I run out of sized brass, I'd rather neck-size and continue than end the day before completing the project.

The middle drawer holds some small tools and calipers.  Of these, only the small screwdriver and calipers are really used at the range; they are needed to check seating depth and to adjust the seating stem on the Wilson die.  Wilson offers a micrometer top for their seating dies, but it's so simple to adjust them with the caliper and screwdriver that I've never considered the expense to be worthwhile.  Just remember to shorten the stem for a longer OAL!

This drawer holds a lot of headspace checking tools which I don't use at the range, and the Sinclair hex nut for checking seating depth which I definitely use at the range.  Before going out, I check the OAL needed to contact the lands with whatever bullets I'll be shooting and make notes in the little blue notebook you see on the right.  By measuring beforehand, I can make quick and effective changes to the seating depth at the range and not spend any time checking with the Stoney Point (Hornady) tool which isn't that accurate on a dirty barrel anyway.

There's not a lot to say about priming at the range that's different from priming at home, just get the job done.  While I have a lot to say about priming generally (see the primer articles in the November and June 2009 section of this site) I won't repeat it here.   I normally put a few primers into the open area of the loading block to keep them from flying around and then prime the cases.  Normally, I load three to five cases at a time if I'm checking a new powder or a new lot of a powder.  There's no sense in loading more until you've had a quick look at the load over the chronograph or on the target.  If I'm chronographing a new powder, I'll often load just three rounds of each charge as I work up and make a graph of powder charge versus muzzle velocity.  That really helps you to get to your desired MV range quickly and keeps component waste to a minimum as you work up the ladder.

Charging the cases with powder is without a doubt the area of range reloading that requires the greatest level of thought and preparation.  While Benchrest shooters typically throw their charges without weighing, the powders we use in Highpower are generally the coarser extruded powders and even with a top quality measure they will not throw with the level of consistency we need for the final phases of load development.  I take a two-step approach to case charging; one for the initial phase of load development, and another for the final phase.

Before heading to the range, I make a chart correlating average charge weight to powder measure setting over a useful range for the powder and cartridge being tested.  With the chart settings, I can do the initial workup of three shots per load to determine the average MV per charge at the range.  Since we're just establishing the MV range at this point and not looking for the lowest SD yet, this can be done with thrown charges with no detriment. 

For the final phase, I prefer to weigh the charges.  There are a number of small electronic scales available today that can be used at the range for load development.  The one shown here is from CED and is representative of the genre, it sells for about $120.  Hornady makes one that sells in the $30 range, but I haven't tested it yet.  Like any electronic scale, you have to deal with drift issues as well as sensitivity to the flow from the trickler; additionally, there is the wind effect outdoors.  You can see in the picture that I make a wind shield on the side of the toolbox with a cloth and some clips.  If needed, I also lower the lid as much as I can while trickling.  That gets a bit tricky and its a slow way to load, but once the useful velocity range is reached and we're fine tuning the load, we really need to have accurately weighed charges to pin down the actual MV and SD of the load. 

The trickler is a standard RCBS, the "pan" is actually the cap from some hair preparation my wife uses and is much easier to handle than the little plastic pan that came with the scale.  The metal pans we use in home reloading weigh much more and might max out the small scale's capacity with some loads; also, the high sides of the plastic cap/pan are useful in preventing spills as we move around these tight confines.

Seating bullets with the arbor press and Wilson die is fast and simple.  The only thing to be aware of, as noted earlier, is seating depth.  The die has a small lock screw which holds the seating stem at the desired setting; loosening it and adjusting the setting is a matter of a minute or so.  Check the stem length with your calipers, seat a bullet, verify the OAL with the calipers and an OAL tool like the Sinclair hex nut and you're ready.

And finally, we get the the fun part!  Here's John Chilton, Phoenix's finest F-TR shooter checking loads on his Savage .308 over the chronograph.  In the space of a couple of hours today, we chronographed five loads with Varget at two seating depths, two loads with IMR 4320 at one seating depth and then shot test targets for accuracy from the ground in F-Class position with the best of the Varget and 4320 loads.  There's no way we could have accomplished all of that with pre-loaded ammunition as we simply wouldn't have know how hot we could go, which way to go on seating depth, etc.  Loading at the range made for a very efficient test with a minimum of wasted time or components.

And now, for something completely different...Here's a picture of Darren Sucato's range reloading setup with conventional equipment on a regular plastic folding table.  Darren uses an RCBS Partner press bolted to the table and a Redding powder measure clamped to the table.  This is sturdy enough for throwing powder and seating bullets, though not really for full-length sizing.  Darren also uses the table as a shooting bench for chronographing.; again, not really sturdy enough for accuracy work, but just fine for the chrono.


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