Inexpensive Handloading for Predator Ammunition

Handloading no doubt saves money, but these cost-cutting measures can save you even more.

Inexpensive Handloading for Predator Ammunition

When handloading for predators, varmints, big game or competition, the author says if you're working on a budget and find good deals to buy as much as possible. Check stores going out of business or discounting merchandise to find bargains to fuel your passion. (Photo: Patrick Meitin)

I’ve often said small-varmint/predator shooting and handloading are largely intertwined. In better small-varmint arenas, the sheer volume of ammo burned makes handloading nearly mandatory as feeding your favorite varmint rifle factory wares would quickly break the bank.

The serious predator caller normally handloads so they can select a specific bullet to match the task at hand, from shooting during spring control work or during winter months for the raw-fur trade — depending on the amount of pelt damage you’re willing to inflict — to long-range shooting. Then, of course, many reload seeking to wring maximum accuracy from any given rifle. There is also no way around the fact handloading saves money, allowing more shooting enjoyment without cutting into the family budget. 

While I big-game hunt primarily with bows and arrows, a serious varmint-shooting and predator-calling addiction means I’m still heavily invested in serious handloading. If I regularly pursued big game with rifles I can’t imagine burning more than 20 rounds per season (aside from initial load development).

But as an ardent small-varmint shooter, a typical weekend in eastern Oregon or a road trip down through western Wyoming results in hundreds of rounds consumed daily. And I can’t stand to ruin a prime winter coyote, fox or bobcat pelt, as they’re always worth something to someone. Consequently, I also tailor predator ammunition to inflict minimal hide damage.  

Granted, factory-ammo manufacturers have begun offering an ever-widening array of niche rounds in many varmint cartridges (though not all) — including highly-frangible pills pushed to maximum velocities and controlled-expansion projectiles that won’t shred hides. But at a buck-plus a pop, that route would eventually curtail my shooting enjoyment. Finally, many of my favorite varmint cartridges (my .22 Hornet, .220 Swift and 6mm Remington come to mind) just don’t afford the variety of factory-load options found in something more popular, such as the .223 Remington, as an obvious example. 

The latter is vitally important to me. The current fad in .22 Hornet factory loads is a stumpy, ballistically-inferior 35-grain polymer-tipped pill (sometimes lighter) that can prove downright unreliable on coyotes. The classic 45-grain soft point also carries ballistic handicaps, severely limiting range. I load streamlined 40-grain polymer-tipped pills to extend effective range with higher ballistic coefficients (BCs) without sacrificing terminal performance. The .220 Swift, still our fastest varmint round after 85 years, includes darned few factory options; a fate also suffered by the ballistically talented 6mm Remington. Both of those rifles hold aftermarket barrels with faster rifling twists accommodating long-for-caliber bullets carrying high BCs and long-range superiority — something completely absent in factory wares.        

But high-volume shoots in direct relation to component costs largely dictate my approach to handloading for my varmint passions. I’ve returned from eastern Oregon after an extended weekend eliminating destructive Belding’s ground squirrels at the landowner’s behest with 600 pieces of empty brass to contemplate. When my father and I disembarked on a recent two-week varmint-shooting road trip through southern Idaho (Uinta ground squirrels and rockchucks), south into western Wyoming (white-tailed prairie dogs and Richardson’s ground squirrels), through Colorado (stopping to shoot black-tailed prairie dogs with an old friend) and into Texas (thermal-imaging jackrabbits, coyotes and hogs), the truck bed was piled with stacks of MTM Case-Gard ammo crates.

That kind of volume can quickly put a shooter in the poor house, and in the dog house with Wifey, who typically doesn’t understand the need to belabor “cute” rodents, even if they are flea infested and cannibalize one another as a matter of course. 

As an easy example, let’s take the wildly-popular .223 Remington. I demand tack-driving accuracy while addressing tiny, distant, burrowing rodents, and prefer them to reach their expiration date above ground, pointing to explosive bullets that turn marginal hits into dead critters. In accurate, destructive factory wares, to choose some quick examples, Nosler Varmageddon and Hornady Superformance ammo run around $22 a box (20 rounds). To add perspective, that’s a $1.10 average per trigger pull. That extended weekend in Oregon mentioned earlier rings up to around $660—just in ammunition! Comparable handloaded ammo costs me about $.25 a pop, or about $150 (multiplied by a dozen big trips annually). 

Another viable approach—particularly when targeting high-volume burrowing rodents—is choosing smaller varmint rounds. If being completely honest, cartridges in the .22-250 Remington to .243 Winchester class are so much overkill in most varmint-shooting settings where the vast majority of shots are presented at 150 to 250 yards. Cartridges such as the .17 Hornet and .17 Fireball, .22 Hornet and .221 Fireball are not only more pleasant to shoot — producing minimal recoil and muzzle blast — but also powder miserly, producing sizzling velocities with 10 to 20 grains of powder, instead of 35 to 45 grains. My .17 Hornet, for example, burns only 12 grains of powder per shot (translating into 400 rounds per pound of propellant) and offers surgical precision and dismantling impact to 300 yards. And .17-caliber bullets actually cost less than .224-caliber pills.    

Budget Brass

Though I’ve already admitted to owning some varmint-shooting oddities, if you want to truly shoot cheaply, mainstream cartridges are where it’s at. An ideal example is found in the .223 Remington. When I had my first true custom varmint rifle built I badly coveted a .22 PPC — a benchrest darling known for exceptional accuracy. My gunsmith talked me into a boring .223 Rem. After thousands of rounds run through that rifle, I must admit he was absolutely correct. 

The .223’s affordable nature hinges on its status as the U.S. military’s cartridge of choice, as well as the proliferation of civilian AR-15s. Once-fired military brass is abundant and affordable, sometimes costing nothing, with AR enthusiasts depositing copious freebees at many popular shooting sites. Most shooting ranges now forbid collecting brass, instead selling spent cases to lower overhead with generic .223/5.56mm cases going for pennies because they’re collected by the thousands.

That can’t be said of other varmint cartridges. With my Hornets, .221 Remington Fireball, .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington, Swift and 6mm, I’m forced to scrounge odds and ends at pawn shops or by trading with other gun-loony friends. By avoiding a steady diet of maximum loads and occasionally annealing case necks, brass will generally provide a dozen-plus loadings, spreading this expense over several years.

You can also scour discount outlets such as Shooter’s Pro Shop (SPS) and Rocky Mountain Reloading (RMR). SPS is a blemished and overrun component outlet, with RMR trading in disassembled or discontinued components purchased direct from manufactures. Highly-popular or rare cartridges, say the .22-250 Remington or .220 Swift, aren’t available for long, so you have to remain on top of inventory. There are also specialty outfits such as High Plains Brass where I purchased affordable .221 Remington Fireball brass made from resized military 5.56mm brass with non-matching head stamps.

Bargain Bullets

Bullets are where the biggest savings are generally realized. I love pills such as Sierra’s BlitzKing, Nosler’s Ballistic Tip, Hornady’s V-Max or Barnes Varmint Grenades, as they’re dead-nuts accurate and dismantle furry diggers. But they also cost upwards of $.22 apiece. I happily paid the price for a perceived accuracy boost, but as my varmint-shooting obsessions grew I was forced to seek more affordable alternatives. The solution was “generic” soft- and hollow-point projectiles from outlets such as Midway USA and Midsouth Shooters Supply, most ringing up at $.13 to $.15 per shot.

Midway’s Dogtown and Midsouth’s Varmint Nightmare Extreme bullets are not only affordable (especially when purchased in bulk), but ultimately accurate (select loads producing sub-1/2-inch groups from several rifles) and explosive (creating satisfying red mist). Midsouth’s .224-caliber soft- and hollow-points, for instance, run from $43 to $49 per 500. Nosler’s Tipped Varmageddon offers a polymer-tipped bargain, generally running around $37 per 250 to the company’s $53 per 250 Ballistic Tip Varmint. 

These bullets constitute my everyday stock, but I also keep a close eye on the aforementioned blem/pulled outlets. Shooter’s Pro Shop has relinquished some great deals, including 32-grain, .204-caliber Tipped Varmageddons at $9.95 per 100 and .224-caliber 40-grain Ballistic Tips for $15 per 100, just as highlights. Rocky Mountain Reloading has provided .224-caliber 50-grain lead-free frangible pills (a long-for-caliber pill my AR thrives on) for $50 per 500 and 50-grain hollow-points my .22-250 likes for $30 per 250. When you find such deals, hoard!

Primers And Powder

Primers and powder are generally MSRPs, though I’ve encountered deals by watching sales circulars, especially during end-of-year, inventory-reduction periods. Sporting-goods outlets prefer to keep fresh product in stock, so often discount last-year’s merchandise to make way for upgraded packaging or simply to rotate merchandise. 

The latest powder fads or popular formulas generally move most quickly, meaning that sale propellants might not constitute your regular choice. It pays to remain flexible, and you just never know—you might actually discover a new favorite. I can’t help but recall how a local sporting goods store had a huge supply of IMR-4198 on sale — powder with conspicuously faded and outdated labeling. I ignored that powder until the price was cut 50 percent, consulting load data and discovering it was a highly-viable .223 Rem./40-grain option. I bought a pound and worked some loads — and then immediately ran back to that store to grab some more! That load, charged with that fusty, “out-dated” powder is now one of my go-to recipes, producing consistent five-shot, one-hole groups and turning ground squirrels inside out. 

I also recall a local gun shop being forced out of business after the appearance of a big-box chain store. Sales started at 25-percent off for everything in the store. A couple weeks later I began to see 70-percent off signs and my curiosity got the best of me. I ultimately purchased enough primers to last several years — though Wifey wasn’t exactly pleased with the $500 investment. She got over it. Moral of story; when you find a good deal, buy as much as you can afford. 

The entire point of varmint shooting is high-volume, off-season fun. Running out of ammo, or worse, curtailing your shooting enjoyment because of costs, is counter to the entire program. Handloading has long been the obvious solution, but handloading on the cheap expands on the savings and results in yet more fun.  


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