How Important Is Accurate Recordkeeping

Have you noticed how many of today's wonderful improvements have also made our lives more complicated? For example, when I was a teenager, I used to be able to work on my own car. Now it's difficult for me to find an air or oil filter under the hood of a new car, much less be able to replace it.

The same scenario holds true for reloading. It was much simpler back when firearms shot "loose" powder, ball and caps instead of modern, "fixed" ammunition.

Because before the mid to late 1800's, shooters needed just those few components to load their muzzleloading firearms. Black powder was the only propellant available and, although many mills turned out products whose quality varied greatly, most ofit would reliably propel a patched lead bullet toward its intended target. Measuring the proper charge of powder was also simple to do. A good load for a musket was the amount needed to just cover the corresponding caliber round ball held in one's hand. Cap-and-ball revolving arms were typically charged using a copper or brass powder flask fitted with a handy spout and cutoff lever. With the appropriate size flask, the shooter could carry an ample supply of powder and readily dispense the right amount into each chamber.

In either case, a little more or less black powder didn't make much difference when the gun was fired. The loose bullet-to-bore fit and relatively low pressures generated by black powder combustion ensured an adequate margin of safety for both the gun and the shooter. In those days, every shooter was a reloader — out of necessity. This relatively "uncomplicated" situation began to unravel as cartridge ammunition was being developed.

Some of the first cartridge (e.g., pinfire and rimfire) ammunition didn't lend itself to being reloaded. Later, when centerfire ammo became prevalent, shooters still carried (in addition to ready-made factory rounds) a supply of black powder, lead, primers, and a simple "tong"-handled reloading tool. The shooter used the reloading tool to both cast new bullets and reprocess his fired cases and other components into "new" rounds of ammunition.

At first, black powder was still commonly loaded by the munitions factories and the individual shooter. Cartridges were sized to accommodate appropriate charges of black powder and were aptly labeled ".45-70" or ".44-40" to designate the caliber and charge weight, respectively. To reload, the shooter simply filled the case up with powder allowing room to seat the often "standard" weight lead bullet used in that particular round. Except for cleaning up the nasty mess you always have with black powder arms, shooting and reloading were still quite simple to do and widely practiced.

However, about this same time progress in the world of chemical science was in the making. Early versions of modern nitrocellulose-based propellants were being developed. These new powders had several things going for them compared to black powder. They were significantly safer to manufacture, store and handle and, ounce per ounce, they were much more powerful. In addition, they were relatively "smokeless," (i.e., much cleaner burning than black powder, and the residue was less tenacious or corrosive). The munitions factories quickly adopted the new technology and started loading factory ammo with smokeless propel-lants. Of course, shooters wanted to reload with the new powders, too.

Almost overnight, life became more complicated, in fact, sometimes down-right dangerous!

Firing a cartridge reloaded with a case full of smokeless in your favorite brass or iron-framed rifle or a beautifully figured damascus barrelled shotgun almost surely spelled ruin for the gun and potentially loss of life or limb for the shooter. Reloading had "progressed" so quickly that those who survived shooting the new smokeless propellants either went back to using black powder in their handloads or just bought "ready-made" ammo exclusively.

From about 1880 until 1910, countless more smokeless propellants were developed. The complications experienced by reloaders grew parallel with these new developments. In fact, by the early 1900's, reloading had almost ceased to exist. Except for a few experimenters, a whole new generation of shooters viewed handloading as a sort of "black art." The munitions makers also discouraged reloading although their reasons were more practical. They thought that the bottom line would benefit because profit margins were much higher on loaded ammunition compared to loading components.

Luckily, things started to improve after the First World War. Shooters with military backgrounds (e.g., Hatcher, Whelen and Sharpe) and civilians like Donaldson, Keith and Mann continued to experiment with handloading. What's even more important, these fellows kept excellent records and generously shared their ever-increasing knowledge with other handloaders through various firearms and shooting publications.

Gradually, more and more shooters rediscovered the benefits of reloading their own ammunition. They realized it wasn't really dangerous if one acquired adequate knowledge, mixed that with a little common sense and exercised strict discipline and caution. The key to successful reloading became obvious. First, determine precisely what to load. Then carefully record your loading data and the results you obtained when shooting your handloads at the range.

That seems simple enough, right?

Fifty years ago, handloading was again well established — although still practiced by relatively few shooters. There were less than two dozen propellants available from the two major domestic suppliers, DuPont and Hercules. Bullets, brass and primers were supplied primarily by the four remaining munitions companies: Remington, Peters, Winchester and Western. Handloaders had several choices available; but, with limited effort, a good load for a specific rifle or handgun was readily developed.

Today there are more than one hundred propellants available to American shooters from eight domestic and foreign manufacturers and importers. Although several "factory" bullets are still available, today the half dozen or so major independent bullet manufacturers supply hundreds of different styles, shapes and weights for every rifle and pistol. In addition, many other individual entrepreneurs make hundreds more strictly custom bullets — enough to satisfy every handloader's demands.

Brass for almost every conceivable cartridge of the past and present is made domestically or imported from all over the world. Primers are available in both large and small sizes for "regular" and "magnum" rifle and pistol loads from four domestic companies. Berdan-type primers are also imported for many uncommon or obsolete European cartridges.

With all of these "advances" in quantity and availability of components, actually reloading a round of ammunition is just as simple to do today as it was fifty years ago. However, taking advantage of the myriad choices of component combinations can really keep the experimenting handloader and shooter busy. As you can imagine, keeping good records is more important than ever before.

Let's look at a few "rules" you should consider following to help assure safe and consistent shooting performance and continued economical benefits when reloading.

COMPONENT RECORDS

Look at any can of powder or box of primers on your bench. In addition to the product name and prominent caution notices, you'll see that each package is marked with a series of numbers or numbers and letters. This designation is called the manufacturer's "lot number." As the word "lot" implies, components are usually manufactured in batches or discrete production runs using the same ingredients and/or materials. Because each production lot is uniquely marked tracking a specific component lot is easy to do — as long as the product remains in its original packaging, of course.

Although it's rare, problems sometimes occur with a certain lot of primers or powder. If the careful reloader has done his homework, he can readily determine if there are other suspect components on hand that should be safely disposed. And, he can trace these "bad" components to ammunition that's already loaded so further consequences can be avoided.

RULE #1 Accurately list each lot number of all chemically active components, (i.e., primers and propellants, in your reloading records).

AMMUNITION RECORDS

Most handloaders depend on one or more reloading manuals for information. After you've handloaded for a while, many of the cautions you've read about are more than just words in a book. You probably have experienced consequences by not heeding some of the warnings. For example, switching powder lots and/or types of bullets and primers without first reducing the charge and then redeveloping a safe load could invite an accident. (By the way, you'll know exactly when to heed that advice if you're tracking each component by their unique lot numbers.)

Many of the bullet makers include handy loading data sheets with each box of bullets. Preprinted, adhesive-backed data forms are sold by both your local dealers and national mailorder shooting sports suppliers. Typical information includes the cartridge loaded, primer type, brass, powder type and charge weight, bullet brand, type and weight, etc. It only takes a couple of minutes to fill out the data form, verify the entries made and put it on or in the box of reloaded ammunition.

RULE #2 Prepare a detailed data sheet and pack it securely with each batch of handloads.

RANGE RESULTS

MTM Products and Midway both offer a "handloader's notebook" for keeping reloading information handy. It's a simple loose-leafbinder that holds up to a hundred or so data sheets. Typical information that can be tabulated includes the reloading information noted above and ambient atmospheric conditions, chronograph data, group sizes, etc.

The range is where all of your time and effort pays off — whether the results are good or bad! How a rifle or handgun performs with each new concoction you put in the chamber is the real "proof of the pudding." Accurate and systematically acquired data will either tell you you're going in the right direction and when you've reached the "best" load or indicate there's just no hope for this or that combination of components. Your records can lead you to success and keep you from wasting time by repeating past mistakes.

RULE #3 Keep precise and comprehensive information about how good (or bad!) your handloads perform.

INVENTORY RECORDS

Should you keep detailed inventory records? I think you should — although many of the following comments may seem either trivial or very unnecessary to many handloaders.

If you only load one or two cartridges (or just a few rounds occasionally of several types), knowing what and how many components you have on hand is simple. You just look on the shelves and in a couple of drawers or cigar boxes, right? How about if you shoot hundreds of rounds of several different loads each month in your favorite pistol? Or, you reload ammo to shoot in different rifles for every varmint and game animal that's in season within a thousand miles of your home? If you keep track of your inventory the same as a low-volume handloader, you've probably been caught short right in the middle of a reloading session.

In either case, it's a good idea to keep a current tab on your component stocks. This can be done by simply jotting down the quantities of each item as you buy them in a notebook kept especially for that purpose. Then, at more or less regular time intervals, you could review all recent reloading data and update your inventory records accordingly. Complete inventory records should also include the lot numbers and dates of purchase for primers and powder. These items should be loaded on a "first-in, first-out" basis so that older stock is used up before new cans or cartons are opened.

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