There are very few differences between loads for long-range target shooting and hunting. When I work up a load for either, I look for a lot of the same things, including accuracy and uniform velocity for on-target hits. For hunting loads, I also want to be sure there’s enough energy to put the game animal down. The rifles I use for hunting are Remington 700s in 243 Win, 6mm-06, 6.5-06, and 30-06. I feel these calibers are capable of taking deer- and antelope-size game at 500 to 600 yards with enough energy for a single, well-placed hit to kill humanely. As a guide, I use one of the on-line ballistic calculators to determine the maximum range where a specific load will still deliver 1,000 ft-lbs. of energy. That’s the maximum range to shoot an animal with that load.
Safety First: Always Consult A Recent Manual
I caution everyone not to use second-hand load data - someone’s favorite load that their buddy gave them for another rifle, or a load you found on the Internet. I think you can get my meaning here. I have heard of folks using loads that are 2 or 3 grains over any published maximum load. You should have at least one new reloading manual less than three years old because data does change. For example, I have three manuals issued by Sierra over a 35-year period that give three different loads for the same cartridge, bullet, and powder. Never exceed a recently published maximum load. Remember, Safety is First, Last, and Always.
When working up a load, I start with accuracy. My goal is for the load to shoot from around ¼ MOA to no more than ½ MOA from a supported position or "bench rest". I start at 100 yards, get the load worked up there, and then test at 300 yards. If the load works well at 100 yards and 300 yards, it should be fine at 600 yards and beyond. For hunting, ½ MOA to 1 MOA is a pretty good load. This should be achievable in most factory hunting rifles. When you look at the kill zone on most big game animals, it’s about a 12" circle, give or take. At 600 yards, 2 MOA is a little over a 12" circle.
Choosing Data & Components
I use fire-formed cases and starting loads from trustworthy loading manuals. I cross reference Sierra’s manuals with Hornady’s and use the lowest charge as the starting load and work up from there. I will pick two or three bullet weights and two or three powders that I think are best suited to the rifle, caliber, and bullet weight. I seat the bullets out to the lands if possible and don’t change the seating depth until I find the powder and bullet combo that shoots best.
Keep Your Eyes On The Weather & The Chrony
I do my load testing in warm weather, if possible between 85 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This way when I find a max load, I back off the powder charge 1 grain from swelling the case head or web .0005" to .001", and the load should be OK at higher temperatures. I measure the head of the case and the web area of the case and record these. I will pick one bullet and one powder and start at the bottom of the reloading chart and work up from there in ½ grain increments. (I should state this is for a case size of 308 or 30-06.)
I load three rounds and shoot them over the chronograph for speed, then recheck the head and web for swelling. I look at the chronograph for low standard deviation - “SD” - and low extreme spread - “ES.” I keep loading in ½ grain increments, checking the head and web for swelling in the .0005" to .001" range. Once I see expansion of the head or web, I reduce the load that caused it by 1 full grain and consider that to be my max load. Always make sure this load is under a max load published in good reloading manuals.
Finding The Sweet Spot
I also look at the chronograph readings to help me find the "sweet spot". This may be 1 grain under the rifle’s max load. After I have tried all the powders and bullets, I take the one or two that gave the best performance in the first test and start backing bullets off .005" at a time until I reach .020" off the lands. If I find a spot that’s, say, .015" off the lands and it shoots the best group, I record that load and retest after I find out if the bullets will shoot with bullet jump or at magazine length. I will continue to back the bullet off .020" at a time, checking accuracy and chronograph numbers as I go.
Remember, for hunting rifles bullet seating should allow the round to feed through the magazine. I want the accuracy to be around ½ MOA or less for the best and no more the 1 MOA at the largest. In field conditions having a 1/8 to ¼ MOA rifle and a 2 MOA hold doesn’t matter as much as if you were shooting off the bench.
Practice Like You Will Hunt
I suggest you test your loads by shooting in the position you will be hunting in. If you plan to hunt from a bipod 100 to 300 yards, for example, test your loads with that setup. I also suggest you shoot a cold barrel and see where the first shot goes. This will take some time because you will want to let the barrel cool down after each shot so you can repeat another cold-bore shot. Make sight adjustments on the cold barrel shot. After you are satisfied with your first shot, then try three shots. If all is well, your three-shot groups should overlap the one-shot "groups".
Pay Attention To Elevation Changes
Don’t forget to check the rifle’s zero when you get to place where you are going to hunt – and check it if you change your elevation by 1,000 feet. I have zeroed my rifle at home in Indiana, and then gone hunting in Wyoming at 6,000 feet above sea level. I noticed the point of impact with my 200-yard zero was higher at 6,000 feet. The thinner air and lower humidity extended my point blank range about 75 to 100 yards.
The Only Excuse Is You
The method described above works for almost all shooting needs. Finding the sweet spot for your rifle will give you the best performance and help you shoot with greater confidence. Over the years, you will hear guys say the load was off, the rifle’s zero changed, or the rifle had a problem. When I shoot a match or go hunting, the only excuse I want to use is that I screwed up. Remember to go over the scope rings and base screws and check stock screws before you shoot, too, so you can be sure your own performance is the only "excuse".
Working up a load for long-range shooting and hunting does take time, work, and attention to detail. But having the knowledge and confidence to make those long-distance shots is absolutely worth it.
Sinclair Reloading Tech & NRA Certified Reloading Instructor