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« Now that you’ve bought your first firearm, what do you do with it? | Main | The Proper Use of the Rifle Sling »

October 06, 2003

The Economics of Handloading

Handloading is the practice of assembling loaded cartridges from components.

It involves specific tools & knowledge but is not overly complex. Handloading used to be more economical across the board - that is every cartridge could be handloaded cheaper than buying factory loaded ammo. That's not the case anymore with some of the more popular calibers. Between economy brands from factories & military surplus ammo that's available through distributors it doesn't save much, if any cash to handload certain cartridges.

Where handloading is more economical is in cartridges or specific loadings of cartridges that aren't that popular. These can usually be handloaded for less than buying loaded ammunition.

There is another situation where handloading is more economical: when you want a certain quality of ammo. The cost of loaded premium ammo (match ammo, high quality hunting ammo) is usually two times or more that of the loaded economy ammo. Handloaded ammo will cost you about the same to make as the loaded economy ammo is to buy, but you can make it to a much higher quality.

For instance Black Hills Gold ammunition in .30-06 Springfield has a 168 grain Hornady BTHP (Boat Tailed Hollow Point) Match bullet. A box of 20 cartridges costs $21.12 from MidwayUSA.

A box of 100 Hornady .308 caliber 168 grain BTHP Match bullets costs $20.65 which equals $4.16 for 20 bullets.
A box of 100 CCI No. 34 primers costs $2.10 which equals $0.42 for 20 primers.
A bag of 20 .30-06 Springfield cases costs $5.90
A pound of IMR 4064 costs $19.35 which equals $2.62 for 20 cartridges worth of powder. (Assuming 47.5 grains per cartridge)

That adds up to $13.10 for the initial loading of 20 cartridges for a savings of $8.02 when compared to the Black Hills Gold Ammunition.
But it gets better. Now that we have cases it costs us $7.20 for the supplies to reload them. Let's say we load the cases a total of 3 times (that's very conservative as most cases will last 10 or more reloadings if used in bolt action or single shot rifles). That's 60 shots (using the same 20 cases) for a grand total of $27.50, which averages $.45 per cartridge or $9.16 per 20. That's $11.96 less than the Black Hills Gold ammunition.

So instead of paying $63.60 for three 20 round boxes of Black Hills Gold ammunition, you can pay $27.50 for 60 handloads. That saves you $36.10 for those 60 shots.

& the $9.16 average isn't that much more expensive than you'd pay for factory loaded or military surplus ammunition in .30-06 Springfield.

Sportsman's Guide has Remington UMC .30-06 Springfield cartridges loaded with 150 grain MC (Metal Case, which is their term for FMJ) for $8.97 per 20 round box. That's a whopping $0.19 less than your high quality handloads would cost per 20 You save less than $0.01 cent per round by buying an economy brand of loaded ammunition.

Sportsman's Guide also has 400 round cans of Korean military surplus .30-06 Springfield ammunition with a 147 grain FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) on sale for $89.97. That equates to around $.22 per round or $4.49 per 20 rounds. However this is military surplus ammunition not made to the same standards that the Black Hills Gold ammo is or your handloads can be. So for $4.67 more than you’d pay for 20 rounds of the military surplus ammo you can handload 20 cartridges that rival the Black Hills Gold ammo in quality.

But assuming you have a bolt action or single shot rifle in .30-06 Springfield you could probably get at least 10 loads per case.

400 .308 caliber Hornady 165 grain BTHP Match bullets cost $82.60.
400 CCI No. 34 primers cost $8.40.
40 Remington .30-06 Springfield cases cost $11.80.
2.71 pounds of IMR 4064 costs $52.52. (Actually you’d have to buy 3 pounds which would run $58.05 but you’d have 42 cartridges worth of powder left over after you loaded the 400 rounds.)

So that would be $155.32 for 400. It averages out to $0.38 per cartridge or $7.76 per 20 cartridges. Not quite as cheap as the military surplus ammo, but not much more expensive either, only $3.27 per 20 cartridges.

But if you really can't turn down a deal on military surplus ammo, you can still save by handloading. The military surplus ammo mentioned above is Boxer primed, therefore the cases are reloadable. So for $4.49 per 20 rounds of the military surplus ammo you have reloadable cases to use after you're done firing.

Again let's assume you get 3 total loadings per case. & again we assume $7.20 for the component cost (primer, powder & bullet) per 20 reloads. (Note: it is necessary to reduce powder charges in military cases by 1 to 2 grains because of their smaller internal capacity. For the sake of comparison we will omit this practice here, but I strongly urge everyone who handloads to reduce the powder charge by 1 to 2 grains in military cases.)

40 Hornady .308 165 grain BTHP Match bullets cost $8.26
40 CCI No. 34 primers cost $0.84
.28 pounds of IMR 4064 powder costs $5.25
20 rounds of Korean military surplus .30-06 Springfield ammunition costs $4.49

For 60 rounds of the reloaded military cases the total cost will be $18.89 (including the initial firing of the surplus ammo). That averages to $6.29 for 20 rounds or $.31 per round. Those 60 rounds cost less than a single 20 round box of Black Hills Gold ammunition. & although the first firing wouldn't be of the same quality, the next two firings could be equal or perhaps better.

If you have a bolt action or single shot rifle you can use each case 10 times or more, so for the initial 20 cases that would be 200 firings, 180 of which would be with the premium handloaded components. Total cost would be $62.90 for the 200 rounds fired in 20 cases. Doubling that amount would give us $125.80 for 400 rounds fired in 40 cases, which is $35.83 more than the 400 rounds of surplus ammo, but the handloads use higher quality components. For 2 cases (200 rounds per case) of Black Hills Gold ammunition you'd be looking at $423.74 from MidwayUSA. To be fair the Black Hills Gold ammunition averages about $1.05 per round versus $0.31 per round for our reloads. The first firings of our 40 military surplus cases wouldn't be of the same quality as the reloads or the Black Hills ammo, but we're still looking at only $113.22 for the reloads with premium components compared to $381.36 for 360 rounds of the Black Hills Gold ammunition.

The same applies to hunting ammunition.

MidwayUSA sells Hornady Custom ammunition in .30-06 Springfield loaded with a 165 grain SST (Super Shock Tip) bullet for $17.99 per 20 round box.

A box of 100 Hornady SST bullets costs $16.95 which equates to $3.39 for 20 bullets.
A box of 100 CCI No. 34 primers costs $2.10 which equals $0.42 for 20 primers.
A bag of 20 .30-06 Springfield cases costs $5.90
A pound of IMR 4064 costs $19.35 which equals $2.62 for 20 cartridges worth of powder. (Assuming 47.5 grains per cartridge)

That comes to $12.33 for the first 20 rounds which is $5.66 less than the Hornady Custom ammunition. The total drops to $6.43 when you load the second & third time. Again assuming 3 loadings per case we arrive at $25.19 for 60 shots, which averages to $.42 per cartridge or $8.39 per 20 cartridges. That saves you $9.60 cents when compared to the Hornady Custom ammunition.

Instead of paying $53.97 for 60 rounds of Hornady Custom ammunition you could pay $25.19 for 60 rounds of handloaded ammunition.

& should you go the military surplus route as in the previous example, the cost would be $4.49 for the first 20 shots of military surplus ammunition & $6.43 for the next 40 shots of handloaded ammunition using the same 20 military surplus cases. That comes to $17.35 for 60 shots. It averages to $.28 per cartridge or $5.78 per 20 cartridges.

Handgun ammunition is about the same.

Sportsman's Guide sells Remington .40 S&W Golden Saber ammunition loaded with a 165 grain BJHP (Brass Jacketed Hollow Point) bullet for $13.97 per 25 round box.

A bag of 100 Remington .40 caliber 165 grain Golden Saber BJHP's costs $12.50 which comes to $3.12 for 25 bullets.
A box of 100 Federal No. 100 Small Pistol primers costs $1.80 which equates to $.45 for 25 primers.
A bag of 50 Starline .40 S&W cases costs $8.15 which equals $4.07 for 25 cases.
A pound of Alliant Blue Dot powder costs $18.00 which comes to $.62 for 25 cartridges worth of powder. (Assuming 9.7 grains per cartridge)

That's $8.26 for the initial loading of 25 cartridges, which is $5.71 less than the Remington factory ammo. It equates to $.33 per cartridge for the initial loading.
But let's assume 4 additional loadings per case. Our expenses would total $4.19 in components for every additional 25 rounds we load. That averages to $.16 per additional loading or $4.24 per additional 25 cartridges in components cost.
$25.02 will net you 125 cartridges (using the same 25 cases) versus the $69.85 it would cost to buy 125 rounds of Remington Golden Saber ammunition. It averages out to $.20 per cartridge or $5.04 per 25 cartridges when you handload.

Sportsman's Guide also sells Remington UMC .40 S&W ammunition with 165 grain MC bullets for $8.97 per 50 round box. That's $1.07 cheaper than half our handloads, but our handloads use premium components, namely the Golden Saber BJHP bullet.

What would happen if we were to substitute our premium bullet for a more economical one? Would we see any difference in savings?

A box of 100 Ranier .40 caliber 165 grain copper plated RNFP (Round Nose Flat Point) bullets costs $8.73 at MidwayUSA. That equates to $4.36 for 50 bullets.

So using the components we quoted above, that comes to $14.65 for the initial loading of 50 cartridges. But the components for subsequent loadings of the same cases run $6.50 per 50 loads. Again assuming 5 reloads per case that comes to a total of $40.65 for 250 cartridges (using the same 50 cases). It averages to $.16 per cartridge or $8.13 per 50 cartridges.

Now if we extend usable case life to 10 total reloadings we'd have $73.15 invested in 500 cartridges (same 50 cases reloaded 10 times each). That would average to $.14 per cartridge or $7.31 per 50 cartridges, which is $1.66 cheaper than the Remington UMC ammunition.

If we opt to use cast lead bullets we save even more.

MidwayUSA has D&J .40 caliber 155 grain LRN (Lead Round Nose) Match Grade Cast bullets for $38.50 per 1,000 bullets. This comes to around $1.92 per 50 bullets.

With lead bullets &/or bullets of a different weight we'd alter our powder charge, but so we can keep it simple let's keep the powder charge constant, even though we should never do this when we handload.

For the first loading with the 155 grain D&J cast bullet it'd run us $11.53 for 50 rounds. Each subsequent loading would run $3.38 per 50 rounds. That's $0.10 per cartridge if we use the case 5 times for a total of 250 loadings. It averages to $5.00 for 50 rounds, $25.00 for 250 using the same 50 cases. It drops down to $0.08 per cartridge if we use the cases 10 times each & for 500 rounds. That would be $41.95 invested in 500 shots using the same 50 cases, or $4.00 per 50 rounds averaged. Either figure would be quite less than the $8.97 you'd pay for the 50 round box of Remington UMC ammunition or the $89.70 you'd pay for 500 rounds of Remington UMC ammunition.

But spending less than half the cost of factory economy priced or military surplus ammunition is uncommon except when factory loadings don't use cast lead bullets but your handloads do. Most of the time you can save a little by handloading using economy components, but there are times when even the economy components won't enable you to beat the factory economy or military surplus price.

While in the more popular cartridges with quality components you sometimes save little if any over the factory loaded economy or military surplus ammunition you can still realize savings when compared to the higher quality factory offerings. & the quality can be much better than the bargain or surplus ammo, even equal to the premium ammunition offered by manufacturers.

The real benefit of handloading is not so much being able to shoot the same amount for less than what you'd pay for factory loaded ammunition, but in being able to shoot high quality ammunition for less than what you'd spend on equivalent quality factory loaded ammunition.

& truth be told no one I know, including myself shoots the same amount of ammo for less. We usually end up shooting 2 to 3 times as much for about the same price we'd pay for equivalent factory ammunition. So while you actually, even in the best case scenario, don't see any more money in your pocket, you don't see any less in your pocket either. But you do see more rounds flying downrange. & shooting more for your money is what it's all about isn't it? Plus those additional rounds flying downrange will have more of a chance of fulfilling your purposes, be it a tighter group in the 10 ring, a deer that drops quicker or a burglar that is stopped in his tracks before he can harm you &/or your family. That brings us to one other thing handloaders have going for them: they can tailor their cartridge loadings to their firearm, whereas the factory loaded & military surplus ammunition is of necessity a "one size fits all" proposition. But more on that in another post.

So think about handloading. It might be worth it for you, too.

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