Handloading dangerous game ammo is not inherently different than loading for other game species, the stakes are just higher, which means reliability is crucial.
I’ve been told I’m crazy, near suicidal, for using handloaded ammunition on hunts for dangerous game. “You can’t rely on that stuff! You’re going to get killed.” Nonsense; nothing could be further from the truth. Just as you trust yourself to pull the trigger on any dangerous game animal, because you’ve honed your skills as a shooter, you must trust your skills as a reloader to produce dangerous game ammo that is as reliable, if not more reliable, than the factory stuff.
Not that you’d ever skimp on your reloading procedure, irrespective of intended purpose, dangerous game ammo requires a special level of detail. What we’re looking for here is utter reliability and uniformity, so the last thing you’ll be concerned with when the excrement hits the oscillator is your ammunition. I like to be ultra-critical of the condition of brass if I’m using once- or twice-fired, checking diligently for issues with the rim and/or cracks in the neck area. If you’re using new brass, and there’s no reason not to, I like to make sure all of it is trimmed to a uniform length, and that all the flash holes are touched up.
The loading procedure is really no different than any other ammunition, except that you may want to consider some of the field conditions on a dangerous game hunt. The very recoil of the big-bore rifles can pose an issue for the ammunition sitting in the magazine, or in the left barrel of a double. I like using the Redding seating dies, especially for the straight-walled cartridges like the .458 Winchester Magnum and .458 Lott, as the die contains a built-in crimp ring, to keep those bullets where you put them. I usually don’t crimp dangerous game cartridges that have a bottleneck, as even the .375 H&H and .416 Remington have plenty of neck tension, but there’s nothing wrong with using a crimp if you so choose.
The heat and/or cold of a dangerous game hunt can affect pressures generated by your ammunition, and we should do whatever we can to keep pressures and velocities as uniform as possible. Looking at older cartridges, like the .416 Rigby, you’ll see a voluminous case, designed to keep pressures as low as possible. The original propellant for the Rigby —and several other classic big-bore safari cartridges—was Cordite; one of the original problems with it was a definite sensitivity to temperature fluctuation.
With a big-bore rifle in hand, you may find yourself hunting in freezing temperatures glassing for grizzly, or on the tracks of elephant in 100˚F-plus heat. I like to use a powder that will minimize the effects of temperature extremes, like Hogdgon’s Extreme powders and the IMR Enduron line, both of which maintain consistent velocities and pressures across a wide range of temperatures. Within each of these product lines is a powder that will serve well in the large cases.
The .375 H&H is well-served by IMR4166, VARGET and H4350 — I prefer the highest load density — and the .450/400 3-in. NE worked very well with 400-grain Peregrine bullets over H4831SC. My .404 Jeffery also likes H4350, driving the 400-grain slugs to 2,275 fps, with groups hanging right around 1 MOA. These loads have been used in temperatures up to 110˚, with no extraction issues whatsoever. H322, one of Hodgdon’s Extreme spherical powders, has made loading the .458 Winchester Magnum much easier for me, having a 2 ½-inch case, which some feel compromises performance, especially with the heavier 500-grain bullets.
When my Dad took a .458 Win. to Tanzania, H322 and 500-grain A-Square Dead Tough bullets made a great combination, giving an even 2,150 fps on the chronograph, and more-than-acceptable accuracy. H4831 is the powder of choice for my 6.5-284 Norma and .300 Winchester Magnum, and it works very well in the huge cases of the .505 Gibbs Magnum and .500 Nitro Express.
Just like any factory ammunition I intend to take into a dangerous situation, I make sure all of the assembled cartridges I’m taking on safari will chamber and extract in the rifle I’m bringing, as a feeding problem in the heat of the moment is never a good thing. Make sure you actually practice chambering rounds, as this is the only surefire way to find out what you’re working with in a critical moment.
Using a Redding full-length resizing die will guarantee your ammo will feed like a dream. I do my best to adhere to the SAAMI specified C.O.L., so I know that the cartridges will function properly through the magazine. Rather than experiment with cartridge lengths longer than SAAMI-standard, I tinker up and down with the powder charge weight to obtain the accuracy I’m after.
I’ve found with some of the big-bore cartridges like the .375, .416s and .404 that I prefer accuracy over the idea of wringing every last drop of velocity out of the case. I’ve seen the .375 H&H operate just as well at 2,400 fps as it does at 2,550 fps, and the .404, which made its reputation pushing a 400-grain bullet at 2,150 fps, can easily achieve 2,300 fps and superb accuracy with modern powders. But when it comes to the lineup of Nitro Express cartridges, most of which operate at a muzzle velocity of 2,050 to 2,150 fps, you really don’t want to dip much below those figures. It’ll take a bit more experimentation, especially if the rifle is a double, to achieve a balance of velocity and accuracy. That .458 Win. Mag. caught a bad rap because the original ammunition was running at 1,900 fps or so instead of the advertized 2,150 fps, and penetration suffered. Keep the velocities as close as possible to the factory levels to ensure good field performance from the Nitro Express cartridges.
If, like me, you enjoy the performance of the monometal bullets, you must realize that they will take up a bit more room in the case than their cup-and-core counterparts. Bearing surfaces change, as do pressure curves, so you’ll need to take a good look at the manufacturer’s load data to ensure you stay within safe limits, and that you maintain good velocities.
To touch upon the initial point — that it’s foolish to hunt dangerous game with handloads — I feel that my own ammunition has a level of attention that no factory can duplicate, and I’ve used my own stuff to take bears, Cape buffalo and elephant. Give it your best, as you would with your shooting skills, and you’ll have one more point of pride as a hunter.
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from the April 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
Authored by ballistics expert and worldwide hunter Philip Massaro, the Big Book of Ballistics covers the minutia of interior, exterior and terminal ballistics in plain, graspable language. From ignition in the cartridge to dynamics down the bore to the bullet blasting out a target, Massaro unravels exactly what happens after the trigger is pulled. Get Your Copy Now