This is the question many a shooter has asked: factory ammo or handloads? You would think the answer would be simple, but in reality, it just kind of depends on a number of factors. The idea for today’s article is to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using factory ammunition or handloaded ammunition in your precision rifle. You have to understand, in the precision shooting world, finding quality ammunition that performs in your rifle, that’s found in a box, isn’t as easy as buying it off the shelf. Even the mystical Federal Gold Medal Match doesn’t shoot awesome in every rifle. So the question becomes, how do you maximize chances of making factory ammunition work and at what point do handloads make more sense?
Factory Ammo or Handloads
With factory ammunition, you have to take a number of factors into consideration. For starters, the manufacturer doesn’t want to get sued for blowing up your rifle. So they will test the ammunition and the pressure levels it produces in a few rifles. Then they’ll settle on a recipe that produces the desired pressure and velocity in their test rifle. The key to making factory ammunition selection work for you is to try to pick ammunition that was loaded and tested in a similar rifle. So if Hornady loads their 6.5 Creedmoor 120 AMAX factory ammunition in a rifle with a 24″ barrel and a 1:8 twist, that’s the model to match.
If you were planning to buy a rifle, build one, have one rebarreled at a gunsmith, I’d try to make my rifle specifications match the test rifle’s specs as closely as possible. Try to pick the same barrel length and twist. Barrel length is a huge influence on muzzle velocity. So if I look at that box of Hornady and it says the 120 AMAX should give me 2900fps out of a 24″ barrel, then what happens when I fire it out of an 18″ barrel? For one, the muzzle velocity is going to be lower, that may or may not be a deal breaker.
The next change you’re likely to see, is in regards to the timing of the bullet and it’s exit of the muzzle. When the rifle is fired, the barrel will vibrate similar to a tuning fork. You can’t see it with the naked eye, and doesn’t last long, and it’s the subject of much myth and lore. However, it stands to reason that has the vibration and pressure move down the barrel towards the muzzle, that affects barrel harmonics. This is also the reason you hear everybody say you want a free floating barrel. If anything touches the barrel forward of the receiver, especially if the contact isn’t consistent, it will affect barrel harmonics. The idea here is to get the bullet timed so it exits the muzzle at the point in time where the muzzle is vibrating and whipping around the least.
In my opinion, handloads will always be the king of accuracy. We talked a bit about barrel harmonics and it’s much easier to get your rifle, any rifle, shooting well when you can change the recipe of the ammunition. If the accuracy isn’t there at one muzzle velocity, you can alter the load and see if getting the bullet out of the barrel a bit sooner or later helps. With factory ammunition, you’re stuck with what the factory loads for you. This does NOT mean you can’t get some badass accuracy out of factory ammunition. You absolutely can, but the trick is finding ammunition that works well in your rifle. This is why you’ll hear people say try multiple brands of factory ammunition. Try to find ammunition that “your rifle likes to be fed.” Different ways of saying find ammunition that meshes well with how your rifle handles that bullet, powder, primer, and pressure combination.
Handloads make it possible for your to customize more aspects of your rifle. Since you can tailor your load to the rifle, anything is possible. You can use whatever barrel length you want and still achieve maximum ballistic performance. The other advantage on the handload side of the tracks is pressure and velocity. Every rifle is different and a manufacturer needs their ammunition to be safe in every rifle. That imposes a bit of a limitation on factory ammunition. The ammo must be produced at a pressure, and thus a velocity, that works in every gun. By the nature of that concept, factory ammunition tends to line up a little lower in the performance metrics.
Handloaded ammuntion, in the same gun and chamber, can be loaded to provide maximum safe performance. Maybe your barrel doesn’t show any signs of pressure even moving the same bullet 50fps or even 100fps faster than factory ammunition. That might not sound like much, but depending on the distances involved and the type of shooting, it can be huge! This is why you typically see most people who are at the top of their game in the shooting sports using handloaded ammunition. It’s custom loaded for that rifle and to achieve maximum performance! When guys at the top of the pack at a rifle match are separated by only a couple points, a little extra muzzle velocity, or a bullet with a higher ballistic coefficient can be the difference between a win or finishing farther back in the pack.
The one pitfall of handloaded ammunition is safety. You are in control of how the ammunition is loaded, how much pressure it produces, and in turn how dangerous it can be. Factory ammunition can occasionally be an issue as well, but with all the quality control protocols in place it’s very very safe ammunition to use. If you get into handloading, it’s a lot of fun. It’s truly a hobby in and of itself. It’s also very rewarding to put together a handload that really performs the way you want it to.
Handloading can be very safe as well, provided that you know what you’re doing. How do you learn? Read manuals, start slow and low, and work your way up. The people that get hurt with handloads try to do too much too soon, or they use ammunition tailored for one rifle in another. Think of it like cooking, every rifle likes something a little different just like every person likes their dinner a different way. When you work up a good load, write it down, and use it in that rifle only…and you won’t have a problem! If you have questions or something to add guys, please do so below in the comments! We like to hear from you!