Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hunters turning to manual loading for several reasons,but saving money is No. 1

By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

 For six years, concerns about the possibility of restrictive gun legislation has sparked unprecedented spikes in gun and ammunition sales. State wildlife agencies, partially funded through Pittman--Robertson excise taxes, are still raking it in.

But high demand for some popular ammunition caused huge manufacturer backlogs that led to sharp increases in wholesale and retail prices, and left some shelves empty. The crunch has begun to ease, but the problem remains.

Some shooters have turned to hand loading. In a recent poll of recreational shooters and hunters, 85 percent of those who reload said the primary reason was "to save money."
"With shortages of some types of ammunition in recent years, as well as the corresponding higher costs that arise when demand increases, it is no surprise cost savings are the primary reason many shooters choose to reload," said Rob Southwick, president of Southwick Associates, a Florida-based polling firm that gathers data for the outdoor equipment industry, government agencies and conservation organizations.

But there's more to the story than money.

"Marketing efforts by smart reloading companies will acknowledge the other reasons why people reload," said Southwick, in a written statement.

The poll, which permitted multiple answers, found that 67 percent of reloaders said the main reason they pack their own shells was to improve accuracy. Forty-four percent said they reload to get calibers or loads that are hard to find in stores. Thirty percent do it to reduce waste, and 15 percent cited other unspecified reasons.

In Pittsburgh, hand loaders generally conform with the national trend, said Bill Schiff, who services reloading customers at Braverman Arms in Wilkinsburg.

But despite the recent interest in the cost benefits of reloading, Schiff said overall participation is trending down and young shooters are turning off.

"I don't think the interest is as high as it once was," said Schiff, who's been reloading for 40 years. "The core group of reloaders are mostly older guys who don't do it to save money. They do it to get more accuracy than they can get from a factory load. I do it because I want to put five rounds in a circle the size of a dime at 100 yards. It's about precision."

Rifle deer hunters who night fire a few rounds a year at a sighting target -- and might get a shot at a kill zone the size of a pie pan -- are less likely to see cost benefits in reloading. It makes more sense for rifle hunters who need better accuracy on extreme shots, perhaps at mountain goats, big horn sheep and other trophy game.

"Shotgun reloaders are doing it to save money, but now you can get 100-round boxes [of shotgun shells] and it doesn't really pay," Schiff said. "Unless your gun shoots ammunition that's still hard to find, it may not be worth it."

Weekend target shooters -- Schiff calls them "plinkers" -- generally don't reload, despite the quantity of shots and high cost or unavailability of rounds. The most common caliber, .22 Long Rifle, remains among the most difficult ammunition for retailers to keep in stock, but rim-fire cartridges aren't reloadable. High performance military-style semi-automatics can be expensive to shoot -- some calibers are priced from $1 to $6 per round or more, Schiff said -- but most plinkers don't reload.

"It's more casual shooting," he said. "It's about getting out and shooting, not necessarily the quality of the shot."

But in a complex science of powder granule geometries, burn rates, seating depths and ballistic coefficients, assembly line mass production of ammunition is too imprecise for the needs of competitive shooters and bench-rest perfectionists.

"I enjoy going for accuracy," said 30-year veteran reloader Edward Olsakovsky of Pitcairn, better known in the reloading community as Eddie O. "I prefer to strive for that tight grouping -- to put 10 shots in the same hole. To do precision work with cases and bullets and powder charges and seating depths until you can hit a quarter at 200 yards."

High-end hand loading can be expensive, but Olsakovsky said a functional starter kit can be had for less than $400. Schiff said some powders are still hard to find.

Ultimately, despite the recent spike in interest, Schiff suggested that hand loading is not being passed on to the next generation.

"Truth is, what I see at the store every day, young people want to buy a new gun every year for hunting, they want a scope on it and they want it to cost under $300," Schiff said.

"It's rare that I see a reloading customer in his 20s."

John Hayes:

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