Whether you like varmint or predator hunting at long distances or prefer to plink away at targets several hundred yards away, it's important to make sure your rifle ammunition performs the way you need it to. If you love long-distance shooting, you're very intimately familiar with things like ballistics charts or wind speed and direction. But there's a big debate with long-range shooting: do you need to load your own ammo or can you use factory ammunition without issues? There are experienced individuals who swear by both sides, so here are some considerations you should keep in mind if you're pondering the same question.
Factory Ammo Options
Modern-day cartridges are pretty impressive and have a lot going for them when it comes to long-range shooting. Factory loads are significantly better today than they were 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. And for a company to be successful in the long-term, the brand literally depends on needing to be consistently good. For that reason, you can be reasonably sure that one box of factory loads will perform like another one, assuming all variables are the same. They're also very convenient – simply go to the store, pick up a couple of boxes, and head to the shooting range. This can translate into more range or hunting time, which is usually the goal anyway.
By choosing high-quality factory rounds, you will generally have more consistent and accurate groupings down-range. Brands like Hornady (Precision Hunter line) or Nosler (Match Grade or Trophy Grade Long Range lines) offer premium bullets and cartridge designs that will keep you on target at several hundred yards or further.
The downside (especially if you shoot long-range a lot) is that the price paid for factory loads can eat away at your shooting budget over time. This is even more dramatic when you switch to premium ammunition made for long-range shots or if you shoot an uncommon caliber. And while factory loads can be convenient, they can also tilt the other way. As we've seen during the recent ammo shortages, you can't always depend on a specific box of ammo even being available from a sporting goods store.
Load Your Own Ammo
Full disclosure: when you start to load your own ammo, you are opening Pandora's Box. Every time you learn something new, you might hit a new roadblock or discover that you need to learn something else, and it can be a long pursuit to master reloading ammo. While in the long run, you should be able to save money when you load your own ammo (factory loads add up quickly), people often forget about the opportunity cost or time investment it can take to learn and actually do the work to load your own ammo. Not to mention, it can also be expensive to start the reloading journey, simply because you need so many different pieces of reloading equipment and components. But once you dial in a specific load that works great for you and your rifle (your own “secret round recipe”), you can simply repeat it as often as you need, limiting ammo shortages only to your free time. With factory loads, even slight performance issues at 100 yards can turn into complete misses when you shoot at extreme distances. In those cases, handloading ammo could help you stay on target by making small adjustments or corrections to the loads, based on your rifle and shooting practice.
If you're not an experienced reloader, there are a few obvious risks involved with loading your own ammunition – especially for long-range hunting or shooting. The most obvious is that reloading rounds the wrong way could potentially be dangerous. You need to be patient and follow directions precisely, or you run the risk of an incident. Unless you're meticulous, you also may not be able to make consistent rounds that all perform the same way. If precision rifle shooting is your goal, consistent and precision ammo is an absolute must. To make dependable rounds – load after load – make sure you keep a detailed log of everything you do. Whether you scratch everything down on a notebook or prefer to keep an electronic document open and updated on your computer, keep track of everything – from measurements, sizes, weights, amounts, specific products/brands, and dates. When you field test the rounds, do the same thing for each cartridge. Only that way will you know why a certain round performed the way it did, which allows you to either repeat the process for good loads or avoid ever doing it again for poor-performing ones.
Tools for Success in Handloading
As with many things, having the right tools for the job will make everything much easier. The same goes for handloading ammunition. Beyond the basic reloading tools and gear (which we won't cover here), there are a few pieces of equipment you can use while field testing that will help you dial in your rounds to precision.
A good ballistics meter is critical for long-range shooting. Drawing on accurate atmospheric measurements (e.g., wind speed, direction, temperature, etc.), a ballistics meter will help pinpoint elevation and windage solutions to make sure you stay on target even at extreme ranges. The Kestrel Ballistics 5700 Weather Meter is the perfect tool to help you know where your bullet will hit before you even squeeze the trigger.
Additionally, a chronograph will help you predict the trajectory of your bullet and accurately estimate velocities as well. This is very useful when comparing loads for the best performance. Our MagnetoSpeed Sporter Ballistics Chronograph is a great budget option for most long-range shooters.
Load Your Own Ammo or Not?
So do you need to load your own ammo for long-range shooting? It's a tricky question to answer because everyone is so different. If you're a patient person who loves to learn, work with your hands, has plenty of free time, is very detail-oriented, and is obsessed with improving your groupings by a tenth of an inch at a time, you may be someone who could load your own ammo successfully. If spending time at the shooting range or out hunting is more important to you and you don't have some of those other traits mentioned above, there's nothing wrong with shooting factory loads either. As mentioned, you can be a successful long-range shooter or hunter using factory ammunition too. It all comes down to what you enjoy doing the most.