I regularly get asked by friends, family, and readers for rifle and cartridge recommendations. The answer depends on many factors, but it’s happened so frequently that it caused me to create a structured process to help someone narrow it down to a few great options.
We tend to focus on the rifle first, but many under-estimate the role ammunition plays in consistent hits at long-range. So I start by picking the ammo first. Recently, I saw a video featuring Army Sniper Jim Gilliland, and he suggests the same approach.
Most precision rifle shooters handload their own ammo. Mic McPherson tells us “Contrary to common usage, the terms handloading and reloading are not interchangeable.” I couldn’t agree more. They look similar on the surface, but have very different goals:
- Goal of Reloading: Produce functional ammunition at a low cost
- Goal of Handloading: Produce the very best ammunition possible (better than what is otherwise available in factory-load), with each component carefully selected, examined, and refined to be of the highest quality, and then meticulously loaded for extreme consistency. The loads are often tuned for a specific rifle, incorporate a bullet better suited to an intended application (which may not even be available in factory-load), and may provide increased muzzle velocity (and therefore improved ballistics). The number one priority that overshadows all other factors is simple: precision.
Handloading used to be the only way to get the consistency required for reliable hits at long-range. However, over the past 10 years, the quality of factory ammo has increased dramatically. Today you can buy factory match-grade ammo off the shelf that is more consistent than the ammo produced by the average reloader. In fact, some factory match ammo is so good that it’s challenging for a seasoned handloader to improve on. Manufacturing tolerances are much tighter than they used to be, and improving every day. The number of rifles capable of shooting sub-MOA groups is growing at an unprecedented rate, meaning the customer base for match-grade ammo is growing too. It’s simply a different world than we used to live in … which means we have more options.
When selecting a cartridge, here’s the big question I always start with:
- Are you planning to buy factory match ammo or meticulously handload? Even if you plan to handload, do you want the option to buy factory match-grade ammo off the shelf? Are you prepared to put in the time and monetary investment it takes to handload precision ammo?
This is no longer an obvious choice. In this post, we’ll look at the cost of each option.
The Real Cost To Handload
Many feel like handloading is clearly cheaper, and if you solely look at the cost of components … it usually is. Most “Reloading Cost Calculators” look at it that way. But there are significant hidden costs in handloading most people ignore. I did a quick inventory of the equipment I use handloading, and that price tag is pretty big. I also timed how long it took me to do all of the different operations involved in making match-grade handloads, and multiplied that by the average hourly wage … and that cost is significant too.
Cost of Equipment & Consumables
Let’s take an honest look at equipment costs. I own over $1,500 in general reloading equipment (pictured below). That may sound high to some and low to others. To put that in perspective, I know guys whose powder scales alone cost more than that! I originally started many moons ago with a $150 RCBS Partner Press Kit, and just upgraded and added tools over the years. With this type of slow, organic growth, we may not realize how much we’ve invested. I’m not claiming all of these tools are essential, but many are. Based on the guys I know doing this, I’d expect my equipment roughly represents the average precision rifle handloader.
Then for each cartridge, I typically have at least $350 in competition-grade dies and other cartridge or caliber specific equipment. The majority of the cost is from the sizing and seating dies, which are critical to producing consistent ammo.
In addition to all that, I typically have over $100 in consumables on-hand related to handloading.
Cost of Reloading Components
Then I calculated how much 1,000 rounds of match-grade components would cost, which came out to $840. This is based on current competitive market pricing for things like match-grade Berger bullets, Hodgdon powder, Lapua or Norma brass, and Federal match primers. These costs were based on popular mid-size 6mm and 6.5mm cartridges, like the 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5×47 Lapua, and 6XC. This puts the direct material costs for 1,000 rounds of ammo at $0.84 per round. It does assume that you will reuse brass cases multiple times.
Cost of Time Spent Handloading
Then I carefully totaled up the amount of time it’d take to handload 1,000 rounds of match-grade ammo. This doesn’t include the time cases spent in a tumbler or time to change out tools, but simply the time actively performing various operations in brass prep (resizing, trimming, etc.) and loading a round. I actually timed how long it took me to perform each operation. I’ve been reloading for several years, and have become efficient at these operations. While some may be faster, these estimates represent a relatively aggressive pace. The total time to perform all the brass prep and loading for 1,000 rounds was estimated to be 1,540 minutes (25.6 hours).
I looked up what the average hourly wage was in the U.S., and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics that sits at $22.71 (as of May 2014). So if you apply that hourly rate, it cost me $583 in time to load 1,000 rounds of ammo.
Now some people may throw a flag on the play here. But, do you not value your time? Is 25 hours of your time worthless? What would happen if you spent those hours practicing at the range instead of tinkering with loading equipment? Would you be a better shooter?
I’m well aware of how expensive long-range rifles can become. And I understand that some shooters simply don’t have the discretionary income to be able to participate, unless they throw in some sweat equity by loading their own ammo. That’s a reasonable thing to do, and often a good decision. But, that doesn’t mean your time is free. By doing that, you’re making a conscious decision to trim some monetary costs in exchange for your time. I’m simply suggesting it is shortsighted to overlook the cost of our time when evaluating “how much money reloading saves.”
Here is a summary of the costs:
|Components for 1000 Rounds||$840|
|Time To Load 1000 Rounds @ $22.71/hr||$583|
|Total Cost To Load 1,000 Rounds From Scratch||$3,373|
This puts the average cost per round of our handloads at $3.37. Surprise anyone? Handloading might not save as much money as we originally thought!
Okay, Let’s Get Real (or Optimistic)
The cost above assumes you’re starting from scratch, and some of us have already made the investment in reloading equipment … so for the sake of argument, let’s completely ignore general equipment costs. Let’s act like you already have great equipment, but you’re thinking about building a rifle on a new cartridge and are wondering whether you should handload or buy factory match-grade ammo. You’re also planning to really shoot it, so the economies of scale are in your favor. We’ll even assume you can keep up with your brass and get a lot of life out of it by reusing each case about 12 times. And maybe you don’t value your time that much, so we’ll change the cost of your time to be calculated at minimum wage ($7.25). Here are those revised costs spread over 3,000 rounds of ammo:
|Components for 3,000 Rounds||$2,520|
|Time To Load 3,000 Rounds @ $7.25/hr||$560|
|Optimistic Total Cost To Load 3,000 Rounds||$3,610|
Based on these revised (arguably optimistic) calculations you could handload 3,000 rounds for $3,610, which averages out to $1.20 per round.
Even if you feel like some of those figures are bloated or you have a hookup to get components at a lower cost … it likely wouldn’t affect it as much as you think. I’d challenge you to put pencil to paper and do an honest assessment. I bet you come out close to $1.20/rd. Oh, and by the way … none of these numbers include tax, shipping, or hazardous materials fees. It also assumes you’re buying Hodgdon powder at $30/pound, which is optimistic these days.
The Cost of Factory Match-Grade Ammo
Did you know you can buy factory loaded match-grade ammo for $1.20 per round … or even less?! At the time this was published, I was able to find a 20 round box of Hornady 6.5 Creedmoor 140gr A-Max Match Ammo in stock from a reputable dealer for $23.45. That’s just $1.17/rd! I was able to find a 200 round case of that same ammo in stock for $1.14/rd! You can find the same Hornady 6.5 Creedmoor match ammo loaded with the 120gr A-Max for $1.09/rd. In case you want options, Winchester also offers 6.5 Creedmoor 140gr match ammo for $1.17/rd. (Search current ammo prices on AmmoSeek.com)
I was also able to find the very popular Federal 308 Gold Medal Match 168gr MatchKing ammo in stock for $1.10/rd. HSM offers match-grade ammo for the 308 Win loaded with the 155gr A-Max bullet for $0.95/rd. But, 308 is a common cartridge, so you’ll usually find 308 ammo lower than most. Of course, you can also find 223 Rem match ammo for well under $1/rd as well.
Hornady match ammo for the 6.8mm SPC was just $0.83/rd. I also found HSM match-grade ammo for the 30-06 at $1.25/rd, or Fiocchi 30-06 match ammo for $1.30/rd. Lapua’s match grade ammo for the 6.5x55mm Swede was $1.35/rd. I even found a 20 round box of the renown and highly sought after Black Hills Gold match ammo for the 243 Win in stock for $1.42/rd, which still isn’t much off our optimistic cost to handload 3,000 rounds!
And one more thing to keep in mind … you can also sell the once-fired brass from your match ammo. At least one I mentioned used Lapua brass, so you may even be able to recoup up to 1/2 of the ammo cost by selling that once-fired brass.
You can’t find reasonable factory match ammo for every cartridge … which is exactly why you should start by selecting the ammo you’d like to use. If you’re handloading, this isn’t as critical. But many shooters build a rifle without even thinking about what ammo they’ll use, and it just isn’t a decision that is easy to undo once the rifle is in your hands.
Now we can start to understand how the 6.5 Creedmoor quickly became such a sweetheart in the precision rifle community! Not only does it provide improved ballistics over the legendary 308 Win, but you can buy good, match-grade ammo for less than what it costs to handload!
While the information presented here may be a news to some, we probably should have seen this coming. Doesn’t it make sense that at some point a machine would be more efficient at such a well-defined and repetitive process? We simply had to wait for manufacturing tolerances to catch up with us. It’s the dawn of a new age in the precision rifle world. Now we just have to worry about the machines turning on us. 😉
Understand, I’m a die-hard, card-carrying, OCD handloader … but this hard to ignore. My next rifle build will likely be a 6.5 Creedmoor, just so I can exchange my handloading time for more range time. I’m starting to think of this in terms of return on investment. I have a finite amount of time to invest. Would I see more of a return (i.e. improved performance) if I spent that time in my shop attempting to achieve a marginal advantage over the factory-loaded match ammo by handloading, or would I see a larger return if I spent that same amount of time practicing at the range? At least for me, there is still a lot of room for improvement and value to be gained with more practice. At some point, it’s possible you could reach a point of diminishing returns and suddenly spending the time carefully perfecting loads would help get more rounds on target than spending another afternoon at the range … I’m just not there yet. I may not be alone on that.