When I was teen, a neighbor living on the “doctors and stockbrokers” end of the street owned a 1962 Ferrari 250 GT coupe -very exotic! We young gearheads swooned every time he drove past, the 3-liter, 12-cylinder engine intoning its seductive growl.
One kid asked the owner how fast it would go. The man answered, “About 150,” causing a lot of “oohs and aahs.” But he quickly added, “Hey, just because it will go 150 doesn’t mean I have to drive it that fast!”
So it is with cartridges and the versatility that we find in handloading. Like many reloaders, I started to be able to shoot more on a limited income. Soon I found the versatility: I could assemble special loads that produced less velocity.
In most rifle cartridges, it’s not simply a matter of loading less of the same powder you use for full-power loads. It often takes a change in propellant, and not all propellants are usable in this exercise.
My interest in reduced rifle loads started in the early 1970s when two things happened: 1.) DuPont (now IMR Powders) reintroduced SR 4759, a bulky smokeless propellant originally used in cartridges designed for blackpowder; and 2.) Speer released data for SR 4759 reduced-load rifle cartridges using the firm’s FMJ bullets. The 2,000 fps velocities they achieved reduced meat damage when using a centerfire rifle to pop grouse or squirrels for the camp pot.
So why would we want to reduce loads other than for filling the camp pot? You may wish to tame a more powerful cartridge to avoid recoil or to shoot smaller game. I helped a friend develop some whitetail loads that pushed a 235-grain bullet at a comfortable 2,600 fps. He’s taken a lot of deer without destroying much meat-or his shoulder.
To me the most compelling reason is in training new shooters with a centerfire rifle. New shooters who are used to the nearly imperceptible recoil of a rimfire can have a dread of the deer rifle. By reducing loads, you can start the trainee with loads that are very comfortable and work your way up to loads capable of taking game.
I helped another friend with a “garage custom” .30-06 rifle he’d built. His daughter announced she wanted to go deer hunting with him, but had seen how the rifle pushed her dad about. However, Dad couldn’t afford a separate rifle for her. Starting with 130-grain cast bullets at 1,200 fps, we worked up in increments, testing her recoil tolerance at each step, until we got to 150-grain jacketed spitzers at about 2,400 fps. Anything over that was uncomfortable to her. But she now had a hunting load that slightly bettered .30-30 factory loads -perfect for the East Texas whitetail she’d be hunting.
She had complete confidence in the rifle and her ability to use it. Her dad became a handloader after that, too!
Classes of Reduced Loads.
I see two classes of reduced loads: those with lighter bullets producing around 2,000 fps for pot-shooting and those in the range of 2,200 to 2,600 fps with heavier bullets that can be used on game animals but with reduced recoil.
The pot-shooting loads are easily created With IMR’s SR 4759 -just be sure not to substitute the similarly named SR 4576, a shotgun powder that will spike pressures if accidentally loaded using SR 4759 data. A newer propellant that proved exceptional for these loads is Accurate 5744. We started using it in the Speer Reloading Manual #14; its behavior in low-pressure regimes is outstanding. For example, in the .223 Remington with a 40-grain bullet, 11.0 grains of 5744 produced a load that was only 100 fps over typical 40-grain .22 WMR velocities with the consistency of full-power loads.
I may be wrong, but I believe that Speer manuals are the only source of data for these pot-shooting loads with jacketed bullets at 1,900 to 2,200 fps using SR 4759 and Accurate 5744.
For reduced-recoil hunting loads, Hodgdon’s excellent Internet load database has the best selection. Those loads use H4895 exclusively, and there are loads suitable for deer-sized game with many popular cartridges. H4895 is fast enough to keep pressures in their “happy spot” yet allow 200 to 500 fps reductions in velocity, perfect for those sensitive to recoil.
Is every case suitable for such loads? No. The really big 3.6-inch cases of .30 caliber and under are not for the 2,000 fps class and even show some ballistic inconsistency with start loads for lighter bullets when loaded with typical “full-performance” propellant. However, most cartridges with a 3.3-inch case (.30-06 length) can be loaded with pot-shooting loads.
The various Short Magnums shine in this area. They are less sensitive to propellant position. Surprisingly, heavier bullets may improve efficiency. They offer more initial resistance and that creates higher yet safe pressures for the initial stage of the burn.
There have been articles published about going with slow-burning propellants to get reduced velocity recoil loads. This method uses propellants otherwise too slow for the case. If you fill a .308 Winchester case with 4831, you run out of room before you run out of pressure, keeping velocities modest. The advantage is 100 percent case utilization; the downside is that not all slow propellants will put up with this and become highly inefficient, belching out a lot of unburned propellant. Some low-recoil factory ammo uses slow-burners, but the factories have access to special propellants the handloader cannot buy. The factories also have excellent ballistics labs to work out all the issues before the load is approved for release.
Whether you are training a recoil-shy student, needing light loads to collect small-game meat for the camp stew, or simply don’t want to get clobbered during recreational shooting, reduced rifle loads are the way to go. For the most part, these are the exclusive realm of the handloading hobbyist and one of the many advantages to “rolling your own.”