By the time you read these lines, big-game hunting seasons will be over in much of the continent. During those cold days before the turkeys start to gobble and strut, there are usually only two things on the menu to keep us off the couch: predator hunting and handloading. Though both are ideal wintertime activities, many view them as being mutually exclusive. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Predator hunting can be the ultimate test of a rifleman’s skill and provides an ideal scenario for which to handload.
By predators, we mean anything from a fox, coyote, or bobcat, up to and including, where it is legal prey, wolf. Mountain lions and bears are certainly predators, but their size puts them in the big-game category. Appropriate rounds for common predators can range from small rimfires to medium-caliber centerfire rifle cartridges, depending on the species, terrain, and hunting method. Outside of the rimfires, though, every predator cartridge can benefit from careful handloads.
Not only is handloading a great way to learn about your rifle, but also it offers endless possibilities in terms of bullet choice, velocity levels, and accuracy.
Predator hunters, particularly those looking to collect furs, need to use bullets that cause minimal hide damage. There are two schools of thought regarding this. One is to use rapidly expanding bullets that will do lots of internal damage but will not exit. The other is to use non-expanding bullets that will penetrate clean through the animal without causing excessive trauma to the hide. If you fall into the second category and want to use full metal jacket bullets for predator hunting, you are more or less restricted to the .223 in terms of factory ammunition. The .223 is a wonderful cartridge that is ideal for many predator hunting scenarios, but it isn’t necessarily a do-it-all. If hunters using, say, a .22-250 want to use FMJ bullets, handloading is the only option.
Accuracy is another great reason to handload. Factory ammunition is very, very good these days, but it is still the rare factory load that is capable of better accuracy than a precisely tuned handloaded cartridge. Just as custom rifles can be built to the hunter’s “likes,” loads can be custom tailored to the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of a rifle. Handloading allows for variations in bullet seating depth, powder choice and charge level, bullets, and primers. Individually, any of these factors can increase accuracy potential, but collectively, they can make a huge difference.
If you’re hunting with a wildcat cartridge or rifle with an unusual twist rate, handloading is likely your only option. A few years ago I built a long-range pred-ator rifle chambered in .22-6mm Ackley Improved. This cartridge is capable of pushing 75-grain bullets at nearly 4,000 feet per second and all but defies the laws of physics. It’s a great, if impractical, cartridge that requires necking down a 6mm Remington case before fire-forming it to the 40-degree shoulder dimension.
To play this game, handloading is an absolute must.
Finally, if you’re shooting a high volume of ammunition in a given caliber, handloading can and will save you some money—though, if you have as much money invested in equipment as I do, you’ll likely never make the math work.
There is nothing about handloading for predators that demands specialized equipment. Any reloading press or even hand die set will work for the task, but some will get things done with more speed or precision than others. If you’re handloading only for predators, especially for one single cartridge, there’s no need to fill your workshop with equipment. A set of L.E. Wilson dies and a small digital or balance scale are the only basic tools you’ll need. Everything you need to get started could fit inside a shoe box.
For multiple calibers, a bench-mounted press is the way to go. These products range from single-stage designs to fully automated progressive systems. I have four presses on my bench: a Redding Big Boss II, an MEC Marksman featuring a floating shellholder, a Dillion 550B I’ve had since high school, and a Hornady Ammo Plant. The single-stage presses are ideal for precision small-volume loading while the progressives are the only way to go when hundreds of rounds must be loaded. One word of caution on progressive presses: I have found that many extruded or “stick” powders (Varget, H4350, etc.) do not always meter well through the automated powder measures. Ball powders work well, making cartridges such as the .223 Remington ideal for progressive reloading.
Reloading manuals from reputable manufacturers are a great step-by-step resource for learning how to handload, and the NRA offers a Basic Metallic Reloading Course for beginners. The basics are as follows. The empty case must be resized and the spent primer removed, two operations that are usually accomplished by a single die. The cases are then cleaned-up, possibly trimmed and reprimed. Powder is then added and bullets are seated before the cartridge is inspected. This is a gross over-simplification of the process, but it gives you the basic idea of what we are talking about. Although one can get very deeply into the weeds as a handloader, the process itself is not inherently complicated.
Cartridges for Predators
The size and habitat of North American predators can vary greatly and so do the appropriate cartridges for targeting those animals. Foxes can be tiny creatures, and only the smallest of centerfire cartridges will take them without excessive damage. For most situations, a .17 Remington, .204 Ruger, .222, or .223 is ideal. My experience with them is that although they are small, they can be incredibly tough. So shot placement shouldn’t be overlooked.
Bobcats can grow much larger than foxes, but they aren’t particularly hard to kill. Any of the mentioned cartridges will work fine on a bobcat, but more velocity will simplify one’s life in open country.
For most of us, coyotes are the most abundant predators and the one we are most-likely to be after. According to the National Trappers Association, viable populations exist in at least 46 states, and they are potentially in every state except Hawaii. Western coyotes weigh between 25 and 45 pounds while larger Eastern coyotes can weigh as much as 60 pounds. I have seen some that rival the size of a German Shepard, likely due to cross-breeding with domestic dogs.
There’s a big difference between a 25-pound animal and a dog that weighs 60 or more pounds. Likewise, Western coyotes may be taken at extreme ranges while those of us in the East are more likely to have a shorter shot on our hands. There are exceptions to every rule, though, and I’ve had shot opportunities on Eastern coyotes that exceeded 700 yards. Caliber choice for coyotes is highly dependent on the distance at which shot opportunities might present themselves. At close range, just about any cartridge will work, but as distances expand, more velocity will help flatten the trajectory curve and decrease wind drift.
My personal choice for 90 percent of coyote hunting is a suppressed AR in .223, though I’ve used much larger calibers on dogs when I’ve encountered them while hunting deer and other big-game animals. A friend of mine who fed himself on coyote pelts when fur prices were high did it all with a bolt-action .22-250.
With weights of up to 120 pounds, wolves are an entirely different ballgame. Besides being larger and stronger animals than other North American predators, they are also far more rare to encounter. If you miss an opportunity at a coyote, another may be along shortly, but that’s not going to be the case with a wolf.
I’ll claim a bit of ignorance here. Although I’ve hunted deer and elk in areas where wolves were a possibility, the only time I’ve ever hunted with a wolf tag in my pocket was during an Alaskan sheep hunt. I was carrying a Kimber Montana in .308 Winchester and wouldn’t have hesitated to use it on a wolf had I encountered one. For a dedicated wolf rifle, something like the 6mm Creedmoor might be ideal.
Bolt Action vs. Semiauto
More and more hunters, predator hunters in particular, are heading afield with semiautomatic rifles. The myth about lack of semiauto accuracy has been busted, and there’s little doubt that a good one can hang with any bolt action in practical terms. Semiautos do have some peculiarities when it comes to handloading, though, and can require special care in order to feed properly. There are two main factors to consider when handloading for a semiauto: cartridge overall length and resizing the case sufficiently.
One of the benefits of handloading is the ability to seat bullets close to the lands of the rifling, which often improves accuracy, sometimes dramatically. Depending on the geometry of your rifle’s throat and the length of the magazine, getting close to the lands can easily lead to a cartridge that is too long. On a bolt action, the simple answer is to single load cartridges, but that is not a practical option on a semiauto. Autoloaders will always be restricted by their magazine length in order to feed cases reliably, and bullets should be seated accordingly.
Another factor that will ensure that your semiauto feeds reliably is the amount of resizing done on the case during the reloading process. On a bolt action, cases can be resized by bumping back the shoulder as little as 0.001–0.003 inch; if the bolt will close on a resized case, all is well. Semiautos lack the camming power of a bolt action and require additional clearance to seat a cartridge in the chamber. Long-range competitor and custom gunmaker John Whidden recommends at least 0.004–0.005 inch of shoulder bump on a semiauto, and he markets a device intended to make this measurement, as does Hornady. The simplest way to load for a repeating rifle, though, is to simply set the die to fully resize the case.
Word of Caution
Powders can be temperature sensitive, and almost any powder charge will show an increase in pressure (and velocity) as the thermometer rises in the summer. This matters for two reasons: a load developed during the warm months might show a relevant reduction in velocity in the dead of winter, and a load that is safe in cold temperatures could cause a dangerous pressure spike when it’s hot. For this reason, I do most load development during the summer and simply check the velocity over a chronograph when it gets cold to note any changes. Handloading isn’t inherently dangerous, but a dose of common sense is helpful. Trying to squeeze the last few fps of speed out of a cartridge is never worth the risk and is where handloaders are most likely to get themselves into trouble.
I’ve been a handloader since my teens, and it is one of the things that has taught me a great deal about how guns really work. In today’s day and age, there is no requirement to hand-load in order to be a well-armed predator hunter, but that doesn’t mean that handloading doesn’t have value. Properly tuned handloads can increase performance, cut costs, feed wildcats, and give the hunter endless bullet options. Handloading can help fill the short days after the fall hunting seasons, and with prime predator hunting season occurring during winter, the timing is perfect.
When we’re talking about predators, a high-velocity .22 centerfire is almost never a bad choice. Given the popu-larity of semiautos for this type of hunting, Federal Premium set out to maximize the performance of the AR-15 and its clones. The result of their engineering efforts was the .224 Valkyrie, a 6.8 SPC necked down to accept a 0.224-inch bullet. This cartridge is designed with fast (1:7-inch) rifling twists in mind, is capable of pushing long, heavy bullets at impressive velocities, and is compatible with magazines designed for the 6.8 round. How fast is it? Hornady’s fantastic 88-grain ELD has a muzzle velocity of 2,675 fps while American Eagle’s hide-saving 75-grain FMJ starts out at 3,000 fps. Compare this to the .223 Remington, where 75-grain bullets max out at 2,790 fps and the 88-grain is a no-go due to length. If you’re a fan of lighter, more frangible bullets, the .224 Valkyrie achieves nearly 3,500 fps with 60-grain bullets. In terms of real-world advantage, the Valkyrie, even with heavier bullets, has less drop and nearly 200 additional fps of velocity at 500 yards when compared to the .223 using a 75-grain match load. If absolute speed is the goal, 60-grain Valkyrie loads leave the muzzle at 3,300 fps. This type of speed coupled with a frangible bullet, such as Hornady’s V-Max, results in violent expansion and quick, clean kills—the chance of a bullet exiting and creating another hole in the hide is certainly slim. When it comes to maximizing the speed and performance of semiautomatic sporting rifles, the .224 Valkyrie is the fastest game in town.