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Handloading: Estimating Actual Cost per Round by Caliber

Handloading: Estimating Actual Cost per Round by Caliber

WARNING: All technical data in this publication, especially for handloading, reflect the limited experience of individuals using specific tools, products, equipment and components under specific conditions and circumstances not necessarily reported in the article and over which the National Rifle Association (NRA) has no control. The data has not otherwise been tested or verified by the NRA. The NRA, its agents, officers and employees accept no responsibility for the results obtained by persons using such data and disclaim all liability for any consequential injuries or damages.

Above: Accurate barrels are a joy to use, but they are an expendable resource!

Previously, we addressed what to expect performance-wise from a newly-received custom target rifle, and how to avoid some possible bumps along the way.

This article outlines a ballpark-estimate method of calculating the *actual* cost per round of different calibers. Some applications, and some shooters, by virtue of their high level of competition, require the very best ballistic performance available—"Darn the cost, full speed ahead!"

If you are in serious contention to win a major competition, then losing even a single point to inferior ballistic performance could cost you a national title or record. However, this "horsepower" does come at a cost! Some calibers are barrel-burners, and some offer much longer barrel life.

Moreover, while some applications require specialized, high-cost components, others do not. And, if the shooter is still relatively new to the sport and hasn't refined his skill to within the top few percentile of marksmen, a more economical caliber choice can help stretch a limited budget. Translation—more skill per dollar!

For this article, the prices for all items mentioned here were taken from a major component supplier's current advertisements, and all brass was of top quality, except in the case of 5.56mm. There, 200 top-quality, imported cases were reserved for 600-yard shooting, and the other brass used was once-fired Lake City surplus.

Cartridge cases were assumed to be loaded 10 times each (your mileage may vary). Bullet prices assumed the use of less-expensive, but good-quality match bullets for the bulk of shooting as appropriate.

The cost of top-tier, highly-expensive match bullets was also calculated for a realistic percentage of the shots fired, based on ones' application. Barrel life by caliber was taken from likely estimates based on experience and good barrel maintenance.

Often, handloaders may calculate ammunition cost per round by adding the individual costs of primers, powder charges and projectiles. Many don't consider the cost of brass, as it is reloaded several times.

Here, we'll consider the cost of enough top-quality brass to wear out a barrel in our given caliber, at 10 loads per case, except as noted above. Finally, few shooters factor in the cost of barrel life. However, depending on caliber, that can dramatically increase the cost per round.

For example, consider a long-range rifle in 6.5mm/.284 caliber. This cartridge performs amazingly well, but at a cost. Ballpark estimated barrel life (in a top-quality barrel) is 1100 rounds. Some wear out faster, some last longer, but this gives a rough idea of what to expect. 

A top-quality barrel plus installation was estimated at about $520. At 1100 rounds, barrel life adds $0.47 per round to our total cost. Thus, what had started out as an estimate (components only, brass cost included) of $0.76 per round now totals $1.24 per shot!

If that's what's needed to meet an individual shooter's needs, so be it. However, some shooters might ask themselves if they could meet their present needs with a more economical caliber. If so, that equates to more practice and matches per available dollar, and more potential skill increase on the available budget.

Each shooter knows his skill level, practice needs, and shooting discipline's requirements. Some might shoot NRA Service Rifle or Match Rifle using a 5.56mm with a long barrel life. Others might be Match Rifle shooters faced with choosing between, say, a 6mm BR vs. 6XC. A realistic assessment of ones needs, performance-wise, may help guide the shooter toward a caliber that's most optimized to their needs at the moment.

Below are some estimated *total* costs per round (practice and competition) based on component costs, type used, expected barrel life and a standard barrel cost of $520 across calibers.

  • 5.56mm: $0.46 per round (Barrel life6000 rounds)
  • 6BR: $0.81 per round (Barrel life2800 rounds)
  • 6XC: $0.97 per round (Barrel life2200 rounds)
  • .308 Win.: $0.80 per round (Barrel life4500 rounds)
  • 6.5mm/.284: $1.24 per round (Barrel life1100 rounds)

Admittedly, the factors affecting cost can vary significantly due to many circumstances. Hopefully this article provides one useful method of evaluating your training and competition choices, based on skills, goals and needs.

SSUSA thanks the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit for allowing the reprint of this article.

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