Reduced Centerfire Loads

(Originally posted by ML on the Hoods Woods Forum, 11 December 2001; reproduced here with the author's permission)

Reduced Loads for Small Game

(Note: This post has been edited by the author and incorporates corrections from the original)

Which would you rather have for dinner: A brace of quail, rubbed with olive oil, black pepper, and fresh-picked sage, and braised in the glowing embers of a live-oak campfire along with a coffee-can full of steaming black French Roast and a shot of single-malt whiskey, or another anonymous extruded McMeal from the local Gulp ’N’ Blow, with a side of limp fries and a watered-down Coke? Not long ago I enjoyed the first, licked my fingers, and laughed at my good luck.

I’d been deer hunting, but the deer were winning that day. Yet hunting is still hunting (always a lucky day of itself), and is so often the case, when you hunt you sharpen your senses everywhere and see much, including many other animals. I had the fortune to be carrying a few reduced-power loads for my rifle as well. About an hour and a half before sunset, I flushed up a fat covey of quail. As for the rest of the story, well, I imagine you can fill in most of the blanks.

* * * * *

Reduced centerfire rifle loads aren’t much in vogue today, and that’s too bad. Like so many lessons from the past, we’ve forgotten today much of what our grandfathers knew. To that point, in this Forum we have discussion threads concerning the conjuring of fire by friction, flint knapping in order to produce stone tools, brain tanning, and others where the posting parties revel in a jacket designed in 1914 and produced by a company founded in 1897.

Quite right.

Certainly, I’m not suggesting old solutions are always best. (Every time I visit my dentist or physician, I’m very happy to enjoy any advances in modern medicine, and as someone who’s flown on everything from DC3s to Boeing 747s, I can vouch that advances in modern aircraft are even more impressive.) Yet I do believe, once again, many of us have ignored an "old" solution to a present problem--and that solution is the use of reduced cartridge loading for hunting small game.

In this Forum, we’ve seen threads addressing sub-caliber cartridge adapters (devices which allow the use of smaller cartridge in larger centerfire rifles, for example, a .22 Long Rifle fired in an arm chambered for the .223 Remington). These are popular for several reasons: They allow the use of less expensive ammunition. They allow the use of ammunition with less recoil and less report. They produce less meat destruction in small game. Similarly, some members advocate using a small-caliber rifle for rather ambitious undertakings, discussing what medium and large game may be taken with a .22 Long Rifle, .22 Magnum, .22 Hornet, and so on. (As my previous posts reflect, I generally disapprove of both these positions, but Forum members are advised to educate themselves and come to their own informed conclusions. As this is posted, we have an active thread concerning the use of the .22 Magnum)

The past, though, shows us a better solution.

Reduced loads fired in a major-caliber centerfire rifle return all the benefits of the sub-caliber-adapter setup (economy, mitigated recoil, lessened report, reduced destructiveness), but are simpler (no adapter to lose); factor in the price of the adapter itself, and their thrift is underscored. Finally, installation and removal of the adapter (easy with some designs, more difficult with others) or loss of the part are eliminated.

No less an authority than that great rifleman, Colonel Townsend Whelen, lived for months in the field carrying only one rifle (a sporterized M1903 Springfield in .30-’06). When was the last time any of us subsisted only on what we shot and the flour, sugar, salt and coffee we carried on our backs for an extended period?

Whelen and others knew, from experience, that they’d get far more shots at small game than big game. He also knew meat spoilage was less of an issue, as was variety in his diet. The Colonel called his reduced .30-’06 cartridges "grouse loads," and used them to fill his pot. With a box or two of them, he freed himself from having to carry two guns, yet maintained considerable versatility in his ability to bag game from moose to squirrel (Bullwinkle to Rocky, if you’d like) efficiently, accurately, and humanely with a single firearm. Today, that may appeal to Forum members whose scenarios include the possibility of true subsistence hunting, or for other who simply started salivating with the description of those quail and the campfire (the shot of whiskey, of course, was a field-expedient method of water purification).

Whelen’s Load

Col. Whelen’s pet small-game load for his .30-’06 consisted of a 150-grain Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) bullet travelling at 1600 feet per second. He used 18 grains of Dupont 4759 powder and a Federal #210 primer, delivering 852 foot-pounds of energy. From 1916 on, Whelen used this loading to take "grouse, rabbits, squirrels, muskrat, conejo, sloth, paca, crested guan . . . mink, otter and beaver."

Other Reduced Loads

The Speer Reloading Manual Number Ten offers reduced loads for many cartridges. For example, for the .30-’06, it shows a 100-grain Speer "Plinker" bullet travelling at 1548 fps, propelled by 16 grains of Dupont SR4759, producing about 532 foot-pounds of energy. A corresponding load for the .308 Winchester, using the same bullet and 16 grains of SR4759, produces 1516 fps and 510 foot-pounds of energy. Speer offers many other light bullets (in the 100-110-grain range) and soft loads for the .30-’06 and the .308 Winchester, among others.

Comparing Reduced Loads

A typical .30-’06 Springfield big-game loading consists of a 150-grain bullet travelling at 2900 fps, producing 2800 foot-pounds of energy (fpe). Here’s a comparison of typical energy for several other common "standard" loadings, as well as some of the reduced loads cited in this posting:

Standard Loadings

.30-’06 (150-gr) 2800 fpe .223 Rem (55-gr) 1280 fpe .22 Hornet (45-gr) 624 fpe .22 Magnum (40-gr) 325 fpe .22 Long Rifle (40-gr) 140 fpe

Reduced Loads

.30-’06 (150-gr/1548 fps) 765 fpe .30-’06 (151-gr cast/1479 fps) 733 fpe .30-’06 (100-gr/1548 fps) 532 fpe .30-’06 (108-gr cast/865 fps) 179 fpe

Thus, one can see that even with a full-sized case such as the venerable .30-’06 Springfield, one may assemble a reduced load with little more energy than a .22 Long Rifle, or as much as a .22 Hornet.

The Buckshot Option

Even more versatility may be derived in .30-caliber rifles by substituting a single 0-Buckshot round lead ball for a more conventional bullet. (A single 0-Buck round lead ball weighs is .32-inch in diameter and weighs 48 grains.) A charge of 3.0 grains of Bullseye powder is usually suggested, topped by a tuft of Dacron of Kapok fiber and then the lead ball. This comes close to replicating what the old Lyman handbooks called "the ideal cellar and small-game load," and is suitable for most of the major .30-caliber rifles (including the .30-’06 Springfield, .308 Winchester, .30-30 Winchester, .300 Savage, and .30-40 Krag).

Cautions and Drawbacks

Wm. C. Davis, Jr. notes that, "Powders suitable for full-charge loads often do not burn completely in low-pressure reduced loads, and many produce poor results. Powders of finer granulation, designed for more rapid burning, are required." Dupont’s SR4759 is recommended as "possibly the most useful reduced-load powder for rifles." Of note, it is also Whelen’s choice. It may be difficult to find, but your shop can certainly order it, and a little will last a long time. Powders such as IMR4831 and 4350 and Hodgdon’s 250 and H450 should never be reduced below 90 percent, due to erratic ignition. Hodgdon’s H100 should not be reduced below 97 percent. These may lodge a bullet in the barrel, with catastrophic results if the phenomenon is not noticed and a second cartridge is fired. Simply cutting back a standard charge is dangerous and ill advised. You must consult a reliable loading manual; thankfully, they usually contain a good deal of information for reduced loads in all of the standard calibers.

Since some reduced charges only fill a small portion of the case (Red Dot, for example), there is a very real chance of double-charging a case if you are not paying attention, a dangerous mistake. These partially filled loadings may also require a filler to keep the powder near the primer (Dacron or kapok is the usual choice), or require the shooter to elevate the muzzle after chambering the cartridge in order to move the powder near the primer’s flash hole. This latter action may not always be convenient in the field.

A potentially more serious occurrence crops up if you confuse your loads. Whelen tells of having loaded the magazine of his .30-30 Winchester lever gun with reduced loads, and then encountering a bear. He emptied five shots into the animal with no effect before realizing his mistake. His solution was to always carry his rifle charged with full-power loads, and only single-load the reduced cartridge when he spotted the small game he intended to shoot. Sound advice.

Finally, be advised that you should never trust any reloading data published on the Internet or copied down by a friend, no matter how well-intentioned. Proofreading and accuracy are apparently foreign concepts when it comes to this medium, and you have no idea how careful or careless anyone may be--and of course that includes this author and this posting as well. Let me repeat that: NEVER TRUST ANY RELOADING DATA PUBLISHED ON THE INTERNET. Base all your planning on reputable, verifiable data published by the major reloading companies, and only appearing in their original publications.

Personal Experience

While I’ve taken no where near the variety nor amount of game as Col. Whelen, I have learned from his experience. Using reduced loads in the .270 Winchester and .30-’06 Springfield, I’ve shot dove, quail, squirrel, marmot, and a single wild turkey. Naturally, the loads shoot to a point of aim different from the full-power load, but this is easily learned. Shooting with a duplex-reticle telescopic sight makes things really easy, as one may choose to use either the conventional crosshair aiming point or any point between the thicker lower vertical wire and the thinner inner horizontal wire. Scopes with so-called "mil-dot" reticles offer still more points of reference for aiming. (For a small fee, Leupold will install the reticle of your choice in your Leopold telescopic sight. Other aftermarket suppliers also offer this option. Personally, don’t think even this is necessary.)

An alternate solution to reduced loads may be firing reduced-diameter bullets through your .30-caliber centerfire. How? By using plastic sabots. The following is from a previous post by this author:

"Once upon a time, Remington produced ‘Accelerator’ ammunition. This product line loaded .223-caliber bullets into various .30-caliber chamberings (.30-30 Winchester, .308 Winchester, .30-’06 Springfield) by using a plastic ‘sabot’ to increase the diameter of the slug, the sabot separating from the bullet shortly after leaving the muzzle (today blackpowder shooters use a similar setup to fire .44-caliber pistol bullets through .54- or .58-caliber rifles). Sabots allow you to shoot (for example) a .223 bullet at velocities of 4000 fps from your .30-’06 Springfield. No alterations to the arm are needed, neither permanent nor temporary, and accuracy is generally the same as it would have been with the original .30-caliber cartridge--i.e., if your .30-’06 shot two-inch groups at 100 yards with 150-grain .30-caliber bullets, you could expect the saboted .223 bullets to shoot with a similar degree of accuracy, albeit to a different point of impact. While Remington no longer loads such ammunition, reloaders can order sabots through a variety of reloading supply outlets."


Whether you’re hunting for sport or sustenance, a pocketful of reduced centerfire load turns your rifle into a versatile game getter. In addition, a good centerfire often will return better accuracy and offers better sights and a superior trigger pull to less expensive rifles you might otherwise use to hunt small game. Don’t handload? What’s stopping you from learning? Like learning to drive a stickshift, pilot a small boat, or make a fire without matches, you should consider it part of your outdoor-preparedness educational process if you’re serious about using a rifle to hunt for survival to begin with. If you’re not, of course that’s fine too, but I doubt that you would have read this far.

Enjoy your burger, or enjoy your quail. As with so many things in life, you retrieve what you invest, and I for one am greedy for life’s grand experiences.



Forum members interested in learning more about producing and using reduced loads for small game will find the following article informative; indeed, even reloaders in possession of conventional loading manuals should consult it prior to assembling their own reduced loads.

"Reduced Loads" by Wm. C. Davis, Jr., appearing in book "Handloading" as published by NRA books.

Information concerning Townsend Whelen’s reduced game loads comes from his books, "Mister Rifleman" and "Wilderness Hunting and Wildcraft."

Much of the data for other reloading comes from Speer’s Reloading Manual Number Ten.

To calculate foot-pounds of energy (fpe) for a given load when you know bullet weight and velocity, use the following formula:

FPE=(Velocity x Velocity) x Bullet Weight / 450400

Copyright © 2001 by Eric Stoskopf.
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