When it comes to deer hunting, Miller Stella is a perfectionist.
The Rice Township resident spends hours checking treestands, meeting with landowners to secure access and keeping tabs on deer activity.
But Stella's most important preparation for the upcoming deer season begins in his basement. That's where he reloads approximately 500 shells each year for all of his deer rifles. Stella has been reloading for 40 years and said his loads are more accurate than those bought at the store.
It's a lesson that Stella learned years ago from close friend Rudy Quarteroni, proprietor of the Quarteroni Brothers Sporting Goods store in Luzerne. Quarteroni is now deceased, but Stella never forgot the lessons he shared years ago.
He proved to me that you can make a gun better by hand-loading rather than using factory ammunition, Stella said. When I saw the results on paper and began harvesting deer with reloads, I was convinced.
That's why for more than four decades Stella has vigilantly reloaded rifle shells at his basement bench and field-tested them at the range to find the perfect combination for each of his guns. It's a process that begins in late summer and carries through the winter. By early spring, Stella takes his reloads for a final test on the range before making any final adjustments for hunting season.
I reload the shells one at a time and painstakingly measure the exact amount of powder that goes into each casing, Stella said. When you do them one at a time, which a factory can't, you can count on each shell.
The process to reload each shell is fairly simple, as long as proper attention is paid to the details and the work isn't rushed, Stella said.
Step 1 – Clean it up. Make sure your bench and everything around it is cleaned up. You don't want anything contaminating the primer or any other component. I wear rubber gloves to avoid contaminating the primers. Also clear out any potential distractions so you can focus solely on the reloads.
Step 2 – Remove primer and lubricate casing. Stella gently glides the casing over a lubricating pad before placing it in the re-sizing die. Because the casing can swell after it has been fired, he uses the re-sizing die to bring it back to the proper shape. The casing is then cleaned in a corn cob tumbler to remove the lubricating oil.
Step 3 – Measure and test the casing. For this step, Stella inserts a bullet into the casing and works it through the action of his rifle. That way, Stella said, he can make sure it feeds into the chamber smoothly and extracts just as easily. The casings can sometimes stretch, so they need to be trimmed to the exact tolerance using a case trimmer.
Step 4 – Remove burrs and clean the primer pocket. Burrs can form inside and outside of the casing neck, so Stella smoothes out the area. He also uses a rotary tool with a small brush to clean out the primer pocket, and a small wire to clean out the primer hole.
Step 5 – Ready to reload. Stella places a bullet seat into his press and, while wearing rubber gloves, places a primer into the press and a casing into the shell holder. With a gentle pull of the lever, the primer is inserted into the casing. Also wear rubber gloves and don't let your primers touch the bench. Put them in a clean, plastic lid, Stella said. If they get contaminated with dirt or even the oil from your skin, that's when guys go into the woods to shoot a big buck and hear a click.
Step 6 – Pour a quantity of powder into the powder trinkler and another amount into the powder measure. Place the measure on the powder scale and use the trinkler to add more to achieve the desired weight. Stella takes time to make sure each shell has the exact same amount of powder, while factory loads will have slight differences in the powder weights for each shell.
After the powder has been weighed, use a small funnel to pour it into the casing.
Stella makes a dummy shell for the rifle he is reloading so he can determine the right depth for the bullet. This allows the entire shell to enter the chamber properly. The dummy shell is just a casing and bullet without the powder and primer. He coats the bullet with a marker, which will reveal any nicks if the bullet is rubbing during the feeding or extraction steps. If you're going to reload for a friend, you need to have their gun with you to make everything is working with the reload. Guys will have someone reload shells for them, take them into the woods on the first day and then find out their bolt won't close because the shell doesn't fit properly, Stella said. Every gun is different, so it's very important to test it first.
Step 7 – Test it on the range. Stella recommends doing this well ahead of when you intend to hunt with the rifle, leaving plenty of time to make any adjustments. Sometimes different powder types or weight variations produce different results on the range, he said. The way they perform on a paper target is the way they'll perform in the woods, Stella said. You need patience. It takes time to fine tune a gun, but when you get it perfect it will shoot better than a factory load.
BETTER, AND CHEAPER
Aside from improved accuracy, Miller Stella said it also saves money to reload rifle shells. A box of high-powered rifle shells cost an average of $35 at the store, he said, compared to the $15 it may cost to reload. On top of that, you're enhancing the performance of that gun and it gives you confidence in the field, Stella said.