By Mark V. Lonsdale
Author’s Note: This is not a how-to guide to reloading, but it will get the novice thinking about quality over quantity.
When competing at the national and international levels in many sports, first and second place are often separated by a fraction of an inch or a split second. Gold medals are won or lost by margins so small that high speed cameras and sensitive electronics are needed to determine the winner. Shooting is no different. Just try judging groups in a benchrest shooting competition.
In several longer range shooting disciplines, many shooters can shoot perfect scores, so the winner is often determined by X counts. In benchrest, groups are so tight it looks like one hole. Even in the speed shooting sports, where a single miss over a dozen stages puts a competitor out of the top ten, the winner is often decided by fractions of a second.
So what separates the national teams and champions from all the other shooters?
It is safe to assume that everyone’s rifle at the national level is a highly accurate precision shooting machine with a match grade barrel, custom fitted stock, fine trigger, and superlative optics. In practice sessions, most of the top shooters can hold the 10 ring consistently and rack up a high number of Xs — but can they do it on match day?
Kelly McMillan with current World Champion, Derek Rodgers, and his winning F-TR rifle in a McMillan XiT stock with Nightforce optics
To quote the world F-TR champion, “Matches are won in two places – on the loading bench and between the ears.”
As seen with many top athletes who “almost made it,” their physical conditioning was superb but their mental game failed them in the finals. Very good shooters can also succumb to match nerves by not performing well on game day under self imposed match pressures. (A good article for another day.) In this article we will look at winning on the loading bench and what constitutes good ammunition.
Simply put, if it ain’t accurate it ain’t good. This is true for rifles and ammunition. So assuming you have a rifle that is capable of 0.5 MOA accuracy, let’s focus on the ammo. A round of ammunition is comprised of four components: the case, the bullet, the powder, and the primer. All four are important and all contribute to accuracy. So what is accuracy?
As a teenager, my first shooting coach told me that, “Accuracy is the Product of Uniformity,” and that advice still resonates with me today. The key word is “uniformity,” often expressed as consistency, but consistency is also the product of uniformity.
Uniformity in ammunition begins with each component and extends up to the actual hand-loading process and final product. Shooters who are serious about accuracy will take a box of 100 bullets and weigh them into lots, for example, the ones that are exactly 200 grains, the ones slightly under, and the ones slightly over. These will be kept in lots and loaded in batches to keep them all together. In F-Class and F-TR you shoot three sets of 20 rounds plus sighters, so it pays to have a uniform batch of 80 rounds for match day. PRS shooters shoot even more, with large matches requiring 200-250 rounds of good quality ammunition.
A winning combination for F-TR – Peterson match-grade brass and Berger Bullets
The brass will also be hand weighed for consistency, inspected for any defects, and sorted into lots. This can be made easier by beginning with quality match-grade brass from companies such as Peterson or Lapua. But even with new brass you still need to debur and chamfer the necks inside and out, and some shooters will run a mandrel to make sure the neck is uniformly round.
When you begin reloading your fired cases, you will want to keep them in batches of 1x fired, 2x fired, 3x fired, etc. But as you shoot and resize the cases, the brass will extrude and elongate, requiring that you measure and trim the brass. Again, it will be necessary to debur and chamfer the necks for consistency.
For the ELR shooter, Peterson .375 brass and Cutting Edge bullets in 352 grains and 400 grains
As a novice or recreational shooter, it is not necessary to spend a lot of time on case prep for many forms of shooting. But as you get serious and progress from club level, to state level, to the national level, you will find yourself investing more time in case prep, neck turning, concentricity checks, and load development. Be assured that all the other top shooters are seeking that fraction of an inch advantage at 1,000 yards.
Primers are the least complicated part but serious reloaders will still experiment with different primers. Beginning with match-grade primers is a good start. Powder should be kept in a cool dry environment, but to get consistency requires staying with the same lot number. For example, if you buy powder by the pound, you will only get 160 loads for 308 Win and half that for magnum cartridges. So when you change to a new can you may be changing lot numbers and see variances in burn rate. Therefore you may have 10 rounds at one muzzle velocity and another 10 at a slower or faster velocity with powder from the new can. The obvious solution is to buy in bulk if you plan to shoot a lot, and competitive shooters shoot a lot, either practicing, in matches, or working up loads.
When measuring powder into the cartridge you have two choices – a powder measure that drops powder by volume every time you throw the handle, or hand weighing each individual powder charge. Again, you can get reasonable accuracy with a quality powder measure with a micrometer adjustment, but you will get more uniformity and consistency from weighing each charge individually.
Left to right: 308 Win Berger 185 Juggernaut, Berger 200 grain Hybrid, .375 CT Cutting Edge 352 grain, all in Peterson match-grade brass
So how can you tell you have quality ammunition?
The first and obvious validation is the groups on target. If your loads are grouping under a half-inch at 100 yards, you are in pretty good shape. But it is possible to have good groups at 100 yards that open up at longer ranges. This can be attributed to variations in muzzle velocity. If there is a significant spread in velocity, then the group will open up vertically at longer distances – faster bullets hitting high and slower ones low. So in addition to tight grouping on paper, a reliable chronograph is essential for load development. It is also essential to have an accurate muzzle velocity for each rifle and load to input into ballistic analytic programs and your Kestrel.
Left: Labradar doppler chronograph. Right: Kestrel Elite with Applied Ballistics program
To conclude, if you begin with quality match-grade components you will have a high probability of producing quality ammunition. Factory match ammo is good for events requiring 1 to 2 MOA accuracy, such as steel plate matches, but for 0.5 MOA precision accuracy and ELR you will need to hand load your ammunition. And don’t think of hand loading as a chore or drudgery. There is a lot of satisfaction to be derived from producing very accurate rounds for competition or hunting, and especially for ELR shooting. Just be sure to keep a detailed log of your load development, powder charges, seating depths, cartridge overall lengths (COAL), groups, and muzzle velocities.
For actual instruction on reloading, invest in a good reloading manual, read the instructions that come with your dies and tools, and there’s no shortage of helpful, instructional videos on YouTube.