Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Madness Deepens

  • 1/3 of a 1lb of Accurate Arms 2230 powder: $5 ($15 a pound)

  • 100ct. box of 75gr Hodgdon A-Max bullets: $15

  • 100ct. sleeve of Winchester small rifle primers: $2 (1/10th of a 1000ct. box)

  • 100ct. Winchester .223 brass: $20 (hey, I wanted fresh match grade so I paid it)

  • Under 1/2 inch groups at 100 yards... priceless...
...or about $80 less than it would have been if I'd bought 100rds of commercially loaded ammo with the same components (if I could find it, which I couldn't).

Actually, if the ammo were made to the same standard I'm about to describe (and there are boutique loaders who do so for varmint shooters who don't want to load), it would be more like $3 to $4 per round (though 95% of that standard can be had for $1 or so per round from Black Hills, or 90% with Black Hills remans at $0.45 a piece in 1000rd lots)

The list above is the latest symptom of my disease... I've decided to get back into match grade rifle ammo loading.

Pray for me, for this way madness lies...

Ok, so I'm being dramatic, but not much. You can get TRULY obsessive when it comes to rifle accuracy, and the most important element of that accuracy is... yup... the ammo.

There's a reason why one of these:

Costs as much as $4.

That reason?


In the various posts I've made about loading over the last month I've talked about how long it takes to load for handgun. What it comes down to is something between 150 and 200 rounds per hour, or between 2.5 rounds and 3.3 rounds per minute.

That round pictured took me about 5 minutes total to load.

Why the difference?

Well, let's start with case prep:

First I very slightly lightly chamfered each case mouth, to ease resizing. This helps prevent splitting and crushing the case mouth, but it has to be VERY minimal.

Time: About 10 seconds each round.

Then I lubed and full length sized the new brass with an RCBS small base full length sizing die (I'm loading for an AR), which takes a little more force and time than resizing handgun brass. I did this even for brand new factory fresh brass, to ensure that all the brass was completely uniform and consistent.

I could be going for more accuracy by neck sizing only, but the difference is quite small, and small base sizing helps with feed and extraction reliability in semi-auto rifles.

Time: About 10 seconds each
Total: About 20 seconds

Next, I trimmed the case to exact length, and checked with calipers. Again with factory fresh brass this shouldn't be necessary, but you want to make sure every case is exactly uniform and consistent.

Time: About 40 seconds each
Total: About 60 seconds

Then I inside chamfered and de-burred the case neck, inside and out, with a hand held chamfering tool; slightly chamfered the outside of the mouth; uniformed the primer pocket with a uniforming tool; and cleaned, chamfered, and uniformed the flash hole with a flash hole uniforming tool.

Do I need to mention again, it's all about uniformity and consistency?

Time: About 40 seconds each
Total: About 1 minute 40 seconds

Next, I checked each case for length again with calipers, lightly cleaned all of them; and sorted case lots of 20 by weight.

This is fiddly but important, even within the same ammunition lot. Even new cases can vary in total weight (which means wall thickness and total case capacity) by as much as 15 grains from lot to lot, and as much as 7 grains within a single lot.

Time: About 40 seconds each
Total: About 2 minutes 20 seconds

Finally I primed each case, and verified each seated primer by touch and sight; inspecting the whole case for regularity.

Time: About 10 seconds each
Total: About 2 minutes 30 seconds

After case prep, it's time to prep the load itself:
  • First, zero the scale.
  • Then, throw a charge about 1 grain lighter than your final charge, and weigh it.
  • Next, trickle powder into the pan, either exact to weight, or if very small ball powders are used, a couple kernels over weight (less than a 20th of a grain) for spillage; and weigh again (thank god for digital scales)
  • Weigh your brass again
  • Pour your charge carefully into the brass
  • Check again and make sure the charged case weighs as much as it should
  • Inspect the load visually to ensure it is at the proper level in the case
Time: About 60 seconds each
Total: About 3 minutes 30 seconds

Finally, it's time to sort, seat and crimp the bullet:

First, you have to take all your bullets, weigh, and sort them by 1/10th gr. groups. Then take those groups and check for maximum diameter (anything more than .001 off nominal can be a problem). Then take THOSE groups and sort for length (anything more than .005 off nominal can be a problem).

The idea here isn't to actually reject bullets for being a thousandth of an inch off; it's to group extremes close to each other so that their deviations from the mean will be similar.

Time: About 30 seconds each
Total: About 4 minutes

Next, insert the bullets into the case mouth, and seat.

Most loading for rifles uses just two dies, a combination sizing and decapping die, and a combination seating and crimping die. The thing is, seating and crimping in one step is imprecise. You can end up with inconsistent neck tension, or overall length, and you REALLY don't want to do that. Plus it's just a pain to properly adjust the die to get just the right crimp AND the right seat depth at the same time.

Anyway, backing the seat die out until it doesn't crimp, and cranking the seating stem down until it seats to the proper depth is the way to go. Then once the bullet is seated, you check the cartridge overall length with calipers.

Time: About 20 seconds each
Total: About 4 minutes 20 seconds

Finally, using a separate taper crimping die, give the bullet a gentle, almost non existent, but even crimp (just folding over the chamfer and increasing the neck tension slightly); and measure both the OAL and the case neck dimension.

Then give the round a final inspection, checking the final dimensions, and visually inspecting for any and every imperfection. Weigh the round one more time, making sure the total weight of the round is equal to (or very close to) that of the primed case, desired charge, and nominal bullet weight.

Once it passes, mark the base of the round with a distinctive mark for that load and lot (so that you can identify and record load data and results).

Time: About 40 seconds each
Total: About 5 minutes

So, an hour and a half later, you have this:

Actually, only the first few of each batch takes that long. You can set up quick case and OAL gages using cardboard and a razor blade (or using adjustable gages that you can buy most anywhere or make for yourself very easily); and preset calipers for the proper dimensions etc... Then you batch up each step of the case prep, and all the measuring and sorting of brass and bullets.

Oh and a note. I used the spelling gage vs. gauge deliberately above. In this context, a gauge is a measuring device that you read off of; and a gage is a template that you compare the round to. Basically, a gauge is graduated (i.e. it has markings intended to measure); whereas a gage is only used to judge maximum or minimum dimensions.

Once you get going you can take the time down to about 2 minutes per round, or even 90 seconds if you're REALLY fast and efficient.

Whats really insane though, is that to a benchrest shooter, the process I've just described is intolerably sloppy and lax.

Yes, seriously.

For one thing, I didn't weigh and sort my primers.

Or use special benchrest primers (in fact I used WSR which are disliked among benchresters - and me for that matter, but everything else was sold out at three places).

Or use special benchrest brass (Lapua makes great stuff).

Or use a benchrest quality powder (hey, I was experimenting with what was locally available cheaply).

Or use special custom dies.

Or anneal my case necks and shoulders.

Or measure my cases capacity in grains of water (cases can vary by as much as 1.5gr even within the same lot).

Or check the runout on all my cases (runout in this context is the amount of deviation from round, concentric, and centered the case neck and/or case wall are).

Or check the runout on all my bullets.

Or turn my case necks.

Or count the kernels of powder going into each case (Yes, seriously, some bench rest shooters do that; though only with larger kerned stick powders, where a single kernel could be as much as 1/20th of a grain).

Or weigh my powder with a beam balance (most electric scales aren't repeatably accurate to less than 1/10th gr, and they wander off calibration with repeated measurement. Here's a review of the three best scale/powder dispenser combos commonly available. The problem is, beam balances can take 30 seconds to get an accurate measurement with).

Or chamber mic each loaded round to check for case uniformity and seating depth (2 thousands of an inch off the lands of the rifling).

Actually, for best accuracy, If I were REALLY anal and shooting an AR, I'd single load each round (with a single round follower in a short magazine). If I were even MORE anal I'd disconnect my gas system, and manually eject each round (or really, just not use an AR to begin with).

If I were really really really anal, before I fired for group, I'd load each case up with a cheap bullet and powder, and fire them for practice. Then when I went to reload the cases, instead of full length sizing each round, I'd only turn and size the neck; letting the fire-formed cartridge body remain the same (fire-forming is the process of molding a brass case exactly to the chamber of a particular gun through the process described here).

Doing all of that can take as much as 20 minutes per round (not including the fire-forming and case cleaning).

...Yeah, no thanks, that's too much work for me.

Hell, you can cut out about 3/4 of the measuring and verifying that I've described here by using gages and preweighing and sorting everything; and get down to under two minutes total per round; while still maintaining about 90% of the accuracy potential...

With one of these RCBS power trimmers:

and one of these RCBS prep centers:

You can get consistent, uniform case prep done in just a few seconds per case.

Add one of these RCBS powder dispenser and scale combos:

and your overall load times go down to under a minute per round if you don't trickle the last half grain (these measures are repeatably accurate to 1/10th gr with small kerned powders; subject to periodic re-zeroing and recalibration; but larger powders can sometimes be up to .2gr off. That's fine for pistols, but for precision rifles you need under a tenth - Oh and Lyman, Redding, and others also makes a similar case trimmer; Lyman and PACT both make similar powder systems; but as far as I know RCBS is the only company with that type of case prep station tool, which is why I used them as the example).

...But that's still anywhere from 3 or 4 times as long as a single handgun cartridge, to more than 100 times as long.

The upshot though? I mean there has to be SOME use to all of that right?

How about 100 yard group of .190" center to center, from a .224" bullet (that's under .2 MOA); essentially one not very large hole (smaller than a single .45acp hole).

How about 600 yard shooters shooting under 1.57" 5 shot groups (that's .25 MOA).

Yes, seriously; there are guys out there shooting silver dollar sized groups with a .224 bullet at 600yards; and those are by no means record holders.

The serious record holders mostly shoot one of the slippery sixes (the 6mm benchrest cartridge family - though some members of the family use .224 bullets), from either a highly customized Remington bolt action, or a purpose built custom action; and get groups 2/3 the size of .223 at 600 yards. The world record 600 meter group is 1.070" unofficially, and 1.174" officially (.19 moa); and the official record group was shot with the .22 dasher (using an 80gr VLD .224 bullet).

The process used to load the rounds used to shoot groups like that makes mine look like TLAR ("That Looks About Right"); but without TOO much effort (well, compared to handguns its a ton of effort, but for benchresters it's not too much), you can make a good match grade AR keep .5moa out to 600 yards from a good rest.

This, is a good rest by the by:

Not this:

The difference? One is $350, and guarantees exactly repeatable precision down to thousandths of an inch. The other is $35 and made of injection molded plastic. The former, while a truly excellent rest by field shooting standards (in fact, it's one of the best available general purpose rests) is considered barely adequate for serious benchrest duty (where custom made, precision machined multi-thousand dollar rest systems are not uncommon) whereas the latter is barely adequate for 100 yard plinking.

Here's a great discussion about the .223 reloading, and benchresting the .223 on

Ok so to head off the inevitable, let's talk about loads:

Take this as you will, knowing that I’ve only ever loaded a couple thousand rounds (probably less than 1500 rounds total) of .223, mostly in 20 round batches, and not much in the way of 5.56 bulk loads. I mostly load for pistol; because rifle is a pain in the ass (as described above).

Also I only load with heavy bullets. I figure why bother with 55gr, when the heavier bullets only cost me a couple cents more per round, and deliver better results.

Also, for anything less than max accuracy loads, I load close to max pressure; varying a bit up or down to find a load the gun likes. These are loads that were good and safe with specific guns, normal caveats to start 10% low and work up etc… apply.

My “default” match load for guns that can take it was the 77gr SMK over 22.5gr of H335 seated to max feed length for whatever gun it’s going into (somewhere between 2.26 and 2.28 usually). This is a load designed to duplicate the Black Hills MK 262, but using a powder that meters easily

The same bullet is good over 24.5gr of Varget; and it seems a little more consistent (and a lot cleaner) than 335; but I’ve only loaded a few of them.

These loads are only usable by 1-in-8 guns or faster, and are only usable in bolt guns, or ARs with a rate reducer or heavy bolt/buffer (basically match and varmint guns). I suppose you could use them in guns without, but they’d batter the bolt. Also, without a long throat chamber (5.56 nato, or Wylde) you will get excessive pressures.

Currently I’m loading an experiment, as described above.

I’ve got 75gr Hornady A-Max vlds (bc of .435!!!) and I'm testing out loads with 2230.

I've got batches loaded over 23.5, 24.5, 25, 25.5, and 26gr of AA2230, seated to 2.280”. The equivalent Varget load to that topout would be about 25.5gr.

I’ve got them seated to max mag feeding depth (yes I know the A-Max isn’t really designed for that), and given the very slightest bit of taper crimp right at the ogive. They are firm in the neck, and feed without binding or setting back. I was planning on loading them with Varget or H335, but everyone was out of it locally so I picked up the 2230 cheap ($14.50 for one pound) and decided to experiment.

In my current match barreled AR(24" Wilson 1-in-8 stainless 1" full profile barrel with a wylde chamber), the bullet feeds, and seats just off the lands; but I haven’t had it out to the range yet to check results or reliability (because I haven’t finished building the gun). From a “normal” AR barrel and chamber I’d be worried about it feeding properly; though if it feeds, it should shoot in anything 1-in-9 and faster.

The loads should get somewhere between 2800 and 2950fps out of my barrel, and I’m expecting .5moa out to 600 yards once the barrel is broken in, and I settle the load right.

Unfortunately, not knowing AA2230 well, I don't know how consistent a powder it is (just that it meters very well), and the A-Max is a totally unknown factor to me. The bolt gun guys swear by it as the best long range bullet under 80 grains, that doesn't cost $0.50 a piece; but it's hard to make such a long bullet function in an AR (I'm a masochist what can I say). I'm running this experiment specifically to see if I can make a round from these components that will both feed and shoot in an AR.

A more “normal” load would be the 75gr hornady match BTHP, over 25.5gr Varget seated to 2.255". It should feed properly in most guns (SAAMI spec is 2.260)

Those two loads should be good for 1-in-9 guns, but If you don’t have a 1-in-8 or faster you may want to stick to the 69gr loads. Also, these loads are for 22” to 24” barrels; you may want to use a lighter load of a faster powder in shorter barrels.

If you want to improve on heavy NATO load performance (why on earth would you want to shoot 55gr in anything faster than a 1-in-12?) try the 69gr sierra BTHP or 68gr Hornady BTHP over 26.0gr of varget; seated to 2.250.

To improve or duplicate 62/63gr, try 26.5gr of Varget, or 25.0gr of H335, under any of the bulk 62/63gr FMJ, seated to 2.250.

If you really want to duplicate 55gr nato for some reason, try 28gr of Varget under the Winchester or Remington 55gr. canelured .224 and seat to 2.250 (actually 27gr of Win 748 would be closer, but I prefer Hodgdon or Alliant powders generally. Reloder 15 is another good option).

Actually, honestly, if you're bulk loading, 55gr makes a of of sense; because the components are VERY economical.

Midway USAs advance email flyer for may just hit my email box. There’s some interesting component deals, including under 7 cents a piece for once fired .223 brass, and under 5 cents a piece for 55gr Remington bullets (and a whole bunch of other types right around that price), 2 cents a piece for primers, and about $13 per pound of various suitable accurate arms powders (about 290 rounds per pound); all of course in bulk quantities (1000 bullets, 1000 cases, 5000 primers, and 8lbs of powder).

Lesse, 3.5lbs of powder at $45, $70 for 1000ct brass, $50 for 1000ct bullets, $22 for 1000ct primers. Total for 1000 rounds, $187 or $0.187 per round.

Cheapest brass cased .223 I can find right now is about $0.32 a pop, and it’s constantly sold out…

...not bad.

Oh and for the match grade stuff I’m loading above, it’s only about $0.8 - $0.10 more per round (again, in 1000 round quantities), for about $0.27 -$0.29 a round, or about $0.37 - $39 per round using new premium brass and not amortizing the brass at all over multiple loads (you should get 5-8 match grade loads out of new brass, and another 2-5 plinker grade loads, for about 10 total).

The same ammo commercially loaded (actually I haven’t seen the 75gr A-Max loads on sale anywhere, but I’d assume the vmax would be similarly priced) is $1.00 a pop in bulk (though Black Hills reloads it for $0.4.5 a round).

Oh and WHY am I getting back into rifle reloading now? More on this tomorrow...