Thursday, May 19, 2011

The 1000 yard conspiracy: Part 6 - Loading for Long Range

Or "How to drive yourself mad, while STILL not being nearly as anal/OCD as the benchrest loonies... and unfortunately not getting nearly the precision; but still better than factory ammo...."

So, this:

is the product of about 4 hours of labor the Tuesday evening before Boomershoot. That's one batch of the new loads I worked up for boomershoot this year; what I'll call "the outlier" batch (excuse the quality, it's from my phone).

Outlier, both because they are the lightest weight bullets I have loaded for the chambering; and because I'm using up the last of my Remington brass (and I won't be buying any more as we'll get into later).

That's 100 rounds of .300 winmag: 180gr Sierra Match King BTHP Match bullet seated to 3.520",  over 79gr reloder 25,  Remington brass with a CCI-250 primer.

Data says it should push 3150 from a 26" barrel, with a .475 g1 BC. It's one of the bullets that Brian Litz has collected data for, so using his more accurate data (and experimentally measured g7 bc) I get a 25/200 battlesight zero (same as my 210 Bergers), a 1300 yard supersonic range, with 316" drop at 1000 (just over 30moa) and 832ftlbs of energy. Drop at 700 runs 154" (18moa) with 1380lbs retention.

Obviously, energy at range isn't a problem, presuming I hit what I'm aiming at; but I'm not exactly happy with the drop or drift resistance of this loading. I chose it only because I can buy a commercially loaded version with similar performance.

The real long range loads, are the 208gr Hornadys, and the 210gr Bergers (which I'll talk about in a later post).
A note: I was able to confirm the performance of all the loads at Boomershoot. All shot well, and very close to the calculated charts from the JBM ballistic calculator. The charts got me to within 1/2 moa of target each time; even using the 210gr berger data for the 208gr Hornady (they seem to have identical performance). 
At any rate, if you're used to volume reloading, you're probably thinking "geez, 100 rounds in 4 hours is awfully slow". On the other hand if you were a benchrester you'd be saying "is he crazy? he'll never be precise enough going that fast".

Since I'm not looking for 1000 yard competition level ammo at the moment (these guys are insane. They shoot under 1/2moa 10 shot groups all day long at 1000 yards; with 5 shot groups often running under .25moa), but I do want to be able to hit what I'm aiming at no matter what range; I figured I'd split the difference.

So, what exactly does that mean?

Let's break down how I rolled these up.

Step one, choose and gather tools and materials:
  1. Brass
  2. Powder
  3. Bullets
  4. Primers
  5. Lube 
  1. Case mouth inside reamer and chamfer tool
  2. Case mouth outside deburring and chamfering tool
  3. Primer pocket and flash hole reamer and uniforming tool
  4. case trimmer tool
  5. Sizing die (full length or neck sizing)
  6. Seating die (preferably with a floating, self centering, seating spud)  
  7. Powder measure, trickler, and scale
  8. Funnel
  9. Press
  10. Calipers and gauges
If you've ever done any rifle reloading, you probably have most of those; except maybe the primer pocket and flash hole tool.

If you've only done pistol reloading, you may not have a case trimmer; and if you're running virgin brass you may not need it right away; but you will eventually.

If you are doing precision reloading (or any reloading really), it's very important to have a stable, draft free, kid free, and dog free zone, with good light, to do your work; and that you gather your tools and materials, and inspect them all together, to make sure everything is present and in working order.

Now, that list above may seem to basic and obvious, why am I even writing it down? Because when we're talking about precision reloading, things are a little different than high volume pistol, and I want to go through it all point by point.

And the first part of gathering your materials is to...

Choose your components:

Honestly, this section alone deserves it's own post, and I'm going to do that. I'll talk about selecting bullets, powder, brass, and primers in depth in a future post.

This post though is going to be too long as it is, so I just want to make some general statements and recommendations, and some guidelines and hints.

So, I'll start with primers... Frankly, I don't think they make that much difference. I won't say they make NO difference, but the bigger the charges, and the bigger the cases, the less difference they seem to make. The one thing you want to do though, is keep the same lot of loads, with the same lot of primers if you can... or at the very least, the same primer number (like the CCI 250).

I do recommend you choose small rifle benchrest for small charge, small case, nonmagnum chamberings... but frankly small rifle magnum may be a better choice if it's one of the wide powder column cases preferred by long range precision shooters (like 6mm BR).

Some agree with me, some don't; I personally think the magnum primers give you more consistent ignition than benchrest primers do in general, and especially with a fat powder column.

They do make large rifle match primers, and large rifle magnum match primers; but again, I don't think they really make a difference. I prefer CCI primers in general, and I've never seen any difference between Federals large rifle magnum match, and CCI 250 large rifle magnum primers.

Bullets... man... there is SO damn much choice here it's pretty hard to make any recommendations; even within a single chambering, never mind across the broad spectrum of chamberings

Here's my thumbail sketch level advice...

If you shoot long range, you generally shoot either custom or boutique bullets, or you shoot one of the four majors in precision bullets: Hornady, Sierra, Lapua or Berger (with Hornady being the most recent addition to serious consideration).  I really don't think you can go wrong with match grade bullets from any of them.

This isn't to say there aren't other good long range bullets from Woodleigh, Swift, Barnes, Speer etc... but most shooters choose the four I mention above if they aren't going with a boutique brand or custom bullets.

At one time, the long range shooting game was mostly shot with custom bullets; because bullets sufficient to the task were rarely available from the factory. Over the last 20 years this has become less and less the case; such that today, unless the shooter is shooting an oddball wildcat, or wants a bullet well out of the normal weight range for a caliber; there are most likely sufficient bullet choices in the weights and calibers they want, to shoot MUCH less expensive match grade production bullets.

The difference between the recommended brands?

Well, Hornady is the cheapest, but has the least stringent tolerances and quality control... That said, in this group, least stringent means very little. Hornady has a very broad product line, with a large number of weight choices in most calibers; though a somewhat limited selection of very high BC bullets designed for long range compared to the other manufacturers. Hornady also has among the best customer service in the business, and they are generally a pleasure to deal with.

Lapua is the most expensive by far (often more expensive than custom bullets in standard weights and calibers), and has among the best QC in the industry, but I think no better than Sierra... and honestly very slightly less than Berger (if there is any measurable difference, which there probably isn't.

Lapua also has a very broad product range of truly precision match grade bullets for long range shooting; with a large number of weights and calibers available. They don't have nearly the breadth of range that Sierra or Hornady have; but in almost every caliber they produce, they have at least one of the top long range bullet selections for that caliber.

But have I mentioned how expensive they are? Like... REALLY expensive (seriously, Lapua bullets are often not just a substantial percentage higher, but often several times the price, of other brands).

Sierra are the default choice for many long range shooters. They are also the dominant provider of match grade bullets for factory ammunition, and for high precision military ammunition. U.S. Military snipers, in general, shoot Sierra bullets. Sierra, like Hornady, has a very broad range of bullets in general, but a somewhat narrower range that are truly suited for precision long range shooting (primarily the heavier bullets in each caliber in the MatchKing family).

Berger... In my opinion they are both the best bullets anywhere (and one of the broadest product ranges in terms of precision long range shooting; which Berger is almost exclusively focused on), and also the best company to deal with (though Hornady also has among the best customer service in the business). Walt Berger and Brian Litz have personally helped me to develop my loads for long range shooting; and they are glad to help anyone who asks them. Also, they are substantially less expensive than Lapua, and sometimes even less expensive than Sierra.

Honestly, where they are making great products (not all of them make a great bullet at every weight in every caliber), I don't really think there is a material difference in accuracy and precision potential between match grade bullets from any of them; it's just a matter of who has the best bullet with the best construction and best ballistic coefficient in the caliber and weight you want.

Just in general, for long range, you want the longest, heaviest, highest bc bullets you can, with the construction most appropriate for the shooting type you're doing.

Brass.. frankly I want address it mostly in the next session where we talk about brass prep; but again I'll make some generally recommandations here and give you some tips.

In this section, what I will recommend, is that in general you choose virgin U.S. factory brass (Federal, Remington, Winchester); match grade brass from Hornady, Nosler, Norma, RWS, or Lapua; or boutique brass from a specialty supplier (often the only way to get a particular chambering).

In general I prefer Winchester for factory brass, and in my experience so do other long range shooters.  It seems most benchresters these days are biting the bullet, and buying the ungodly expensive, but very good, Lapua, Norma, or RWS brass.

Given how much I hate brass prep, and how relatively reasonable the cost is, I'm thinking of buying a couple hundred Hornady match grade cases, and seeing what I think of them.

I don't buy once fired or "remanufactured" brass for precision shooting, even for practice; simply because I don't know what chamber(s) they've been fired through.

Match grade brass can be a lot more expensive than general run factory brass. Hornadys match brass is generally around 50-100% more expensive than new factory brass, which isn't too bad; but Lapua can once again be several times the cost (four or five times the cost isn't unusual) of normal factory brass.

So, what are you paying for?


Match grade lots are going to be better matched in weight, and closer to spec measurements, with a lower rate and magnitude of deviation; and when the brass is processed you should have fewer rejects.

Step two: Brass Prep

Also known as "goddamn razzafracking !@#$%@$!#@ brass prep".

Let me just warn you right now, you're hands WILL get numb. My hands were still cramped from prepping that batch 8 hours later.

Also, you will get splinters and shavings of brass all over yourself, no matter how clean and neat you try to be. I recommend having a source of compressed air, and a tack cloth or loose weave shop towel handy at all times to clean such bits away frequently.

I'll say this right now, this is both the most tedious and time consuming process in precision reloading; it is also the most important process in precision reloading.

Good brass prep won't guarantee consistency, but bad brass prep will guarantee you won't have it.

So, what is good brass prep?

Well, the idea, is to make the brass as consistent as possible, while preparing it to accept primer, powder, and bullet.

This means we'll be focused on the case neck and shoulder, the case mouth, the primer pocket, and the flash hole (both inside and out).

Unfortunately, most brass as it comes from the factory, is terribly inconsistent. The necks may be significantly out of round, the shoulders may not be in the right place and may have small dents, even the base circle at the case head may be out of round; and almost certainly the neck won't be perfectly concentric to the shoulder, or the shoulder to the base circle.

The truly hardcore accuracy nuts, benchresters, the guys who shoot prairie dogs at a mile etc... deal with the first part of this inconsistency, by never firing virgin brass in anger.

For these shooters, the first firing of a case is always either as a sighter round (not shot for group, or on an animal) or practice round; or with a light load of powder and a filler material, in the chamber of the rifle they're going to be shooting through.

That first firing matches the case precisely to the rifle for maximum possible consistency (some even mark the orientation of the cartridge in the chamber so when they chamber the round next, it's EXACTLY the same).

This process is called fireforming, and in addition to its use in improving precision, is also used to convert parent brass into the shape of a similar wildcat chambering (for example, bumping the shoulder forward from a standard cartridge to form an Ackley Improved).

Personally, I am not nearly so anal, nor do I have the money to burn on powder at $16 a pound. I guess I won't be able to shoot 4" groups at 1000 yards, or kill prairie dogs BVR.

I'm not belittling the practice by the way; there is very definitely a measurable difference in velocity deviation, and in group size, between virgin brass and fireformed brass. It's just that, unless you're measuring your precision in small fractions of an MOA, that difference isn't likely to be worth it to you.

For the rest of us, I generally recommend brass prep start with a full length sizing, using match grade or competition dies; or in the extreme case, dies custom reamed to your rifles chamber.

I realize that, again, for some of the hardcore, a full length size is anathema. Unfortunately, because of the state of most factory brass, I really think you should start with the known good consistency of a full length resize.

For years, most benchrest shooters would never full length resize unless a case was difficult to feed or extract. With the wider availability of high precision and custom dies; many benchrest shooters have come around to this way of thinking as well.

Once you've fired your brass in your chamber ( unless you're shooting through an auto, or through multiple guns, where you should generally full length size every loading) you can switch to neck sizing until the brass grows too much and needs to be bumped back, or until extraction gets stickier than you want to deal with (remember, tight is OK in a boltie, it just means more consistency; but stuck is very bad, so don't push it). With fireforming and neck sizing, you'll generally maintain consistency better, and your brass will usually last longer.

With magnum chamberings in factory chambers (and with some factory .223, 5.56,  and .308 chambers), it may be necessary to full length resize every time; because factory chambers can be loose enough and inconsistent enough that combined with the pressures of a magnum (or NATO spec ammo in the case of .223 and .308), the brass can flow enough to make extraction and even feeding sticky after every shot (which will definitely reduce your brass life as well).
Oh and not specifically related to brass prep, but important to accuracy and precision; in the case of .223 and 5.56, make sure you're shooting .223 spec ammo through a .223 spec chamber and not 5.56 (and vice verse). The differences between the two are in the lede and throat angle, and that 5.56 has a substantially higher max pressure; all of which are critical to precision (as well as to safe loading and shooting).  
Also, brass that is stamped .223 may have different wall thickness, case web/head thickness, and internal volume, than brass that is marked 5.56, so you shouldn't mix them; both for safety, and for precision. Of course, in general in precision shooting, you want to try to keep ammo batches from the same LOT of brass, never mind just the same chambering headstamp etc... 
For general run of the mill shooting through a random 5.56 chambered AR, these things don't generally make much difference; but if you're shooting at longer ranges through a .223 or 5.56 rifle (and you can shoot with precision out to 600 yards with proper loading), you're shooting at the very edge of the chamberings envelope. 
Long range 5.56 loads are generally loaded to max pressure with 72, 75, or 77gr (or higher for single shot bolties) bullets, seated to max feed length. If you try to shoot those loads through a .223 chambered varmint gun (if the bolt will even close on the round), not only is the rifle going to be inaccurate, you may bulge the barrel, or at the least blow out or pierce primers, or blow a case head. 
Many benchresters now use custom made full length sizing dies that are made from the exact specs (or even made off of castings of) the chambers in each of their rifles, minus whatever bumpdown the shooter chooses in the shoulder and neck. They will still fireform the case first, so that it isn't undersized, but they then full length size with their custom dies to bump everything down to the exact dimension they wish; after which they may choose to neck size every firing, or they may full length size again. Practices vary with every shooter really.

At any rate, if you don't want to full length size, you'll need to at least neck size, before you can prep the case mouth (some chamfer and deburr their case mouths before neck sizing, which you can do if your case mouths are all very close to perfectly round; which you will only get on match grade brass) .

This makes the case mouth and neck perfectly round and concentric to the shoulder; something which is sadly rare in factory brass (and in the process will create most of your rejects, as you get necks which simply can't be made right, or which split when being sized because they were so far out of spec or so damaged); and the right size to accept a bullet, seated with appropriate tension (unlike pistol bullets, rifle bullets are not generally crimped after seating).

Some separate their neck expansion, and neck sizing steps, using two separate dies. They may also then turn the neck before final neck sizing. This may in fact be necessary with some custom or competition dies. Again, I don't bother.

As to the dies themselves... I didn't address them above in the "gathering tools and materials section" because frankly in the major precision shooting competitions, just about everyone uses Redding competition dies (with micrometer adjustments, and changeable neck sizing bushings), boutique dies, or custom dies reamed to their chamber specs. Either you're anal enough to do that, or you can choose whatever die maker you like, because they'll all be about the same precision otherwise.

Personally, I like Reddings competition dies, and Hornady dies ( I think they operate smoother than RCBS, Dillon, Lyman, or Lee; who all also make excellent dies).
A note: With some competition dies, or custom dies, you may need to do a light neck turning, and a light case mouth chamfer, before sizing; as the tolerance of the dies are so tight as to prevent a thick walled case out of the bag from feeding into the die. 
At this point, if you have the tools, you can check your cases to see if they are fully round and concentric (you need a cartridge runout gauge and measuring jig. About $100, and a concentricity measurement tool, about another $100); but I generally don't bother. Another point separating me from benchresters.

Next we trim for length. This is another area where factory brass isn't going to be consistent; because until it's been fireformed, it's almost certainly all going to be significantly under max length. This means unless you want to trim well below spec (which I don't recommend), you're going to have to live with slightly inconsistent lengths until after the first firing.

Some loaders trim before they size their brass. With benchrest dies and match grade brass this is possible... in fact it may even be necessary because of very tight neck dimensions in competition dies.  

With standard dies however, I find the neck expander button can sometimes cause the neck and shoulder to grow slightly (this is also a good reason to run your neck expander, your full length sizer, and your neck sizer as three separate operations); and of course, you may need to bump the shoulder back a bit which will cause the case to shrink a bit. If you only trim before sizing, you could end up under or oversized. 

If you trim after every loading, and are using standard dies, you will most likely not have a problem sizing, then trimming. 

Frankly, if it's a concern, or if you are running competition dies; I think you should run your sizing as three separate operations, and trim twice if necessary; both before and after sizing. 

This is my length trimmer:

An RCBS trim pro, with the power trimmer kit. Frankly, I don't like it. It's more cumbersome to use than it needs to be, because the power kit is a clunky design. It takes up a HUGE amount of reloading bench space, and is just an awkward design. Also, it's ridiculously overpowered (something not generally true of reloading gear; most is underpowered).

It is however the market leader, and a lot of people (including me) get great results with it, IF PROPERLY SET UP. If you DON"T properly set it up, you will get inconsistent case trimming on the order of a hundredth or more (which for precision shooting is very poor).

That said, I definitely like having a power trimmer. I tend to load in large quantities, and trimming a couple hundred pieces of brass by hand is a very unpleasant and tedious task.

Most trimmers can be easily adapted to run on a small motor and switch however; so if you're at all mechanically inclined, you can make your own power kit for most manual trimmers.

For that matter, for $80, Hornady has a motor in a casing with switch and power, with a threaded shaft that can accept reloading tools. You can either mount the rotating part of a hand trimmer in one end and use it like  a brass monkey; or you could just rig a coupling between the motor, and the shaft of a crank operated manual case trimmer (which is how both Lyman and RCBS make their power trimmers. They couple the motor to the shaft of the trimmer with a short section of heavy tubing, and a pair of hose clips).

I do have a manual trimmer; actually two: one a Lyman benchtop crank model, and the second a press mounted trimming die. It works by running the case through the press into the die, and then cranking until the cutter reaches a depth you set and adjusted with locking rings, making it impossible to over trim. It to could be adapted to power use, as both Lee and Dillon have done with their very similar press mounted (or stand mounted) power trimmers.

Were I buying again, I'd buy the Holland Brass monkey ($500 though), or the new all in one Hornady:

Which lists for $515, but is actually available for around $330 (about $70 cheaper than buying the RCBS trim pro with power kit, and trim mate case prep center).
Note: As I was writing this article, I received a delivery from my father. He bought me the Hornady case prep center as a birthday present. Thanks Dad, I love you. 
There are other high end power trimmers, Gracey, Giraud, the Wilson manual trimmer rigged with a power kit (Wilson doesn't sell this, but others sell kits to do it) etc... But all are MUCH more expensive ($300-$500 just for the trimmer alone), and in the case of the Gracey require extensive (and expensive) tooling changes to work on different chamberings, or for the Giraud, are simply for a single caliber (at $425 each). They are certainly more precise (in the .0002 variance range, about 5 times what the Hornady can deliver), but frankly, I think .001 is enough.

If I was a high volume, rich, benchrest shooter, I'd probably be buying the full set of Gracey machines (they make an individual machine for each brass prep step); or a full set of the Wilson machines with power kits (Wilson and Sinclar make individual machines or adapters for all the steps as well) in every chambering I shot; and just mounting them all in a row on a board. It'd be expensive (about $1000), but very, very precise. As it is, I'll take the two RCBS bits, the Brass Monkey, or the Hornady case prep center.

Even if the brass doesn't require trimming; I do at least check all brass for length before proceeding, using my calipers; or just by dropping it into the trimmer and running it anyway (even though it won't engage the cutters if it's too short, the cutter pilot will help burnish the inside of the neck).

I also like to have a quicky go/nogo gauge for each chambering, that I cut out of plastic or sheetmetal, which lets me very quickly check the length of a case against my chosen min and max lengths (I cut my minimum on one side and my maximum on the other).

The next step, is to chamfer the inside of the case mouth with a tapered reamer. They make ones specifically for use with boattailed bullets:

Pretty much everyone uses it, or the ones just like it from other manufacturers. You can run the brass by hand, or you can take the tool off the handle, and chuck it up in a power drill (not recommended as it's very easy to overdo it, but some of the small "household" type drills would work fine), a cordless screwdriver; or in the Hornady, or RCBS case prep centers (the brass monkey comes with its own tool to do the same thing):

Again, I have the RCBS, which I bought before the Hornady was available. I like it a lot. It's really sped up my process; but combined with the length trimmer above, it takes up a lot of room on the loading bench.

As with the trimmer, if I had to buy again, I'd buy the Hornady, or the brass monkey; because they are good, AND because they do it all in one relatively compact package (the Hornady much faster, and cheaper; the brass monkey slower and more precise).

If you are so inclined, you could also rig up your own case prep center pretty easily, using a motor (like the Hornady above), and rigging a belt drive or gear drive to a few screw shafts threaded to accept the hand reloading tools. I know several people who have done so; but frankly, with the relatively low cost of the all in one Hornady above, I just don't see bothering anymore.

These reamers taper the case mouth to ease seating of the bullet. You don't bell the case mouth on a rifle case, so without chamfering, you would need excessive force to seat the bullet, and you would shave the sides of the bullet. you don't need to chamfer too deeply, just enough to make the case mouth smooth and even.

Next you chamfer and deburr the outside of the brass, removing any burr or wire edge you created with the inside chamfer; using this tool:

Which again, you can use in the handle, or in a case prep center. In fact, both the Hornady and RCBS come with an outside chamfer and deburr tool already (they also come with an inside chamfer tool, but it's not for boattail rifle bullets. You really need to use the one designed for vld bullets or you'll get shaving).

Finally you hit the inside of the mouth with the VLD chamfer tool one more time, just for a lick, in case you rolled the edge of the case mouth over with the outside chamfer tool.

Now that we've dealt with the sizing and the neck, we move on to the primer pocket.

Along with the neck, the primer pocket can really show you just how inconsistent factory brass can be.

The reason I won't ever buy Remington .300wm brass again, is because in addition to somewhat irregular necks (and a LOT of neck denting and crushing, and small dents in the shoulders in the lots I've purchased, so much so that something like 3 or 4 per 100 were unusable); in the batches I've bought in the last two years, the primer pockets are slightly looser than other brands, very uneven, slightly over deep, and have very rough flashholes from the factory.

The way brass is made, the primer pocket and flashhole are formed with a swage press, and a punch press. Slight inconsistencies in brass thickness, and hardness occur from lot to lot and case to case. Over time, tooling wears, and dimensions change very slightly.

These factors all combine to produce slight variations in primer pocket depth, flatness, the exact size and shape of the flash hole; and often it produces a  fairly substantial and uneven burr of brass sticking into the case body around the flash hole.

For mass produced, or high volume ammo, this isn't worth worrying about; but for match grade, long range shooting, this inconsistency in how the primer interacts with the powder charge, can cause slight inconsistencies in ignition, which causes slight variations in velocity.

To make the primer pockets uniform, there is a tool for each primer pocket size, set to the proper depth, which will flatten the pocket and remove any slightly out of round bits, or surface burrs, from the pocket:

As with the other tools, you can use this with the handle, or on a powered mandrel (I use mine in my case prep center).

The Remington brass from the last couple of lots I've tried had primer pockets that were fairly loose, such that the uniforming tool had no drag at all on the sides (though it didn't exactly rattle around the pocket), and the primer pockets were so deep that the tool made no cut on the base at all; leaving a slightly domed pocket, not a flat one.

Am I worried about the ammo being unreliable or inaccurate because of it? no not really, the pocket is just a little bit deeper, and shouldn't be a problem for the firing pin; but I don't like that it was so much out of spec that the cutter didn't even make a mark.

In comparison, the Winchester primer pockets are considerably tighter, there was some drag on the cutter, the pockets were almost completely flat and even without being uniformed, and the cutter just skimmed enough brass to make it bright all the way around; showing that it was even and flat.

To clean up the flash hole itself, there is another tool:

This tool can be used to clean up, uniform, and chamfer the touch hole from both sides if you wish, and I usually do; at least for thick brass like in a magnum. It does no harm (unless you over do it), takes about 1 second extra, and may just help a tiny bit, so why not. Remember, you're not trying to enlarge the flash hole, you're just deburring it. All you want to see is a very thin and even ring of shine around the flash hole when you're done, showing that the hole is now deburred, even and round.

You can tell just how much crap was left over in your brass from the punching of the flashhole, by how hard it is to feed the chamfering pilot into the hole from the inside; and how much brass shavings come out when you tap the case mouth on the bench. I've seen a lot of Remington brass that must've had a 1/16" ridge around the entire flashhole from how hard it was to pilot, and how much brass came out when it was done.

So, how much time does all this take?

Well, when I used to do it all by hand, it would take me about 2 minutes per case; from the bag to the loading block ready to be primed.

Today though, I timed doing ten of them, using my power trimmer, and case prep center; and total from bag to block averaged 25 seconds, including the full length sizing (of course that was on Winchester brass, which was much more consistent in general than Remington, had more consistent necks, and the primer pocket and flash hole cleanup went quickly).

Of course compared to the 5 seconds or so it would take to prep the brass for bulk loading (10 if you trimmed it), it's a lot more time... especially when you're doing 400.

Oh and of course for a lot of these operations, you only need do them once, or at least the second and subsequent times doing them are much easier and faster.

Now, compared to what real benchresters do, I'm being unconscionably lax.

The ammo I'm loading here is meant to achieve 1moa or slightly better at 600-1000 yards. For those who value precision measured in 10ths or 100ths of an MOA at 600 yards, there are several other procedures that are used to ensure consistency.

First, many high precision loaders will turn the outside of the neck using essentially a small lathe (sometimes just a bit fitted to a case trimmer, but most have separate trimmers and turners).

In theory, the neck sizing button has made the internal neck dimensions exactly round and even; but the outside may have variances in thickness, such that when the bullet is seated, tension on it will be slightly uneven in the chamber. Turning the outside of the neck ensure that the neck is of exactly uniform thickness, and thus exactly uniform pressure.

If you do turn your necks however, be aware that you will need to use custom or competition dies with a neck bushing, to ensure that your neck is sized consistently; as neck turning will make the neck slightly undersized for factory dies. Also, I do not recommend neck turning in factory chambers, as they are generally so loose that a turned neck may have its life significantly reduced, resulting in early neck splits.

It's a tiny fraction of a difference that many long range shooters outside of the benchrest community don't bother with... and in fact some people say it causes as many issues as it solves (and it definitely cuts reloads off the cases); so I personally don't bother.

That said, in competition dies, and competition chambers; the dimensions may be so tight, that neck turning is necessary to be able to run the case through the dies, or chamber it.

If you do want to turn your necks (or need to), is a good resource to start finding tools and techniques; as are the accurateshooting forums, and the accuratereloading forums.

Then of course there's the runout and concentricity measurement I mentioned above; something almost every benchrester will do on both their cases and their bullets.

Then, after brass prep, benchrest loaders will sort the brass into batches by weight down to the nearest grain, half grain, or even 2/10th grain (the theory being that brass which weighs the same will have very close to the same interior volume, and wall thickness, and therefore be more consistent).

Unfortunately, before fireforming there isn't always a great relationship between the weight of the brass, and its internal volume (which yes, is a huge issue of consistency, and is one of the reasons fireformed cases are more precise and accurate) ESPECIALLY with belted magnum cases (the case heads can vary substantially in weight), so unless your brass is already very good and consistent, I don't think sorting by weight to less than a 2gr deviation on small cases, and a 5gr deviation on large cases (say 7mm magnum and larger, or the short action magnums) gets you much.

Oh and in case it wasn't obvious, that's within a single case lot from one manufacturer. It's pointless sorting cases from multiple manufacturers together, and only slightly less so from multiple case lots; because brass composition and case head thickness can vary significantly.

By significantly, I mean that one lot of .300 winmag brass from one manufacturer may average 215gr per case, another lot from the same manufacturer may average 225gr per case, and a third lot form a different manufacturer may average 265gr per case.

Yes, that much. That's also why load data isn't completely transferrable between different cases. The same powder charge you use in the 215gr case may have a completely different result in the 265gr case.

Let me be clear, in a discipline where we generally measure things in 10ths of a grain, 2gr seems like an awful lot... and on that scale it is.


A grain is one 7000th of a pound. There are 437.5 grains in an ounce. So a 1/10th grain difference is one 4375th of an ounce; and a half grain is one 985th of an ounce.

Frankly, I don't think you need to worry about variations of less than about a hundredth of an ounce on larger cases,  thus my 5 grain gating.

I still sort by weight (I weigh every case before I prime it), I just dont sort into multiple tiny divisions.

I weigh the entire lot of brass I'll be loading in batches of 5 or 10 to the nearest 10th grain (depending on case size that's the most my larger digital scale can take at once), add up all the weights and calculate the arithmetic mean. Then I segregate out anything more than 5gr over or under the mean (for larger cases. For smaller I use 2gr), and sort the remainder into two batches.

If there are enough to bother with in a single batch, the overs and unders get sorted again into 5gr lots.

The cases that were more than 5gr over or under the second cut; get used for practice ammo, made into dummies, made into bench tools or paperweights, or they get thrown away. But frankly, with good brass I rarely see many discards. In the last batch of 400 cases I ran, I didn't have any that were rejected for extreme weight variation.

To be honest with you, I've never seen a difference between a sorted lots,  from a lot I didn't bother to sort (after discarding the gross outliers of course). I'm sure if I was measuring for 10ths of an moa I would, but I don't.

Of course, the game in benchrest shooting is to pile up lots of tiny improvements together to make things the most precise you possibly can; so they do everything possible.

And what about match grade brass? Do you still have to do all this with match brass?

Unfortunately, yes.


What you get when you spend anywhere from half again as much to five times as much per case; is generally a lot less work, and a lot fewer rejects.

It should just, in general, be easier with match grade brass, and everything is going to be closer to consistent with you messing with the brass less.

It's not going to guarantee you more accurate and precise ammunition; but it should make it easier for you to make your ammo more accurate and precise.

Is it worth it...

I dunno. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Sometimes you don't have a choice because it's the only half decent brass at all. Sometimes the differences between the match brass and the factory brass is so small it doesn't seem worth it.

On the other hand, some match grade brass is so good that the necks are always concentric to the shoulder and base circle; you don't need to touch the primer pockets and flashholes; and sorting by weight is a waste of time because they're all already under .5gr variance.

You really just have to do your own testing, and make your own evaluation as to the value proposition.

Oh and if you want to see how benchresters do it, this article from gives a solid overview:

Step three: Priming

This is the easiest, and quickest, part of the whole process. You can either prime on your loading press, or do as I prefer to do, use a hand priming tool.

The market leader is the Lee auto prime, and I actually have two of them; but I prefer the Hornady tool:

The Hornady is somewhat larger and easier to hold with more leverage and better feel in seating. Also, it has a larger and more useful primer tray; and it uses the same standard shell holders you use on your press, rather than shell holder inserts.

There's really nothing special to do here, vs. any other priming operation; just make sure you've got the primer seated fully and evenly, and you're good to go.

Step four: Charging

On to the SECOND most irritating and tedious bit of this process; measuring the powder charge, and placing that charge in the case.

Actually, when I was using a traditional manual balance this used to be the biggest pain in the ass part for me (and considering how much I HATE brass prep, that's saying something)... and it may still be for you... but I have my secret weapon:

The RCBS Chargemaster 1500 combo (the link is to Midway, because the RCBS site is down... again... as is so often the case...).

When I used a manual balance, in order to get charges relatively quick, and consistent to 1/10th grain or less, it used to take me over a minute each charge to throw underweight, weigh up, and trickle up to the charge using a trickler into the pan on the balance; plus the time it took me to set up the powder measure to throw the right weight in the first place.

Now, it takes me about 20 seconds, and the charges trickle themselves up to under 1/10th accuracy at the push of a button, with a beep to tell you when it's settled and ready to drop into the cases.

If you're going to load any kind of volume, get yourself one... or one of the similar models from PACT, Lyman, or Hornady.

At the very least, buy a good digital scale, like the Hornady L-N-L bench scale ($85 on the net) and use that:

The manual balances are certainly accurate, and reliable; but it takes forever to get them to settle down to get a precise measurement. Plus, the money you spend on a good balance (about $70-$140) is about the same you'll spend on a digital scale of equivalent quality.

Ten years ago, digital scales had a lot of issues, and reloaders didn't really trust them; but it's not the same today. I don't even use my manual balances anymore; I just recalibrate my digital with check weights before every session, and every hundred charges or so in every session.

If you're going to use a scale and separate powder measure, you then need said powder measure. I personally recommend the rotating barrel with piston in cylinder adjustment type used by Hornady, RCBS, and Redding. Also, all three offer micrometer type adjusters, that allow for very fine and repeatable adjustments.

Any of them will do you just fine, but the Redding benchrest model is the "gold standard" for benchrest shooters.

I personally have both a Hornady, and an RCBS; and the stands for both that let me raise the measures well above the bench (so I don't have to drop below the benchtop).

I personally dont care for the sliding barrel mechanism used in the Lee and Lyman measures; or the sliding charge bar mechanism used in the Dillon and other Lee measures. I believe they are less precise, less repeatable, and easier to jam up with difficult powders.

One thing to note: the standard powder measure inserts that come with the measure are usually sufficient for rifle benchrest chamberings, but often don't have sufficient volume for large magnums. Most manufacturers offer inserts which can measure larger charges precisely however.

Also, if you are going to use a manual throw and scale, you'll need a powder trickler. They're all pretty much the same, so I don't think the brand or model matters; so long as you get one that's heavy, anti-static (no plastic) and relatively smooth inside. I personally have a Redding that's older than I am.

No matter what type of scale and powder measure you use,  I STRONGLY recommend you use the Lyman powder pal:

I throw directly into the dish, which is partially shielded with a funnel already built in; which helps keep the charge from spilling, and then allows me to go direct to each cartridge quickly, without a separate funnel. It saves a second or too each charge, and over the course of a few hundred charges it makes a real difference.

Step five: Bullets and seating

Now we get to actually finishing functional ammo; and another controversial and complicated topic.

Any benchrester or other hardcore accuracy nut will measure, weigh, and sort their bullets to what I consider an extreme degree.

For example, a benchrester will check each bullet for runout at at least three points; with a maximum runout of .002" before rejecting a bullet.

I don't even bother to check bullet runout; I just buy good match grade bullets, and trust that anything that meets my weight and length gates will be sufficiently concentric.

I check three things (numbers are for large magnums. appx .5% max weight variance and 2% max length variance to scale for smaller rounds):

  1. Inspect for obvious defects or malformations
  2. Measure length with a maximum variance of .04" from nominal
  3. Sort by weight into .5gr lots,  with a maximum variance of 1gr from nominal

Anything beyond the maximum variance I discard; unless there are enough on either side to sort into their own lot; frankly with good match grade bullets, that's pretty rare.

Again, by benchrest standards I am unconscionably lax (most sort by .1gr or .2gr); but I'm not trying to shoot under 1/2moa at 1000 yards, nor am I concerned with .1moa variations at 600 yards; I want to shoot at 1moa or under at 1000, and 3/4moa or under at 800.

Once your bullets are sorted, it's seating time.... almost

You have to figure your seating depth first.

Personally, I find the best way to do that, is to load a dummy with a slightly loose neck (run the expander but not the neck sizer, then chamfer, and that should do it) out to the maximum length I can either fit in the gun, or the maximum I can get the bullet to hold firmly enough it wont pull out of the case with finger pressure. Then I measure the round to the nearest thousandth, and note that down.

When I'm ready,  I very carefully feed the cartridge into the chamber being careful not to knock the nose, and I close the bolt on the round.

If there is any kind of accuracy potential out of the rifle at all with the bullet you're loading; this should push the bullet into the lands of the rifling.

Unfortunately, on a lot of factory guns, they cut the throat badly, with a very long lede so it will not build up excess pressure no matter what some idiot loads in the gun; and you won't be able to contact the lands of the rifling with the longest cartridge you can load.
That is generally a strong indicator that you should rebarrel; but not always. Frankly, I've had plenty of 1moa guns that had ledes to long to seat to the lands with a max feedlength cartridge; so you should test it and see if you're happy before you decide to rebarrel.  Also, you can try using a bullet with a shorter or fatter ogive, or a longer bearing surface; and you might be able to get contact.
Extract the cartridge, and make note of the orientation the cartridge was in; and inspect the bullet to make sure it has slight marks from the rifling pushing on it. If there isn't even the slightest mark, again that's probably an indicator you want to rebarrel. Measure the OAL and note it down.

Now, you're going to rechamber the cartridge 4 times, rotating it 1/4 turn each time, and making sure the nose doesn't touch anything, until the rifling hits the ogive, each time. Then extract and measure.

If it sticks or pushes deeper in any measurable way (more than .002 variation, if that's within the accuracy of your measuring instrument... if you want better accuracy get an oal-to-ogive measuring device. They usually have a .001 repeatable accuracy), you may have a problem with either non concentric ammo,  a non-concentric bore, or a roughly reamed chamber and throat. First check your ammo, then run the test again. If it does it again, after verifying your ammo is concentric to .002, you've got a non concentric bore or chamber; and it's time to re-ream or re-barrel.

Now, to the controversy...

Every chambering is different, every bullet shape is different, and every barrel is different; so there is no one bullet seating depth that will give the best accuracy with safe pressures.

This is where the holy wars start.

Some say that bullets should be seated as far as two hundreths out from the lands of the rifling; some think as little as two thousandths; and a third group thinks there should be no measurable jump at all, so long as the bullet isn't actually jammed into the lands (there are those who maintain jammed hard in the lands is best, but it's not safe. It causes pressure spiking).

The answer is?

There is no answer. Different bullets, in different chamberings, at different pressures all respond to jump differently, with groups often growing and shrinking at each couple thousandths of variation, and not in a linear fashion. Highly precise, repeated, instrumented testing by ballisticians has come up with the exact same result.

If you're lucky, somebody like Brian Litz has tested your bullet and chambering, and has a good idea where to start.

Brians advice to me for the  Berger  .300 210gr VLD target bullets, was to start at .002" off and test in .002" increments out to .01" off; but that it was likely, with a good tight chamber and throat that I'd see the best results between .002" and .006" off.

Once you've got your final measurement, and have decided on your jump; it's time to set up your seating die.

Your seating setup is dependent on your press, your bullets, and your dies; so I can't give you explicit instruction. Just make sure you have good, accurate, and precise measuring tools, and that if they are calibratable, you do so.

Also, it's important to note that rifle seating dies, seat on the ogive of the bullet not the point of the bullet; and any measurements are most accurate when taken from a set point on the ogive, using a micrometer made to do so (several of the benchrest instrument makers sell them).

What I can say, is a micrometer seating die is a real help in getting it done properly, with precision.

Again, basically everyone who seats in a reloading press uses the Redding competition dies. Some long range shooters will get a custom insert machined that matches the ogive of their bullets precisely, for maximum repeatability.

Some use the inline "hand" seating dies from Wilson; which use an arbor press (a small shop press), rather than a reloading press. These dies seat together in two halves, rather than using a shellholder and a die holder; and are machined together. Because of this, they don't depend on the precision of the press, and have a higher theoretically achievable precision than using a die in a reloading press.

You want to have a maximum variance of +0 -.002" if you can get it (and if you work at it, and have the right dies, and a good press, you can), and at worst .01"; and you should definitely check every round you intend to use in precision shooting, after seating, so you can reseat as necessary.

If you have a problem seating to .002" precision, you should sort into .005" maximum batches. If you dont have a micrometer or calipers that can repeatably measure that, get one. They make them just for precision reloaders (and I'm not talking about the $20 chinese made RCBS that you use to load your .45acp).

Finally, if you're measuring runout at all; you should measure bullet to case runout to ensure the bullet isn't slightly tilted in the case. You're trying for .002 or less, with more than .004 being unacceptable.

Step six: Shoot! 

Actually, shoot, test, shoot, test, measure, test... then go back and adjust parameters and shoot and test some more. 

Loading for precision at long range is an iterative process, where you test every possible parameter you can, with every other possible parameter you can, until you come up with the best results for your individual rifle. 

I strongly recommend you find a shooting spot where you can set up a portable loading bench, and load at your testing site; that way you can test many variations in a single day. 

Your most valuable test tools will be your 100 yard zeroing targets, your spotting scope, and your chronograph. 

If you group spectacularly the first time out, Mazeltov. Write down everything you did, how you did it, and what the measurements were so you can repeat that. 

If not... time to get to work. 

Your first task, is to try to get your extreme velocity spread down below 1%, and your standard deviation below .5% (it's doable, but very difficult). This doesn't guarantee good groups, but it certainly makes your life easier. 

Next up, we load batches where everything is identical but the charge weight. 

First, work up to the maximum velocity load that gives you a reasonable standard deviation and extreme spread, while staying under safe pressure limitations. Next Load 10 batches, with rounds each batch, at .2gr increments per batch, and shoot two groups of five with each charge weight. 

The load that shoots the best groups wins; but if you see a trend of continually improving groups as you move down, keep loading more batches and moving down until improvement stops. 

When we're testing ammo we start at 100 yards because it's a lot easier to see the initial results, and reset over and over again. We're going to be doing a lot of that. 

We use a sighting in target, because the multiple quadrant targets, and sighting grid mean we can shoot groups anywhere on the target and get a decent aim point, and decent in scope group measurement for quick adjustment and assessment. 

Once we've found the right charge, we can try varying the seating depth by .002" and testing as described above in the section on seating.  Again, follow the trend lines until they peter out, but ONLY if the trend is consistent. As I said above, varying seating depth can have very inconsistent results. 

If you can't get the ES and SD to settle down, and to give you good groups, it's time to change powders, and see how that goes for you. 

If that doesn't work, you may need to change bullets; because your barrel may not like the bullet you've chosen. 

Again, try to get the combination of the smallest possible ES and SD, along with good groups, varying the items above. 

If you can't get the ES and SD to settle, maybe there's something wrong with the ammo you're making? Tighten up your weighing and measuring a bit. If you haven't been measuring runout, start doing so. Try switching lots of powder and lots of primers. Start turning your necks, and switch to competition dies. 

If you can get a load to settle down to a good  ES and SD but can't get the rifle to group as well as you want with two different powders and two different bullets, and you're checking precision at every step... are you sure you're  asking too much out of your rifle? is your stock set up right? Your trigger? Your rest? Your optics? Do you need to rebarrel?

The variables can be damn near endless. That's why people can (and do) spend YEARS working on just getting one perfect load for one perfect rifle. 

And of course, all this presumes you, the shooter, are doing your job. 

Ahhh... if not you can always use the excuse "the gun just dosen't like this load... I think I'll try...."

*** For those who were thinking "damn this is a long post", it's a bit under 9500 words (about 20 8.5x11 doublespaced typewritten pages; or about 30-40 pages in the large format paperbacks usually devoted to this kind of subject -depending on photos, illustrations, and layout-)... and it's actually still way too short, with nowhere near enough detail; and written for people who are already experienced reloaders. To do this right, and to assume only basic level reloading knowledge, would need a full book, maybe 80,000 words.

At this length, it's just about in my top ten for post length; with my top five all over 15,000 words.