One of the more challenging aspects of reloading accuracy is deciding which combination of the bullet, powder, primer, and seating depth provides the most accurate and consistent results with their rifle. Fortunately, competitive shooters have burned through mountains of powder and broken barrels, experimenting with reloading methods that outperform random trial and error.
I’ve looked at ladder tests, the Audette test, and the most recent one I’ve discovered is the optimal charge weight method (OCW). All of these techniques can take you down the road to a suitable rifle load. I’ve tried them all, and they’ve all worked for me. My present methods include elements from each of them.
Before you can be confident that any method of reducing a load will succeed, you must first assess your rifle, the quality of your ammunition (reloading procedure), and last but not least, your ability to consistently pull the trigger. Interpreting target outcomes would be nearly impossible if any of these three variables are lacking.
My first reloading endeavors were, to put it bluntly, a little aggravating until I made tweaks on all three fronts. First and foremost, I bedded the rifle’s action and free-floated the barrel – a significant improvement. Next, I learned how to be more careful with my brass prep. I began paying attention to seating depth and bullet runout (wobble) and purchasing instruments that measured and corrected both. After identifying the problems, I upgraded my reloading equipment and developed improved repair and maintenance methods. To keep bullet tension constant, I began annealing case necks too. The result was a significant improvement.
Finally, I realized that the problem was with the gun’s grip (me)! So I improved my shooting skills from a bench and bipod. The shooting technique is far more essential than the first two variables, especially with a heavy recoiling hunting rifle. All of your load-development efforts will be for naught if you can’t shoot the rifle properly!
If you pay attention to where your barrel is pointing once it recoils, you’ll probably notice that you go off target frequently and in a different direction and amount with each shot (I was). I knew I’d figured out how to build a better shooting posture, one where the rifle recoiled in line with the target, and I quit arm-wrestling the crosshairs towards the bull’s-eye to establish a more excellent natural point of aim after figuring out that my shots were always missing in the same direction as.
It was time to get down to business at that point. After that, loading development became a lot easier! I also learned that while working up to large amounts of data and reloading it multiple times is appealing, taking it too far might become “work,” especially if you’re using a hunting rifle. You can spend hours studying guns that shoot 0.5 MOA (one-half inch at 100 yards) but making them a reality is difficult for the most part for both firearms and individuals. The minute of angle, or MOA, is a unit of angular distance on a circle used in ballistics. One degree is divided into 60 MOA. The majority of scopes have 0.5 and 0.25-inch windage and elevation adjustments for each degree (MOA). One mark equals 1.047 inches at 100 yards; 10.47 inches at 1000 yards are equivalent to one at 100 yards.
I’ve launched out a barrel in search of more progressive reloading accuracy, and I’ve learned that there is a certain point for every rifle and shooter at which “good enough” becomes adequate. The search for “adequate” never ends for a benchrest hunter.
If that’s the case, benchrest is your game. Once you get down to about 1 MOA, other factors like learning to shoot from field positions and reading wind become far more significant than reducing group sizes by another quarter of an inch on the bench. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t strive for perfection when it comes to our weapons and ammunition. I’m not trying to convey a message here but rather warn you against being overly obsessed with reloading precision. Once you’ve figured out how to shoot it well, go burn up your barrel shooting vermin instead of ladder testing! Here are the steps I use when working up reloading accuracy for my hunting rifles.
1) Start with a Great Bullet
Wind drift is the number one barrier to hitting long-range targets. Because of this, I utilize the heaviest, most ballistic coefficient (BC) bullets available for hunting. The new Berger 195-grain EOL Elite reloading project I’m working on has a G7 BC of .387! That’s 12% better than the previous 180-grain best offering. The disadvantage is that high BC bullets require a fast twist rate to stabilize them properly, and many factory barrels aren’t designed for it. Use the Berger Twist Rate Calculator to see if your barrel needs are met.
The type of bullet you need will likely be different from mine. You might require a hard-hitting bullet for a dangerous game or a light laser-beam bullet to reduce the need to range coyotes in broken ground. Choose the most OK bullet for your requirements. The caliber of the ammunition you reload won’t have an impact on its accuracy.
2) Choose a Great Powder
Consult your reloading manual, powder company websites, and the bullet manufacturer for information on selecting a powder. I emailed Berger to obtain data for this new bullet since neither my reloading manual nor the Hodgdon and Alliant websites had any information for anything comparable. Berger provided me with this table in less than 24 hours.
I have five powders on the list, but I chose RL50 (Alliant Reloader 50) to test first because it’s a slow-burning powder that should work well with the heavier bullet. It has a more significant case fill ratio, which can help reduce velocity spread, and it also generated one of the most incredible velocities with my bullet. It is readily available, which is always an important consideration. Many reloading manuals and data sources suggest primers. 215M Federal primers have served me well in this rifle, and I have plenty of them.
The Hornady OAL gauge and bullet comparator, along with a caliper, will be some of your most essential reloading equipment.
Next, I measure the distance to the beginning of the rifling (lands) with the new bullet using a Hornady Lock & Load OAL (overall length) gauge. This measurement is also known as “freebore.”
For almost all applications, you’ll need to seat the bullet shorter than the freebore so it won’t get caught in the rifling and blocked if/when you pull a loaded round. You’ll need a cartridge case that fits your rifle and connects to the gauge (not included). When you fire your gun, the neck on the special occasion becomes much more significant, allowing for easy movement of the plunger rod. The tool works best with a discharged case from your rifle. Send a fired brass portion to Hornady, as instructed on the package, and they will thread your chance for a small fee.
The OAL gauge takes some getting used to. When reloading, experiment with a few bullets and several measurements with each one until you get the hang of it and are obtaining consistent numbers (+/- .002″). If you receive significantly different readings between rounds, use the longer freebore to prevent problems.
To accurately measure the freebore on a gauge, you’ll also need a caliper with a caliber-specific bullet comparator (also available from Hornady, among others). My cartridge base-to-ogive distance was 3.214″ with the 195-grain Berger projectile. When it comes to describing where the curve of the bullet nose joins the primary cylinder diameter of the bullet, “ogive” is a fancy term that means “pointy end.” That’s also where the bullet will first touch rifling when fired.
The bullet comparator will also come in handy when you’re measuring rounds off your press to set the seating die to the proper length. Many target shooters seat their bullets deep into the lands, and bench resters frequently jam their cartridges .010 -.020″ into the grooves. Never seat bullets beyond jamming lengths since they will have an impact on hunting rifle reloading accuracy.
Send one of your unreturned cases to Hornady, and they will thread it for their OAL gauge. It’s less expensive than purchasing the case from them, and it’s tailored to your chamber. It performs better with a close fit as well.
The OAL of a cartridge is the length from the base to the ogive, which is usually abbreviated as BTO. Still, I like to use BTO when mentioning that measurement to avoid confusion with total cartridge length (measured from cartridge base to tip of bullet) and abbreviated COAL. When comparing bullet seating depths, it’s much more accurate to measure BTO because bullet meplats (nose edges) can be uneven and vary by .010″ or more.
The most reliable technique to measure how far from the lands you’re seating the bullet is to utilize a bore gauge and measure seating depth from the base to the ogive (BTO). Freebore – desired distance between land’s surface (jump) and BTO that you wish to achieve. Set your seating die depending on this information.
4) Load Cartridges
Now that the freebore has been established, you may safely load cartridges at various seating depths to develop the most precise BTO. *CAUTION*: Many guns come with too short magazines to insert bullets near the rifling. Before reloading your magazine, ensure that it has enough room!
Take the freebore there if the chamber is 0.250″ from the face. If your magazine is shorter than your freebore measurement, begin with a seating depth of approximately 0.010″ less and proceed down in 0.030″ steps until you reach the intended value. When these weapons are within about 1 inch of their magazine length, they are very accurate.
Many guns, such as the Remington 700, can accept an extended magazine, allowing you to test single feed and increase seating depth by extending these magazines out to 4″ instead of the standard 3.7″ mag box. One option I’ve used on my rifles is big boxes made by Wyatts.
According to the website of Berger, there is often a “sweet spot” in seating depth of .030-.040,” which is generally located between the lands and the jump off the slopes. As a result, testing seating depth in increments of .040″ should enable you to find a length that shoots well.
For example, if a rifle is shooting 2.000″ groups at 100 yards with factory ammo, try the test loads below starting at 2.020″ and work your way up to 2.040″ away from the lands: You can then measure a few of those shots for accuracy if you need to within that range (1-inch precision). -> According to Berger, test loads should be made at increments of .010″, .050″, .090″, and.130″ from the lands. Berger suggests six each, but I’ve found that three-shot groupings are usually enough for me. These increments have worked effectively on several of my rifles in locating a proper seating depth.
If the first test isn’t good enough, try using smaller increments around the maximum depth of your initial pass or split the difference and give it a go. If you’re not sure what to do, remember that .300″ is roughly 1/3rd of an inch (.030″),.670″, (or) 1/2 (.070″) of
The Redding Competition Seating Die, for example, improves reloading accuracy and speed when seating depth changes are required.
When testing seating depth, use the lowest powder charge for your bullet/powder combination since pressures can rise when approaching or touching the lands. If you discover that besting the grounds is key to maximum performance, you may gradually build up a powder charge to determine your entire load. Conversely, if you develop a hot powder charge that shot well .100″ off the grooves, you risk being dangerously over-pressured if you subsequently move the bullet out to touch the groves.
5) Prepare Loads in Steps
Prepare three loads in 1% powder increments between the starting and maximum amounts shown, using the most profound seating depth discovered in Step 4. The table supplied by Berger recommends a starting weight of 82 grains and a maximum weight of 86.4 grains for RL50 powder. Using 0.8 grain (1%) increments, we obtain loads of 82, 83, 84, 85, and 86 grains, respectively.
You’ll need two or three rounds to get back to zero after cleaning the bore thoroughly, so prepare 6 – 8 extra foul-rounds for sighters and to season the tube with a bit of copper before beginning the test. Any leftover foul-rounds can be used in your next test session or strengthen the barrel again if necessary.
Then, fire one shot from each charge weight in turn at one target with the same point of aim at 100 yards after the fouling rounds. Please take a look at your results after you’ve been doing it for a while. Please keep track of the impact for each shot and mark its position on a duplicate target, marking every hole with its powder charge. You may also use a clock to calculate your velocities (highly recommended).
As charge weight increases, look for pressure indications and stop as soon as you detect that your load is too hot. Pressure indicators include:
- Bolt lifts.
- Flattened or cratered primers.
- A brilliant ejector mark on the bottom of the case.
- Significant recoil.
In addition to these conditions, if you detect any pressure signals following shooting higher loads, don’t shoot anymore!
Place an X on the bottom of all loads that are equal or greater. When you return home, disassemble them and remove them from the test.
In bright light, pressure signs can be challenging to detect. Before this shot, I missed the faint ejector mark on the load because it was already too hot. You are well above pressure if you have a shiny, raised ejector mark. Another helpful aid in determining pressure is primers. Take a look at how the primer on the right has been cratered and has sharper corners when compared to the radius on the left primer.
After you’ve completed the first ladder, repeat with the following two strings, using a clean target for each. If you don’t have a spotter, you may color code bullets by marking the front of the bullet with a sharpie marker so that the color does not touch your bore. You’ll be able to quickly identify the colors of each shot on a white target; make sure to document how many different powders you used for each powder group. Note any misses in your log so that an incorrect data point doesn’t influence your decision-making. The primary goal of shooting three separate ladders is to ensure this happens.
If you have a factory barrel, it might be necessary to clean your rifle between the second and third ladders to avoid accuracy issues caused by build-up. Due to build-up, most hand-lapped bespoke barrels can shoot around 20-30+ rounds without significant alterations in precision. After cleaning, fire a few foul shots to determine how much fouling you have before going back up with the final ladder.
If possible, allow a few minutes between each shot to allow the barrel to cool. If the barrel gets hotter and hotter after each image, test results will be incorrect. Heavier, curved barrels are typically less sensitive to heat, but it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on the barrel temperature, so you get consistently tight groups. Using your phone to time shots might help with consistency.
Rubbing alcohol on a Q-Tip or placing colored Sharpies in front of the ogive are two methods to identify which load hit where on a white target backdrop if you don’t have a spotter. If your mystery bullet impacts a black section of the target, use rubbing alcohol to reveal its color.
7) Reloading Analysis and Selection
The conclusion is to read the results and pick the best load. Occasionally, the outcomes are clear, but most of the time, subtle details must be examined in detail to make the best decision.
When three consecutive load steps are grouped, you’ve found the reloading accuracy node. If you notice that all three ladders have it, the obvious choice is to use the center charge. It was grouped with orders above and below, implying that powder or pressure changes won’t be overly affected.
If the velocity spread for that load is less than ten fps, you’ll almost certainly have a winner. Target guns frequently provide data like this, but hunting rifles are more often perplexing. That’s when you’ll want to delve a little deeper.
In this post, we’ll examine all of the information collected from my rifle and how utilizing a chronograph may assist you in determining between loads when the answer isn’t clear. In the meanwhile, gather your components and prepare your load tests.