Precision Accuracy is the sole reason I load my own ammunition. If I was satisfied with ‘sub-perfect’ ammunition, I’d buy factory loaded ammo. Let me back up just a little. It’s not that factory loaded ammo is not perfect, it just doesn’t shoot perfectly from my rifles. Do they go “BANG”? Absolutely! I’ve never pulled a trigger behind a factory loaded round in my life that didn’t fire and send a projectile out the other end of the barrel. If that’s perfection to you, then it’s perfect ammo. Now, occasionally, like once in a Blue Moon, you’ll find the perfect marriage between a rifle and a box of factory ammo, but that kind of marriage is extremely rare. What I call perfect is when shots 2, 3, 4 and 5 fly the very same path in space as shot number 1 and impact the target in the very same, round hole that shot number 1 made. That’s perfect! To find a particular box of factory loaded ammo on the shelf that will do that in your rifle is about as rare as dropping a basketball from the roof of a 20 story building thru the hoop on the sidewalk below. It can happen, but don’t count on it. In this article, I’ll explain how to utilize all the steps we’re all familiar with, as well as a few added steps along the way, to advance your hand loads from great shooting ammo to perfect shooting ammo in one specific rifle, YOURS!
Now, for the purposes of this article and subject, I’m going to assume that you’ve already grasped the whole concept of reloading ammunition. Therefore, I’m not going to dwell on the details of how to operate your powder dispenser, your beam scale or your press and dies. We’re going to take what we already know and expand on it, with surgical precision being the end goal. The phrase I’m working on coining is “The Key to Consistency is Consistency”. The phrase itself is self-explanatory, don’t you agree? If a baseball pitcher wants a pitch to do the very same thing one time as it did a previous time, then it stands to reason that he has to use the exact same grip on the ball as before. He has to throw it with the exact same force as before and he has to throw it the exact same distance as before and in the same environmental conditions as before. That might be a ‘run-on’ sentence, but that’s intentional. I’m stressing the point that there is so much to it that has to be identical in order to make the ball perform exactly as it did in the pitch he’s trying to duplicate. Y’all with me so far? Okay, here we go!
There’s no exact sequence required for all this so I’m going to just pick an aspect to start with randomly. We’ll start with projectiles since that’s really the easiest part. You won’t be modifying or manipulating bullets at all. That could potentially become unsafe if you tried that, so we’ll leave the bullets as they are from the factory. What we WILL do, however, is weigh them individually. For this article, I’ll reference a 1/8MOA load I have for my 260Rem. It’s a Savage Model 11 with the factory trigger, barrel and stock. I lightened the trigger to 1lb exactly. I bedded the action and recoil lug heavily and I reinforced the forend with steel rods and fiberglass resin. Then I weighted the rear of the gun with dirt inside the butt stock. It’s topped with a 6-25X56 Sight Mark Triple Duty scope with a Duplex Dot reticle. On the end of the 22 inch, 1:8” twist barrel is a Witt Machine clamp on muzzle brake. Okay, now I’ve got that out of the way, let’s get back to business. For the 1/8MOA load I have for that rifle, I use the 142gr Nosler AccuBond Long Range bullets (P/N 58922). Once I got the load developed, I started perfecting it. At first, you’ll be surprised at how much bullets vary in weight within a batch. All the major manufacturers have really good quality control but these bullets are still mass-produced. They’re not going to all be within .1gr of each other. They may vary as much as .4-.6gr from least to greatest. Is that enough to matter? Well, if you’re reading this article for guidance in perfecting your ammo, then you bet it is! What I do is, on a piece of paper, draw columns from top to bottom. Six columns should be plenty. In the center column, write the advertised weight of the bullets. In my case, it was 142gr. In the columns to each side of that one, I added and subtracted .2gr for each column. 141.6, 141.8, 142, 142.2, 142.4 and 142.6. Then I began weighing each and every projectile and standing them on their bases in the respective column. Now, if you have more that come out at a weight between two that you have written down, then change it and write that number down and keep sorting accordingly. In most cases you’ll have a .1 or .2gr variance in either direction. Regardless, weigh and sort accordingly. Most of mine weighed 141.9gr to 142.1gr. I can’t really complain about that because that’s really close! Results may vary, of course. Once you’ve gotten them all weighed and sorted, keep them separated and labeled, and set them aside until you’re ready for them. Now let’s move on.
In my opinion, this next step I’m going to cover is more important, if not most important. The brass! Some people might argue that when talking about brass for precision hand loading, manufacturer is more important than the physical aspects of the brass cases. I’m not one of those people. Manufacturer is important, I believe, when talking about life expectancy and overall health but not necessarily for absolute precision accuracy. The main thing you want from your brass is consistency! There’s that word again! The least contributing factor of the brass is the empty case length. Does it play a role? Sure, but a few thousandths of variation in case length will never show up on even the most sensitive chronographs. The single most important part of the brass is the internal volume, period! That cavity is where all the magic begins. I use fire-formed, neck-sized-only brass for my precision loads. During the primary load development, you should have sorted, at least, by head stamp. We’re going to go a step further. We’re going to sort by internal volume. This can vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. It can even vary greatly among matching head stamps. If you have 300 pieces of Hornady brass, you don’t necessarily have them all from the same lot. There’s no telling how many different lots are represented by the 300 pieces you have. One thing that does not change, ever, is your rifle’s chamber. Let’s cover something really basic for a minute. When you Full-Length Size a case as per the instructions that came with your dies, you’re taking that case back to SAAMI specs. That will allow that case to chamber in virtually every rifle of that chambering in the world. We’re not trying to make ammo that will shoot perfectly in every rifle. We’re working on perfect ammo for YOUR rifle! So when you accumulate an ample supply of once-fired brass that was fired in your rifle, you’re ready to start sorting it. We’re going to use water to help us.
At this point, if your brass has never had the necks turned, do that now just to true them and even them up. That will help greatly with consistent neck tension. Let’s start by neck sizing the cases, only. I use the Lee Collet Neck Sizer, personally. There are higher quality dies, I’m sure, but I pride myself in ‘precision on a budget’ so I use the more affordable dies. There are several types of neck sizing dies, such as dies that use bushings to size the necks. These dies have the option of removing the bushing and replacing it with one of different dimensions, which will ultimately change your final inside diameter of the neck. I prefer the Collet Style. It squeezes the neck down against a mandrel. The diameter of that mandrel is what sets the inside diameter of the neck. That mandrel can be chucked in a drill and spun in sandpaper to modify and fine tune final neck tension. I take that step, as well. My 260 ammo consists of .006” of neck tension, meaning the end result after neck sizing is .006” smaller than the diameter of the bullet. That’s basically how ‘neck tension’ is measured. Some people like much less neck tension. It’s a step that can be used to further tune a load. Okay, back to the present again. The reason I prefer neck sizing only over Full Length resizing is because neck sizing only doesn’t manipulate the body of the brass at all. That brass case is already fire-formed in your chamber. It can’t be made to fit more perfectly than that. With brass that is Full Length Resized, when you chamber that case, there will be gaps between the outer case walls and the chamber walls. Granted, those gaps are very small, but they’re there, nonetheless. What that means is when the round is fired, the brass is going to stretch back out against the chamber walls. This small amount of stretch is going to absorb some of the pressure. Any pressure absorbed by stretching brass is pressure taken away from the base of the bullet in the bore. With fire-formed brass, 100% of the pressure generated by the burning powder is applied to the base of the bullet, every single time! Some will argue that it won’t matter, but I’m building perfect ammo, remember? That’s not a chance I’m willing to take. Consistency! So now we have fire-formed brass from the chamber it’s being loaded for. Next we want to trim the cases. It doesn’t matter, really, what length you trim to as long as you’re being realistic about it. You need enough of the neck left to adequately hold onto the bullet. I measure the entire batch of brass I’m using and I trim them all to the shortest length. It’s really that simple. As I mentioned before, empty case length is the one aspect that is least important.
The reason we trim them all to the same length is explained next. When neck sizing, if your die allows, remove the decapping pin so as to leave the spent primer in place. If not, catch your spent primers in a container and once you’ve sized the necks, replace that primer back in the primer pocket. You want the cases to hold water. It’s easiest to do this next step with some sort of syringe. You can buy universal syringes at Tractor Supply or any feed store. To begin this part, you’ll first need a scale capable of weighing up to, and sometimes in excess of, 300 grains of weight, depending on what caliber you’re loading. You’ll need a few empty containers big enough to hold several brass cases. Simply weigh each empty case with the spent primer in place. Sort them all by their empty weight. This is a very tedious and time-consuming process. This is not for the ‘weekend reloader’, you see. You might even have to have enough empty containers to sort by every .2gr variance. That’s the variance I use when I sort mine, .2gr. For example, my Lapua 260Rem brass varied from 178.2gr to 178.8gr. I sorted 178.2 and 178.3gr together. Then 178.4 and 178.5, and so on. Once you get them all weighed and identified and sorted, you’re going to weigh each one again, only this time you’ll fill them with water. The reason we trim them all to the same length is so 1) the height of each case from the web of the case to the case mouth is identical (which affects how much water it will hold) and 2) there won’t be longer or shorter cases creating weight variances. Does that make sense? Now, if all the brass is from the same lot, then the way you have them sorted by empty weight will be very close to the way they’ll be sorted by water weight. Case wall thickness will affect internal volume from case to case, but if they’re all from the same lot, that thickness will be very uniform. Regardless of what they weighed empty, you’re going to sort them, now, based on their water weight. Simply subtract the weight of the empty cases from the weight of the cases full of water. That tells you the internal volume of each case and that is the single most important aspect of the brass. Once you weigh the water, dump it out and put that case in its respective container based on the internal volume. I allow .2gr variance in water weight, as well. .2gr of water is about the amount of water that will stick to your finger if you barely touch the surface of the water. It’s a very tiny amount. In reality, .3gr will also be sufficient. Personally, I don’t strive for ‘sufficient’, remember? I’m building perfect ammo! Consistency! .2gr of water is consistency! (Tip: once you’ve dumped the water out and sorted all the brass by water weight, you may now knock those spent primers out. To dry the inside of the brass cases, I use Brake Cleaner from the auto parts store. The straw will ensure the cleaner will completely blow the water off of the inside of the cases. Then I use a Q-Tip to swab the insides of them to make sure they’re completely dry. Tumbling them in a vibratory tumbler will also work if you can keep them sorted that way) Now you have your brass sorted by internal volume and each case is perfectly sized and shaped to fit your rifle’s chamber with no gaps between the brass and the chamber.
Priming the cases is the next step, obviously. I use CCI BR-2 primers for my 260Rem ammo. I developed the load with CCI 200 LRPs but switched to BR-2 primers in an effort to get the velocities more consistent. It worked, too. My S-D for this load is 4 fps over 10 rounds. Once you’ve selected your primers and inserted them, you’re ready for some powder!
Again, this is not where we discuss what powder you should use. At this point, your load is developed. We’re perfecting it now. I use H4831sc for my 260Rem load. It’s a very consistent burning and igniting powder. In order to perfect your load, you’re going to have to weigh each charge. In fact, when I’m loading this ammo, I weigh each charge twice, on two different scales. If one scale doesn’t agree with the other, that powder charge gets dumped back in the hopper and another charge gets thrown. I start charging the cases, keeping them sorted by water weight, or volume. Note: By weighing and sorting by volume, we’re not eliminating cases, we’re just keeping cases with matching internal volume together. All the cases will become usable ammo, however a group consisting of 3 of the smaller volume cases grouped with 2 of the larger volume cases might not produce the 1/8MOA group you’re looking for. You’ll want to shoot a group of all ‘like’ volume cases. I actually use a sharpie and write on each case. I usually use a number or letter to identify them in case I spill them at some point. As for charging the cases, though, it’s really that simple. Check the weight of the charge and then check it again on a different scale. If the two agree, pour it in the case and move on to the next one. I don’t ever trust my equipment to throw a perfect powder charge every time. I usually set it up to throw a little light and then I trickle the rest while it’s on the scale. I also use beam scales. I never use electronic scales. If you trust your electronic scale, then by all means, proceed. I’m not knocking any equipment. I’m only telling you what I do and I let my results speak for themselves.
To recount, we’ve fire-formed brass in our chambers. We’ve neck sized the brass either leaving the spent primer in place or replacing it after sizing. Then we trimmed them all to the shortest length in the batch. Next, we weighed each empty case and sorted according to the amount of internal volume in each case. Then we filled each case with water and weighed them again. We subtracted the weight of the empty cases from their weight when full of water to get the internal volume and ultimately sorted by that weight. Then we checked and double checked the powder charge and finally charged each case. Each case should be identifiable according to internal volume, either by a letter or number written on each case, or by container. It’s personal preference. Now it’s time to seat the bullets.
You’re almost there! Just one more step! It’s an absolute MUST, at this point, to have a bullet comparator to measure seating depth with. Measuring on the tip of the bullet is most definitely the wrong way to do this. If that’s how you measure these, then everything we’ve done up to this point is wasted. Seating depth is paramount! This also affects the internal volume inside the case. Seating depth adjustment is the ONLY way to adjust internal volume of a case at this stage. You should already know your target seating depth whether it’s based on actual length from the base to the ogive or it’s distance from the chambered bullet to the rifling. Either way, consistency here is of utmost importance! When the primer ignites the powder charge, the burning powder creates pressure based on a few things. It’s based on sealed space inside the case, opposition to bullet movement within the case neck, how far the bullet travels before engaging the rifling, how much case stretch exists, how much bearing surface the bullet has, the burn rate of the powder, the bullet weight, the length of the barrel and the rate of twist. Did I leave anything out? I don’t think so. That sounds right. Heck, that’s enough, isn’t it? That pressure is what makes everything happen. Any changes in that pressure will directly affect the outcome of the shot, guaranteed!
So let’s say the brass hasn’t been annealed, and perhaps on its 5th firing, hypothetically speaking. The case neck is becoming work-hardened. This means the elasticity of the brass is fading, or is completely gone. So even though you’ve sized the neck to provide the desired neck tension, when you press a bullet into the case, the neck expands and allows the bullet to be seated, but now it doesn’t spring back against the bullet… so your .006” neck tension just became .000” neck tension. Translation: Lower pressure required to get the bullet moving. Less opposition to bullet movement by the neck! Pressure is lowered, velocity is lowered and POI down range is different than intended. That’s just one example. One more example might be .008” difference in seating depth. If it’s too long, initial pressure will be less but if it’s shorter, then the initial pressure will be higher. Both are results of internal volume changes. Consistency!
In summary, you must give your undivided attention to every major and minor detail if you want perfectly shooting ammo for your rifle. If you don’t weigh every powder charge, you can’t correct every powder charge. If you don’t correct every powder charge, then there’s that pressure change again. If you don’t measure each bullet’s seating depth, you can’t correct it. No equipment is perfect, not even the most expensive. In fact, I’d say the most inexpensive equipment is more accurate and consistent. The more expensive stuff is usually geared toward mass producing ammo rather than slowly producing precision grade ammo. I load everything on a Lee single-stage press. That’s the only press I own. I can feel every step, though. If something is a little ‘off’ on a step, I’ll usually feel it instantly, and therefore I can correct it on the spot. Simply put, I insist that each step I take in producing each round of ammo is exactly like the previous round, maintaining 100% consistency from start to finish, ensuring consistency from each round, from trigger squeeze to target impact, and everything in between! JR
Jason Ray, Nacogdoches, Texas