Precision Reloading For Long Range Hunting
By Jerry Teo
When reloading for long range hunting, we want to make ammo that is as consistent and accurate as benchrest ammo but as functionally reliable and deadly as factory hunting ammo. Let's first look at the basic components and then what it takes to make up superb ammo.
For brass, I have had wonderful success with US manufactured bulk brass from Winchester, Federal and Remington. My favorite is Winchester and it seems to tolerate a lot of high pressure abuse. Always use new brass of the same lot. This helps ensure as much consistency as possible. Before prepping the brass, I will fire form in my chamber. This gets rid of any dings and dents, and gets the brass to be a near perfect fit in the chamber.
From there, I will neck size using a Lee collet neck sizing die, trim, de-burr inside and outside the neck with a RCBS tool, de-burr the flash hole again with an RCBS tool. Neck turn to clean up 70 to 80% of the circumference will help ensure consistent neck tension. I use a Forster neck turning tool for the trimming and turning chores.If you really want to be picky about your brass, you can measure the volume of each case and compare to each other. By matching case volume, we provide identical combustion chambers which aid in consistent pressures and velocities. All good for shooting bug-hole groups.
The easiest way to do this is to fill to the brim with a very fine gunpowder. I use WCC680 which is as fine as salt. Tap the case to ensure it is well packed. Then just dump into another case with a funnel. Tap and see if it fills to the same level. You can quickly compare 50 cases without the mess of water. More then accurate enough way to measure comparative volumes. I will cull any case that has a difference in 'height' of 1/8" in a magnum case and less in something like a 308.You will find that most cases come out with identical volumes.
I don't weigh cases as the tolerance you are measuring is within the variations in the machining of the extractor groove. How important is that? Weighing was a quick and easy method to try and identify cases of differing volume. However, it is not a reliable method. Just find some brass from the same lot that varies in weight, then compare volumes. I bet the volumes are near identical. I figure, if I want to compare case volumes, compare case volumes.
Primers and Powder:
Now that we have a batch of prepped cases, we need to prime and fill with powder. For primers, I will always use a match style. I have seen long range accuracy improve by 40% using match primers and for the very small increase in price, well worth the piece of mind. Never had an issue using them in the cold.
A match primer is the same construction and formulation as the regular. stuff just held to better quality control. Some have even said they are the same primers, just put in a fancy expensive box. I guess I want fancy expensive boxes of primers. I use CCI BENCH REST2, Fed 210M and 215M depending on the cartridge and load tuning. I find that the CCI cup will tolerate more pressure before showing pressure signs as compared to the Fed.
For powders, I want a consistent clean burning powder that is temperature stable. Hodgdon Extreme extruded powder is what I have readily available and it works wonderfully. I have shot all of the styles with excellent accuracy. They also tend to shoot best at magnum+ pressures which really get the most out of a cartridge. Just follow the load manuals to see which fits best your cartridge and bullet weight.Avoid old tech extruded and ball powders. IMR and surplus pull downs are prime examples. They will have huge velocity/pressure swings depending on the temp. New generation ball powders are supposed to be temp stable as are some new IMR formulations. I just go with Hodgdon because it works and I can get it.
This is the most controversial component as the best bullets I use are the Hornady Amax which are NOT considered hunting bullets. Many others have had superb results with heavy for caliber Sierra Matchkings. Recently, the Berger match bullets are showing lots of promise.
Some past tests with Lapua bullets showed little to no expansion at distance. I have not personally verified this so approach with caution. One of the bullets tested was the 250gr 338 Scenar.
When choosing a bullet, you really need to be observant of IMPACT VELOCITY not muzzle velocity. At extended ranges, all bullets are going to slow down substantially. Go far enough and your bullet is hitting slower then a magnum handgun at the muzzle.
By choosing a bullet that works best within your intended impact velocity range, you ensure that the bullet is "fragile" enough to provide controlled expansion causing deep penetration and massive internal damage. Slow a varmint bullet enough and it can work just like a Barnes X.
Typical premium bullets work best when impact velocity is ABOVE 2,500fps (yeah, yeah, I see the ads too but...). Normal soft points like Hornady SST's and Nosler BT can work well down to 2000fps. The Amax and Matchking can work right down to the speed of sound- that's a long ways out.
There is no one bullet that can work well over the entire velocity range. Ideally, you have a short range bullet and a long range bullet. I have found that the 162gr SST and A-Max fly to very similar POI's in my 7RM Savage so I use the SST for close work and the Amax when I need to reach out. Yes, I have a drop chart that tracks both loads. I limit the SST to 500yds and the Amax to 200yds and out. Apply the right tool for the job at hand. The new 208gr Amax might just be the ideal bullet for long range hunting. Out of a 300WM, it should be effective out to 1,000yds. I will start testing this bullet in my 300RUM when the temps cool off.
Using match bullets also provides you with the mechanical accuracy to hit faraway targets. It wasn't too long ago that a big name bench rest and premium bullet was considered on spec if it shot 1.5 MOA at 100yds. You aren't going to be hitting much at long range with these slugs.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER:
Now that you have your chosen components, loading can begin. The most important investment you can make is a concentricity gauge. Without this, you are guessing at how your loading technique and dies are working. By checking each step, you can identify problem areas quickly and also save a ton in fancy bench rest dies.
I want my finished rounds to have a shoulder/neck/bullet runout of less then 4 thou. Ideally, 1 or 2 is my goal. I don't get too crazy about this as a few seconds rattling around in an ammo box and even the most true ammo will have a few out of line.
For sizing, I consider the Lee collet neck sizer to the best on the market for our intended uses. If the case leaves the chamber with little to no runout, none will be created with the die. The die also sizes with the common 4 to 5 thou needed to keep that bullet in place during the recoil of the rifle and handling in the field.
Forget about low neck tension if that ammo will ever enter a magazine. You will have some real excitement if the bullet is pushed back during recoil or gets stuck in the rifling when you want to extract it. Pay close attention to chambering your ammo. There must be little to no resistance when closing that bolt. Again, you are looking for fool proof functioning even when things get a bit dirty or wet.
After a few firings, the case will start to get a little fat and chambering can get a bit stiff. I will push the shoulders back just enough for perfect chambering using a Redding body die. They come in all sorts of chamberings and work really well. No runout is induced either.
Some will want to use a full length sizing die. The downside with this type of die is the expander ball. Sometimes the rod and ball are not perfectly inline and can cause runout (neck distortion) when you pull it through the neck. Make sure you do before and after checks on your sized brass to ensure excessive runout is not produced. This is why you need to test with a runout gauge. You can't eyeball a few thou of wobble. If it does induce runout, you can try to straighten the rod/ball but for me, more headache then I'm willing to put up with. I have a few full length dies that do work well but have found more trouble then not.
For priming, the Lee hand auto primer does a superb job. You can feel that primer fully seat which is critical to consistent ignition. I don't recommend using a press primer as there is simply no feel.
Weigh all of your charges. I have found substantial difference in long range accuracy with a few tenths in powder weight. Extruded powder simply will not drop from a measure with the tolerance I want. The best powder measure can only drop to ± 2 tenths. That is an extreme spread of 4 tenths. I want all cases to be within 1 tenth. I use a Lee balance beam scale and it has done yeoman’s duty over thousands of accurate rounds. If you use a mechanical scale, just make sure it doesn't stick and gives repeatable results. Digital scales have become very popular and are quick to use. Just make sure that the repeatability and resolution is within bench rest loading levels.
Like the optics, do all your loading on YOUR equipment especially the scale. There can be some variations between scales so 45gr on one scale may actually be 45.5gr on yours. That can lead to some jammed up actions. Never use another load value without first working up in your rifle using your equipment. The final number really doesn't matter as long as you have kept it consistent and repeatable. Keep an eye on heaters, air conditioners and fans when weighing your charges. You want the air in the room as still as possible so it doesn't affect the scales.
The final step is stuffing that bullet into the case. You may be surprise to know that I use the generic seating die found in off the shelf die sets. With the runout gauge and properly sized bench rest brass, I have found little runout to happen during the seating stage. If runout is caused, it is likely caused by a mismatch in the seating stem and the bullet ogive. The tips of these long bullets hit the top of the stem BEFORE the ogive can be supported by the stem. Pretty hard to be consistent when balancing on a bullet tip.
Easy to check. Just take the die apart and put your favorite bullet into the stem. It will be very obvious if the tip bottoms out first. The solution is equally simple. Chuck the stem and enlarge the taper in the stem so the ogive hits the bottom of the stem squarely. You want to retain as much of the taper in the stem as possible. I find a suitable sized drill bit does the job just fine. Problem solved.
Since this ammo will likely be used in a repeater, the magazine will determine the OAL of the cartridge. I set the seating depth for reliable feeding. I also do my load testing by cycling every round through the magazine. Cause you just never know. If you are single feeding only, try to get the bullet as close to the lands as possible. However, I don't want the bullet to fully engrave. If the bullet is loaded with little to no runout, having it on the lands is not necessary for bug-hole accuracy. The key is ensuring that the bullet will fully engrave in the lands WELL BEFORE the bullet leaves the neck. If the bullet has to make an unsupported jump, no matter how small, sub MOA accuracy will be very tough to achieve. Only solution is a new barrel or setting back the chamber. I rarely ever tune a load by adjusting the seating depth (remember that magazine?). I do all my load tuning using small changes in powder which does the same thing.
WORKING UP A LOAD:
When load testing, I always try and test at 200yds to 300yds. The further you go the better as it will allow you to identify stringing. I have had bug-hole 100yds loads that wouldn't stay on a piece of paper at 500yds due to vertical stringing. Of course, you need to shoot on minimal mirage calm days with wind flags.
I also don't shoot a lot of rounds for each load level. My idea is that if a load shoots, the first few are going to snuggle up. There is little point in proving that you have a 2 MOA load by blasting away a dozen rounds. I make up 2 or 3rds every 1/2 grain as I work up. Groups are going to start large, shrink (the node), then expand. I am looking for the highest node as this will yield the highest velocity and best powder combustion (low extreme spread and reduced stringing).I will go back in 2 tenth increments around the highest node, even in a magnum case, and fine tune the load. I have found a few tenths to affect a case as large as a RUM. You will not see these subtleties when testing at 100yds.
Once I have a couple of accurate loads that vary by a few tenths, I will shoot multiple 2 or 3rds groups to confirm which is most consistent. Testing further out becomes a huge benefit. "But my accuracy isn't as good when I shoot further out". Well, doesn't that tell you something pretty important? A well tuned load and accurate rifle/shooter will be able to hit consistently sub MOA as far as he wants to hunt. Testing your load at long range increases your practice and hopefully, makes you aware of your limitations. You don't need every round to go into the same hole but you need the load to be dead reliable and consistently accurate (100% boiler room hits) over a wide range of ambient conditions.
Now that you have your best load, test with your optics at various ranges with a cold barrel. That first shot is everything so make sure your load will do its job every single time. When testing, I limit to 3rds at any given range. That's about all the time you are going to have in the field and if you need more, start tweaking/practicing. Ideally, you will have a load that is dead on cold barrel accurate, precisely dialed into your rangefinder and scope. It takes a lot of work and shots fired but when you get it, the confidence it gives you is awesome. With practice, one shot, one kill at extended ranges will be as common as most hitting a water melon at 100yds.
I wish you the best on your journey to becoming a long range hunter. I hope this series will answer many of your questions and get you started in the right direction. This sport is never static as new gear is always helping us push the boundaries or improve our performance. Buy only what will do a job for you. Most bling is more show then go. They also tend to complicate matters or at worse, fail in the field.
Good luck, enjoy this site and welcome to a most challenging and rewarding form of hunting.
Jerry shoots regularly out to one mile and also competes in F class. His current cartridges are 223, 6.5 Mystic, 7 Mystic, 308, 300RUM and 338 Mystic. He enjoys experimenting with gear and widcatting in order to increase accuracy performance and to debunk accuracy myths.
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