Tuning a 221 Remington Fireball

©By Glenn Burroughs

With an afternoon of shooting scheduled it was time to decide which rifles would make the trip to the range. One rifle that always seems to miss the trip stood out; a nice Remington 700 Classic chambered in 221 Fireball. This combination should provide a lot of enjoyment, but it never ends up at the range or in the field. The reason? It just doesn’t shoot that well. In the ten-plus years this rifle has existed the shooting log shows only eighty-five rounds have traveled down the barrel, with an average group size a little over an inch… a measure that most shooters would not find acceptable. So the Fireball was retrieved from the safe and the decision made to spend some time with the little treasure to see if its accuracy could be improved with simple modifications, changes that many shooters could make themselves, or have done by a gunsmith at a reasonable cost.


Glenn testing the 221 Fireball.


The rifle is one of the limited edition Remington Classic 700 series which were offered in a different caliber each year from 1981 to 2005, and each caliber was only made for a short period of time. The 221 Remington Fireball was the chambering for the year 2002, and this one was purchased the following year. It sports several nice features unique to the Classic model: a red rubber butt pad, jeweled bolt, nicely checkered walnut stock and old-fashioned bluing. However it does have the disadvantage of being one of Remington’s J-Lock models, a short-lived feature that allowed the bolt to be locked for safety, but was not well received by hunters and shooters. After obtaining this rifle it was topped off with a nice Weaver CT-15 scope set in Leupold mounts and bases.

The 221 Fireball cartridge was originally created for Remington’s XP-100, a bolt action pistol that was designed as a varmint and target gun and offered to the public starting in 1963. The XP-100 remained available through 1998. The 221 Fireball cartridge is basically a shortened version of the 222 Remington, and half a century after it birth is still one of the fastest handgun cartridges ever produced by a major ammunition maker. Remington only offers one loading for the Fireball, a 50-grain bullet with an advertised muzzle velocity of 2995 feet per second. That’s not too shabby for a pistol round; especially considering the muzzle velocity of the 222 Remington ammo with the same bullet is only 145 feet per second faster.

Remington specifies their 50-grain load for the Fireball, with a 200 yard zero, will hit 1.8-inches high at a hundred yards, 1.7-inches high at a hundred and fifty yards, and 3.4-inches low at two-hundred and fifty yards. Nosler has improved the performance of the Fireball by offering ammo with a 40-grain Nosler Varmageddon ammunition with a muzzle velocity of 3100 feet per second. These numbers would suggest the 221 Fireball to be a good varmint cartridge out to three hundred yards.

To get the project started the bore of the rifle was checked for any fouling that might affect accuracy. Although the rifle had been cleaned before storing a new bore cleaner had entered the picture, so it would be interesting to see if the new cleaner would find any fouling the old cleaner missed. A cloth patch was soaked with Patch-Out and pushed through the bore. After ten minutes another clean patch was run through the bore and it came out indicating both copper and powder fouling. The bore was treated again with Patch-Out and left on the bench overnight.

The next morning a clean, dry patch was run through the bore and again the patch indicated copper and powder fouling. The rifle was treated and left overnight for a second time. The next day a clean patch was pushed through the bore and it came out with a tinge of gray. Another patch was pushed through and it came out white. As suspected, the bore was somewhat fouled and could have affected the rifle’s accuracy.

A nice, crisp trigger does wonders for accuracy and the one that came with this rifle had a very heavy pull. Shortly after the rifle was purchased the trigger was removed and sent to a gunsmith in Montana for adjustment. The cost was very reasonable and when returned the trigger pull measured a delightful eighteen ounces.

When the decision was made to improve the accuracy it was found that the trigger pull had dropped dramatically, in fact, on occasion the trigger would go off when the bolt was closed. This precarious situation had to be corrected before shooting could continue so the trigger was re-adjusted to a more reasonable, albeit still a very nice two pounds, and the adjustment screws sealed. Obviously the trigger was not the reason for the rifle’s mediocre accuracy… in fact the light trigger probably helped achieve the one inch groups.

One simple accuracy improvement used in the past was to insure the stock was not exerting pressure on the barrel. To check if the barrel was free-floating a dollar bill was run between the stock and the barrel, and it stopped right at the sling swivel bolt. The two trigger guard screws were removed and the barreled action pulled from the stock. The blockage was quickly apparent… the barrel slot had purposefully been made to apply pressure to the barrel by leaving a ring of wood for the barrel to rest against.

Using a round rasp that was slightly smaller than the barrel channel the extra wood was quickly removed and the barreled action re-installed in the stock. This attempt at free-floating the barrel brought about another problem; removing the wood allowed the barrel to lay on the bottom of the stock all the way from the action to the end of the stock. At this point there was no choice but to bed the stock in order to free-float the barrel.

Two gunsmiths were contacted for an estimate on a basic bedding job but neither was very enthusiastic… both wanted to do a first class job that included metal pillars. The price with pillars would not fit in with the low-cost budget so, after some discussion and pleading, one of them made an offer: “Tell you what… one evening you can bring your rifle over and I’ll show you how to do a quick bedding job, but not one that has my name on it. And something you should know… just because an action is bedded does not mean it will shoot better. It’s possible that it won’t shoot as good and you may have to work up a new load.”

Some days later the rifle was taken to the gunsmith. He took the rifle and quickly removed the stock: “One of the trigger guard screw holes has been drilled crooked. These screws are used to keep the stock in alignment while the fiberglass is drying so this needs to be corrected.”

The problem was quickly addressed and the stock set aside. Then he grabbed a roll of electrical tape and started wrapping it around the barrel about eight inches from the recoil lug. “This is a simple way to hold the barrel off the stock the desired amount. Just keep adding tape until it’s where you want it. This not only lifts the barrel off the stock, it also aligns the barrel in the stock.”

Once the tape was in place the prepping for the fiberglass started. The action and barrel were cleaned and any openings filled with plumbers putty to prevent the fiberglass from going into places it shouldn’t be. He made the process look simple, but I knew better. He had done it so many times it was second nature.


View of barreled action showing putty filler and taped recoil lug.


Next, masking tape was applied to the recoil lug, except for the flat side facing the action. When the preparation was almost finished, a neutral shoe polish was applied everywhere the fiberglass would be touching the barreled action to keep it from sticking. Then the fiberglass was mixed and applied inside the stock where the action would fit.

The stock was then placed on the barreled action and pushed gently into place. As the fiberglass oozed out of the crevices it was wiped off with cotton swabs. The final step was to wrap a rag snugly around the stock and barrel to keep things in place while the fiberglass dried.


Applying the fiberglass.


After watching the bedding process I had a real appreciation for the skill required to properly bed a rifle action… glass bedding requires some training and an aptitude for meticulous work. It was obvious many things could go awry… getting the fiberglass on the stock, not aligning the barreled action properly, using the wrong thickness of the tape on the barrel, and so on. Any of these mistakes would be difficult to correct.

A little checking around found that prices generally range from $100 to $200 for a basic job. However, if you decide to bed a rifle yourself there are plenty of do-it-yourself articles on the internet that can be referenced.

Tuning A 221 Remington Fireball

Another upgrade high on the list was the replacement of the J-Lock, a safety feature that Remington offered for a few years until the roar of disapproval caused its demise. The bolt shroud has a slot shaped like a ‘J’ where a special key is used to lock and unlock the bolt. With the J-Lock it is possible to accidentally lock the bolt without the key, and unless a key is available the rifle becomes useless. Besides making the bolt shroud larger and strange looking many thought it would have a negative effect on accuracy. But the only modification made to a J-Lock bolt was to the shroud, so technically the J-Lock should not affect accuracy.


The firing pin assemblies next to the Sinclair firing pin tool. The assembly on the bottom came with the rifle. The PTG assembly offers a smaller shroud, better spring fit and faster lock time.


The real problem seems to be with the firing pin assembly. For some reason many J-Lock bolts have a heavy firing pin spring that is too long and poorly fitted, and some say this causes trigger resistance, bolt closing effort, and increased lock time (the time span between the sear disengaging and the firing pin hitting the primer).

Replacing the J-Lock shroud and firing pin assembly would be desirable, but would it improve the accuracy of the rifle? There are two sides to this issue: those who think a replacement firing pin assembly is a waste of money because of the small improvement, and those who feel it is an excellent enhancement for the dollars spent. There is no question a replacement would provide a more consistent trigger pull, and this certainly relates to accuracy, albeit only slightly.

Where the disagreement arises is in regards to the benefits of a faster lock time. One company that offers replacement firing pin assemblies points out the flight time of most bullets through the barrel is one to one-and-a-half milliseconds (thousandths of a second), and the lock time of most conventional bolt action rifles varies between 2.6 and 9.0 milliseconds. The replacement firing pin assembly reduces lock time by about forty percent.

So, on a rifle with the faster lock time the bullet has left the barrel by the time the firing pin has reached the primer on most rifles. The result? Since it is almost impossible to hold a rifle perfectly still (especially in the field) the rifle with the standard lock time, when compared to the rifle with the faster lock time, will have moved slightly further from where the crosshair was aiming when the rifle was fired. That’s not much, but it would affect the impact of the bullet, especially at long ranges. This was a good enough reason to replace the firing pin assembly… the fact that the ugly J-Lock would be gone was just icing on the cake.

Of the excellent firing pin assemblies available the choice was determined by past experience and the recommendation of several gunsmiths. Pacific Tool and Gauge (PTG) offers a complete assembly with an aluminum shroud for less than $50 and it provides a fast lock time, better fit and better sear engagement. So, at a price that fit the budget, and given PTG’s reputation for quality, one was placed on order. Once the order was placed Sinclair International was contacted and queried about what should be used to switch firing pin assemblies. Their recommended firing pin removal tool was less than $30 and was placed on order.

When the PTG firing pin assembly arrived it was just as expected, well made and of excellent quality. The Fireball was retrieved and the bolt anxiously removed from the rifle. The Sinclair firing pin removal tool was attached to the bolt shroud. A few turns of the tool dial moved the cocking piece sufficiently so that the firing pin assembly could be unscrewed from the bolt.

With the original firing pin assembly out, a comparison was made to the new one… the rifle did have a heavy firing pin spring that was too long and poorly fitted, so for this reason alone the switch was a good decision. Then the Sinclair tool was attached to the new PTG firing pin assembly and the process repeated, except in reverse. In about ten minutes the assemblies had been switched. The new PTG firing pin assembly and the Sinclair firing pin removal tool was money well spent. The original J-Lock assembly was stashed in the factory box in the event the rifle is sold someday to a collector.

With the physical modifications completed it was time to put together some reloads. The best components would be used, starting with the brass. Since the 221 Fireball is not one of the most popular cartridges one would not expect to find match quality brass but, to my surprise, excellent brass is available through Nosler.

A box was obtained and it turned out to be beautiful stuff, very nicely made. Most shooters are satisfied with the quality of the other brass, but for those seeking an edge in accuracy Nosler is the better choice. It costs a little more but the case mouths are chamfered and de-burred, the cases are inspected and weight sorted, and the flash holes are de-burred and checked for alignment. Basically nothing was required to prepare the Nosler brass for loading; the extra care they take is certainly worth the minimal extra cost.


Nosler 221 Fireball brass and 40 grain bullets.


The original loads that delivered one-inch groups were based on Nosler’s most accurate load for their 40-grain bullet, 19.0 grains of Reloader-7. For those loads the bullets had been seated so the cartridges would fit in the magazine. To determine if the tune-up improved the rifle’s accuracy the same bullet and powder combination would be used, and different bullet seating depths would be tried.

To start the loading process a Hornady Lock-and-Load gauge was used to seat a bullet with the ogive touching the lands. The resulting measurement provided an unwelcome surprise; when the 40-grain Nosler is seated to touch the lands, the base of the bullet is only in the case neck about 1/16 of an inch, barely enough to hold it in place. Obviously Remington did not chamber the rifle to handle a 40-grain bullet. Since the only Remington 221 Fireball ammunition offered has a 50-grain bullet it would make sense that the chamber be designed for that bullet.

Several of the rounds that delivered the one-inch groups were measured and the bullet seating depth measured 0.056-inch off the lands. For the accuracy comparison it was decided the rounds would be loaded identical to those that provided the one-inch groups. At this point I was not very enthusiastic about improving the rifle’s accuracy using a 40-grain bullet. Because of this situation a search for 50-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullets was instigated. None could be located, but a box of the 55-grain Ballistic Tips were found… hopefully the few extra grains would not make much difference.

These bullets would be loaded using Nosler’s most accurate load, 17.5 grains of AA-2015, which provides a speed of 2604 feet per second… not very speedy, but the goal is accuracy. The only variation would be different bullet seating depths. As a side note 19.5 grains of this powder can kick the speed up to 2929 feet per second.

The loads that were identical to the one-inch group loads, along with the 55-grain loads, were gathered and taken to the range. As the Fireball was readied on the bench for its first assessment following the tune-up it dawned on me that if the accuracy problem turns out to be the barrel the project has been for naught. But on the brighter side, the rifle was shooting pretty good before the changes were made, and results would be known soon enough.

The targets were placed at a hundred yards and the first rounds down the range were the four groups of 40-grain Noslers loaded with factory brass. Surprisingly, the results looked pretty good. The calipers came up with an average group size of 0.633-inch. Not bad considering the bullets were seated .056-inch off the lands. In any case, that was a nice improvement.

Next up were the four groups with the same load but were loaded using Nosler brass. After firing these four groups I had to rub my eyes when the targets were checked, they actually looked too small. This time the calipers indicated the average group size to be 0.469-inch… and the only difference in the loads was the Nosler brass.


The four groups shot with Nosler Brass.


Those little bullets seemed to enjoy the long jump from the neck of the case to the rifle lands, especially when they were leaping from Nosler brass. Had a benchrest shooter been firing these rounds I suspect the groups would have been even smaller. A big smile came across my face… the goal had been reached; the Fireball is now shooting good enough to be considered a varmint rifle.

Tuning a 221 Remington Fireball

But there was one final chapter… the next group of targets were addressed by those rounds loaded with 55-grain Noslers and 17.5 grains of Accurate 2250. The bullets were seated at different depths; touching the lands, then .005, .010, .015, .020 and .025-inch off the lands. As the first round was slipped into the chamber I thought to myself, “If those 40-grain bullets are shooting that well seated 0.056-inch off the lands, then these 55-grain bullets should really shine.”

But alas, after the smoke cleared the targets looked like someone had attacked them with a shotgun. The bullets holes were all over the place and it was difficult to tell which hole belonged to which target. After recovering from the disappointment I remembered this situation had happened before, and the culprit turned out to be the barrel rifling twist… it was too slow to stabilize a heavier bullet.

After returning home some literature was scanned to find the twist Remington used for the 221 Fireball Classic. None could be found for the Classic but Remington lists the 700 LS with a twist of 1:14-inch. Just to be sure, the twist in my rifle was measured … it too was 1:14-inch.

Then the Lilja website was checked, it has an excellent chart on twist requirements based on bullet weight. They had nothing listed for a 40-grain bullet but the recommended twist for a 55-grain bullet was 1:12-inch. Looks like the slow twist in the Fireball barrel was the problem with the heavier bullets. Oh well, I wanted the higher velocity delivered by the 40-grain bullets anyway, so I am as happy as a mule in a corn patch.


(Neither the writer nor the publication accepts any responsibility for the safety of loads mentioned herein in other firearms. They were safe in the firearm mentioned and on the day of their firing. Start with minimum safe loads and work slowly up.)

Contacts

Nosler, Inc. (Brass and bullets)
107 SW Columbia Street
Bend, Oregon 97702
Phone: 1-800-285-3701
Email: [email protected]
www.nosler.com

Pacific Tool & Gauge, Inc. (Reamers and gauges)
598 Avenue C
White City, OR 97503-1031
Phone: 541-826-5808
www.pacifictoolandgauge.com

Sinclair International, Inc. (Shooting supplies)
200 South Front Street
Montezuma, Iowa 50171
Phone: US Customers: 800-717-8211
Phone: International: 260-482-3670
Email: [email protected]
www.sinclairintl.com

SharpShoot-R Precision Products (Patch-Out Cleaner)
Box 171
Paola, Kansas 66071
Phone: 785-883-4444
Email: [email protected]
www.sharpshootr.com


Glenn Burroughs is a retired computer systems manager with a lifelong love of guns. His main areas of interest are accurate rifles, wildcat cartridges, reloading and bench shooting. He also enjoys an occasional trip out west to the prairie dog country. Glenn was a columnist for Precision Shooting magazine and also wrote articles for Varmint Hunter magazine. He resides in Lynchburg, Virginia.