Squeezing by the .223 Shortage
July 20, 2007
Yes, there is a shortage of .223 Remington ammunition, and the end is nowhere in sight. There may be no better time to start rolling your own--right down to making bullets out of lead wire and spent .22 cases.
You might have seen the numerous postings on the Internet message boards with subject lines like, "Where's all the .223 ammo?"
And as I write this, a quick scan of ammunition supplier websites shows the most popular loads of .223 Rem. as "out of stock." There are also message-board postings about high ammo prices and speculation as to the cause. So exactly where did all the ammo go, and what can you do to get by until supplies catch up with demand?
I recently spoke with a friend from a major ammunition manufacturer, who said that demand by the military is the main cause of the commercial shortage. He pointed out that during the Clinton Administration, many of the government arsenals were shut down. The Lake City Army Ammunition Plant remains the largest ammunition producer, and though it turns out 4 million rounds a day, it simply can't keep up; so commercial manufacturers are augmenting the military supply by producing FMJ ammo and bullets by the millions.
As for the cost of ammo, he noted that in 2004, copper cost 90 cents a pound. It is now in the $4.30 range. Lead also has increased 70 cents a pound.
This isn't the first time our sport has faced ammunition shortages, though it is for this generation. My wife's grandfather told me a story from his youth of how he and his friends came up with a creative solution during a drought on 12-gauge ammo. They found a way to make readily available 16-gauge shells work in their 12-gauge guns.
Our creative solution to the .223 shortage is obviously going to involve handloading. You'd be wise to start picking up all the empty .223 cartridge cases you can find because those are rumored to be in short supply soon. Production of component bullets for .223 hasn't taken a supply hit yet, but in talking over this subject with Editor-in-Chief Mike Nischalke, we agreed that timing is right for Shooting Times readers to rediscover swaging .22-caliber jacketed bullets using .22 Rimfire cases for the jackets.
I say "rediscover" because I can find the .22 case-to-jacket technology as far back as World War II when Fred T. Huntington and Grosvernor L. Wotkyns offered a Rock Chuck Bullet Swage for ironing out the rims on fired rimfire cartridges to make .22 jackets. Back then, shooters had the choice of rimfire cases made from a greater variety of metals, including copper, brass, and steel.
Writings from the period indicate that extremely accurate bullets were possible, and that copper cases were preferred. Brass was claimed to foul bores, but that may have been attributable to the mercuric primers in use at the time making brass cases brittle. Steel cases were hard on the tools, could rust inside or out, and reportedly made inaccurate bullets. Regardless of case material, occasional fliers were attributed primarily to artifacts of the firing-pin indent remaining in the base of the formed jackets.
The only copper-cased .22 Rimfire ammunition I've seen recently was what I'd consider antique. The folks at Corbin Bullet Swaging Systems recommended against using steel cases in the tools they sent for this article as steel has a different degree of spring back after swaging. Their dies are sized for brass spring back. That left brass-cased .22 Rimfire cases as my only option for making jackets.
Current reports from those who actively swage their own bullets indicate that the best accuracy can be achieved when starting with high-quality cases--the speculation being that the high-quality cases are more uniform, resulting in more balanced bullets. Taking heed of that experience, I chose to start with Lapua Master L .22 Long Rifle ammunition. This is high-quality ammunition, and the "circle-X" headstamp is light and concentric to the case rim, which would help reduce the possibility of flyers from base irregularities noted decades ago. I fired the Lapua ammunition from my Ruger Single-Six because its chambers are recessed to fully support the case heads, and the round firing-pin strike is hard enough to be 100-percent reliable yet small and light enough to not make a huge bite into the rim.
Swaging bullets is not that hard, but it is time consuming. The tools I received were for making .224-inch, flatbase hollowpoint bullets and consisted of a die/punch set to draw rimfire cases into jacket cups, a core-swaging die for swaging the cores to a precise weight and size, a core-seating die for swaging cores securely into the cups, and a point-forming die designed to make a 6-S ogive and hollowpoint.
The process involves simply drawing the rimfire cases into cups and then annealing the cups so they don't fold during the point-forming step. After annealing, the cores are seated and the points are formed. Cores are easily cut a little oversize from lead wire and swaged to the proper weight with the core-swaging die. Critical elements in making good bullets are cleanliness and the appropriate amount of lube at the right time.
I found it simple to make great cups on the first try.
The drawing step is accomplished by thoroughly washing and drying the .22 Rimfire cases, lightly lubing them, and then pushing them through the drawing die. As the punch presses the empty case through the die, it irons out the rim and leaves you with a cup just like you find at a commercial ammunition plant, only the cup is brass and somewhat thinner than for commercial .224-inch-diameter bullets. In addition to drawing cases fired from my Ruger, I tried some fired from an old Stevens Model 87E, which leaves a deep, rectangular firing pin indent. That indent did not draw out very well and often left a small tear in the side of the jacket cups. Therefore, the indent of the firing pin should be taken into consideration if picking up rimfire cases left at the range by other shooters.
Initially, I had a fairly high rejection rate on drawing jacket cups. The cups would appear to draw just fine, but upon close inspection, I'd find some with a very fine tear at the base near where the firing-pin indent was. The remedy was simply a matter of setting the die higher in the press so the case passed through near the end of the ram stroke, using a little more swage lube, and slowing down as I pushed the case through the die.
That was really the only difficulty I experienced during this entire project, and the end result seems of very high quality. I had set the core-swaging die to produce cores weighing 45.5 grains that, when combined with the 10.1-grain jackets, produced bullets weighing 55.6 grains. There is no particular reason for me choosing 55.6 grains other than I wanted to make 55-grain bullets, and that was close enough.
Check-weighing 20 finished bullets found that 17 of them were right on 55.6, and three were 55.7 grains. That compares very well to high-quality bullets from major manufacturers. I sample-weighed 20 name-brand 50-grain polymer-tipped varmint bullets from one maker and found they varied from 50.0 to 50.4 grains. From a different maker, I weighed 20, 52-grain hollowpoint bullets and found they ranged from 51.9 to 52.1 grains. Lastly, I weighed 20, 55-grain FMJBT "Ball" bullets from another major manufacturer and found that they varied from 55.0 to 55.7 grains. Clearly, if weight variance plays significantly into the accuracy equation, then the home-swaged bullets provide excellent consistency.
To test accuracy, I assembled loads using Black Hills .223 Rem. Match cases, Winchester Small Rifle primers, and a starting load of 25.5 grains of Hodgdon Varget for an average velocity of 2786 fps. Corbin notes that because the rimfire cases make jackets that are much thinner than commercial .22 jackets (nominal 0.010 inch verses 0.020 inch), the bullets could come apart in the air if the velocity is too high. Therefore, Corbin recommends a maximum velocity of 3200 fps. Actual maximum velocity is going to vary by individual rifle, as those with sharp or rough rifling will obviously be harder on the jackets than ones with a finely lapped bore. I used only the starting load, and I plan to experiment with higher velocity at a later time.
Over the past few years, I've used a Stevens Model 200 in .223 Rem. for accuracy evaluation of that chambering, so I turned to that faithful rifle for this evaluation, too. Its typical accuracy with good ammunition for five, five-shot groups at 100 yards runs between 1.0 and 1.5 inches. The last time I used it in an evaluation, it averaged 1.23 inches using Black Hills 50-grain Hornady V-Max loads, so I was pretty satisfied with the five, five-shot group average of 1.28 inches from the home-swaged bullets. I didn't note any flyers, and I attribute that to the diligence in making sure I used good cases with light firing-pin indents to avoid any base defects.
With home-swaged bullet consistency and accuracy established, it's important to touch on terminal ballistics. As noted, the jackets are very thin, so even where it's legal to hunt big game with .22-caliber rifles, these bullets shouldn't be used because they will lack the penetration required. Instead, they should be stellar performers on varmints.
Much has been made about the fouling from brass-jacketed bullets. Corbin makes a valid point about the mercuric priming compound used in the past causing brass to be brittle and foul bores, but ultimately I think it's a matter of individual rifle preference. For example, I have some rifles that foul badly with all-copper bullets. So do a lot of other folks, which is why there are coated all-copper bullets available. In this case, my Stevens did foul rather quickly with the brass-jacketed bullets, causing groups to open up slightly after about 10 rounds--after which, accuracy seemed to stabilize. I don't personally care for moly-coating bullets, but this may be a case where such a coating would be a benefit.
Cost is also an important consideration when deciding whether or not to swage your own .22-cal. jacketed bullets because the allure of great savings is perhaps the first thing to come to mind. Up until recently, you would have been hard pressed to realize much savings by handloading .223 Rem. at all. But now that ammunition cost is higher and supply is limited, handloading .223 might be more of a practical matter than an economic one.
Regarding economics, if you select swaging tools that fit an existing
O-frame reloading press, you're looking at an investment of about $600. The cheapest I could find 55-grain HPFB .224-inch bullets is about $0.12 per bullet. Provided you don't count the value of your time, and you use scrap rimfire cases and scrap lead, you'll need to make about 5,000 bullets to cover the cost of the tools. If you're after economic savings, then you're probably best off going in on the cost of the tools with a couple of friends.
On the other hand, the experimenter in me sees the versatility afforded by swaging, and that's where I see the value. Imagine the performance on furbearers if you swaged the case full of No. 6 shot instead of a solid-lead core. And Corbin suggested experimenting with plastic or cornstarch fillers under the lead core to shift the center of gravity closer to the center of pressure to influence bullet stability. Add in the ability to swage a bullet to any weight, size, or shape imaginable, and the possibilities--and potential--are limitless.