Handloading for Accuracy
January 04, 2011
Our reloading editor reveals the accuracy secrets of his handloading mentor--secrets that have been developed over the past 45 years.
Several readers have asked how to handload the most accurate ammunition. I confess I'd never thought to write about this because the reloading manuals cover the topic thoroughly. The basic concept is simple: Make every round exactly the same as the others. Of course, as with most situations, the devil's in the details.
My columns usually focus on the self-satisfaction and safety considerations associated with handloading. Sometimes I remind readers that they can save money and/or shoot more for the same bucks by loading their own. However, a recent inquiry caused me to reconsider, and I'll reveal the secrets I've learned from one of my shooting mentors, John Redmon Sr., about how he achieves the best accuracy from his handloads.
First of all, Redmon is 73 years old and has probably fired a quarter of a million rounds--mostly rifle ammo--during his adult life. This total does not include .22 rimfire because he has no idea how many cartons of those he's shot. He told me that attending college and starting a new family curtailed his hobby for several years, but since the early 1960s, he's reloaded almost every round of centerfire ammo he's fired. He started out years ago as a one-gun-does-it-all shooter. He loaded ammo for his sporterized Springfield .30-06 with heavy bullets for whitetails and light ones for ground hogs.
I've watched him shoot at our gun club for more than 30 years. He's even participated in some of my reloading projects but only if they involved the smaller calibers he likes to shoot. I've never seen Redmon holding a scattergun, and until just recently, I never saw him shoot a handgun. "A waste of the earth's resources," is his oft-repeated assessment of shooting anything other than his favorite small-caliber rifles.
He's also quite a Remington fan. He has at least one--and sometimes two--of every Remington rimfire and centerfire rifle chambered in .22 and .24 caliber made since World War II. Notwithstanding his brusque, dry demeanor, Redmon will share his experiences with other serious shooters and handloaders. When I called him and told him what I had in mind, he readily agreed to summarize his recommendations on loading accurate ammo.
So here goes.
Reloading For AccuracyAs you would expect, Redmon follows a strict regimen preparing and assessing the cartridge cases. He starts with a 100-count lot of new brass, if possible, and inspects every piece for obvious defects. A fold or kink in the neck, a severely dented shoulder or case body, or a missing or off-centered flash hole relegates that piece to the scrap bucket.
Then he segregates the lot into smaller batches by weight so each piece is within one grain. After he deburrs the flash holes and uniforms the primer pockets, he partially neck-sizes each case to round up the mouth and assure it will accept and hold the bullet securely. Finally, he trims each piece ten thousandths of an inch less than the specified maximum length and lightly deburrs the case mouths, inside and out.
He next assembles each cartridge in the separate batches with a starting charge of a medium-burn-rate propellant that is compatible with the cartridge and bullet weight he intends to load. He seats the bullets so they engrave the rifling when chambered to ensure that he obtains the proper headspace.
After fireforming the rounds in the rifle he intends to dedicate this lot of brass to, he wipes each case clean, carefully inspects it again for defects, and brushes the inside of the neck to remove any residue. He again partially resizes the necks, checks to make sure every case is less than maximum length, cleans the primer pockets, and proceeds to reload the lot.
L.P.: How about annealing, neck turning, and reaming?
J.R.: I've tried all of those processes on various occasions and concluded I was wasting my time. Of course, if you reform 7.62x51 NATO military cases into .260 Remington or .243 Winchester brass, you will have to turn or ream the necks to ensure you can load safe and reliable ammo. But it's usually a lot less trouble and expense to buy the cases you need to begin with instead of making them from another one.
L.P.: How many times can you reload a batch of cases?
J.R.: Well, about 10 to 12 times is what I've come to expect. If a neck splits, I throw the case away. If I have a rash of neck splits, I discard the whole batch and start over. I have annealed some brass to try to extend its usefulness, but doing it correctly is tricky, so I usually just buy more new cases.
L.P.: I've talked with a couple of competition shooters and they indicated each case has to prove it's a good one by loading and firing it several times in practice before it's used in a match. Do you track each case as to whether or not the load demonstrates satisfactory accuracy?
J.R.: I do. If I shoot a round and the bullet strikes the target out of the group, I immediately assess my technique and the prevailing conditions to determine if there was an extenuating circumstance that caused the flyer. If not, I mark the case with a felt-tip pen and segregate it from the good ones. When I load that batch again, I include the marked case and shoot it along with the good ones. If it performs okay this time, I still keep it separate, and I load and fire it once more. After another good performance, I remove the mark and return it to the general population. However, if it causes another unexplained errant bullet hole, I only reload that case for fouling shots.
L.P.: Let's talk about the energetic components. How do you select the best powder and primer?
J.R.: I shoot .222 and .223 Remington mostly now. Powder selection is arbitrary because several have similar burn rates that may or may not work best in a specific rifle/cartridge/bullet combination. I don't pay as much attention to loading density as I do to the groups I shoot. The targets determine if I use one powder or another and how much. However, I do weigh each charge to assure the maximum uniformity of my handloads. And don't be afraid to try a different powder. I've achieved excellent results and obtained better accuracy experimenting with new propellants.
I've tried every Small Rifle primer available, and it doesn't seem to matter which one I use in proven recipes I've test-fired many times. Occasionally, it may seem like one particular handload performs better with a specific primer, but my targets don't indicate a definite trend one way or another.
L.P.: Which bullets do you prefer?
J.R.: All of the major suppliers make bullets that are good enough for loading accurate ammo. Years ago, Remington made .22- and .24-caliber benchrest bullets. I still have several thousand, and I sometimes reload a few rounds just to see if they shoot as good with today's components as they did back then. Berger's match bullets often perform much like Remington's benchrest bullets. I also like specific Sierra and Hornady bullets in proven handloads that each rifle prefers.
L.P.: Do you segregate them like you do the brass?
J.R.: No, I don't weigh or measure each bullet. I do load each batch of handloads with a single lot of bullets to maintain uniformity.
L.P.: Do you ever swage bullets?
J.R.: A friend and I went together and bought swaging tools many years ago. We didn't make many bullets as good as we could buy, and I decided it wasn't worth the time and effort. I'd rather be shooting! Today's bullets are even better, and I can buy all I can ever load and shoot.
L.P.: Do you use coated bullets?
J.R.: I tried moly-coated bullets years ago because they promised better performance and less rifle maintenance. They didn't perform any better, and it was harder to clean my rifles if I wanted to switch back to shooting plain jacketed bullets. I don't load them anymore.
L.P.: Does seating depth affect accuracy significantly?
J.R.: Seating depth is probably the most critical factor affecting accuracy. I determine the maximum overall length for the specific bullet I intend to load the whole batch with. When I get to the range, I fire a couple of groups to assess performance. If I decide to try to achieve better results, I reseat five bullets so the overall length is ten thousandths of an inch less and shoot another group. Repeating this process, I'll find the sweet spot if it's going to be evident. Again, the targets indicate which overall length is best--or that none of them is promising, and it's time to change recipes.
L.P.: You're an engineer like me, and most engineers like lots of data. But I know you don't own a chronograph. So why don't you measure velocities to help assess the performance of your handloads?
J.R.: I have the latest reloading manuals, and after comparing the different load data, I choose new recipes to test that fall within reasonable start and maximum limits. The most recent editions provide corresponding velocities and often pressure data. So I have a good idea what my handloads are doing without measuring the velocities. I shoot at both 100 and 200 yards to determine the actual bullet trajectory and drift under varying field conditions. And, again, the targets show how close each bullet is to the others in a group. I don't need any more information to tell me if my handload is good or bad.
You and I have shot together many times. You know several factors affect accuracy--probably more so than any specific handload you happen to be testing. When I get set up at the range but don't feel calm and relaxed, I don't waste my time or ammo. I also thoroughly clean my rifles regularly to ensure I obtain the best results. Bench equipment and your shooting technique--how you support and fire the rifle--will significantly affect accuracy. Uniformity of each shot is the key to optimum accuracy.
Of course, your rifle and optics must be well-made and not impaired. For example, a marred crown or misaligned mounts will throw the bullet off or bind the scope so it can't hold a precise adjustment. How the barrel and action are bedded in the stock is very important. Trigger-pull weight and consistency are other factors that will definitely enhance or detract from how well you shoot. Chamber, throat, and bore dimensions affect how the ammo performs. You have to tailor your handloads to the specific rifle to achieve the best results.
Good handloading skills and following precise processes are extremely important in making accurate handloads. Thanks for asking me to share my experiences with your readers. I hope they will benefit from them and enjoy reloading even more.