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How To Handload Ammo for Long Range Competition Shooting

Here's how to create consistency with your handloads for long-range competitions.

How To Handload Ammo for Long Range Competition Shooting
Consistency is the key to succeeding in long-range rifle com- petition, including the fast-growing sport of PRS. High-end components, quality tools, and match-loading techniques are vital to loading match-winning, consistent ammo.

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The fastest-growing, most popular shooting sport is practical long-range precision shooting. This includes everything from recreational fun shooting right up to the most intense, extreme-range competition ever in history. Termed PRS shooting, which stands for Precision Rifle Series, this type of competition usually involves around 10 shots per stage, against a 90- to 120-second time limit. Often, the shooter must transition between several designated positions during each stage and always must employ practical field positions. Any shooter that can regularly fire all 10 shots within the time limit and score 60 percent hits or better is a fine rifleman indeed. Daily matches call for 40 to 80 rounds; weekend matches usually require around 200 rounds. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is better for developing and polishing one’s practical rifle shooting skills. Time limitations, positional transitions, vastly differing wind conditions, targets at challenging distances, and a vast quantity of repetitions all instill wisdom, savvy, and skill that only experience can teach. Shooting precisely at long range requires very consistent ammunition, assembled using high-quality components. Furthermore, PRS matches require a lot of it—far more than the handful of shots usually called for during a Benchrest match or even a Service Rifle competition.

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Of all the primers available, the author’s tests have him convinced that Federal’s Gold Medal line offers the greatest consistency. To load competition-quality ammo, you must use precision tools. Prioritize a premium die set, such as the MatchMaster from RCBS. A bushing in the sizing die enables you to adjust neck tension, and a window in the micrometer-adjustable seating die makes precise, concentric bulletseating easy.

Premium match-grade ammo is available in suitable calibers from many ammunition companies, but it is expensive. For most shooters, handloading is the only viable option. Plus, judicious handloading enables the shooter to tune ammo for the best possible accuracy and consistency. America has always been a nation of riflemen—moreover, riflemen that continually strive for increased capability on distant targets. Tales of Hawkeye’s legendary exploits with his flintlock rifle in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (published in 1826) surely inspired marksmen. Accurate shooting at extended distances has captured the attention of Americans ever since. Shortly after the Civil War, long-range shooting became an internationally popular sport. A state-of-the-art, 1,000-yard range was established on Long Island, New York, by the newly formed NRA and named the Creedmoor Rifle Range. When the Irish long-range team claimed a World’s Championship in 1873, without having competed against the Americans, the NRA expressed skepticism. Stung, the Irish issued a challenge. Tryouts were held across the United States, and a team of crack shots assembled at Creedmoor. Single-shot Sharps and Remington rifles were provided for the team, and in a nail-biting finish that came right down to the final shot, the Americans won the 1874 “grand international rifle match at Creedmoor.” The same year, using a Sharps 50-90 buffalo rifle, Billy Dixon fired a 1,538-yard shot and knocked a mounted Comanche warrior off his horse during the battle of Adobe Walls. It became legend in settlers’ folklore and was substantiated by surveyors that later established the exact distance. Dixon later received the U.S. Medal of Honor for his actions during the Buffalo Wallow Fight, making him one of only eight civilians ever awarded the medal.

In 1903, in conjunction with the NRA, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Matches at Camp Perry, a series of matches addressing disciplines fired from close range to 1,000 yards. The concept was to elevate the skills of American marksmen across the nation. World War I Sgt. Alvin York—a renowned rifleman who hailed from Tennessee—earned a Medal of Honor after displaying uncommon valor coupled with eyebrow-raising shooting capability and accuracy under fire. His precision-shooting exploits became nearly mythical. Gary Cooper played York’s character in the 1941 film Sergeant York and won an Academy Award for it. Willie Nelson sang about how his “Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” but America’s heroes have usually been cowboys who can shoot, from Billy Dixon and Roy Rogers right up to Tom Selleck’s Matthew Quigley, in whose hands the Sharps Model 1874 rocketed to instant stardom in the 1990 film Quigley Down Under. Whether myth, legend, or reality, long-range shooting exploits have always resonated with Americans.

Top Long Range Cartridges

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Match-quality bullets designed with sleek aerodynamics provide the best results at long range. Some of the best available include (left to right) 6mm Hornady 110-grain A-Tip Match, 6.5mm Berger 140-grain VLD Hunting, 6.5mm Hornady 147-grain ELD Match, 7mm Berger 195-grain EOL, .30-cal. Hornady 225-grain ELD Match, and .30-cal. Hornady 230-grain A-Tip Match.

Depending on how you define “long range,” a lineup of appropriate cartridges will change. Historically, proper long-range matches at Creedmoor included 800-, 900-, and 1,000-yard targets. These days, many of the targets currently set in PRS matches are very small, often one MOA or less, and are placed at between 300 and 800 yards. Strictly speaking, these may be considered midrange targets, and the mild 6mm cartridges that are so effective on them midrange cartridges. These include the 6mm BR and all its wildcat derivatives, such as 6mm Dasher, 6mm BRA, 6mm BRX, and so on, plus GA Precision’s 6mm GT (the popular up-and-coming kid on the block). It’s currently trendy to focus one’s cartridge selection on the midrange targets, maximizing the points that may be gained there. The points that will unavoidably be lost on the extreme-range targets are deemed acceptable. For the stages that do reach beyond 800 yards, often with steel targets at distances that get really sporting (say to 1,400 yards or more), it takes a particular breed of cartridge to be both practical and effective. These have more horsepower and more recoil, and they reduce barrel life. They burn greater quantities of propellant. However, some competitors work hard to bridge that divide, shooting cartridges that are somewhat efficient, extremely accurate, and relatively effective past 1,200 yards. On the cusp of joining this group is the 6mm Creedmoor, with the various 6.5mms like 6.5x47 Lapua, 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5-284, 6.5 GAP, and 6.5 PRC being better.

Taking the long-range practical precision game a sizable step further, ELR (extreme long range) PRS-type matches are gaining in popularity. Small, mild cartridges don’t cut the mustard here. Competitive cartridges start with the zestier 6.5mms, such as the 6.5-284 and 6.5 PRC, and range up. Way up. As much as we’d like to, we can’t address them all, so we’ll just include a couple of the best. Probably the most popular of the 7mms is the 7mm RSAUM (Remington Short Action Ultra Magnum), and undoubtedly the best of the .30-caliber cartridges is the relatively new 300 PRC, which is engineered from the ground up for ideal performance with long, heavy-for-caliber projectiles offering extreme aerodynamics.

Proper Long Range Propellants

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Because even relatively small variations in velocity create significant impact discrepancies at long range, accuracy is not the only name in this game. Any gunpowder viable for use in handloads for long-range competition must provide three characteristics: accuracy, consistency, and insensitivity to temperature extremes. Accuracy is a no-brainer. Without it, nobody could hit tiny targets at long distances. Consistency is less obvious. If a rifle shoots sub-half-MOA groups on demand at 100 yards, shouldn’t it be just fine at long range? Well, not necessarily. Many traditional types of gunpowder will provide that sort of accuracy, but if you measure the velocity of each shot, you may find a surprisingly large extreme spread. That doesn’t matter at just 100 yards, but at 10 times the distance, that group will exhibit crippling vertical dispersion. As for insensitivity to temperature swings, that’s been the golden unicorn for over a century. Historically, gunpowder lost puissance when it got cold and gained power when it became hot. Velocities dropped drastically in wintry temperatures and could lose up to 100 fps even in just cool morning temperatures. As the sun reached its zenith and torrid summer temperatures baked guns and ammo, pressures spiked, and velocities did, too.

Vast variations in temperatures, even if you can predict they’re going to occur, make it difficult to precisely compensate for extreme-range trajectories. Propellants that produce nearly the same velocity no matter the outside temperature became a primary goal. Hodgdon won the space-race to achieve temp-stable powders with its exceptional Extreme line of propellants. There are burn rates appropriate for anything from mild close-range benchrest cartridges right up to the biggest magnum hunting cartridges. Of them all, H4350 emerged as a magical propellant for use in the über-capable 6.5 Creedmoor. So much so that for years, it’s been scarce. Finding an eight-pound keg on a dealer’s shelf has been known to elicit an involuntary hallelujah! from serious shooters. More recently, other manufacturers have achieved admirable results, too, and temp-stable powders are available in several lineups, including IMR and Winchester, both of which are under the Hodgdon company umbrella. IMR brought out the Enduron line of propellants, which are very temperature stable and boast a copper-reducing additive. Made in Canada, they are more consistently available than the Australian-made Hodgdon Extreme powders. Slowly, they’re catching on among shooters. According to some, they do not offer quite the consistency of Hodgdon’s line; others contend that they’re just as good or even better. Personally, I think it depends on your rifle’s preference. Try some and find out for yourself.

Winchester got into the precision-powder game more recently. Its new flagship propellant for long-range work is labeled StaBALL 6.5, a not-so-discreet hail to certain characteristics. It’s ideal for the 6.5 Creedmoor. It’s temperature stable, and it’s a Ball powder that meters well through volumetric measures and electronic chargers alike. In my somewhat limited experience using StaBALL 6.5 in a 6mm GT competition rifle, it has been shockingly good. Load development was not necessary—every charge I tried shot into tiny groups. Velocity was excellent, nearly 100 fps faster than with comparable zesty loads of competing propellants. And while not quite as consistent as my exceptional regular Varget load, which typically posts a standard deviation average of between 2 fps and 4 fps over a 10-shot string, StaBALL 6.5 was still laudable, averaging in the single digits.

Other Critical Components

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An often-overlooked element in creating consistent ammunition is case-length consistency and case-mouth squareness. Trim often—and precisely. The author’s L.E. Wilson trimmer isn’t fast, but it produces absolutely perfect results.

Due to a test I ran on primer consistency that conclusively proved the superior consistency of Federal’s Gold Medal primers, I utilize them exclusively for long-range ammo. They are my hands-down choice. When choosing cartridge cases, you want quality, but you also need quantity. Find a balance between affordability, availability, and excellence. OCD shooters prefer Lapua, because it’s generally considered the best brass available. However, it’s expensive and sometimes hard to source. Starline, Norma, Nosler, Petersen, and Alpha all offer quality unfired brass, and you can usually find at least one of the brands locally or in stock online. All that said, many shooters—me included—utilize once-fired Hornady or Federal brass, from the companies’ respective match ammo lines, and it serves just fine for practical long-range work. The key to getting the best possible performance is to trim your brass perfectly square with a quality trimmer and to deburr them with a low-drag chamfer tool. Next to powder, projectiles are more up for debate than any other component. Since they are the single connecting element between the shooter and the target, they are arguably the single most important ammo component in your long-range system. Capable bullets possess very high ballistic coefficients (BC), extreme accuracy, and a forgiving nature that is not picky about seating depth. (That’s important because the ogive-to-leade relationship actually changes from erosion during the course of a 200-round match.) Affordability is nice, too. Many champion-level shooters are handloading Hornady A-Tip Match bullets, which are deemed by many to be the best of the best but are expensive. Barnes Match Burners, Hornady ELD Match bullets, Sierra MatchKings, Berger Hybrids, DTACs, and others serve well at a lower cost.

Handloading Equipment

Recommended


No particular surprises here. Any gear helpful to creating the most consistent home-rolled ammo possible is worth employing, as long as it’s suitable for creating large quantities. Handloaders passionate about PRS-type competitive shooting are spending more money than any previous demographic of handloader I’m familiar with. For example, top-quality electronic powder dispensers capable of weighing charges to within one-hundredth of a grain, rather than the more common one-tenth of a grain, are expensive and coveted. However, you don’t need to spend a ton of money to begin handloading premium-quality long-range ammo. Pick your battles and spend your money wisely. Assuming you have a good reloading press, I’d prioritize a premium set of reloading dies like RCBS’s MatchMaster bushing set. You might be surprised how easy to load near-perfect ammo is with a set of these dies. I recommend you invest in at least one high-quality electronic powder dispenser. RCBS’s MatchMaster Powder Dispenser is one of the best, but if you can’t swing the $1,000 required to bring it home, buy a $290 RCBS ChargeMaster Lite. I’ve built very capable PRS ammo for years using one. The only other tool you may not have—and may need—is a case trimmer capable of trimming case mouths perfectly square and crisp. Prime with any decent handheld tool. That way you can “feel” your primers to the right depth.

Special Techniques

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“Long range” can be interpreted broadly, but (left to right) the 6mm GT, 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC, and 300 PRC are four of the best cartridges available, no matter what your definition of the term is. Historically, temperature-stable propellant has been the handloaders’ unicorn. Thanks to modern developments in gunpowder, Hodgdon’s lineup of powders— from the Hodgdon Extreme line to IMR’s Enduron line and including Winchester’s versatile StaBALL 6.5—has long-range shooters covered.

Many benchrest handloading methods are not practical for handloading long-range ammo for PRS-type shooting because they simply take too long. A balance must be found that allows the loader to create a lot of ammo in an evening—200 rounds or more—yet maintain match-winning accuracy and consistency. I once asked my friend and top-shelf PRS competitive shooter Paul Dallin what is, in his opinion, the single most beneficial step in the handloading process. Perhaps his answer would be different today, but at the time he responded, “Trimming my brass. I gained a lot of consistency when I went to trimming between every loading.” It was a surprising and thought-provoking response. Custom long-range hunting ammo handloading guru Roland Black reinforced the importance of trimming, suggesting that having a perfectly square case mouth was vital. At his recommendation, I obtained an L.E. Wilson trimmer. It’s a bit slow to use, but it creates an absolutely perfect, square case mouth every time. As mentioned earlier, using premium match-grade primers and loading with weighed propellant charges are critical. But aside from trimming, the most important technique-related loading process in my opinion is seating bullets straight and with adequate neck tension. It goes without saying that a projectile seated askew has little chance at perfect accuracy. Use a premium micrometer-adjustable seating die, such as the RCBS MatchMaster. The bullet-inserting window makes loading concentric ammo laughably easy.

As for neck tension, remember, these are practical rifles, feeding 10 rounds in fast succession from a steel magazine. They are not single-fed benchrest rifles with tight chambers that finish the bulletseating process every time you chamber a round. I once documented a shift with a super-accurate rifle that displayed how dramatically neck tension can affect accuracy. Ammo with snug-fitting projectiles regularly clustered into 0.38 inch, 100-yard groups. Ammo with very light neck tension wouldn’t keep three shots in less than an inch. Thankfully, most manufacturers offer match-quality reloading die sets with interchangeable bushings that enable shooters to experiment with neck tension and find out just what their rifles like best. There’s never been a better time to get into shooting long. Wonderfully capable rifles and scopes are available at reasonable prices, and just about anybody can load ammo capable of ringing small 1,000-yard targets. But be warned: It’s an addictive discipline. Before long, you may find yourself loading the superb modern propellants available today in tenth-grain powder-charge increments and experimenting in order to squeeze the last iota of accuracy out of your match rifle and make it to the invitational PRS finals.




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