September 25, 2020
By Layne Simpson
Precision handloading as we know it today started during the late 1940s when a group of varmint shooters got together to see who could place five bullets into the smallest group at 100 yards and 200 yards. In the beginning standard handloading tools made by Lyman, Belding & Mull, and HollyWood Gun Shop were used to reload the .220 Swift along with wildcat cartridges like .22-250, .220 Wilson Arrow, and .219 Donaldson Wasp. Two organizations, the National Benchrest Shooters Association (NBRSA) and the International Benchrest Shooters (IBS), were eventually formed, and the sport was off and running.
Continued efforts to shrink group size by improving the quality and consistency of ammunition resulted in the development of precision-made handloading tools. Some were made by individual shooters for their own use, while others were made by gunsmiths who specialized in building accurate rifles. Then, during the early 1950s, champion benchrest shooter L.E. “Sam” Wilson of Cashmere, Washington, began selling his straight-line bulletseater, case trimmer, and other tools, and the accuracy race picked up speed. Sam passed away in 1985, but his company is still family-owned and his bulletseating die is still preferred by many benchrest shooters. Another leap forward came with the formation of Sinclair International by benchrest shooter Fred Sinclair. Now owned by Brownells, that company offers a mind-boggling number of tools designed specifically for precision handloading.
While everything needed to produce precision ammunition was available, few outside of a small fraternity of dedicated perfectionists were interested. Several events changed that, and one was the introduction of precision loading equipment by big reloading die makers, such as Redding, RCBS, Hornady, and Forster. Whereas the availability of precision equipment had previously been mostly known by a small group of shooters, everyone who handloads is now aware of them. And just as it goes with eating potato chips, once you try one of those tools, it is unlikely that you will stop there. Regardless of whether you have a factory rifle or a custom build, the challenge of shrinking groups on paper is both fun and habit-forming.
Another factor that has increased interest in precision handloading is improvement in the accuracy of factory rifles due to advances in CNC machinery. Leadership in that field has changed hands through the years simply because corporate priorities change. For many years Remington held a big lead with its series of target and varmint rifles based on the 40X action, but eventually the baton was passed to Savage. Savage introduced a superbly accurate F-Class rifle when very few people had even heard of the sport, and it was followed by the Model 12 Palma and a number of other affordable yet extremely accurate target rifles. Other companies have since joined the chase.
The accuracy of factory-built, bolt-action hunting rifles has improved enough through the years to make precision handloading worthwhile to many who own them. They may already deliver minute-of-whitetail accuracy with factory loads and regular handloads, but many riflemen cannot resist the challenge of making them drive tacks. Game animals have also benefited because a superbly accurate rifle instills confidence, and a confident hunter is more likely to make clean kills.
The price of a rifle is not always a true indicator of its accuracy potential. My first economy-grade rifle capable of half-minute accuracy with precision handloads was the Remington 788 introduced way back in 1967. Those in .223 Remington, .243 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, and .308 Winchester responded nicely to precision handloading. A carbine in 7mm-08 was accurate enough to consistently win the non-modified, factory deer rifle class in casual benchrest matches held at my gun club. Several companies offer good, low-budget rifles today, and I have had exceptionally good luck with a couple of Ruger American rifles in .243 Win. and 6mm Creedmoor. Marlin XL7 rifles that I shot also delivered surprisingly small groups, but sadly, that model is no longer with us.
Precision Rifle Series, F-Class, Palma, and other relatively new and quite demanding accuracy games have generated a considerable amount of interest in precision handloading, and while 1,000-yard benchrest shooting has been with us for a very long time, there is far more interest in the sport now than in years past. The 1,000-yard Wimbledon Cup match began in the United Kingdom in 1866 and eventually migrated to the National Rifle and Pistol Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio. Competition at The Original Pennsylvania 1,000-Yard Bench-rest Club began in 1967, and for many years, it and Camp Perry were about the only places offering competition at such great distance. That’s a very long way from rifle to target, but it’s not as far away as the King of 2 Miles competition held each year at the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, New Mexico. According to my trusty calculator, that’s 3,520 yards. Many other long-distance shooting matches are now held each year.
The Accurate Rifle
So what separates a superbly accurate rifle from those that deliver lower levels of accuracy? A short answer is the capability of consistently sending every bullet in precisely the same direction.
In order to accomplish that, each of its component parts must be of the very best quality. The axes of the bolt, firing pin, receiver, and chamber and bore of the barrel have to be as perfectly aligned as talented human hands operating precision machinery can make them. The locking lugs of the bolt must bear uniformly on their seats in the receiver, and the face of the bolt, the front of the receiver, and the recoil lug must be concentric. Bolt travel should be smooth with minimal wobble. When the firing pin is released, it should travel forward smoothly and freely with no binding against the interior of its spring or the wall of the bolt. The firing pin simply must deliver shot-to-shot consistency in the amount of energy it delivers to primers.
Custom actions from Kelbly’s, Stiller, Barnard Precision, Surgeon, Defiance, Accuracy International, and several others rank among the very best available. Blueprinted Remington 700, 40X, and XP-100 actions continue to win matches, and my Light Varmint class rifle on a sleeved 40X action in 6mm PPC is still the most consistently accurate rifle I have owned. Going that route can save money up-front, but resale value of the rifle will likely be considerably less than if it is built around one of the custom actions.
A top-notch trigger is also important, and while I have long leaned toward those built by Arnold Jewell and the 2-ounce trigger from Shilen, excellent precision-built triggers are available from Accuracy International, Timney, Huber Concepts, and Tubb. When properly maintained, they can be extremely light of pull and consistent in pull-to-pull weight while remaining quite reliable. The Diamond-grade trigger from TriggerTech on an 18-pound Templar rifle built by G.A. Precision in 6mm GT breaks crisply at a mere three ounces, and not once has it released without being lightly caressed by my finger.
The chamber of a precision rifle often has minimum dimensions for the cartridge chosen, and to assist in aligning a bullet with the bore, chamber throat diameter is usually no more than 0.0005 inch larger than bullet diameter. Some builders of precision rifles believe that throat angle should closely match the ogive shape of the bullet used. After being reamed, the toolmarks in the surface of the chamber should be lightly polished away.
Top-quality barrels made by Bartlein, Krieger, Jarrett, Lilja, Shilen, Hart, Schneider, Proof Research, and others have several things in common. First, the bore is drilled perfectly straight. Barrels with crooked bores that are straightened by bending in a special jig tend gradually to return toward their original shape when heated by continuous firing, and that can cause wide dispersion of bullets.
Equally important is little to no variation in the bore and groove diameters. In fact, the top-tier barrelmakers guarantee a deviation no greater than 0.0001 inch from chamber to muzzle.
There was a time when it was thought that gain-twist rifling had advantages, but today’s barrelmakers generally agree that rifling twist should be uniformly the same from one end of a barrel to the other. Regardless of what method is used to rifle and finish a barrel, microscopic marks will remain, and that’s acceptable as long as the marks are in the same direction as bullet travel. Toolmarks across the tops of the lands will collect bullet jacket fouling, and that’s not a good thing for accuracy. A precision-machined crown at the muzzle ensures clean bullet exit.
We must not overlook the contribution advancements in telescopic sights have made. During the early days of benchrest competition, the long, externally adjusted Lyman Super Targetspot in 20X with both of its bases attached to the barrel or one attached to the receiver and the other attached to the barrel ruled the accuracy roost. I have two of those scopes, and as good as they are, they do not hold a candle in durability, precision, and optical clarity to those made today by Nightforce, Trijicon, Valdada, Burris, Bushnell, Swarovski, Weaver, Leupold, Schmidt & Bender, and a host of others. My first short-distance bench-rest rifle (100 and 200 yards) wore a Lyman All American 20X scope, and while that seemed to be enough magnification at the time, many of today’s competitors prefer magnifications of 40X and higher.
Precision Handload Accuracy