Reloading: Thoughts on Finding the Perfect Load and Volume Production
November 29, 2020Civilian Marksmanship Program▸The First Shot▸Reloading: Thoughts on Finding the Perfect Load and Volume Production
By Danny Arnold, Team CMP Highpower
If you’ve seen Team CMP at a match, you might have wondered if the team is shooting issued ammunition or if we load our own. The truth is, if you see several team members at an event, the ammunition that we fire at the 200- and 300-yard lines is “Team” ammunition purchased from a vendor for that shooting season. The ammunition that we fire at 600 yards is each team member’s personal load, and each of those rounds is loaded by us.
Being furnished ammunition is a nice perk, but I should point out that we only shoot “Team” ammunition when we’re all together at an event. The rest of the time, we’re shooting ammunition that we load ourselves. That adds up to a lot of ammunition each year: In my case, another 2,000 to 3,000 rounds, assuming a “normal” year, i.e., not 2020.
In this article, I’ll provide some thoughts about finding a good 200- and 300-yard load and how to efficiently produce a lot of it, since 75 percent of our shooting is done at those yard lines.
First, a thought on what constitutes a good load: This comes from fellow teammate Bob Gill who put into words something that I had suspected for a long time. In a conversation about choosing the team’s ammunition for the 2021 season, Bob commented that a proven load will shoot good groups if shot through a quality upper, regardless of bullet manufacturer or powder. That flies in the face of the “Perfect load for a particular barrel,” school of thought, but it’s easy enough to check out.
The members of Team CMP are using barrels from different manufacturers with different chamber configurations, yet the team ammo shoots winning scores on the road. At home, individual team members are producing their own ammunition using different bullet and powder combinations that we independently selected, and those combinations also produce winning scores. That lends credence to Bob’s statement, but I thought I’d put it to the test.
My testing procedure was simple: At 200 yards, slung up in the prone position, I’d fire a total of 12 slow-fire shots from the magazine without breaking position. The first two shots would be fouling shots fired off the target and the next ten would be directed at the X-ring of the SR 200-yard target. The ammunition would be my own hand loads, “Team” ammunition and a box of factory-loaded “Match” ammunition from a different manufacturer that I had won somewhere as a door prize. All of the ammunition was loaded with 77-grain bullets. Both my bullet and powder was different than the “Team” ammunition, but the bullet from the “Team” ammunition was the same brand as the “Match” door prize ammunition.
The results: five to six shots in a tight group with the remainder hovering close by. No load resulted in a group larger than the X-ring, which spans 1.5 MOA at 200 yards. Keep in mind that those were 10-shot groups.
The takeaway here is that finding a good 200- and 300-yard load for your service rifle shouldn’t be an excruciating process. If you’re using a bullet and powder that other competitors are using, you should be able to find a load that your rifle likes.
Once I decide on a bullet, a powder that meters reliably through my powder measure, a primer and a desired velocity range, I load 10 rounds of each test load, increasing in .2 (2/10) grain increments. Depending on the powder, this may result in seven or eight different loads. I test each load at 200 yards from the prone position by loading all 10 cartridges in the magazine and slow-firing them without breaking position. In most cases, groups start decreasing in size as the charge increases, then as signs of pressure increase, group size increases.
Occasionally, groups may decrease in size once again as pressures run toward the high side. However, I’ll say it here: I’m not a fan of hot loads. I shoot in temperatures ranging from the low 40’s to over 100 in East Texas. No matter how well a hot load shoots, a primer lodged in your trigger group will cost you the match.
Ideally, I want to see two loads that are .2 (2/10) of a grain apart that shoot almost identical, accurate groups.
Why, you ask? Because, the second part of this process is making a lot of ammunition as quickly and easily as possible.
All of my reloading equipment is from solid, well-regarded manufacturers, but none of it is expensive. Some of it is over 20 years old at this point. My reloading equipment for Highpower consists of a hand-operated primer seater, a seven-hole turret press, four 50-round loading blocks, a funnel, two powder measures with baffles, a scale that measures to .01 (1/100) grain, a set of RCBS X-Dies for sizing and seating 200- and 300-yard ammunition and a set of match grade sizing and seating dies with a micrometer seating stem for 600-yard ammunition.
All of the dies (a total of four) stay screwed into the turret press so that I never have to do anything other than clean them occasionally. Notice that a progressive-style press isn’t on my reloading bench.
The X-Die is designed to limit case stretching when the neck is sized and eliminates the need for case trimming, which cuts a step out of the brass preparation process. The downside is that the die works the neck of the case more than a standard sizing die. I view it as a trade off: I’m probably shortening my brass life by a reloading cycle or two, but I’m also saving time that can be used elsewhere.
The load that I choose will fall in between the two best shooting loads that I tested. Remember, I want two loads that fall .2 (2/10) of a grain apart. If the first load is XX.4 grains and the second is XX.6 grains, I’ll set my powder measure to throw charges of XX.5 grains. That way, if a charge is .1 (1/10) of a grain off either way, it should still shoot well. Even if a charge is off by .2 (2/10) of a grain, it’s still okay. That round might be shot in standing. Or, maybe it’s the high or low “10” in my rapid-fire group. Regardless, I don’t worry about it.
There is a caveat here: If I pull the charging handle and there is a hesitation, or worse yet, it momentarily hangs up because it’s cutting the powder, I dump that charge back in the hopper and start over. From experience, I know that charge is going to be off by more than .2 (2/10) of a grain.
My reloading process is straightforward: Starting with 1,000 rounds of new brass, I prime 200 with the hand primer and put them in the loading blocks, drop powder in all of the cases, visually inspect for high or low powder levels, set bullets atop the case necks and then seat all 200, one right after the other. Loaded rounds go into a Ziploc freezer bag with the date written on the side with a sharpie, along with the number of times loaded.
Then, I take a break, maybe for the rest of the day. Approaching reloading in production line style allows me to load 200 rounds in an hour when I start with either new or sized and clean brass. That’s not as fast as the claimed speeds with a progressive press, but it’s pretty close, and I can easily check the entire process as it’s being done. Over the course of a few days, 1,000 rounds get loaded pretty easily.
I don’t size any brass until I have at least three matches worth. For me, it’s just not worth the time to size 60-odd rounds. Working in 200-round increments is about right with this system: More than that exceeds my tedium threshold – less, and I wonder why I bothered getting my hands dirty. That also sets me up to load another 200 rounds once I get the brass out of the tumbler.
I like to shoot, but I don’t really enjoy experimenting or loading ammunition. It’s one of the necessary evils of competitive shooting that ranks somewhere between teeth cleaning and colonoscopies in enjoyment. As a result, once I find a load that works well, I tend to stay with it for a long time. Having lots of ammunition around the house and knowing that you can make more of it with less hassle means more time to practice.
More practice = Better scores.