Care, Feeding and Maintenance of Precision Rifles Part IV – Finishing Our Reloads

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Last time – in Part III of this series – we looked at how a new reloader would go about preparing fired brass to make sure it was once again ready to carry a charge and bullet. This time, in Part IV, we will look at the next steps the new reloader needs to make; charging up the brass and seating a bullet. At the end of this article we will be ready to test the reloads at the range.

Because this series of articles is geared towards the newer shooters and reloaders amongst us, I will leave more advanced handloading techniques aside for the present but will incorporate them into a future article about handloading for competition. The purpose of the present series of articles is to provide sufficient guidance to ensure that our newer shooter can get properly set up with his or her new rifle, know how to clean and maintain it and, in this and the preceding article, make safe and accurate ammo that will perform as good as a premium brand of factory cartridges.

So, where we left off is that our reloader has a tray or two full of nice shiny, trimmed and primed brass and is ready to embark upon the next steps – charging the case and seating a bullet.

Beautiful – Ready To Charge

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Before pouring a single speck of powder let us digress for a moment. You need to make certain you have read over the reloading manuals regarding the recommended charge weights and powder selection for the bullet chosen. In our example we are assuming that the new reloader has decided to go with Varget powder and a 168 gr bullet and has read that bullet maker manuals recommend a charge weight between 39 – 44g of powder and powder makers manuals suggest that it is OK to go up to 46g.

Every reloader thinks that manuals err on the side of caution – loads have to be safe for all rifles of a given chambering and we live in litigious times – but this should not be a new reloaders justification for jumping in at the top ( or beyond ) end of what is recommended as a safe load. On the contrary, one should always start at a lower charge and work up the load in increments from there. A rule of thumb is 1% at a time but I usually go up in .5 of a grain with cartridges like the .308 so in this case where the range is 39 – 44g, I’d likely start at 41.5 then 42.0 then 42.5 etc.

A lot of people like to do ladder tests or OCW tests but I am a bit old fashioned and so I like to shoot 5 shot groups – it uses up more ammo but it is my preference and time behind the trigger is never wasted. So, in this case I’d load up 5 rounds at each incremental point from 41.5 – 44g for a total of 30 rounds and I’d add to that 5 of my factory match rounds and two or three foulers for a total of just under 40 rounds; a nice little range visit.

After fouling the barrel I will shoot one round of the 41.5 at target #1 followed by one round of 42.0 at target #2 and so on until each of the targets has a bullet hole. I will then wait a minute or so and repeat. At the end of the exercise I will have 7 targets and each target will have in it a 5 shot group. Of the groupings shot you will usually find that a couple will be better than the others and this will allow for some fine tuning between the charge weights.

I do not recommend that the exercise of figuring out a good load be done at 100 y/m as it is possible to have too many false positives ( groups that look more promising than they will prove to be over distance ) but, rather, try to shoot at 200 y/m (unless you are quite accomplished, leave the 300 y/m for a later date as you want to make sure it is the ammo you are testing not your marksmanship ). Doing the exercise at 200 y/m will suffice to weed out false positive groups and should still be a distance that isn’t too demanding of your rifle skills.

During load development you need to be wary of any signs of pressure that the gun or the brass may exhibit. Signs of significant over-pressure would be primers that are blown out of the primer pocket, cracks in the case near the case head or case neck and cases where the head has separated – these are very dangerous indications and you should pull remaining bullets and drop the charge weight of your load. For a new reloader I say that even the beginning signs of pressure such as flattened primers, ejector marks on the case head or a sticky bolt lift is where you should back off – it is too early and totally unnecessary to be hot-roding cartridges.

Digression over, let us resume the exercise of charging our new brass with powder and bullets – all our cases are primed and waiting in a loading tray so let’s pour. I know there are many people who use a scoop or a powder throw to dispense powder but I take the view that because reloading (and, even more so, the art of ‘handloading’ ) is all about consistency – and since powder weight is the single biggest factor in reloading that the reloader can control – I like to see each charge weighed. Of all the things a reloader can do, I believe that taking the time to ensure each round has the same amount of powder in it is the thing that will yield the largest gains in ammunition accuracy and consistency.

While charges can be weighed on a traditional beam or balance scale, a very solid investment to make is in a RCBS Chargemaster 1500 which allows you to select a powder charge, dispense the amount you selected and then stop. This machine can be a real time saver and I recommend buying one. Another use of the Chargemaster is as a scale to check charges you have thrown from a powder hopper.

RCBS Chargemaster

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While even the moderately dexterous can easily develop a cadence of loading a bullet into one charged piece of brass while the Chargemaster is preparing a charge for the next piece, I’m going to caution against that procedure. I recommend that the new reloader charge all cases and then make sure that each and every one has powder in it – seriously, use a flashlight and visually check this. It is too easy to forget to charge one piece of brass, load a bullet in the case and put it in the box. Sadly if you make such an error what will then happen is this: when you are shooting your ammo the unloaded cartridge will be fed into the chamber, the trigger will be pulled, the primer will go bang and that has enough ooomph to push the bullet part way into the barrel where it will come to a stop. The next round will go bang and, a nanosecond later, disaster will strike as the second bullet will collide against the tail of the first one and split the barrel , blow up the receiver and possibly cause you to loose an eye or worse. Sound serious ? It is, so be careful to ensure that there is a charge of powder in each case ( the opposite problem – a double charge – isn’t possible with a .308 case as it will simply overflow )

All Filled Or Not ?

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A Flashlight Can Confirm

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A quick note on powders – some meter, or pour, better than others depending on the size of the individual grains; Varget, for example, meters well whereas IMR 4350 not so much.

Varget – Temperature Stable and Meters Well

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A cautionary note on all electronic scales is that they can be susceptible to drafts or other interference so periodically you may wish to cross check to make sure they are weighing correctly – I keep a bullet of known weight handy for such a purpose.

So, at this stage you will now have a tray full of neatly laden cartridges ready to be capped with the bullet of choice.

First thing you need to do is to remove the sizing die from the press and replace with a seater die. I very strongly recommend that the money be spent on a quality seater with a micrometer head as these allow precise and quick adjustments. Overall I feel these are worth the extra money and give a more uniform seating than the other, regular, seaters. I use both Forster and Redding brands of seaters and find both to be equally good.

Micrometer Seaters

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To set up the seater dies back out the micrometer adjustment all the way then raise the ram of the press and screw in the die until it contacts the die body then back it out a 1/2 turn or so to ensure that the numbers are facing you. Secure the die by tightening the locking ring and securing the set screw.

Now taking one case place it in the shellholder seat a bullet on top and run the case and bullet all the way up in the die until the handle stops. Lower the handle and remove the cartridge and voila you have made your very first round of ammunition !

All Done

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Now we will need to remove the loaded cartridge from the press and measure the length to see how much we need to adjust the die so that the bullet is seated to the proper depth. Let us assume that we are making a dimensionally similar cartridge to our factory match ammunition (which you have measured as being an overall length of 2.779″) so measure your new reload and, using the micrometer, turn the seater down so that the loads you are making measure the same length as the factory rounds.

Check for Overall Length

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In our next article we will talk about a more advanced measurement than overall length (OAL) and also how to vary seating depth to fine tune our loads but for the present, simply repeat the process of seating bullets until all your rounds are made up and then put a label on the box and make a note in your logbook of all the details ( powder, charge, bullet, OAL etc ) of your new cartridges.

Simple Label on Box – Details in Logbook

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Now it is off to the range to see how our ammo works. I made up the exact same ammo as detailed in this article using the exact same procedure with the only difference being that I used Lapua brass. I used 43.5g of Varget, a FGMM primer and a Hornady 168g HPBT bullet which I seated to an OAL of 2.779″.

How did this ammo shoot. Well, to be fair I didn’t use a bone-stock rifle but I used a Remington that started off life as a SPS and now has a Rock Creek M40 Profile 1:10 barrel and is bedded into a McMillian M40 HTG stock. This rifle has a Timney 510 trigger and a NF 20MOA rail and is equipped with a Sightron Siii 10-50×60 scope with the MOA 2 reticule.

My Test Mule For This Article

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I shot 25 rounds and each group measured around .5 MOA with the best producing a ‘five inside a dime’ grouping of 0.377″ at 100 m which is 0.344 MOA.

Best Target

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This is excellent for beginner level reloads and in the next series of articles – Handloading For Competition we will look at ways of making ammunition so consistent that, with the right rifle, scope and shooter, half MOA or better will be the norm. See you next time !

Our Female Standard Poodle “Lapua” Who Occasionally “Helped” Write This Article Also Says “Bye”

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