Handloading For Competition – Case Prep

 photo 2015-06-11 00.15.43_zpsczhtgdtr.jpg

In the previous series of articles – Care, Feeding and Maintenance of Precision Rifles – we focused our reloading discussion on exactly that; reloading, which I consider to be the practice of properly resizing a piece of fired brass, charging it with powder and capping it with a bullet. The finished cartridge will both easily fit and can be safely fired in any rifle of the same calibre and – as I proved in Part IV of the series – such reloads can certainly equal factory match-grade ammunition if used by a competent shooter who is equipped with a rifle and scope of sufficient mechanical accuracy.

For perhaps the large majority of shooters the reloading practices I described in the previous series are more than sufficient for their needs but the fact is that shooting is one of those things – perhaps like golf – where the drive for perfection, in this case ever smaller groupings, demands an even greater level of attention and detail than we have previously discussed.

In this article we are going to examine the art of Handloading which I define as a procedure more detailed and taxing than Reloading and which, when properly attended to, will both tailor ammunition to a particular rifle and be capable of delivering sub half minute accuracy out to a thousand yards and beyond.

In this article I’ll follow the same style and format that proved so popular in the earlier series so without further ado……

While our new reloader has been very pleased with the results from the reloading that has been completed so far, there is the desire for even more precision and a yearning to make ammunition that is as consistent as possible. Having followed my advice from the previous articles the new reloader decided to buy some new Lapua brass, made up some loads which were fired off and is now sitting with a nice pile of once-fired brass.

 photo 001_zpshrubagqa.jpg

Some people insist that it is necessary to weigh and separate brass but I have found with Lapua ( and, for that matter, Norma ) that this is an unnecessary step. Likewise, there are some who advocate weighing bullets but I use Berger or Lapua for my match ammo and they are sufficiently uniform so as to not need weighing and separating. Other brands – like the otherwise very nice Hornady 178g BT’s for example – do vary quite a bit in weight and so a competition shooter may wish to consider weighing each projectile.

*Tip – Buy more than one set of calipers.  You will be measuring a number of things and more than one set is really handy

 photo 2015-06-27 07.14.29_zpsvmuukoqj.jpg

Our new reloader should really make an effort to grasp a concept that can be confusing for many people – headspace which, for our purposes let us keep this simple and say that Headspace is the chamber clearance that allows your cartridge to move or expand forward or rearward.

Many real accuracy buffs say they want this Headspace measurement to be at the absolute minimum and will want to do this to ensure a cartridge is as perfectly aligned to the center of the bore as possible. Their position is that if a round is sitting ‘loosely’ in the chamber the bullet will tend to point a hair towards the bottom of the bore which may affect accuracy. Other people disagree and say that a round should fit loosely.  I say that for tactical matches or for ammo that may be used in more than one rifle then, yes, ammo should fit loose and should chamber and eject easily but for F-Class and BR I am of the view that it is best to tailor ammo.

The way a handloader can achieve minimal headspace is by adjusting the shoulder of fired cases when resizing. There are a number of ways to do this: there is the old trial and error method which basically works like this – keep adjusting the resizing die down when resizing a piece of brass until chambering is just barely possible without resistance. This method works pretty well – but please make sure to keep the case lubed while doing this or you will get a shell stuck in the die. A better – more exact – way of achieving a minimal headspace is to measure the case that has been fired and then bump the shoulder back two thousandths of an inch.

For measuring the fired cases I like to use the Hornady Headspace gauge. This is an inexpensive tool and is easy to use and once you have your measurement the best way to set back the shoulder the 2 thou or whatever you need to is to use some equipment like Redding’s Competition Shellholder Kit.

 photo Redding Shellholders 002_zpsm9twrrdo.jpg

The kit is composed of five thicker than normal shellholders which are packaged together in a neat little plastic case. A normal shellholder is .125″ thick. The five competition shellholders are thicker in increments of two thousandths of an inch i.e. +.002″, +004″, +.006″, +.008″, and +.010″. Each shellholder is stamped with its increase in thickness size, and they are Black Oxide coated so they can’t be confused with a regular .125″ shellholder.

Using these shellholders is very easy. Start with the +.010″ shellholder. Install on the press’s ram and raise to the top position. Screw down the sizing die to the point that it’s making firm contact with the shellholder. When all set up take a lubed up case run it into the die and measure again. If the shoulder hasn’t moved back far enough then repeat with the +.008 shellholder. When you are satisfied with the measurement try chambering it into your gun to make sure it fits. All good then onto the next step.

In previous articles we talked about resizing, case trimming, chamfering and the removal of burrs but we didn’t speak about neck turning. Few steps in case preparation are as controversial as neck turning and some people say that if you don’t turn the case necks you are not serious about accuracy. Before I risk being called heretic let me say that I have neck turned brass and I like to use the inexpensive Hornady Neck Turning tool with the appropriate mandrel – a slow process but remember this isn’t about churning out thousands of rounds for a steel match.

Neck Turning Tool – Hand Powered

 photo 2015-06-27 07.13.11_zpsv3llpw6c.jpg

Where do I stand on neck turning today? Well, I am going to disagree with a lot of experts and say that unless you have custom chamber that requires it or have brass that is of differing neck thicknesses this is a step which is a time consuming and laborious step. Maybe it may edge you a wee bit closer to the goal of perfection but, honestly, for most shooters it isn’t going to make a great deal of difference.  Having said that, do check necks for consistency – if you find that they are of differing thicknesses you may decide that, even though it is a slow process, neck turning is necessary for you.

Measuring Your Cases – Data You Can Use

 photo 008_zpsv1vwerpo.jpg

Charging the cases for competition isn’t something that should be left to your trusty powder throw. For match consistency every charge should be weighed. When a single 4 can put you out of contention in a match you can’t risk a velocity change due to a thrown charge being off by a half grain or so.

Thrown Charges – Unwise For Competition Ammo

 photo 013_zpsant7ka8b.jpg

When we were looking at reloading in general we made our ammo ( .308 ) to SAAMI spec of 2.800″ but a competition shooter may well wish to be at a specific jump to the lands, kissing the lands or even jammed. To measure the chamber I’ve used a Sinclair tool and a Hornady OAL gauge – of the two I prefer the Hornady. I have also made up my own tool for this purpose using a resized case and a Dremel tool – a cheap but accurate little gizmo.

Hornady Tool and Home-Made Tool in Background

 photo 2015-06-08 08.01.18_zpszgo58icu.jpg

More Home-Made Tools

 photo 2015-06-27 07.13.36_zps0bitq5dt.jpg

Anyway, whichever tool you use you will need a comparator to take an accurate measurement from the ogive of the bullet as this is more consistent than OAL measuring due to the manufacturing differences in the points of bullets.

OAL Gauge and Modified Case

 photo 2015-06-11 00.15.23_zps4ycfit39.jpg

Two Types of Comparators : Hornady and Sinclair

 photo 003_zpsxinl5d8v.jpg

 photo 005_zpsxm89xnt6.jpg

Many shooters like to jump a few thou to the lands while some like to jam. Much will depend upon the bullet – some are quite sensitive to seating depth. A cautionary note though – if you jam and have to unload you may cause a case and bullet separation which will spill powder all around the inside of your chamber and down into the trigger. This will spoil your day.

Following these extra steps will allow for rounds to be truly custom made for your rifle and will likely see a measurable improvement over regular match grade ammo. The rounds likely won’t work well ( probably won’t even chamber ) in other rifles of the same calibre as they are unique to the particular firearm they are made for but they will allow every last bit of accuracy to be eked out and may get you into the winners circle !

A Personal Best Five Shot Group Produced With The Extra Steps Outlined Above

Does The USMC Need To Replace The M40 ?

There is a great discussion going on at Snipers Hide about an article that appeared in the Washington Times. The article suggested the USMC are under gunned and ought to change out of the .308 M40 into something else.

Worth reading and discussing for sure.


Review – Savage 12 Benchrest in 6.5-284 Norma

 photo FOPEN AND FTR 001_zpsnm7m8sgr.jpg

Note: The rifle reviewed was actually sold to me as the Savage F Class.  Aficionados of Savage rifles have pointed out that this is actually the Benchrest model (Sku 18613). I have edited the review to reflect this.  Embarrassing but this is the internet !

While I have owned a number of Savage rifles – ranging from the Savage MkII BV in .22LR through to the 110BA in .338 Lapua Magnum – they’re not usually my first choice in firearms brands. For some, entirely subjective, reason I find Savages to be ‘clunky’ and somehow lacking the smoothness of other brands. However, and no matter criticisms I may have about Savage, one thing that has to be accepted is that ‘out of the box’ they can most certainly shoot. The other positive that must be said about Savage is that they have really made an effort to go after a smaller market – F-Class and BR – in a way that the other manufacturers have not, and for this they must be commended.

Last year I added to my Savage collection one of their offerings that is designed to cater to this limited market of shooters – the rifle I acquired was the Savage 12 Benchrest chambered in 6.5-284 Norma.

While the the Savage 12 F-Class (Savage SKU # 18155) is purpose built for the F-Open shooter and has features such as a 30″ barrel, dual port (left load and right eject) and the Savage Target Accutrigger. The Savage Benchrest  (18613) has a one inch shorter barrel and lacks the flat bottom buttstock that the F-Class has but in other respects they are identical. At an overall length of 49″ and a weight of 12.75 lbs this Benchrest rifle can certainly be used for F-Open as even using the heaviest of scopes, rings and bases, is one that will easily make the F-Open weight limit of 22 lbs.

Dual Port

 photo FOPEN AND FTR 004_zpslrcxvpks.jpg

Target Accutrigger

 photo FOPEN AND FTR 005_zpspfxgnvpq.jpg

A couple of the features that people usually say contribute to the accuracy of Savage rifles is the very solid action and – almost by accident – the floating bolt head. Of course, this model has both of these features and it is housed in a stiff wood-laminate stock with a wide forend that is ideal for shooting off bags or (more likely in F-Class) a front rest.

Wide Forend

 photo FOPEN AND FTR 008_zps9emiikob.jpg

While the 6.5-284 is no longer the dominant chambering it once was in the F-Class game, having been replaced with various offerings in the 7mm category, it remains a superbly accurate cartridge that can certainly be competitive at all levels (other than perhaps the absolute top tier) of competitive shooting and is one for which both very high quality brass (Lapua) and projectiles (139 Lapua Scenars amongst others ) are readily available.

6.5-284 and .308

 photo 001_zps7bf1rhis.jpg

Loads for what was once a wildcat of the parent .284 Winchester, are often developed using H4350 or H4831SC as well as IMR 4350 and others and so when I got my rifle I sought out the Lapua brass, bullets and 4350 powder and started to get to work making up some loads.

The 6.5-284 isn’t a hard recoiling round to begin with and what recoil there is gets nicely managed by the weight of the Savage F-Class rifle which ensures that this rifle/ammo combo is a pleasure to shoot.

Usually, a good load for the 6.5-284 can be found somewhere between 47-49g of H4350 and this rifle seemed very happy at the lower end (47.2g) with no appreciable improvement at higher charge weights though I suspect a higher node lurks somewhere above the charges I was working with but I don’t want or need a barrel burner.

There are a couple of downsides to this rifle – one is that the wide fore-end makes no allowance for the attachment of a bipod. Users of this rifle have to shoot of bags or a rest and I think that was a mistake; milling in a channel and attaching a short Anschutz rail would have been a good idea in my view. The second downside isn’t really anything to do with Savage but rather a downside of the chambering – you see the big downside of the 6.5-284 cartridge is barrel life. With very moderate loads a 6.5-284 barrel may last a couple of thousand rounds but up the charge weights and barrel life can be as short as 750 before accuracy noticeably falls off.

The negatives aside, this remains a very good rifle to buy to get into Benchrest or F-Open and it is very well put together. Comfortable to shoot and nicely accurate, this Savage can compete at pretty much most levels and could easily be in the winners circle at club matches for sure.

Under an Inch at 200M = 0.420 MOA

 photo 004_zps1azv2pz1.jpg