Handloading For Competition – Case Prep

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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More Home-Made Tools

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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

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Two Types of Comparators : Hornady and Sinclair

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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

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