Reloading for Long Range Precision: Five Simple Rules
The ground squirrel ducked in and out of his hole as I scanned the patch of dirt high in the Selkirks of northern Idaho.
“Do you see him, Jess?” I asked my daughter as she watched through the spotting scope. “I see him!” she yelled. I relaxed as I started my breathing sequence, applying slow pressure to the trigger. The rifle recoiled straight back, allowing me to see the 300 grain bullet hit its mark 741 yards away. “You got him!” Jess yelled. I noted the conditions and correction in my data book, looked at the pile of empty cases, and decided to end the practice session on a positive note. That brass wasn’t going to reload itself!
To be successful at hitting targets spanning eight football fields or beyond, the long range hunter needs to spend as much time as possible in the field, shooting under real world conditions. Long range shooting in general, and long range hunting in particular, place special demands on the shooter’s ammunition. Due to accuracy and velocity standards, specialized projectiles, and the need for consistency from season to season, the serious long range shooter is almost always required to hand load their own ammunition.
Developing a repeatable process for the latter will enable the shooter to maximize time spent doing the former. There are many ways to build accurate ammo and several opinions on how to go about doing it. I’ll outline some of the rules I follow that enable me to balance my time between the canyons and the loading bench.
Rule # 1: Stupid hurts!
Understand and follow all of the safety rules that apply to handling gunpowder, primers, and loaded ammunition. With high velocity and heavy bullets, high pressure will follow. Know how to recognize pressure signs and how to adjust for it. Heavy bolt lift and brass flowing into the ejector hole are reliable signs of high pressure I look for. If accuracy stays acceptable, I like to load to where I get a distinct ejector mark on 50% or less of my cases, and then back off the powder in small increments until they are gone. Case life will suffer if pressure is left higher. Heavy bolt lift is a sign that pressure is higher than it should be, regardless of any other symptoms, and your powder charge should be backed off quickly until it’s gone
Rule # 2: Understand the process and why you’re following it.
It’s natural for us to focus on what and how when we learn something new, but more can be had by asking, why? If you understand why you are doing something, you may be able to modify, eliminate, or add that portion of the process to suit your needs. For example, why do we recommend bushing-style dies instead of standard sizing dies? Bushing dies, such as Redding Type S dies, reduce the overall work-hardening of the case’s neck, while at the same time allowing us to tune the amount of grip tension the neck has on the bullet when it’s seated. It works that way because the expander can be removed, and a specific bushing can be installed to only size the outside diameter of the case neck to achieve the desired grip tension.
Rule # 3: Keep detailed notes of everything you do.
What’s the point of developing a load that you like if you can’t duplicate it later? Get a full-size notebook and write down every part of your loading process. I start with lot numbers of all components used. If starting with a fresh barrel, I measure the throat length when new so I can track throat erosion. Some other important information includes seating depth, neck bushing sizes, shell holder brand, bump gauge and comparator insert numbers, and chronograph data. Keep a pad of Post-its on your bench. When I’m working on a project, there are sticky notes stuck to every available surface of my bench. I can then go back and catalog the information stored on them in my journal.
Rule # 4: Be consistent, and only change one thing at a time.
Any level of reloading benefits from consistency in the process, but loading precision ammo requires it. There are too many variables involved to start changing several of them all at once. I like to tune one thing at a time. I usually start with a reference seating depth, like .010” off the lands, then change my powder charge until I hit pressure or a good accuracy node. Then I will change the seating depth if I need to. Big changes, like primers, powder, or neck tension are done with deliberation and meticulous documentation. Develop your own process and stick to it.
Rule # 5: Benchrest ammo isn’t needed for a long range field gun.
I see a lot of shooters using benchrest techniques to reload ammo for their field guns. While that’s all fine and good, it’s been my experience that the benefits obtained from those techniques are largely wasted on a field gun. I burned through a lot of components, time, and barrel life to prove that to myself. The bulk of a rifle’s accuracy potential lies in the barrel it wears. Good barrels are perfectly capable of shooting tiny bug-hole groups without employing advanced, time consuming loading techniques. It makes no sense to me to trade valuable shooting time and resources to shave off a tenth of an inch from my ¼-minute groups. It looks cool on paper, but isn’t needed in the field. I like to spend my time sending rounds across a canyon, rather than trying to wring that last ounce of accuracy from my load.