Handloader's Quest for Velocity
Date: Feb 01 2010
A common theme among many handloaders is their quest for additional velocity. Last year I conducted a reloading seminar at the NRA annual meetings. Afterwards I was approached by several handloaders wanting to share their fast loads with me. One guy went so far as to say all the reloading manuals were hogwash, because he could safely get 3,100 fps with 150-grain bullets from his .308 Winchester.
I too have fired some blistering fast loads from a .308 Winchester, especially when working with new bullets and powders for which there was no data. I’ve also used a rubber mallet to pound a few rifle bolts open. This is one reason I always use a chronograph when working up loads. It’s the tool that keeps the hot loads I accidentally stumble on from seriously injuring me.
The idea behind handloading is not trying to squeeze every foot per second of velocity from every cartridge you load. It’s about loading accurate ammunition at a fraction of the cost of factory loads, creating ammunition for firearms for which factory loads are not available or building special purpose loads using components not available in factory ammunition.
Trust me, as competitive as the ammunition market is, if a company knew of a way to safely boost the velocity of the cartridges it loads, it would. Some have done that on a limited basis. Federal has the High Energy loads and Hornady the Light Magnum. Now Hornady is unleashing a new product called Superformance ammunition. I’m betting handloaders will try but not be able to safely duplicate this stuff either.
There are two common misconceptions associated with increased velocity. One is that it will greatly reduce bullet drop, and the other is that it will make a rifle kill animals faster.
Let’s look at an example of increasing the velocity of a standard factory offering by 150 fps. Federal lists its 95-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip load for the .243 Winchester at 3,025 fps. According to my Sierra Infinity ballistics program, sighted dead-on at 100 yards, this load will drop 47.14 inches at 500 yards. If we up the velocity to 3,175 fps, the 500-yard drop changes to 41.82 inches. My calculator says that’s a difference of 5.32 inches – about 10 percent.
If, when using the factory load or handloaded duplicate, you change your zero so the bullet strikes 1.05 inches high at 100 yards or dead-on at 183 yards, the bullet will hit the 500-yard target 41.89 inches below the point of aim. For all practical purposes, this is the same place the hot-rod load going 150 fps faster would land. And, in reality, if you have any business shooting that far, 5 inches is not a big deal anyway.
Now, you could argue that you could sight the faster handload in 1.05 inches high at 100 yards as well. This would reduce your 500- yard drop to 36.54 inches, which is, as you might have guessed, 5.28 inches less than the factory load drops with a 183-yard zero. You could also buy a .240 Weatherby and shoot to that same spot while sighted dead-on at 100 yards. If flat shooting is your goal, this makes more sense. And it’s safer.
The second misconception is that if you load your ammunition a bit (150 fps) faster, the bullet will have better terminal performance. More velocity can increase expansion and even reduce penetration because of the larger frontal diameter of the expanding bullet. After testing hundreds of bullets in various test mediums, I’ve found that an increase in the impact velocity of between 100 and 150 fps is near impossible to recognize by looking at the violated testing media or, more importantly, a dead animal.
Using the .243 Winchester example cited above, the factory load will impact at a velocity of 1,948 fps at 500 yards. The 150 fps speedier handload would impact the target traveling 115 fps faster. (It will not retain the 150-fps advantage over the duration of its flight.) From a terminal performance standpoint, an advantage simply does not exist.
That having been said, if you are expecting your bullet to impact at a range where it’s questionable, it will have enough velocity to induce expansion – in other words, impact velocity is right at the threshold of the bullet’s designed operating parameters – an extra 100 fps might make a difference. But even if it does it will be minimal. Here again the answer is to buy a rifle chambered in a more powerful cartridge.
On the other hand, bullets also have an upper impact velocity limit at which they can come apart and penetrate very little. This is especially true with the copper-jacketed, non-bonded bullets like a Winchester Power-Point or Remington Core- Lokt. If you happen to shoot a big game animal at point blank range with one of these bullets going too fast, you might end up with a superficial wound and less than desirable penetration.
If you want a load that shoots faster than what is available in factory ammunition and do not want to buy another gun, the best approach is to step down in bullet weight. In the .243 Winchester, handloaders can easily push an 85- grain Nosler Partition over 3,200 fps and safely achieve nearly the same trajectory as an over-pressure, 95-grain Nosler Partition handload.
The new argument that erupts when this is done is that the lighter bullet will not kill as well or penetrate as deeply. A slight change in bullet weight combined with the faster velocity generally produces near identical results. For example, loading 150- and 180-grain Sierra Pro-Hunter bullets at velocities considered standard for the .308 Winchester cartridge, the difference in penetration depth was exactly one inch. That’s not a big deal when you consider how slow the bullet will be moving through that last inch of penetration.
Granted, with some cartridges like the .257 Roberts and 8mm Mauser, which are loaded to low pressures in factory cartridges, you can handload them to velocities that are substantially higher. But, the list of cartridges in this category is short and from a modern cartridge standpoint, uninspiring.
If your .308 Winchester shoots too slowly for your tastes, trade it in on a .30-06 or .300 Magnum. Yes, they will kick more but not nearly as hard as the kick you will receive when your super-secret, rocket-fast, “superformance” handload blows your granddaddy’s pre-64 Model 70 apart. The really important thing to remember when shooting hot handloads: Just because the three test rounds did not lock the bolt or blow the gun does not mean the 4th, 10th or 20th round you fire won’t.
Some shooters claim they have a fast barrel, meaning a certain published load produces a higher velocity than what the load data claims. This is not all that unusual. However, a fast barrel typically means your rifle is capable of achieving book velocities with less powder, not that it does so with less pressure.
Use a chronograph and always work within the published velocity limits of your cartridge or trade it in on a new one.