Date: Jul 31 2009
Half the fun of a new rifle is the pleasurable work of developing a load that produces the best accuracy and velocity from the rifle. But the path to that goal should be kept fairly simple.
I start the work of finding loads for a new rifle and cartridge from the comfort of my couch reading magazine and Internet articles and loading manuals. Reviews of rifles reveal quirks a rifle might have that cause inaccuracy and also qualities that enhance accuracy. Articles also contain the latest information on new powders and bullets for cartridges. Loading manuals contain years of research and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of load information. The manuals discuss the construction and intended uses of their bullets, which is a great aid in choosing bullets. For example, the Nosler Reloading Guide 6 notes which powder produced the best accuracy with each bullet in the dozens of different cartridges listed in the book. The cartridge introductions in the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading discuss peculiarities a handloader might encounter and recommends several powders for a particular cartridge.
Last summer I bought a Winchester big-bore Model 94 .356 Winchester intending to hunt deer and elk in the timber with the rifle. After reading everything available about the Model 94 and .356 cartridge, I was somewhat dismayed at the slim selection of proper bullets for the .356. The Speer and Hodgdon loading manuals cautioned against loading the cartridge with roundnose bullets because the bullet tip could fire the primer of the cartridge in front of it in the magazine due to the .356’s heavy recoil. So that left only the Speer 180- and 220-grain flatnose bullets for the .356. Since the whole idea of the .356 is its additional bullet weight over what is available in the .30- caliber bullets, I settled on the Speer 220 grainer.
Just before gopher shooting season this past spring, I bought a Winchester Model 70 Varmint .220 Swift with the intent of bombarding the little varmints from long range. The bullets I could shoot in the Model 70 were pretty much determined by the rifle’s one-in-14- inch twist. That slow twist limited the Swift to bullets from 40 to 60 grains. Because the Swift will be used mainly for long-range shooting, a sleek and relatively heavy 55-grain bullet should fill the bill nicely.
check bullet runout on at least a few cartridges from different loads by running them through an RCBS Case Master Gauging Tool. If the bullets are more than .004 inch out of alignment with the case, I go looking for the cause of the crooked seating. Once in a great while, the seating stem in the die contacts the tip of a bullet with a long, slender point. Without a firm hold all the way around the bullet, it can be seated crookedly. Other solutions to keep bullets seated straightly are:
• Keep sizing and seating dies and
New powders seem to appear almost daily. Some provide excellent accuracy and velocity, but powders that have worked well for years should not be dismissed. In the .356 I decided to try W-748, IMR-4895 and BL-C(2). I wanted to see how the Swift performed with some newer powders, though, like Big Game, Hunter, IMR-4007 SSC, VV-N150 and Hybrid 100V.
If you’re a stickler for exact bullet seating depth, be advised it can change slightly when switching from one powder to another. For example, most powder weights are slightly to heavily compressed in the small case of the 7mm TCU. That compression is especially heavy when seating long bullets such as the Berger 168-grain Match bullet in the 7mm TCU. That bullet with 26.5 grains of BL-C(2) had a cartridge length of 2.641 inches, just the right length for my rifle. But H-4895 is a bulkier powder, and 26.5 grains of it took up more room in the case. With the same seating die setting, cartridges had an overall length of 2.653 inches with the Berger bullets and H-4985.
I like to assemble cartridges with bullets seated in cases so the bullets are .03 inch from contacting the rifling lands. That setting has provided good accuracy in a variety of rifles over the years, so long as the rifle’s magazine accepts cartridges of that length and the throat of the chamber is not too long so bullets have to be seated so far out of the neck that they might be seated crookedly. And cartridges that must have their case mouth crimped in a bullet cannelure, like for lever actions, are also an exception.
Great claims are made that seating bullets a couple hundreds of an inch closer or farther from touching the rifling lands will magically enable a rifle to go from grouping its bullets in a bucket to inside a bug’s ear. Varying seating depth can help, but altering the seating depth is the last thing I do in desperation before giving up on a load.
Checking bullet runout is a much more important step toward achieving a load’s best accuracy. I always shellholders clean. A buildup of grime will cause cases to enter a die crookedly.
• After trimming cases make sure to completely remove burrs on the inside and outside of the case mouth rim. Even a slight burr on the outside of the rim can cause misalignment of a case in a seating die.
• Make sure case neck walls are uniform in thickness. Runout of more than .005 inch can often be traced back to out-of-round necks.
• Square the sizing and seating dies with the shellholder to eliminate misalignment of the dies and press. This is done by placing a washer between the shellholder and bottom of the die and raising the press ram to put a slight amount of pressure on the base of the die, which takes the play out of the threads. With the pressure still in place, lower the die locking ring onto the press and tighten it. This is assuming, of course, that the bullet seating stem is in alignment with the die body.
When loading cartridges it’s easy to get the different loads mixed up. I tried banding cartridges for each load together with a rubber band and also storing them in envelopes. But they always seemed to get mixed up somewhere between the loading bench and the range bench. Now I put a mark like a /, // or a + on the primers of each load and key that mark to that load on a sheet of paper that I use to write down chronograph information.
When I first started handloading, my record keeping was rather incomplete. When I refer back to descriptions of those loads they often lack cartridge overall length, scope magnification of the rifle and the weather and wind the day the loads were fired. What really irritates me is I often only wrote “good group” or “insufficient accuracy” instead of the exact group size and number of rounds fired.
Now I write down everything. Firearm model, barrel length and scope are noted, even the trigger pull weight. Cartridges are described with case brand, primer, overall cartridge length, bullet brand, weight and style and, of course, powder and weight. When shooting the loads, I note the distance between the muzzle and the chronograph, the weather, temperature, wind and wind direction to the muzzle. The low, high, extreme spread and average velocities and standard deviation are recorded from the chronograph.
With the .356 Winchester I fired three-shot groups at 100 yards with various powders and the Speer 220-grain flatpoints. Some say three shots are not a large enough sample to determine the true precision of a load. They’re probably correct. A five-shot, seven-shot or a couple of five-shot groups more precisely divulge the accuracy of a gun and load. But a three-shot group does reveal an inaccurate load. If three bullet holes are strung up the target, I pretty much forget that load. However, a load that places three bullet
holes in a tight round shape has definite possibilities.
Winchester’s 748 powder with the Speer 220-grain bullets was the clear winner in the .356. Even though the rifle has a 51/2-pound trigger pull, the first three bullets landed in a 1.53-inch circle at 100 yards. Velocity 9 feet from the muzzle was 2,329 fps with 49.0 grains of W-748, with an extreme spread of 47 fps of velocity. The muzzle velocity was right in line with the Speer manual, which indicated 2,328 fps with 49.5 grains of W-748. Subsequent trips to the range with the .356 produced similar sized and even tighter groups with the load. Just last week on an afternoon with 20-mph winds gusting directly toward the muzzle, three, three-shot groups had an average size of 1.84 inches. I kind of went overboard on powders with the .220 Swift, mainly because I wanted to try some new powders. With Big Game, Hunter, Hybrid 100V, Reloder 17 and 19, IMR-4007 SSC and Varget I shot the Combined Technology 55-grain Ballistic Silvertip and the Remington 55-grain Power Lokt hollowpoints. See the load table for what the Swift turned in for speed and accuracy with the various powders and the two bullets.
Hunter turned in the highest velocities with the tightest groups with both bullets. For a final load, I went with the Ballistic Silvertip because it grouped a smidgen tighter than the Power Lokt.
At 300 yards a five-shot group with Hunter and the Ballistic Silvertip, shot through strong winds, measured 2.95 inches. I am going to have to shoot the load at 300 yards on a calm day to see what it is really capable of, but those gusty conditions are about what can be expected hunting on the windy fields where gophers burrow.
I had fun working up loads for my new .356 and .220 Swift. All the busy work of searching for the correct bullets and powders kept me away from the TV and the mall, and that’s always good. In the end the process was simple and straightforward, making the .356 a good deer rifle and the .220 Swift a long-range gopher slugger.