There are many reasons to handload your own rifle ammunition. It’s fun, it’s economical, and you can attain maximum accuracy by carefully loading custom ammunition for your rifle. If you’re new to handloading rifle ammunition, here are some basic considerations for accuracy:
- Start with proven loads and load data
- Fire form your brass
- Optimize bullet seating depth
- Optimize bullet concentricity
Starting with proven loads
There’s a LOT of information out there for reloading almost any rifle cartridge. The first place to start when loading a new rifle cartridge is to read up on proven loads for the rifle you intend to load for. I typically read reloading manuals, powder manufacturer’s published load data, and also published load data from individuals online (such as the load data published on www.handloads.com - and I ALWAYS cross reference that data with published load data from the bullet or powder manufacturer). For example- if you are reloading .308 Winchester, you’ll find a lot of great loads featuring Varget powder and 168 grain Sierra Match King HPBT bullets. That would be a good combination to start with for most rifles chambered in .308 Winchester.
Fire form your brass
It’s simple but true: your handloads will typically be more accurate with brass that’s been fired at least once in the exact rifle you intend to load for. This is because after firing, the brass is expanded to the exact contour of the chamber in your rifle. For bolt-action rifles, you can use a neck-only sizer die after fire forming your brass to retain most of the fire formed profile. You’ll find this combination of fire forming and neck-only sizing to be a great accuracy combination.
Optimize bullet seating depth
Perhaps the easiest and most productive step in handloading precision rifle ammunition is carefully measuring your rifle’s chamber/lead dimensions and then optimizing your bullet seating depth when seating bullets. Using special tools (bullet comparator, COL (Cartridge Overall Length) gage, etc) you can calculate a bullet seating depth that will minimize the distance the bullet travels forward before engaging the rifling in the barrel. At a high level, you’re ensuring that the bullet doesn’t “free float” too much in freebore before locking into the rifling. The net effect is a bullet that is more concentric with the barrel with less “wobble” along its axis while rotating. The traditional starting point for this distance of bullet travel is .020″ which is a part of the math when using special tools to measure and calculate bullet seating depth.
Here’s an article where you can learn more: AR-MPR: Phase II – Determining Max COL with OAL Gage
Optimize bullet concentricity
In order for your bullet to run true down the barrel, it has to start out concentric to the case neck it is pressed into. There’s a couple ways to do this. The first and easiest way is to use a bullet seating die with a free floating bullet seating plug. Hornady rifle dies and Redding competition seating dies both employ this mechanism. By aligning the bullet before seating begins, this type of seating die will ensure minimal bullet runout (maximum concentricity). The second way to ensure concentricity is to use a bullet concentricity gage which allows you to both measure concentricity and correct concentricity. An example of such a tool is the Hornady bullet concentricity tool that I’ve blogged about HERE.
While starting with others’ published loads is a great starting point, reloading accurate rifle ammunition always requires some experimentation. You can experiment by using different bullet weights, different bullet profiles, different powders, different powder charges, different primers, different sizing dies, and changing bullet seating depth to name a few things! A good way to do this is to start with what you think an optimal load will be, to pick one variable to change, and to then load batches of 5-10 cartridges with that one variable changed.
Example: Calculated optimal COL = X (.020″ off lands)
- 5 cartridges, COL = X + .020″ (on lands)
- 5 cartridges, COL = X + .010″ (.010″ off lands)
- 5 cartridges, COL = X (.020″ off lands)
- 5 cartridges, COL = X – .010″ (.030″ off lands)
Following this loading session, take your rifle to the range, time your shots, take your time, and compare the accuracy of each group of 5 shots. This should steer you in the right direction. When you find the optimal seating depth for that bullet, you can then load some cartridges and use the powder charge as the variable to change. It may take a while, but by using this method, you will be able to create ammunition for your rifle that is likely to be *way* more accurate than any store bought ammunition.
As you can see here, my first reloads for my Savage 116 30-06 rifle resulted in a drastic reduction in group size. On the next trip out (with fire formed brass) I saw a further reduction, down to 0.360″ for three shots at 100 yards, that was amazing!
While far from comprehensive, these 5 basic steps and considerations will get you started in the right direction for accurate loads at the bench, or out in the field. Building accurate rifle ammunition is a fun journey, and it can be a lifetime one at that!
Do you have tips to share? Please leave a comment!