5 Tips for Reloading Accurate Rifle Ammunition

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:

  1. Start with proven loads and load data
  2. Fire form your brass
  3. Optimize bullet seating depth
  4. Optimize bullet concentricity
  5. Experiment
A rifle like this Savage 116 is capable of fine accuracy - but only with the right ammunition - Image copyright 2012 NWGUN.com
A rifle like this Savage 116 is capable of fine accuracy – but only with the right ammunition – Image copyright 2012 NWGUN.com

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.

The Redding competition seating die (middle) shown here is a great tool that can ensure minimal bullet runout and maximum concentricity – Image copyright 2011 Ultimate Reloader

Experiment

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.

First reloads for the Savage 116 resulted in group size reduction from ~1.25" to 0.560"
First reloads for the Savage 116 resulted in group size reduction from ~1.25″ to 0.560″ at 100 yards range

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!

Thanks,
Gavin

 

18 thoughts on “5 Tips for Reloading Accurate Rifle Ammunition”

  1. Gavin

    I agree with you on correcting run out. Many guys on reloading sites claim that your dies are the problem if you get run out. Thiughts?

    1. I think there are a few things that you want to start out with to minimize runout: Die design, brass (case neck uniformity is important!) and also making sure the bullet profile used works with the seating plug in your seating die.

  2. Though this may seem off subject since this article is about loading accurate rifle ammo…what I’m about to say I have seen far too many times as have others.

    Loading accurate rifle ammo can only be obtained “IF” the rifle optics are correct. Again..may seem off subject but unfortunately..I’ve help individuals that tried numerous powder/bullet/case/primer combinations…only to find out there was a serious mechanical problem. Such as…cheap scope mounts/rings…scope rings not lapped or not being lapped correctly placing stress on scope tube and hence…wandering bullet point of impact…”Rifles” action not being straight…WARPED!!…and no amount of scope ring lapping was gonna fix the problem….placing stress on scope tube causing wandering point of impact(And this problem is more common than you might think!!) which case the mounts needed to be shimmed and so on.

    Here is another perspective about reloading accurate rifle ammo and pertains to the above knowledge…do not buy cheap optics!! a $100.00 Cheapo Scope just will not give you consistant ammo accuracy. I’ve had those that have argued this point with me over and over but still these individuals continually “Reloaded” (Or so they thought!!) poor accuracy rifle ammo. Most I proved my point to them about cheapo scopes…and yes…there has been a couple that I finally shrugged my shoulders and let them wrestle with their own misery about “That inaccurate rifle” or they just could not reload good ammo.

    Point is…you will never achive the acurracy potential of your rifle or your reloads when you have things working against you. Accurate rifle ammo isn’t difficult to obtain although yes…you will have to experiement some but follow the path on loads developed by those that have gone before you. Good loading data wasn’t just thought up by another person/reputable company for some kind of sick joke….gather good loading data from “reliable” sources and go from there.

    And just one last recommendation about reloading accurate rifle mmo….use accurate bullets. I’m not going to name brands…but there are “Some” brand/s of bullets that just are not accurate no matter what you try or load/s you use.

    And don’t mix different makes of rifle brass together and use the same powder load/bullet/primer combination and head to the shooting range with mixed cases in hand/together in what I call a heap. Yup…I’ve seen this as well….point of impact all over the target. I am forgiving if this person did not know this practice was a really big error…but for those who didn’t care….oh well!

  3. All is well when it comes to reloading for accuracy with your target plinking bullets so do you have to go through the whole process for hunting bullets. its seems like you will be wasting time and expensive bullets to get what you want. is this correct?

    Thanks
    Joe

    1. Infact….you should.

      For me…I use Nosler Ballistic Tips….(30-06/308/300 WinMag and I have two of each plus one 243 Winchester and two 7MM Mags…among others)…and/or Nosler Accubond’s.

      Nosler Partition bullets are not known for accuracy….Hornady has problems blowing up on impact (And I’m sure that will cause some friction!!) Been threatening to try Berger VLD hunting bullets and have heard good things about Berger…have at times used Sierra bullets with great accuracy and dependablility. Sierra Bullets are as a rule very accurate bullets. and in the past I have taken deer/antelope using Sierra bullets and deadly they are!!

      The problem with hunting accuracy is what does someone consider accurate….many people are happy with 1 inch MOA…some 3/4 inch MOA….most of my non magnum rifles will shoot 5/8 inch MOA and I cannot ask for more and my magnums 3/4 inch MOA…but what happens when you reload and shoot in 70 degree weather conditions and you tote that same rifle and same reloads to Wyoming/Colorado and the temp drops to below freezing or sub zero…..and then there is the up and down terrain…..it can become really ugly and I speak from experience and everyone that I have ever hunted with in cold weather has had the same bad experience. If you really want to mess with accuracy…use up the rounds in the rifle mag in sub zero weather and take out ammo that is warmed by your body temperature….I’ll stop.

      With 3/4 MOA…if…and I say if…you should take a long shot (Which anything over 400 yards animals start looking very very little!)…3/4 inch MOA accuracy is really dependable and your spread at that distance will not really matter…usually. How much do you practice…at what distance do you practice…the list goes on and on.

      With all this…yes you do need to go thru the same procedure to acquire decent hunting rifle accuracy…just use quality bullets known to preform well and have a reputation for accuracy…which would be Sierra or Nosler.

  4. Good points…thanks for sharing. I reload for 3 different calibers and from what i have learned from experience is that instead of buying all these different dies, primers, brass, bullets, and powders to try and get really accurate handloads….i use the hornday lock and load concentricity guage to identify and correct concentricity and runout. I have been using this hornady guage for several years now and it has made a big difference in not only my overall and average accuracy but my consistency in my handloads. And even though I full length resize all my handloads I get great accuracy consistently. Its the very last step i do in my handloading steps for making ammo. A good example of what I get from my handloads for accuracy (3 shot groups at 100 yards) is: 300 wsm – 0.43″moa….280 rem – 0.56″moa….and 22 250 rem – 0.41″moa. I dont fire form my brass and I dont neck size only either. I hunt in extreme weather conditions up in the Dakotas and I need ammo that will feed every single time. So I full length resize my handloads.

  5. From what I have read and researched on the net the gun world has gone insane after Obummer’s re-election and the Conn. school shooting. You can’t find an AR15 anywhere but I don’t want one. My idea of getting into reloading will have to wait as even starter kits are sold out pretty much wherever I have looked. The same for ammo. Guess I’ll save my brass hoping sometime down the road I can start reloading it.

  6. Good article, thanks for sharing…

    I’m fairly new to the reloading world, and I’m trying to decide on a few bullets to start with that fit my needs. I shoot 7mm Remington Magnum out to 1,000 yards, so I prefer bullets that are on the heavier side with a good ballistic co-efficient, but I also need the bullet to have good terminal ballistics. I’ve been looking at the Berger 168 grain VLD Hunting, which looks great on paper, but I’m concerned about how long it is and whether or not I will be able to handload with the proper seating depth that this bullet requires while still having a “magazine-feedable” round. Bullet length is 1.445. What are your thoughts?

    1. Tried the Berger 168 gr. VLD hunting bullets on deer and pronghorn. not good, if the shot is rib to rib. They work great if you shoot sholders. and may be great for larger animals.

  7. I have to differ with the fire form cases, It has been proven over and over full length sizing produuces a more acccurate load.

  8. Have had far too many hand loaded 308 primer miss feeds using my only 308 caliber Ruger 308 scout rifle. This is the only rifle i cannot make hand loads for. It has problems accepting different types of brass and 50% of the time the primers will not ignite in hand loads shot from the Ruger Gunsite Scout Rifle in 308 Caliber.

    1. What priming tool are you using and what do your primer strikes look like? I’ve noticed that the RCBS hand priming tool can seat primers too deep (measure w/ the back of a micrometer). Also, if your firing pin is worn out this will compound the issue.

  9. Ill have to agree with Curt B. I hav been playing with rifls for 60plus years and there are mny.mny.thing to consider one could write a book abt. reloading ammo . or bilding the acc.rifel

  10. You did a fine job on the subject and I just would like to add one other point.
    Dynamic resistance created by gun lubes: I now use a water based Polymer lube.
    Residue also will allow a buildup of burnt power and cause more wear on the bore.
    I wipe both the bullet and the bore with Polymer car polish.

  11. Gavin,

    Great points and great comment to all you have answered. Over my 45 years of loading, you are so right about be consistence. All your lead 5 points is what everyone needs to do for great grouping. But many, many just want to hear the bang. Over the years I have found that you must load to remove any and all differences that can change you shoot group.

    I shoot a 45 70 Sharps and have found the weight of the bullet will and does cause a grouping problem. My OAL and COL changes from Mfg.

  12. Great tips…
    As handloaders we have certain control over some variables and my guess is we can sometimes control tolerance better with either more patience or better gear.
    Precision scales, close tolerance projectile mass, repeated results…

    Interestingly, the tips don’t include case length trimming but recommend fire formed brass… I’d have to suggest fire formed case length needs consideration in the equation.

    Also, case manufacturer consistency might need a look in.
    I haven’t seen it in rifle cases so much but some .38 / .357 brass can have a 10% mass variation which must relate to variations in internal volume ( thus chamber pressure ). My point being it may be useful to decide on a suitable medium mass and discard any outside a reasonable tolerance.

    My most recent experience with .308 at 800 metres with factory rounds indicated 150 fps velocity tolerance on chrono, top tolerance shot 3″ high, bottom shot 3″ low, I’d have hoped for better… so aside from COAL restrictions for factory it seems that either projectile mass or powder charge was not close tolerance.

    Keep it tight… check everything you can.

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