Reloading Rifle Ammunition In Quantity
Reloading Rifle Ammunition In Quantity
by Stuart A. Leach a.k.a. “the Colorado Gray Fox”
(This article was first written in early 1993 for the Boulder Rifle Club and the Colorado State Junior Highpower Team. My thanks to both for this opportunity to outline my views and practices.)
DISCLAIMER: Reloading and use of reloaded ammunition can be hazardous. Read up on safety procedures and seek competent instruction. Wear safety equipment such as eyeshield and gloves. The author assumes no liability for other persons who may use methods or data in this article.
The task examined is one of reloading large quantities of consistent, high quality rifle ammunition over a period of time. This would be typical of the NRA Highpower or Silhouette competitor. The techniques and methods discussed center around use of a standard single stage reloading press, for the author is not impressed with the results or safety of progressive reloading machines when used for rifle ammo. [February 2000: many shooters are now using progressive reloading machines for the priming, powder charging and bullet seating steps, having first done all the case preparation work with other tooling. See addendum.]
The examples cited will focus on reloading of the 308 Winchester/7.62mm NATO cartridge for use in NRA highpower competition. The same methods, though not loads, apply to loading large quantities of other cartridges. In Colorado the main highpower “season” runs from April through August, with some matches available year round. An active competitor will fire well in excess of 2,000 rounds per year for practice and matches
There are three basic principles to loading consistent, high quality ammunition in quantity. These principles are: consistent loads, consistent components and consistent procedures.
The first task is to settle on a standard load, or loads. Standard loads are made up using the same case, primer, powder charge and bullet time after time, with no tinkering. The point of standard loads is to have ammo that is a known quantity match after match. You need to be able to step to the firing line and know that putting on your standard elevation and windage settings will result in an “X” if you do your part. My practice for 308/7.62NATO used to include a standard short range load and a standard long range load. The short range load was used in all stages of service rifle matches and the two and three hundred yard stages with the match rifle. A few years ago I developed two 308/7.62 service rifle loads, one for 200 and 300 yards with a light bullet, and a 600 yard load with a heavier bullet. The long range load is still used for 600 yards and up in the match rifle. For across the course competition with 223Rem/5.56NATO rifles, at least two loads – with 69 and 80 grain bullets – are needed; many competitors use three loads- 68 or 69 grain bullets at 200 yards, 75 or 77 grains at 300 yards, and 75 or 80 grain bullets at 600 yards.
For the shooter who wants to keep things simple, the loads below are recommended for use across the course. All the usual caveats apply. Read the bold print again.
30-06: Military case (Lake City or IMI), Remington or Winchester standard force large rifle primer, 45.0 grains of IMR 4895 powder, Sierra or Hornaday 168 grain match bullet seated to an overall length of 3.30 inches.
7.62NATO/308 Winchester: Military case (Lake City or IMI), Remington or Winchester standard force large rifle primer, 41.5 grains IMR 4895 powder, Sierra or Hornaday 168 grain match bullet seated to an overall length of 2.82 inches.
5.56NATO/223 Remington: Winchester cases, Winchester or Remington standard force small rifle primer, 23.0 grains Varget powder, 75 grain Hornaday HPBT bullet seated to an overall length of 2.25 inches. (Rifle barrel must be 1 turn in 9 inch twist or faster for this load.) (Do your own research if you want to use the special heavy low drag bullets for 600 yard loads.)
As we want long case life and minimum resizing effort, the standard loads you develop should lie in the middle of the pressure and velocity ranges for your cartridge. While the low end of the range maximizes case life and eases resizing, it means a more curved trajectory and greater wind drift. The high end of the velocity range is harder on the shooter, the rifle and the cases. The loading manuals published by powder, bullet and tool manufacturers are the best source for load development data. The Sierra manual is especially good, and the Accurate Arms manual has a special section on loading for the service rifles. Sierra has excellent videos on basic and advanced loading techniques. The Reloading Guide published by Precision Shooting magazine has no load data, but is a treasure trove of info on loading for accuracy.
Standard loads should use standard, easily available components- avoid sporadically available exotics such as Lapua brass or Norma powders. Component consistency is important, so buy cases, primers, powder and bullets in large lots. I buy cases in 1000’s, primers 5000 at a time, powder in 8 pound containers and bullets in lots of 2000. Cash outlay at the time of purchase is large, but unit cost is much lower.
Additional thoughts on powder selection: Choose a powder known to produce good results for your type of rifle and cartridge. Choose a powder which works easily through your powder meter. In the 308/7.62, this means the finer grained tubular powders such as IMR or Hodgdon 4895, AA4064 and Varget, or ball powders such as WW 748, H380, and AA2520. The Vihtavouri 100 and 500 series powders are rapidly gaining favor for 223/5.56 loadings. Coarser grained powders such as IMR 4064 do not meter as well, though they give fine accuracy when weighed charges are used for long range loads. When loading for the gas operated service rifles, be sure to stick with medium burn rate powders such as the above; slower powders can cause damage to these rifles.
This memo will not go into loading tools and equipment, save to say that wherever possible use tools which speed up production. Examples are powered case trimmers and magazine type priming tools. Some specific tools are mentioned in the steps below.
Each new case should have the flash hole deburred and the primer pocket uniformed. These two steps, done only once in the life of the case, contribute a lot to uniform ignition. Additional accuracy enhancing, but time consuming, steps include selecting cases for uniform weight and case neck concentricity and turning necks to uniform thickness.
These are the steps I follow in reloading match ammo. The process is repetitive and progressive, with some rounds at various steps in the cycle. There are always some fired cases, some which have been sized and cleaned, some primed, etc. Try to do things in batches, such as sizing all the fired cases available at one time. Between stages store cases in containers such as #10 cans or the bottoms of gallon milk jugs. Use odd moments to make progress in the reloading cycle. For example, while waiting for your carpool, move some of the cases from the sized and cleaned bin to the trimmed bin. I do the final powder charging and bullet seating steps together, in lots of 50 or 100. Try to keep ahead of the ammo use curve, for there always come those periods when there are several matches with little loading time in between.
- Inspect fired cases for damage such as neck splits or head separations. Also look for cases from some other shooter. Cull these out. Recycle the brass.
- Deprime cases, using Lee or RCBS deprime die. I use an RCBS Rockchucker press, with a Case Kicker accessory to reduce handling. Deprime while cleaning solvent soaks in rifle barrel.
- Clean cases 1 hour in tumbler or vibrating polisher to remove range dirt, partly clean primer pockets, etc.
- Lube inside case neck and outside of case using brush and pad, respectively. The spray lube offered by Dillon also works very well- brass in a bread sack gets a couple squirts, then shake, rattle and roll to distribute the lubricant. With a carbide expander, only outside needs lubrication.
- Size. Set up size die using RCBS or Mo’s precision case micrometer. Leave this die set up for reloading en masse; get another die for other rifles or tinkering around. If you change brand of brass, or use the same brass for many loadings, you may need to reset the sizing die.
- Clean cases in polisher 2-3 hours to remove sizing lube. Use fine corn cob media, and add 2-3 tablespoons of mineral spirit. Cases do not need to be shiny, just clean. Sizing lubricant may also be removed by a solvent bath, or boiling in a weak dishwasher detergent and water solution.
- Separate cases from media; use an awl to clear media from primer pockets and flash holes. The two trips through the tumbler usually clean the primer pocket sufficiently, but check a few and clean all if necessary. I clean every pocket, every time, using a pocket truing tool mounted in an RCBS Case Prep Center.
- Trim to length, if needed. If trimmed, chamfer inside and outside of case mouth. Powered trimmers are available, as are cutters which trim and chamfer in one operation. With the Gracey power trimmer I trim and chamfer every case, every time.
- Seat primers using Lee Auto Prime or similar tool. Wear eye shield and gloves. Check each to see that primer is in right side up, and seated to correct depth. Primers should seat flush with, or slightly below the surface of the case head. Cull out any case where the primer seems to slip in with no effort at all. If you don’t, someday a loose primer will jam your rifle during a EIC match.
- Charge with powder. Develop a consistent rhythm in using the powder meter in order to dump consistent charges. Tap the handle lightly against the stop at least three times on the fill stroke, waiting a moment before the last tap. Tap twice on the empty stroke. This allows the metering chamber to fill consistently, and dislodges any remaining powder kernels on emptying. Charging a full tray of 50 or 60 cases at a time encourages consistent metering technique. When changing powder lots, verify the charge weight. For long range loads, meter a slightly short charge into the scale pan, then trickle up to weight.
- Seat bullets. Set up seating dies using a Stoney Point Over-All-Length gauge. If ammo will be used in two rifles, seat for the one with the shorter throat or magazine. I keep short and long range dummy rounds in the die box to speed seating die set up. Some shooters keep seating dies set up for their mass loadings, using another die for other loading. The Redding micrometer adjustable Competition Seating Die simplifies seated length adjustments. When changing bullet lots, verify the overall length. Rapid fire ammo that won’t fit the magazine is embarrassing. If loading far ahead of use, seat bullets about .050″ long, then finish seating just before use. This helps ensure consistent neck tension. Don’t forget to reseat!
- Label loaded rounds with colored marker on case head. I use different colors for short, medium and long range loads. This also helps you get your cases back. I put 308’s in a 50 round 30-06 size box bullet down, then run the marker across the rows of case heads. The RCBS ammo box in 223/5.56 holds nose down rounds in a stable manner for marking.
- Package in useable quantities. Label the package with date and loading data. Plastic ammo boxes are very convenient, and help maintain bullet alignment. Pint size freezer weight Zip-Loc ™ bags hold up to 50 rounds of 308/7.62 or 100 rounds of 223/5.56. The label slips inside.
- Store loaded ammo in a cool, dry, safe place. Avoid storing in car trunk or other hot places. I rotate ammo, using the oldest dated packages first. For an 80 shot service rifle match I take 100 rounds of the short range load and 25 rounds of the 600 yard load. With sighters, 66 rounds of short range and 22 rounds of long range will be fired. The extras are insurance against refires or additional sighters. The remaining rounds go in slack boxes or bags which are used for practice as soon as 50 rounds accumulate.
- Start the fired cases through the cycle again. I treat depriming and cleaning as though it were part of the rifle cleaning and gear repacking process.
Addendum: Progressive or Multi-Stage Reloading Match Ammunition
Progressive or multi-stage reloading machines are increasingly used by NRA Highpower Rifle competitors for preparing match ammunition, especially if shooting the 223/5.56 round. One many time national champion loads his 200 and 300 yard ammo on a progressive, the United States Army Marksmanship Unit did the same until they switched to commercial ammo for the short ranges, and ammo for the International Palma Championships was done on progressives. John Feamster, a careful analyst, got smaller 60 shot groups with his progressively loaded short range ammo than with his single stage loads. Most still load their long range ammo in the single stage manner, though some do long range loads on the machine, but substitute weighed charges for machine thrown. Those who load progressively overwhelmingly prefer the Dillon machines, particularly the 550B model, over those from Lee, RCBS and Hornaday. Some modifications are made to the Dillon machines, including taper reaming and polishing the funnel area of the powder metering system smooth, making the powder meter fingertip adjustable, and surface grinding the bottom of the shell plate to reduce slop. Get to really know your machine before making any modifications.
Actually, the method used should be called “semi-progressive” or “interrupted progressive” loading, for the process starts on the machine, side steps for case preparation, then returns to the machine for a fast finish. Brass cleaned in the polisher to remove range dirt is sized and deprimed on the machine, then goes off line for lube removal, trimming/chamfering/deburring, and primer pocket cleaning. Some remove each case by hand, others allow the cases to go around the cycle with the priming and powder metering functions disabled. The cases return to the machine for primer seating, powder charging and bullet seating. Reports are that best results come from progressing at medium speed; a slam bang crank ’em out as fast as possible approach reduces consistency. The best set up I have seen features the Redding bushing-type full length sizing die, and Redding Competition Seating Die.