We know that each gun has its own personality; each has certain loads that it shoots best. Occasionally, someone will ask me, "How do I work up a load for my ________, a load that will really make the gun shoot well?" That's not an easy question, but I'll give general rules for finding the right handload, and also describe one advanced technique.
Ingredients for a great handload
If you have done much handloading, you'll guess the first part of my answer -- consult listed handloads from a reputable source. Reloading handbooks and certain online resources are a good starting point for a handload work up.
Match the bullet type and weight to the cartridge's intended use. If you can afford it, use several different bullet brands since guns launch bullets of identical weight and type differently from different manufacturers.
Once you've decided how to use the cartridge and selected bullets to load, it's time to choose the powder. Generally, use the powder that gives the highest velocity at the lowest pressure. Okay, how do I know the pressure produced by the powder charge in that round? One good starting point is Richard Lee's Modern Reloading manual. Lee charts the pressures expected from incremental changes in powder load.
If at any time during your handload tests you start seeing indications of excessive pressure from your cartridges, stop firing them, reduce the powder load, or switch powders. Difficult extraction and/or flattened primers may be signs of high pressure.
223 Remington handloading
Based on what you find in the handbooks, start with a reasonable load (not the maximum or less than the minimum listed powder charge). Load 5 to 10 rounds with that load. Increase the powder charge for the next 5 to 10 rounds, and then for the next 5 or 10, etc. by enough to allow you to produce about 50 rounds without exceeding the maximum listed powder charge. For example, if the minimum powder charge is 40 grains, and the maximum is 50 grains, I could load 5 groups of 10 rounds each, starting at 40 grains for the first group of 10, 42 grains for the second group, etc., and 48 grains for the fifth group. Alternatively, I could load five rounds with 40 grains, five with 41, five with 42, and so on.
Since you may not want to shoot all of the rounds you load, particularly if a group shows high pressures or its accuracy diverges from the others, it is a good idea to have a bullet puller on hand. Either an inertial or collet type will do, so long as it will work with the round you are loading. Just pull the bullets, dump out the powder, and reload the cartridge with whatever powder charge you finally decide is the best.
Pay attention to the primers the handbooks show as being used in the handloads you select. There may be a big difference in whether you use a standard or a magnum primer.
Seat the bullets to the same depth in the cartridge, crimp them all the same way, and head to the range for the test.
Bullets for 223
When you get to the range, fire the gun in a consistent manner. Remember, you're not testing your bull's-eye-shooting ability; you're testing your gun's taste for different handloads, so try to fire each round in exactly the same way as the last round while aiming at the same point.
Shoot the first group of rounds you loaded, and check the target (personally or with a spotting scope) for the maximum bullet hole spread, and for the appearance of the group of holes. Watch for shot stringing, which indicates problems with the gun and/or the shooter, not with the ammunition. You may shoot the groups over a chronograph if you have access to one, but be aware that the groups with the most consistent velocities will not necessarily be the most accurate. What do you want -- accuracy, or consistent velocity? If it is accuracy, ignore the chronograph except for reading the average velocity of the group for comparison purposes.
Shoot each of the groups, and use its powder charge as your handload for that cartridge and bullet weight/type/brand.
There is a more advanced way to develop a handload, requiring fewer cartridges but more attention to the details of shooting.
Commonly called the Audette Method (after Creighton Audette, past Chairman of the NRA Highpower Rifle Committee), this is a more exact means of finding a rifle's "sweet spot" for a given bullet/powder/primer combination than the basic method. The NRA's Championship Training Clinics Manual High-Power Rifle Shooting, Volume III, has a transcript of Audette's speech given at the 1982 highpower rifle clinic at Camp Perry. Entitled "It Ain't Necessarily So," the speech describes several items that may affect group size during shooting, one of which is variations in ammunition powder loads.
A rifle's barrel vibrates when fired, and compared to the rest of the barrel, the muzzle end moves the most. Therefore, the muzzle's position when the bullet exits the bore has a large influence on which direction the bullet exits. Shot-to-shot vibration differences can cause the shot group to expand. Different powder weights may cause similar vibrations, however, so that some powder charge variations around a central amount will have the bullets leaving the muzzle at nearly the same position.
Two presses on the job
If the shooter keeps everything, including factors that change barrel vibration, constant from one shot to the next, he achieves the smallest group size possible. This is a lot of trouble, though. Instead, what if he can find the "sweet spot" where the group size is relatively insensitive to small changes in powder charge? The Audette Method allows you to do just this.
Start by using the general rules listed above for selecting primers, powder, and bullet type, weight, seating depth, and crimp. Start with a reasonable load (no less than the minimum powder charge listed in a manual). Select twenty bullets within one or two grains of the specified bullet weight. Load one round with the starting powder charge, then the next round with an increment of about 0.2 or 0.3 grains, etc. until you load twenty rounds. Ensure that your maximum charge will not exceed the manual's maximum listed charge; if it will, then decrease the charge increment until you can load twenty rounds without exceeding the maximum charge. Also, load five additional rounds for fouling shots with the minimum powder charge and same bullets. Then, use a permanent marker to mark the powder weight on each cartridge case so that you don't lose track of which is which.
At the range, fire the gun in a consistent manner. You're not testing your bull's-eye-shooting ability, so try to fire each round in exactly the same way as the last round while aiming at the same point each time. Your firing position (a solid bench rest) must be at least 200 yards from the target; you may find that the method works better at 300 yards, instead. Start with the five fouling rounds, then work your way up the powder weights, numbering the shots and shot holes in the target to identify which shot caused which holes. This is crucial, so mark the target after each shot, or use a good spotting scope to track the hits on paper from the firing point.
You may shoot over a chronograph, but don't be concerned if the velocities do not increase consistently. The important part is to look for groups of bullet holes in the target. Usually, the shots will march up the target, then form a group, then begin up the target again, etc. Several groups may form; look for small groups formed by consecutive shots. Those groups indicate a "sweet spot" for the rifle, where small variations in powder charge cause little change in accuracy.
Pick the charge weight from the middle of the best group, and use it as your charge weight for the particular cartridge and bullet combination.
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