The following article on reloading for the AR15 was composed by friend and fellow high power shooter Sean Leighton. Sean has been competing in service rifle matches for many years. He is a Distinguished Rifleman having obtained that honor, and his Master classification, with the M1A. His current NRA classification is High Master which he earned while firing an AR15 at Camp Perry in 1998. Sean also has a background in competitive bench rest and I know some of his reloading techniques draw on that experience as well. I think you will find his article informative and well written.
RELOADING THE 223 REMINGTON
FOR HIGHPOWER RIFLE COMPETITION
by Sean T. Leighton - High Master, Distinguished Rifleman
I get going with these ramblings on reloading the 223 Remington for Highpower
Rifle Competition, I think it is important that I establish specific criteria up
front so that you know were I'm coming from.
Perhaps the most specific criteria I can come up with is this reloading
guide is intended for the AR15 in service and match rifle configuration.
There are differences, namely a match rifle can have a longer barrel and
you can move its gas port closer to the muzzle.
This can change optimum powder charges and bullet velocities, but in a
practical sense it's not particularly relevant.
Second, with more and
more AR15s in the hands of competitors, commonalties in handloads have become
apparent much like the "standard" loads that are used in the M14.
It is only common sense that what works in one rifle should work in
another essentially identical rifle. If
you want to experiment, buy a couple of reloading manuals and have at it.
There's is room to be an individual.
Last, you will never
regret purchasing quality equipment. There
are tools you need and then there are tools that would be nice to have.
While I will include all the tools I think wise to use, I will mention
that I didn't buy them all at once either.
If you can't afford certain tools now, make a list to purchase them when
you get a couple of extra bucks. Handloading
can be as simple or complex as you have the time and money to make it.
This is a hard lesson to learn for the diehard competitor, but in
general, simple is best.
Gleaming Jewel, The Cartridge Case
The cartridge case,
every brass rat's dream come true is being squadded next to a Marine.
They never pick up their brass. But
I digress. Luckily, 223
brass is cheap, easy to come by, and easily digested by an AR15.
The majority of people use Winchester,
IMI, or once
fired military Lake City cases. Each
case has its merits. Winchester
brass is well made, and has good case volume.
IMI brass is robust with slightly
smaller case volume, and is priced right. Surplus
Lake City cases are also of good quality with good case capacity (in
contrast to Military 308 match brass which is heavier than most commercial
brass) and very inexpensive, but you must remove the primer pocket crimp before
seating a primer.
To start processing
the case, I'll make the assumption that the brass is once fired.
Since our case is covered with combusted powder and was probably picked
up after being ejected onto dirt/mud/grass it needs to be cleaned.
It can be cleaned simply by putting some bore solvent on a rag and wiping
the case or by throwing the cases into a vibratory tumbler.
To clean the large numbers of cases a highpower shooter needs a Tumbler
with treated corncob media works very well and can be had for less than $45.
Once the case is clean, it needs to be inspected for dirt stuck in the
case, case splits, etc. A
worthwhile addition to this process is to brush out the case neck.
RCBS makes a plastic brush and handle or you can use the handle with a
worn out brass bore brush (clean it with degreaser first).
Cleaning the case neck saves wear and tear on your sizing die expander
button and makes seating the bullet easier.
Buy or make a loading block for your cases. Most loading blocks hold 50 cases which makes it easy to
process them as a group.
Now comes the resizing
operation which can make or break everything that follows.
To resize a case, you need a reloading press, full length sizing die,
case lubricant and a case micrometer. I
have my preferences regarding which equipment
will give the handloader the best performance but other equipment may do
the job just as well. The best
presses I know of are the Bonanza Co-Ax and the RCBS Rockchucker in that order.
Each is a solid press that with proper care will last a lifetime.
For sizing dies, I prefer the Bonanza full-length resizer however the
Redding dies have a very good reputation. I
have experimented with various case lubricants, both spray-on and wipe on, and
each time I come back to Imperial Sizing Wax.
A little goes a long way, it does not build up in the die fast, and it
provides excellent lubrication. I
also use molybdenum disulfide as a case neck lubricant but powder graphite also
works. An added but necessary
expense is a case micrometer, either from Mo's or RCBS or at the very least, one
of the Wilson type gages.
I think a digression
here is important. If you're going
to compete with an AR15 in Highpower Rifle Competition, you need to full length
size your brass, period. The rifle
must function flawlessly for over 80 rounds without cleaning and any small
amount of accuracy picked up from neck sizing a case will not be worth it, even
for use during the single load Highpower stages.
To set up the sizing
operation, measure several cases (that have been fired in you rifle) with the
case micrometer. Even though the
cases may differ in length by 0.001 to 0.002 inches, measuring several cases
will give you an average measurement. Insert
your die into the press and turn it down until it touches the shell holder, then
turn it back most of one turn. Lube
a case being careful not to get sizing lube on the case shoulder.
Dip the case neck into a small amount of moly/graphite and size the case.
Wipe off the lube and measure the sized case with the case micrometer.
Move the sizing die up or down in the press until you can reliably get a
case that is sized 0.003 to 0.004 inches less than the measurement taken with
the fired cases. This is why the
case micrometer is so important. Without
a case micrometer, most handloaders have no real idea just how much sizing is
taking place and will therefore have a tendency to over-size a case.
Over-sizing a case will needlessly work the brass, possibly allow an
excessive headspace condition, and certainly reduce case life.
The gig with the case micrometer is that once you set up your sizing die,
its not really needed again. It
does come in handy later on if you use different brands of brass (Winchester
brass will behave differently than Federal brass for example) or measure brass
that is near the end of its life since well used brass is work hardened and does
not always maintain consistent dimensions after sizing.
Make sure you clean the sizing die every 50 to 100 cases.
Also, if there is to much sizing lubricant on the case, the extra lube
will build up and dent the case. Once
the sizing operation is done, either wipe the case with a rag or tumble the
cases in corncob media.
Now that the case has
been cleaned and resized, it must be checked for length. This operation in required since every time a case is
resized, it will lengthen by 0.002" to 0.004".
At some point the case length measurement will exceed the maximum case
length which is 1.760" for the .223. Measure
the case length with a micrometer or caliper.
If the measurement exceeds the maximum case length, the case needs to be
trimmed to 1.750". There are a number of trimmers, both manual and powered, made
by the different reloading companies. For
manual trimming, I have used the Forster product but any of the others will do
the job. Simply follow the
directions supplied with the trimmer and trim the cases to the recommended
length. Unfortunately, most if not
all case trimmers leave a burr at the case mouth, which has to be, removed to
seat a bullet. The tool for this
job is a chamfer tool, which like most of the other tools is available from a
number of companies. Wilson and
RCBS make a good chamfer tool. Chamfer
the outside of the case neck first leaving a light bevel, then chamfer the
inside of the case mouth leaving a light bevel also.
One last step to the
case prep is to clean out the primer pocket.
Spent primer residue, if left in the primer pocket could prevent the
primer from seating properly and protruding from the case.
In service rifles, a primer must be seated 0.002" to 0.005"
below the head of the case. A
"high primer" could and can be prematurely detonated by the firing pin
becoming what is known as a slam fire. A
number of tools are made for cleaning primer pockets but a couple twists with a
small screwdriver will remove the majority of the residue.
a Cap, The Primer
the case is cleaned, resized, trimmed, and the primer pocket cleaned the next
step is seating a primer into the case. Any
number of tools are available to do this job which range from the primer arm on
most reloading presses to custom hand tools that can regulate the depth a primer
is seated in the case. Accuracy
studies have shown that the primer has to be seated to the bottom of the case
primer pocket and must not be crushed into the primer pocket.
If the primer is not seated to the bottom of the case primer pocket the
firing pin will drive the primer into the primer pocket varying the primer
detonation and in many cases significantly effecting accuracy.
Hand priming tools allow the handloader to feel when the primer bottoms
out in the primer pocket. For
Highpower, bench mounted priming
tools have more advantages over the hand tools.
The bench mounted tools allow a similar feel while seating a primer, have
feed tubes which can be loaded without having to touch
the primer (the handloader must have clean hands as the oil on your skin
can contaminate the primer), and can prime a greater number of cases quickly and
efficiently. As for primer brands,
a majority of competitors have settled on Winchester small rifle or
No. 7 1/2 (unlike the 308 where Federal No. 210M's were used extensively).
This is not to discourage use of other brands of primers as other brands
will most certainly work well but as stated previously, this is what a majority
of competitors are using and which do work.
One last thing to do after you prime a case and before it is placed back
into the loading block is to run a finger over the case head.
This takes a fraction of a second and assures there is no mistake with a
primer seated above the case head.
the fire, The Powder
it comes to powder, the AR15 is more versatile than the M1/M1A because of its
gas verses piston system of operation. Specifically,
you can use a wide range of powders with different burning rates but the same
principals apply in selecting a powder, namely a slower powder for a heavier
bullet and filling 100% of the case volume.
To narrow the focus of this section, the recommendations are directed at
loading for the full course Highpower event.
For Short course (100 yds) events, most AR15s will shoot just about any
bullet well enough to be competitive. Experimentation
and load development for the short course could be endless.
by the numbers
of the great things about the AR15 at this time is that while commonalties in
assembling accurate match loads exist, no single standard load has come forth as
the end all to be all. With the M1A
you dumped 40.5 to 41.5gr. of 4895 in a case, stuck a Sierra 168 on top and shot
it. On the rare occasions that 4895
didn't work, you used 4064 and that was that.
Not with the AR15. A number
of powders are being used with the heavy bullets successfully. They include extruded powders such as 4895 (IMR,
Hodgdon, and surplus),
15, Vihtavorhi N135 and N140 and to a lesser extent
ball powders such as Winchester 748 and
Accurate Arms 2520.
The astute handloader will note that each of the powders listed has
nearly the same burning rate. For full course competition, the extruded powders
generally provide less temperature sensitivity and more uniform velocity, which
is important on hot summer days.
One of the main
reasons why the M1A shot so well with a standard load and bullet was because of
the extensive experimentation and development put into it by the
Military. The rifle was practically
designed around the military match M118 loading.
With the AR15, the civilian market has taken the lead developing
innovations in rifle improvements and high ballistic coefficient bullets.
But it has still been the military that has taken these innovations and
proved them in the crucible of competition.
For the 200 and 300yd
phase of the National Match Course (NMC), the Army has yet to find an economic
alternative that will beat the Federal
Gold Metal Match with the Sierra 69gr. bullet.
The qualifying rumor is that they only use the Federal match that is
loaded with extruded powder vice the lots of Federal match that is loaded with
ball powder. Cartridges that were
"accidentally dropped" by military competitors and then
"found" by me and disassembled would seem to support this fact.
The 600yd. stage of
the NMC is another matter altogether. Through
experimentation, the Army has developed a standard load which they call
"V-8", and have used for the past couple of years.
This load is a new Lake City military primed
case, a heavy charge of
Vihtavorhi N-135 powder, and an 80gr. Sierra.
Emulation of this load (albeit reduced somewhat), has proved very
successful in every rifle I have tried it.
With regard to
specific powder charges, I think it is wise to backpedal a little from my
previous statements about the similarities of rifles and loads and simply state
that each rifle must be approached differently.
Get a reloading manual or two and follow their directions by using the
starting charge for the specific powder and bullet weight and work up cautiously
competitor has two basic choices in how to weigh a charge of powder.
The most common method is to use a balance beam type scale or an
electronic scale and weigh each individual charge. While this is time consuming, this method is accurate and
recommended for loading 600yd. ammunition.
Something to remember about powder is that it is as much volume dependent
as weight dependent.. You don't
have to be absolutely precise, weighing to plus or minus one tenth of a grain is
more than sufficient.
To speed up the
process, many competitors use a drop
type powder measure. A powder
measure is definitely handy to have when loading the large amounts of ammunition
the average Highpower competitor goes through in a year.
Typically, these measures do not weigh extruded powders as well as ball
powders and as such require a degree of technique on the part of the user.
For short range and practice ammunition, the small variations in charge
weight are not consequential so long as the charge weight is below maximum.
This type of measure is available from all the major reloading tool
manufacturers. A popular powder
measure is the Redding BR-3 which has a micrometer adjustment knob allowing charge
settings to be recorded so that they can easily be redialed in should the
measure be used for weighing different powders.
A cautionary note is
in order here, different lots of the same powder can give different weights with
the same setting on the power measure. Be
sure to recheck the charge weight on a scale when using different lots of
powder. Also, recheck the charge
weight at five or ten round intervals since differences in the powder column of
the measure can significantly effect the uniformity of the weighed charge.
it off, The Bullet
success of the AR15 in NMC competition has been due in large part to the
introduction of heavy, high ballistic coefficient bullets.
Originally the only bullets available were the Sierra 69gr. and
68gr. bullets. These bullets
performed well out to 300yds, and still are viable as competitive bullets today
as witnessed by the Military team's use of the Federal match.
However, these bullets could not compete with the 30 caliber bullets at
600yds because of their sensitivity to wind.
This deficiency was corrected with the introduction of the Hornady 75gr.
, Sierra 77gr. and 80gr. bullets. The
75 and 77gr bullets are perfect for 200 and 300 yds. while the 80 gr. bullet
gets the job done at 600yds.
For the well healed
competitor, Berger Bullets and JLK make a number of very low drag (VLD) type
bullets. These bullet types include
flat base, boattail, and magazine tolerant ogive bullets.
There are a number of advantages to these bullets, which include higher
ballistics coefficient, and uniformity since they are custom made one at a time.
The down side of VLDs are they cost more and they can be much harder to
set up because the thinner bullet jacket used in their manufacture makes them
sensitive to excessive bullet jump.
Getting the bullet
into the case requires a seating die. There
are a couple different types and variations as would be expected from the
different manufacturers. My
preferences for a seating die are (in order by price) a Forster/Bonanza bench
rest die, Forster/Bonanza Ultra Seater, and the
Redding Competition die.
A standard seating die does not support the case as the bullet is being
seated. Obviously, this defeats all
our careful work sizing the case and can greatly decrease the concentricity of
the loaded cartridge. Each of the
dies mentioned has a sliding sleeve that supports and aligns the cartridge case
with the bullet. The Ultra
seater and the Competition die also include micrometer tops so the seating depth
can be changed from one setting to another in a repeatable manor.
Micrometer tops make it easy go from seating short range loads to long
range loads and back, just dial in the correct depth and your ready to go.
Of the listed dies, the Redding seating die is practically a work of art.
If you can afford it, get it.
A word of advice on
seating dies that could save you a lot of aggravation. The seating stem of the die must contact the outside
circumference of the bullet at some point on the bullet body to assure the
bullet is being seated at a consistent depth.
Some seating stems are not counter bored deep enough to handle VLD shaped
bullets. If this is the case, only
the bullet tip will contact the stem. It
must be remembered that modern match bullets vary slightly in length caused by
how the tip of the bullet jacket is formed (this physical anomaly does not
effect accuracy). A typical box of
Sierra Match bullets may vary as much as 0.015" from the shortest to the
longest bullet in the box. Consequently,
your seating depth will vary by the same amount.
The fix is easy, drill the counter bore hole deeper to prevent the tip of
the bullet from touching. Enough
Setting up loads for
Rapid fire is relatively easy, the bullets must be seated deep enough to prevent
the cartridge from hanging up in the magazine.
The cartridge overall length need only clear the magazine by 0.010"
to 0.015" to function reliably. This
functioning requirement rules out using those bullets with a
"pointier" ogive like the Hornady 75 gr. A-Max, or the 80 gr.
Because of the long length of these bullet types, they would have to be
seated far into the case taking up valuable space meant for powder.
Not to fear, the Hornady 75 gr. and
Sierra 77 gr. HPBT bullets have the proper profile and give up very little in
ballistic efficiency out to 300yds.
Setting up 80gr.
bullets is another matter. To
achieve the highest degree of accuracy, it is necessary to seat an 80gr. bullet
between 0.005" and 0.015"
off the lands. The old way of
achieving this set up was to coat the bullet with soot or a black marker, seat
the bullet long, chamber the cartridge, and keep adjusting the seating length
down until the lands no longer made engraved marks on the bullet.
Essentially, this was hit or miss since the bullet could already be into
the lands several thousands before any visible engraving took place.
This dimension can be
found more accurately with the help of a Stoney Point tool and a bullet
comparator. The Stoney Point
tool will provide a more precise measurement of just where a particular bullets
ogive touches the rifling. The
bullet comparator is used to provide a measurement off the bullet ogive instead
of the tip of the bullet. So if a different bullet from the box were to be used
in setting up the seating die based on an overall length recorded from the
Stoney Point tool, the actual ogive to rifling dimension may not be near the
actual measurement we worked so hard to find.
I think I would be
remiss if I didn't add one final though regarding bullets and short
range. While the heavy bullets are
accurate, it seems like overkill to shoot them in 100 yard reduced courses.
A good bullet for the short course is the Sierra 52 gr. Match King.
The bullet is accurate in fast twist barrels and you can use the cheaper
fast burning ball powders like AA2200 or AA2230.
This setup gives the shooter two pluses, less cost and even lower recoil.
Good points for a shooter just starting out and wanting to get allot of
need for Speed
The newbie competitor
just starting out in the sport has to set priorities. If you want to advance fast, spending all your spare time
reloading won't cut it. Practicing
positions and dry firing are what helps beginners advance through the lower
classifications. Hence to need to
reduce time spent reloading and maximize time spent practicing.
Enter the progressive reloading machine.
As far as this equipment goes, buy Dillon.
I have yet to hear a good word about any other manufacturers progressive
reloading equipment. I will present
my own opinion on using a progressive that may not jive with other opinions. To each his own. I
believe it is best to prep the case on a single stage.
Progressives are great with straight walled cases but there are just too
many things that need to be done to a bottle neck case.
Coupled that with smearing sizing lubricant in the powder dump die and
seating die and your just asking for trouble.
With a prepped case, you can seat a primer, dump powder, and seat a
bullet with each pull of the handle. Sure,
technique is required, but with careful set up and experience, you can reload a
ton of cartridges quickly and with impressive consistency.
for Long Range
The full NMC goes out
to 600 yards and the Long Range National Match Course (LRNMC) goes out to 1000
yards. Thatís a far piece.
The old saying in Highpower is that matches are won in standing and lost
at 600. I have found that the
up-front part of the NMC just does not require extensive and detailed reloading
technique. Once you find an
accurate load, load a lot of it and get out and shoot it.
The 200 and 300 yard targets are generous in size and just don't need
that extra 1/8 to 1/4 moa. from a "perfect" handload.
What counts at these ranges is practice and you can't practice if you
don't have the ammo.
The 600 yard line is another
animal altogether. Not only is good
shooting technique required, but your ammunition must be as uniform as possible.
Even small variations in bullet velocity will result in substantial
changes in shot placement on the target.
So what do you have to
go through to make good ammunition for the 600 yard phase?
Luckily, only a few extra tools and a couple extra steps in the process
are needed. I figure that you only
shoot 22 rounds at a time anyway so it's worth it to go the extra mile.
To begin, you should
start off with 100 or more new cases from the same lot. Weight each case. It
is a tedious process but if you commandeer the kitchen table and spread out a
large piece of paper (like the back of an SR-1 target), it's easy to write down
case weights (like 94.1, 94.2, etc.) and set the cases down in a column behind
the number. Just don't bump the
table once you start. An electronic
scale really speeds things up so if you have one or can borrow one, use it.
When the task is done, separate the cases into the largest groups that
you can with the smallest case weight variance.
The rule of thumb is to keep groups of weighed cases within 1% to 1.5% of
each other. Typically 100 cases
will be roughly divided into 2 groups of plus or minus 1.5 grains.
A few cases will be out of the norm and will be culled.
As cases are culled, put them in a pile to be used for practice only.
I believe weighing cases is critical to long range performance. Uniform case volume is critical to uniform combustion of the
powder charge, which leads to uniform velocities.
Now that our cases
have been segregated by weight, we need to check the case wall uniformity.
Prior to checking uniformity, the cases will have to be full length
resized to uniform the case neck. Some
cases have case walls that are thicker on one side.
This "out of round" condition will effect the overall
straightness of a loaded round. Sinclair
International makes a nice tool to measure neck wall concentricity, which is an
indicator of the overall concentricity of the case.
The rule of thumb for this operation is to cull any case with a
measurement greater than 0.002". Benchrest
shooters uniform case necks by neck turning their brass. Essentially, a neck sized case is slipped over a mandrel and
a cutter shaves the brass down to a uniform thickness. Neck turning brass will create a number of problems for the
Highpower shooter and should be avoided by all but the most experienced
A step that I add for
fired long range cases it to chuck a brass bore brush into an electric drill and
run it into the case neck. This
REALLY cleans the case neck. When
the case is run into the sizing die, the expander button just glides through the
case neck. Measurements indicate
this additional step helps to increase neck wall concentricity.
I don't do all my cases this way as the process tends to burn out brushes
about every one hundred cases and is somewhat time consuming.
For short range rounds, a regular plastic brush works well enough, but
there is a difference. Try it,
Now we have cases with
uniform weight and neck wall concentricity but we're not done yet.
American case manufacturers punch the flash hole.
This process tends to leave a burr on the inside of the case.
Tests have shown that the burr can disrupt the flash of the primer and
intern effect the ignition of the powder. This
effect only becomes apparent at long range.
Therefor, the inside of the flash hole needs to be beveled.
RCBS and Sinclair both make tools to do the job.
Basically, the tool is inserted through the case and into the flash hole,
twisted a couple times, and the job is done.
The primer pocket area
still requires one more step. When
the primer pocket is formed, the bottom of the pocket can be concave.
Several companies make a primer pocket uniformer.
This tool cuts the primer pocket to a uniform depth and squares up the
bottom of the pocket. I can say
that this step will not improve your accuracy.
However, once the primer pocket is uniform, the tool can be used for
cleaning residue out of a fired case saving a lot of time in the process.
I have a Sinclair uniformer attached to a power screwdriver and it saves
so much time cleaning primer pockets that I uniform all my cases.
Finally we're done,
right? Wrong. One last step is needed for that perfect round.
Prior to the case being primed and charged, the case mouth needs to be
chamfered. This process of beveling
the case mouth was discussed earlier. The
problem with a standard chamfer is the angle may be too steep to properly guide
in a long, high ballistic coefficient bullet.
A company called K&M Services manufactures a 4-degree, controlled
depth taper tool. Properly set up, this tool gives the inside of the case mouth
a smooth taper, easing bullet entry into the case. Again, this is something you can actually feel when seating a
bullet into a tapered versus non-tapered case mouth. Lyman also manufactures a special "VLD" chamfer
tool. While I have never used this
tool, it should work as long as you are careful not to remove too much metal.
it is folks, ideas and lessons learned on reloading accurate 223 ammunition for
the Highpower game. Follow the
guidelines provided and you will have nailed down one of three requirements to
become a Distinguished Marksman. The
other two requirements, good equipment (including a match grade rifle), and
mastery of the shooting positions require money and experience.
All three facets of Highpower Rifle competition are tied together with
discipline. That's what makes
the game interesting. See you at
the Ready Line.
Reloading for High Power- A Different View Written by Mike Orwan of Mikes Shooters Supplies, High Master Match Rifle
Sean and I have often chatted about our methods of reloading for NRA high power matches. While we differ only slightly in what we do for short range (under 300 yards), we differ greatly in loading techniques used for the 600 yard prone stage. As a self employed gunsmith I find the time I'm able to devote to reloading to be very short. Once initial load development is done for my rifle I devote what time I have to reloading mass quantities of good ammo. No time is devoted to loading "great" ammo, except for 1000 yard but that's for another article.
All ammo used is loaded progressively on a Dillon RL550. Sizing is done on a RCBS Rockchucker. But all other steps, priming, powder charging, bullet seating are done on the Dillon. Dies are Redding. The sizer has the floating carbide expander ball installed, the bullet seater is the competition model with micrometer adjustment. No special case prep is used. Just load'um and shoot'um. Cases used are USGI Lake City of various year headstamp. The only case sorting I do is load all 600 yard slow fire ammo from the same year headstamped cases. Checks of loaded round concentricity show run out measurements ranging from .002" to .004" at worst. Not enough to worry about and a tribute to Redding die quality.
While many shooters obsessing with accuracy will cringe at the above, it has always worked for me. The extra time saved at the loading bench is then used for practicing at a local range. Are there disadvantages to my technique (or lack thereof) ? Perhaps a bit of accuracy is sacrificed at long range. In my opinion the other variables of wind, weather, light, are much more important and have a greater effect at the target.
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