My path to Accurate Rifle Reloads

Having started out reloading target rifle rounds as an extension of my new target rifle shooting hobby, I find myself several years later coming full circle, feeling that I'm ending back at the beginning again, ready for a fresh start.

I did not start out with the primary intention of learning to shoot a rifle well. I assumed I would reload, go shoot targets, and as long as the reloads were decently put together, shooting accuracy was just a matter of course. Similar to what I was used to for pistol shooting.

It soon became apparent that to get best performance from target rifle shooting, rifle reloads need to be precise, and shooting ability has to be systematically and continuously cultivated. The more I shot, the more I found that I wanted to be able to shoot better, and produce accurate ammunition.

My casual rifle reloading as a hobby turned into an earnest attempt to produce the best, most consistent ammunition possible, and a desire to achieve accuracy on the target at ranges to 1000 yards.

Being new to target rifle reloading, my first step to gathering information was to follow in the footsteps of those who had published useful information.

Today, there is a world of knowledge at the other end of the keyboard, but interspersed with those valuable nuggets are useless pieces of information disguised as common practice. Critical thinking is useful for sorting through that.

Having a critical midset, and not accepting stated facts until proven, I discovered several commonly held opinions around reloading methodology and testing are wrong : the number of people that consider something to be true does not make it so, and the number of people that consider something to be incorrect does not make it so either. Take the time to examine each opinion critically, you will gain better understanding and benefit tremendously in the end.

It's very helpful to go shooting with someone more experienced than yourself. You will learn shooting skill more easily that way.

It is very helpful to get first hand advice from a more experienced reloader than yourself. That would be someone who reloads their own ammo and shoots much better than you.

Don't feel shy to reach out personally and ask questions. Reloaders in general are very keen to share their knowledge and experience, and will gladly help you. You are where they once were.

    My goal when I started was to produce consistently accurate ammunition for my new hobby. Today I see how this objective was majorly flawed and completely naiive. In hindsight, my objective should have been to learn to shoot accurately first. Learn to hold zero properly, learn what a stable platform is and how to get it stable, then learn to produce consistently accurate ammunition. The reason is simply that precision load development requires precision shooting. You can't produce a precision load without shooting it first.

    When I started out, I was advised that all I needed to do was so a ladder test, then load and shoot. I was unaware or the critical concepts of low ES and using seating depth to change group size. I had no idea that components on a platform could be faulty.

      There is a ladder test that involves single shots of increasing charge weight, some will say it takes 10 shots, some 20. It's a waste of time and components.

      Besides the total absence of any meaningful result, my reservations on the interpretation of this ladder test is due to the fact that no particular ladder test has ever been repeated at a different time with the same result. Myriads of people have made innumerable results of their ladder test public, and postulated as to the merits of their conclusions, but not a single one has ever gone on to repeat the test at a different time, and gotten the same result. It could be argued that no two ladder tests can be exactly the same, in which case my point is proven.

      This common ladder test is meant to identify velocity flat spots. Velocity increases with increased powder charge. Powder charge provides gas. Gas powers the bullet. More powder equals more gas. There is no such thing as more powder, with no increase in produced gas. In fact, to suggest that the velocity stays constant for an increase in powder charge without there being some other problem implies that between those ranges, the unit pressure of the gas produced decreased. Impossible. The measured velocity between thse points was retarded by something, and needs to be investigated until the problem causing the variation is found and eliminated.

      Why are there alleged velocity flat spots on the ladder test ? Nobody really knows, but common opinion says that's where the load needs to be. The alleged flat spots on the ladder test do not correspond to an accurate load. Or anything definitive and constructive. Yet the ladder test remains popular.

      You do not need to ladder test for powder charge. You need to find a low ES powder charge over at least three shots, which you can't do with this kind of ladder test shooting one round with one charge.

      The only useful kinds of ladder test, if they exist, will be the ones that

      • permit you to identify a low ES powder charge
      • permit you to identify changes in group size with variations in seating depth

      Very useful as an accuracy indicator, but not definitive by itself.

      Shooting groups for the sake for shooting groups is, for me, ammunition better spent shooting targets at range in the wind.

      Shooting groups for group size is meaningful in the context of load development, when you incrementally adjust the seating depth to change the group size.

      You will quickly figure out that for group sizes based on seating depth changes, you need to first be able to shoot consistently good groups as well as load precision ammunition. Parallel tracks that intersect. You cannot identify a good group from a load if you cannot shoot a good group. Before you can do this test, you have to be able to reload precision ammo. Parallel tracks, intersecting.

      I spent a lot of time and ammunition shooting groups, always trying to improve my own group sizes. This is only useful while learning to shoot. After you can hold zero consistently, the shooting of groups itself does not make group sizes smaller.

      To shrink group sizes needs a low ES load to work from, and adjustments to seating depth.

      This factor, combined with small group sizes, is what gives you accurate reloads. Strive for it.

    Precise shooting requires precise ammunition.

    Producing precise ammunition requires load development. It is straight forward to get into the load development ballpark, with a bit more work to find the goalposts.

    Component selection is a critical aspect of load development, the importance of which cannot be overstated. Like trying to breathe without oxygen. Variation in components will cancel accuracy. It takes trial and error to finalise component selection, which is a necessary phase to progress through towards achieving accurate reloads. Only through trial and error will you determine that the difference between an accurate and inaccurate load is just a component change. The sheer number of component possibilities is daunting. A very underrated and very effective way to simplify your initial component selection process is to use what someone who you consider to be successful is using.

    The only exception to this rule of thumb is monolithic bullets. Monolithic bullets are not accurate if the bullet diameter is not precisely mated to the barrel groove diameter. Monolithic bullets may or may not be accurate in a given rifle. No monolithic bullet is accurate in all rifles. If you want to use a monolithic, make sure any monolithic bullet you use is matched to your groove diameter. This means a measured chamber cast by a competent professional, compared to a measurement of the bullet diameter by the same competent professional. Anything else is hit or miss. No degree of precision reloading can fix an accuracy problem from a wrong size monolithic bullet.

    Some people refuse to spend money on quality components, and try to make precision reloads from cheap products. One day, the world will hear of one who succeeded. So far, millions have not.

    An unconsidered aspect of precision load development has nothing to do with the load, it is the the platform. Before you begin to interpret the results, the platform must be accurate. Every part of the rifle must function reliably and repeatedly. A loose rail, misaligned scope, faulty tracking, loose action screws, a bad bedding job, a carbonised chamber neck - these are just a few causes of downrange inaccuracy. Check everything. Then check everything again. This is a vital part of achieving precision reloads, do not assume anything when examining the platform components.

    The door to precision reloads is through low ES. Single digit ES is achievable with correct components.

    The key to the door is group size.

    Low ES is a product of powder type, charge weight, bullet, brass quality, neck tension and primer selection. You should test at least a few combinations, giving yourself a better chance of arriving at a low ES. Start off with Lapua or Norma brass. You can then eliminate brass quality as a variable and save a lot of time and effort.

    Group size is a function of seating depth.

    To identify accurate reloads, identify when the two aspects of low ES and small group size co-incide. The intersection of those parameters identify an accurate reload.

    The precise measurement of components, component quantities and assembled dimensions do not result in accurate reloads by virtue of themselves. The definitive metrics for accurate reloads are ES and group size. Group size will show that the bullet is delivered consistently from the platform. ES will show when the vertical dispersion is minimised at range.

    A low ES on it's own will not always give a small group size, and a small group size is not always from a low ES, and neither on their own translates to downrange accuracy. Accuracy past the zero range depends entirely on both. The seating depth will have to be incrementally changed to arrive at the intersection of low ES and small group size. You'll never be able to identify that point if you cannot hold a consistent zero with the rifle, or are not able to reload precision ammunition. Parallel tracks that intersect.

    There are parallel tracks to precision load development. Each track intersects the other, and have to be run in parallel. Learning to hold zero consistently, verifyng that the platform is reliable, selecting the right components and the reloading equipment and methodology you choose to use, all run parallel to each other. This is why the process is laborious and very time consuming. The number of variables multiplied by the different ways people choose to do things is guaranteed to make your journey interesting.

    When testing your reloads, shoot from a stable position. This means that your leaning against the bench doesn't move the bench or the rifle, or shifing the position of your hand doesn't move the bench. If the bench is not immobile, rather shoot from prone. A bench that moves even one millmeter will negatively affect your results.

    Achieving precision rifle reloads is easy only once you've achieved precision rifle reloads.

    At this point, at what I perceive to be the end of my first cycle, I look back, remember, and consider my goal going forward.

    My primary goal for this second cycle is only to shoot better. To shoot better, I must shoot more. To shoot more, I must spend less time tinkering with reloading variables, and more time on the trigger.

    I've changed my approach to new load development, and focus more on shooting the rifles I have already developed loads for without the never ending cycles of testing new things.

    To limit the expansion of the ever-deepening rabbit hole of component choices in new load development, I pick an economical lead core target bullet from an established manufacturer, that is suitable for the rifle twist. Lead core bullets are much easier to achieve accuracy with, as all lead core bullets will fit any barrel that is manufactured to specification. BC is only a constraint if the bullet can't reach the target with the amount of dial in the scope, then I'll look for a higher BC bullet. Otherwise, if the bullet can reach my target range, I don't care about BC.

    I use a powder / bullet / brass / primer / charge / neck tension combination that gives me a safe velocity with single digit ES at jam length minus ten thou. It needs to be pointed out that the selection and implimentation of each of powder / bullets / brass / primer / charge and neck tension is a vast, intricate subject in it's own right. The best way to fast-track your process is to imitate what people more successful than you are doing, using the components they use.

    I prepare a batch of test ammo with an AOL of jam length minus ten thou, down to jam length minus twenty thou in two thou increments, four rounds each.

    I shoot for groups at 200 meters on a day with no wind. The smallest four shot group is the load I call the going forward load. I find three shots is minimum for indicative grouping, the fourth is feel-good confirmation, and more than four has no benefit as the group size will not get smaller the more you shoot at it.

    I use the going forward load and focus on shooting ability, until my component supply runs out. Parallel tracks that intersect.

    Every few hundred rounds, I verify the change in jam length, and re-test the seating depths four thou each way in increments of two thou to see where the optimum depth moved to.

    Should I have to change components due to unavailability, I repeat the entire process with the changed component/s.

    When my shooting ability becomes better than the accuracy potential of the platform, I will make changes to try improve on the quality of the going forward load.

    Making any change to try improve the going forward load now is going to be a waste of time if I can't shoot better than the load I'm looking for.

    This applies equally to new target shooting reloaders, as well as any that may have hit the wall after some time, and are about to throw in the towel with the whole precision reloading story.

    First, before you touch reloading gear, verify your platform.

    Seperate learning to shoot and reloading, at least right in the beginning.

    When learning to shoot, buy 200 rounds of factory target ammunition, even if you intend to reload. Buy ammunition made from Lapua or Norma brass.

    A common opinion is that it's cheaper to reload 200 rounds than to buy 200 rounds. Opinions need context. In the context of a new target shooter starting out reloading, it is far cheaper to buy 200 rounds of good target ammo from a major manufacturer, than it is to assemble 200 reloads of the same quality. The cost of the equipment alone is going to far exceed those 200 rounds, and you haven't even started reloading yet. To be able to produce ammunition that is more accurate than what you can buy involves a lot of time, components, reloading, testing and shooting. To start with, just buy those factory rounds that have either Norma or Lapua brass, you will reload the brass later. You will not save money by starting to reload immediately, you will just take longer to get good results on target.

    Stick with Lapua or Norma brass. Those two are the finest brass in the world, and form the basis of very consistent reloads. Then shoot, and at the end of one hundred rounds, you may have achieved basic capability - know how to use the scope, understand how point of aim and point of impact change with distance, or hit pretty much where you're aiming to a few hundred yards. You now have 100 once fired, excellent quality, fireformed brass. You can now use those to reload. The other 100 you will use in between your reloads, to compare the quality and performance of what you make versus what you bought. That is the objective of precision rifle reloading after all, to make ammunition of better quality than you can buy.

    Buying factory ammo to begin with, eliminates the ammunition as a variable in learning to shoot. You can concentrate on shooting. After the first 100 rounds, you have brass to begin reloading, and another 100 loaded factory rounds to use as comparison to your reloads. If you go on to produce a batch of reloads that shoot all over the place, you can confirm it's not a platform problem by shooting some factory ammo that gave you good results previously, and compare.

    If you experience accuracy problems with the factory ammo, you at least know the ammo is not the problem, so you can focus on fixing the platform.

    At the end of 200 rounds, any and all platform issues have to have been sorted out. This is critical for proceeding to reload precision rifle ammo.

    To fast track yourself to precision reloading

    • Pick an economical lead core target bullet from an established manufacturer, that is suitable for the rifle twist. Lead core bullets are much easier to achieve accuracy with, as all lead core bullets will fit any barrel that is manufactured to specification. BC is only a constraint if the bullet can't reach the target with the amount of dial in the scope, then look for a higher BC bullet. Otherwise, if the bullet can comfortably reach the target range, don't fuss about BC.
    • Find a powder / bullet / brass / primer / charge / neck tension combination that gives a safe velocity with single digit ES at jam length minus ten thou.
    • Prepare a batch of test ammo with an AOL of jam length minus ten thou, down to jam length minus twenty thou in two thou increments, four rounds each.
    • Shoot for groups at 200 meters on a day with no wind. The smallest four shot group is the load you call the going forward load.
    • Practice with the going forward load and concentrate on shooting ability
    • Every few hundred rounds, verify the change in jam length, and re-test the seating depths four thou each way in increments of two thou to see where the optimum depth moved to.
    • Should you have to change components due to unavailability, repeat the entire process with the changed component/s.
    • Understand that the ammo you make for precision in your rifle, may not be very precise at all in someone else's rifle, and vice versa.
    • Pair up. Get social. Find a shooting and reloading buddy with more experience than you. You will make a lot more progress much quicker than being on your own and figuring everything out by yourself.

The original ladder test was created by Creighton Audette. I can't find the original article, but I did find Incremental Load Development Method by Randolph Constantine.

Randolph refers directly to the Audette method, which he uses. Five pages in, it becomes clear that the test is about tuning barrel harmonics by changing the powder charge.

The Creighton Audette ladder test uses incrementally increasing loads of powder all shot to the same point of aim, which produce a rising string of shots on target. There is much said in interpretation on the observed convergence of several points of impact. It does not mention seating depth at all.

The observed convergence around a particular point on the target is where the barrel harmonics reverse, and is not indicative by itself of an accurate load. All that has been demonstrated is a change in barrel harmonics with a change in powder charge.

Plotting the velocity for each shot may show one or more "velocity flat spots". Those may or may not correspond to the change in barrel harmonics, most often they do not. What is the cause ? An increase in powder that does not show a corresponding increase in velocity is a problem, not a solution to anything.

My guess is the cause of the velocity "flat spots" is a variation in seating depth. Seating depth is not being controlled, it is overlooked, and fluctuates a few thou up or down, because all the attention is on the powder charge. Statistically, if the seating depth is not precisely controlled, you are going to come across sequentially shot loads with an incremental change in powder that also have an incremental change in seating depth, either up or down. An increase in the seating depth will drag the velocity down, and a decrease will raise it.

There is no documented attempt that successfully duplicates the result of any ladder test.

There is a low probability of finding an accurate load using this method. Randolph Constantine observed "the number of rounds you have to fire before you find a good load can be a significant percentage of your accurate barrel life". He should have added, "if ever" somewhere, because this particular process is so hit and miss, you could shoot the barrel out before finding a good load. And one good load is not good for another barrel.

Working first to find single digit ES, then a small group, means you can find an accurate load for any rifle within 50 rounds, provided you use known good quality components :

  • Berger, Nosler Custom Comp, Hornady or Sierra Matchking bullets - always start testing with thin jacketed, lead core bullets, never monolithic
    • Be aware that the plastic tip on some bullets has sometimes been identified as the cause of long range accuracy problems
  • Lapua or Norma brass - if not new, properly prepped to have identical neck tension
  • Murom match primers, or any primers of a known excellent consistency
  • any temperature stable powder for the cartridge as close to 100% case fill as possible

If you do a search online now, there will be a number of modified ladder tests. If it makes you feel better, try any of them, at least to determine for yourself what they are worth.

These sources gave me the information I needed to reach the point where I am now.

I recommend you research for yourself everything these three people have to say on the subject of load development, reloading and precision shooting.